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Radio review: Beyond Belief, Back Seat Drivers, and In the Studio

14 October 2022


Ernie Rea has relinquished the chair of Beyond Belief after two decades (Radio 4, Mondays)

Ernie Rea has relinquished the chair of Beyond Belief after two decades (Radio 4, Mondays)

AFTER more than 500 episodes, Ernie Rea has relinquished the chair at Beyond Belief (Radio 4, Mondays): the show that stubbornly refuses to go the way of other religious programming on the BBC. The number of its cousins — which include Heart and Soul on the World Service, and Sunday on Radio 4 — is dwindling; and one can only hope that the loss of Rea will not mean the demise of the show altogether.

Beyond Belief was launched four months after the 9/11 atrocities; and, in the collage of events presented to demonstrate what has happened since, we were reminded of the myriad ways in which faith has played a significant part in our changing times, from the Manchester terrorist bombing to the death of Queen Elizabeth II. Rea’s programme has been an interfaith project from the outset; and to give him a suitably diverse send-off were gathered representatives of the four main faith groups, along with a None.

It is a strange time to be running a programme such as Beyond Belief, as evidenced by these guests’ contributions. On the one hand, faith does indeed assert itself in the modern world far more strongly than at the start of the millennium. On the other, we live in the West in a culture in which the forms of devotion which those of us who might listen to Beyond Belief might choose to practice are crumbling. It requires the equanimity of a show such as this to manage religious discourse in a way that sounds neither like an interfaith coffee morning nor a horror show.

Steven Fielding’s Back Seat Drivers (Radio 4, Wednesday) provided an entertaining survey of ex-PMs and how they behave towards succeeding administrations. None, other than Sir Alec Douglas-Home, returned to government office, although several have attempted to exercise influence. The message here was that occasional interjection can be effective, but pursuing long campaigns appears bound to fail.

Most assiduous in this respect was, of course, Margaret Thatcher, whose campaign against the Maastricht Treaty Ken Clarke deemed “deplorable”. But that might have something to do with the fact that Lady Thatcher actively encouraged her disciples to support William Hague against Clarke as successor to John Major. She won the battle on that occasion; but the war was not to be won until the Tories had replaced their leader twice more.

Perhaps the most heroic failure in back-seat driving, however, was Harold Macmillan’s speech to the House of Lords in 1984 on the miners’ strike. It might have been a cavalry charge in the age of tanks, but it stirs the blood to hear it even now.

The briefest of shout-outs goes to In the Studio (World Service, Tuesday), featuring illustrator Axel Scheffler — best known for the Gruffalo books. This charming and insightful programme dealt with the central challenge of creativity: sitting down and putting pen to paper.

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