Radio review: Flat 113 at Grenfell Tower, and Our Liam of Lourdes

29 March 2019


Flat 113 at Grenfell Tower (Radio 4, Saturday) focused on the 14th floor of the building

Flat 113 at Grenfell Tower (Radio 4, Saturday) focused on the 14th floor of the building

“THAT was another seriously interesting story, brought to you by BBC Radio 4.” “Seriously Interesting”, it transpires, is one of the new brand tags associated with BBC Sounds. “What did you think? Did you love it? Did you find it moving?” And then, if you don’t switch off “auto­play” on the BBC Sounds app, you are immediately thrust into a whole new soundscape.

And so it was that, after the emotionally excoriating experience that was Flat 113 at Grenfell Tower (Radio 4, Saturday; part of the Archive on 4 strand), and the continuity announcer’s impertinent request for feedback, I was treated to the opening track from the programme Solent Showstoppers with Lou Hannan. I will never know what black algorithmic art required that I be subjected at that moment to Doris Day singing “The Deadwood Stage”.

The digital whizz-kids who design all this will have to up their game if they are to avoid some seriously inappropriate juxtapositions of content. Flat 113 was an outstanding piece of work, knitting together accounts of the Grenfell Tower disaster drawn from Phase 1 of the inquiry.

The account focused on the 14th floor of the building, and, in doing so, provided a single narrative that might parallel many others.

The 14th floor was typically eclectic in its mix of occupants. Because of the way in which the fire spread, they ended up huddling in one flat; and the mistakes that concluded with some living and some dying will never, one imagines, be fully explained.

Failing radios, names and numbers scrawled on bits of paper and backs of hands, the difficulty of communicating information in the mayhem — these were the rudimentary problems that contributed to the challenges of the rescue services that night, and they provoke bewilderment and frustration.

Phase 2 of the inquiry will move on to the big picture: the building itself and its construction. That’s when the anger starts.

When a Roman Catholic priest chooses to sing “I will survive” at a karaoke bar in Lourdes, the signs are as obvious as if they were lit in garish neon. So it is to the writer Alex Oates’s credit that the eponymous hero of Our Liam of Lourdes (Radio 4 Extra, Friday) doesn’t, in fact, manage to bed the young, fun-loving Father Toby.

The story is easily told: a gay atheist goes to Lourdes as a carer, and finds comfort among the tat. One can forgive Oates for not putting into Father Toby’s mouth a convincing argument for clerical celibacy and the primacy of heterosexual love. “It’s just how it is,” he concludes limply.

But there are some good lines, and Oates and the director, Jessica Dromgoole, manage that awkward balance between the realism of radio drama and the ambition of any scriptwriter for the occasional poetic effusion. That’s where prayers come in handy.

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