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Review of the Year 2020: Radio

18 December 2020

KT Bruce

The Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, appeared on Today (Radio 4, 25 May) to explain his posts on Twitter about Dominic Cummings

The Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, appeared on Today (Radio 4, 25 May) to explain his posts on Twitter about Dominic Cummings

IN A year of lows for the Church of England, arguably the lowest was a breakfast-time encounter on the airwaves. It was May, and the bishops, having evacuated their churches, regrouped on social media, “taking to Twitter” in outrage against Dominic Cummings and his Covid-breaching behaviour.

The Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, appeared on Today (Radio 4, 25 May) to explain himself. Why, Justin Webb asked, had he referred to Boris Johnson’s adviser as “Cummings” and not “Mr Cummings”? “You are not allowed that many characters in tweets,” Dr Inge spluttered. And, when the interviewer pointed out there was there was at least enough space for a title on that particular tweet, Dr Inge professed that “it was not intended to be derogatory.”

His defence was lamentable, the whole encounter embarrassing; and we were left in no doubt that the Bishop’s message had been more a whistle to deploy the hounds than to guide the sheep.

Running alongside — and occasionally intersecting with — debates over Covid-19 have been the “culture wars”, with the BBC one of those institutions perennially defending its reputation against bombardment from all quarters. At least, when it comes to specific programmes addressing “woke” culture, the BBC has over the past year acquitted itself well. There were significant discussions in Analysis: The roots of ‘woke’ culture (Radio 4, March), in which Helen Lewis had fun looking at spoof academic papers about such pressing issues as “queer performativity” among dogs, and reminded us that you can find rubbish in seemingly the most dignified of publications; and The Purity Spiral (Radio 4, February), which investigated moral censorship in the world of online knitting.

Such lunacy makes great copy; and it takes a programme with the level-headed integrity of The Corrections (Radio 4) to untangle the narrative knots in which these issues are inevitably bound. Particularly impressive was the three-part investigation, broadcast in November, of the “Trojan horse” scandal in which Birmingham schools were apparently being taken over by Islamic fundamentalists. No combatants in this particular culture war comes out well, their agendas strewn across the battlefield.

PASlow Burn (American Slate Productions) told the career of the Ku Klux Klan’s chief, David Duke  

Whether you like your podcasts bite- or banquet-sized, there is plenty out there as moreish as the most addictive box sets. My pick from this year includes one of each. Bloodsport (Radio 4, July), although appearing in the schedules, was — in its account of the Russian athlete-doping scandal — assuredly a made-for-podcast production, delivered in fascinating 15-minute segments of ghastly revelation. At the other end of the scale, Slow Burn (reviewed in June; from American Slate Productions) told the career of the Ku Klux Klan’s chief, David Duke, over six languidly paced episodes — the only problem being that few of us have the stomach to spend that much time with a protagonist so loathsome.

“Story, story, story — it’s in our DNA,” cries the fictional commissioning editor in Tristram Shandy: In development (Radio 4, July), an exquisite satire on radio drama production and the apparently insatiable appetite for “bingeable content” among radio producers. No other programme this year has provided a better insight into the ambitions and pretensions of radio broadcasting in the podcast era

Operating in the same genre of “mockumentary”, Down the Line (Radio 4) made a welcome return in May with a one-off Covid-19 special. The spoof radio chat show presented a cornucopia of misfits, grown more eccentric under the pressure of enforced isolation. I particularly liked the Bond-style super-villain whose dream of world domination, foiled by Covid, had been reduced to querulous complaint about the lack of a good plumber.

The dramatis personae might have been enriched further by the appearance of a Church of England bishop desperately craving attention.

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