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Radio review: The Essay, Christmas Service, and Look at What You Could Have Won

31 December 2021


In The Essay (Radio 3, weekdays), Madeleine Bunting explored the theme of ritual

In The Essay (Radio 3, weekdays), Madeleine Bunting explored the theme of ritual

WHAT connects the Trooping of the Colour to the ignition of a firework lodged between a football fan’s buttocks? They are both forms of ritual; at least, if you adopt the broad semantic parameters that Madeleine Bunting allowed herself in The Essay (Radio 3, weekdays) last week.

Christmas being perhaps the most ritualistic of seasons, this series was a well-timed opportunity for an eclectic assessment of what ritual is, and to address the question posed in the series title: whether we are seeing “the end of ritual”? The answer — as Betteridge’s Law of rhetorical headlines would predict — is no. Ritual is all around us, from the order of service at midnight mass to the order in which presents are distributed among impatient family members.

In fact, there is, in itself, a sense of ritual about this annual reflection on our seasonal customs; and it seemed that the author had much more that she could have said on the theme, introduced in Tuesday’s episode, of ritual as a means of suppressing the ego.

Referring to the work of Terry Eagleton, and in the context of a discussion of Roman Catholic practice, she spoke of that ritual that relieves the individual of the burden of significance. It is a form of ritual which is profoundly counter-cultural; for it fails to indulge the contemporary requirement for personal development and emotional reassurance. This is ritual that builds from the outside inwards; and, for this form of ritual, we might ring-fence a term that is usefully distinct: liturgy.

If you were seeking ritual, or indeed liturgy, in the BBC Radio schedules this Christmas, then the broadcast of midnight mass from the Roman Catholic Cathedral in Salford (Radio 4, Christmas Eve), would have been your thing rather than Christmas Service (Radio 4, Christmas Day), which entailed a compilation of readings, music, and reflection from Bethlehem Bible College. Sunday-morning services on Radio 4 are generally characterised by a skilfully engineered sense of place; and, through the contributions of students recorded on location among the holy sites, we enjoyed some of that texture. And yet I did wonder at the choice of John Rutter’s “Shepherd’s Pipe Carol” in full orchestral version as the musical curtain-raiser.

For those not engaged in evensong, the gloomiest part of the week is surely early evening on a Sunday. “The long, dark teatime of the soul”, Douglas Adams called it; and, during the 1980s, the most effective curative, if you were not a Harry Secombe fan, was the ritual viewing of the darts-themed quiz show Bullseye, hosted by Jim Bowen.

In Look at What You Could Have Won (Radio 4, 20 December), James McMahon delivered an impassioned eulogy to this most dated of television hits, in which working-class lads played for wads of cash, fizzy-drinks machines, and speedboats. With the demise of pub culture, the format seems as obsolete as bar billiards and the pewter tankard — which surely makes it a prime candidate for a Blankety Blank-style reboot.

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