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Radio review: Archive on 4, and Crossing Continents

25 September 2020


Archive on 4 (Saturday) marked Sue MacGregor retirement from the airwaves

Archive on 4 (Saturday) marked Sue MacGregor retirement from the airwaves

IT IS one of those questions that you’re dying to ask but would never dare. Like whether the Queen ever sings “God save our gracious Me”. In this case, it was Princess Anne, and the cheeky question came from an eight-year-old on a Radio 4 phone-in show: “When you were a little girl, did you play at being a princess?” No, she never did, came the gentle if unamused answer.

The host on this occasion was Sue MacGregor, and this delicious anecdote was just one of a feast provided by last week’s Archive on 4 (Saturday) to mark the veteran presenter’s retirement from the airwaves. She’s been at it for 52 years; so there’s no shortage of material.

A creature of Radio 4, MacGregor’s radio persona maintained a consistently formal register, but the range of her work was nevertheless impressive, and here we were treated to interviews with, among others, Winnie Mandela (recorded illegally in Soweto), Barbara Cartland (on the virility imparted by honey consumption), Bette Davis (typically curt), and Brian Mawhinney (incandescent at the suggestion that anybody might want to ditch John Major as PM).

Yet nothing in her career at Today became her as the leaving of it: a moment when the formality dropped, and, surrounded by the presenting team, she overshot her farewell speech and “crashed the pips”: the greatest crime for any radio presenter.

Even in the retelling of such bitter-sweet moments, MacGregor’s delivery deviates little from a well-defined pitch range and timbre. The importance of such consistency of delivery lies not in any apparent lack of emotion, but in its projection of impartiality. It contrasts sharply with the method employed, with increasing frequency, by translators on documentaries. Typically, a question is asked, and the respondent’s words are briefly heard before fading out to make way for a translator’s rendition.

The tone and delivery of the translator’s voice is crucial in creating an impression of the character speaking, and thus also how sympathetic we might be towards him or her. In Crossing Continents (R4, Thursday) last week, the treatment by the translator of two interviewees’ voices was so divergent that it encouraged one to question the impartiality of the producer.

The subject under discussion was the culture wars in Poland: in particular, controversy arising in areas of Poland over LGBT rallies. Grazyna is a middle-aged woman, an active member of the Church, and an opponent of such liberal incursions into her community. In the voice of her translator, we heard a stridency and a matronly stuffiness that conjured up a particular picture of this provincial conservative.

Later in the programme, we were in Warsaw, and met Margot, a vigorous, occasionally violent advocate of LGBT rights. Her words, in contrast, were rendered by a man speaking in a deadpan voice, despite the fact that, at one moment, Margot broke into “a string of expletives” (which were left to our imagination).

Could Sue MacGregor be persuaded to come out of retirement and give workshops in voice production?

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