THERE are a few professions whose requirement to spend time with ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances makes them obvious dinner-party guests. Junior doctors, criminal barristers, vicars — all have rich anthologies of anecdotes to tell, were they indiscreet enough to share them.
Alfie Moore, in his series It’s a Fair Cop (Radio 4, Fridays), has gone a step further and changed profession, from policeman to stand-up comic — although, in the telling of the case of “the Revd Alison”, he was at least careful to change the names of those involved.
It all started when the Methodist minister brought in an intimidating letter whose message comprised letters cut out from The Mail on Sunday: a detail that no self-respecting comic would pass over without comment. Further letters arrived, and then silent phone calls. A disgruntled lay church officer was the main suspect; but, as the harassment continued, the bags of ordure and threatening language did not seem his style. Only with the installation of CCTV was the mystery solved.
I won’t spoil it for you. The story is very sad, but at the same time utterly compelling; and the way in which Moore involves his audience — polling them about what his next investigative move should be — is a brilliant strategy. We listeners at home groan, gasp, and laugh along with the “live” audience, and the transitions from humour to threat and tragedy are manipulated with the skill of a perfect raconteur.
The story of Keith Williams — or “Keith the Coal” — as told on Life Changing (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week) is no less surprising, although its drama plays out over a longer time-frame. You can hardly get a broader, more lyrical Welsh accent than Mr Williams’s. nor a way of life, as a coal merchant, more rooted in time and place. And yet he is apparently the son of a Malaysian prince — the late Sultan of Perak — who had a dalliance with his mother while a student in the early 1950s. Mr Williams knew from the age of 13 that he was adopted; but it was only with the prospect of becoming a grandfather that he became interested in his birth parents.
We are now familiar with the way these stories go, but they rarely end up with a visit to South-East Asia and correspondence with a royal family. His requests for a confirmatory DNA have been turned down by the Malaysian side, but the joy of this programme lay in the transformative nature of the experience, and the imaginative landscapes that have been revealed.
Front Row (Radio 4, Monday of last week) stepped gingerly into the fraught world of historical memorials in a special episode asking how society should memorialise in the 21st century. Setting the polemical scene, we heard from Professor Kate Williams about how memorials of the past were largely established by “elite, white men . . . often bad men”, and that now we should allow “ordinary people” to determine what is important.
It was a relief to have wiser counsel on hand in Anne McElvoy, who calmly reminded us of the many memorials set up by “ordinary people” for “ordinary people”.