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Radio review: Heart and Soul, and Michael Palin’s Memory Palaces

16 July 2021


Linvoy Primus, seen here playing for Portsmouth in 2005, was interviewed about faith and football on Heart and Soul (World Service, Sunday)

Linvoy Primus, seen here playing for Portsmouth in 2005, was interviewed about faith and football on Heart and Soul (World Service, Sunday)

YOU are in the penalty area, heading for goal, but the ball has got away from you. There is a brush of a defender’s foot against your shin. Do you dive? What is the Christian thing to do? Linvoy Primus, formerly of Portsmouth and now a spokesperson for the charity Faith and Football, would like to think he would do the right thing, although he didn’t sound completely sure when interviewed for Heart and Soul (World Service, Sunday) — and, what’s more, he was a defender.

Footballers routinely cross themselves when they join the pitch, and bear ostentatious crucifix tattoos; but few would think twice about bearing false witness when there’s a free kick to be won. Indeed, thinking twice is precisely the problem, as the Revd Richard Leadbeater, a former pro turned Anglican priest, attests. As soon as you start doubting your instincts, you lose your competitive edge. As the saying goes, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing”; and, in the pained opinion of Mr Leadbeater, Christianity and competitive sport at the highest level are simply incompatible.

In various ways, all those interviewed in this fascinating documentary appeared to share this view. The sprinter Ben Johnson, whose 1988 Olympic gold was withdrawn after he tested positive for illegal steroids, talked of making “a deal with the devil, and the devil came back to collect”.

But not all concurred with the radical proposal of the “sports sociologist” Ellis Cashmore that the only way to achieve fairness in sports such as athletics and cycling was to let everyone take drugs. After all, drugs have always been used and abused in sport, before, as much as after, bans started to be imposed in the 1970s. At least this way, some transparency might protect the health of competitors. But this is surely naïve, and the clue to why is surely inscribed in the foundational motto of the Olympic movement: “Higher, fitter, stronger”. There is no space in this triad for “nicer’”.

Above-the-title promotion is becoming a feature of radio just as it has become commonplace in television. I can’t imagine that the national treasure that is Michael Palin spent more than 15 minutes recording his contribution to Michael Palin’s Memory Palaces (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week), but this was a pilot in a craven quest for a sympathetic commissioning editor, and in those circumstances you pull in all the favours you can.

The conceit of the show is that the presenter, James Peak, is injected into the brain of a celebrity — on this occasion, Mr Palin’s Monty Python chum Terry Gilliam — to rifle through random memories. This tricksy method of dressing up a straightforward interview format worked best when we were allowed to forget about it, and Mr Gilliam was allowed to do his thing.

And he would surely have approved of the fantastical embellishments imposed by the production, just as he spoke enthusiastically about the space-ship episode in the film Monty Python’s Life of Brian. The trouble is that, in what is otherwise a near-perfect comedy, it is that very scene that stands out as a flippant failure.

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