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Radio review: In Wordsworth’s Footsteps, and The Skewer

21 February 2020

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AS THE clean-up from Storm Dennis continues, our friends in the West Country might find some solace in In Wordsworth’s Footsteps (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week). If there was ever a voice to calm the wind and rain, it is that of Simon Russell Beale; and his rendition of “Tintern Abbey” is as exquisite a poetry reading as I’ve ever heard on radio.

In this, the last of a series of three, we found Wordsworth returned from revolutionary France, and settling down with his sister Dorothy in Nether Stowey. He had, by this time, been “discovered” by Coleridge, and the scene is set for a collaboration that would result in Lyrical Ballads: a collection that the presenter, Jonathan Bate, declared to be “the most radical collection in English poetry”. The themes here are the poetic responsibility to give voice to the poor and dispossessed; and the recognition of Nature as “the soul of all my moral being”.

This was a beautifully crafted and neatly structured production, and just the right balance of the situational: for instance, Professor Bate’s excitement at finding the exact spot from which Wordsworth must have observed the Wye Valley in “Tintern Abbey”; and the anecdotal — courtesy of Hazlitt’s incisive prose — and the analytical. There is a book on its way from Bate; but these three programmes will provide as good an introduction as anything to Wordsworth’s formative years.

The 11-p.m. slot on Radio 4 typically offers the opportunity for the kind of “comedy” that is either too weird or too fruity for the mid-morning or early-evening slots. The Skewer (Wednesday) announces itself as “topical satire like you’ve never heard it before . . . from the mind of Jon Holmes,” implying by this that Holmes’s mind is a dangerous, fevered place. In as much as the soundscape that Holmes creates is frantic and noisy, The Skewer falls within the category of the weird; although, in truth, it is more a celebration of what a mischievous mind can do with some half-decent editing software.

We hear mash-ups of news clips re-edited to sound absurd or contrary: Jackanory interpolated with Boris Johnson; a collage of Oscar-winners’ speeches; an encounter between Keir Starmer and schoolchildren. If you can let your ears adjust to the pace, there are some clever, even humorous, episodes here, and plenty for the puerile at heart to enjoy, like the felt-tipped embellishment of an Old Master painting.

And yet the programme leaves the listener also disquieted. So rapid and convincing are the manipulations that it is not always clear what is real and what is a joke. Perhaps this is intended: setting a satirical mirror to the world of fake news and doctored images. In this context, however, the inclusion of a piece about Kirk Douglas and a much-circulated rumour involving Natalie Wood was strikingly inappropriate. Was this a comment on the allegation itself, on the nature of gossip, or on the culture of male entitlement? No doubt the creators will tell us that it was all of the above.

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