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Radio review: The Long View, The Climate Question, and The Wilsons Save the World

27 November 2020


NO RESEARCH-ETHICS committee would countenance it. In the search for a vaccine for smallpox, Edward Jenner might appear the hero; but spare a thought for young James Phipps, the son of Jenner’s gardener, who was deliberately infected with the disease to test Jenner’s hypothesis — and for the dozens of patients whom Jenner subsequently tested before launching his discovery on the world in 1798.

On the face of it, comparisons between this and today’s race for a Covid vaccine are tenuous. But Jonathan Freedland’s The Long View (Radio 4, Tuesday of last week) moved beyond the scientific process to the less well-known story of the politics; for Victorian Britain hosted a long-running controversy on the issue of compulsory vaccination.

Intermittent civil disobedience coalesced in 1870s Leicester into an alternative system of disease prevention, involving lockdowns and isolation; and it was only when the law was softened in the 1890s that opposition declined.

It remains to be seen whether the long view will inform the Government’s decision-making. There seems as much suspicion today of scientific method as there was in the 19th century: Jenner had to confront rumours that his subjects took on bovine features, while today certain dark tunnels of the internet will take you to images of traumatised chimpanzees.

Professor Heidi Larson, director of the Vaccine Confidence Project, inspired some confidence by pointing out that you cannot force people to take something at a time when there is not enough of it to go round anyway; in other words, let us be content for the moment with baby steps, and leave the moral concerns for another day.

When it comes to climate change, most agree that baby steps are not going to get us where we need to be when we need to be there. In The Climate Question — a new podcast, released each Sunday — commentators from the World Service network aspire to give the global view.

The series opened with the biggest of them all, China and the United States, and the relationship that might determine whether targets such as those in the Paris Agreement can actually be met. Jerry Brown, a former Governor and chairman of the California-China Climate Institute, offered an even-handed assessment, warning the new US administration against an overly critical stance towards China.

Good intentions, environmental or other, are sadly not enough to make a broadcast, still less a comedy show, worth while. The Wilsons Save the World (Radio 4, Wednesdays) is a sitcom about an eco-savvy family, and ought, with Marcus Brigstocke at the helm, to have plenty to commend it.

It just about managed in the undemanding morning schedule, but, as an early-evening offering, its low-wattage humour and energy-conserving delivery are ill-fitting. The only suitable response to this attempt at environmentally friendly humour is to switch off.

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