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Radio review: Private Passions, In Suburbia, and Crowd Science

23 September 2022

KT Bruce

James Runcie was the guest on Private Passions (Radio 3, Sunday)

James Runcie was the guest on Private Passions (Radio 3, Sunday)

IF THERE is an intermediary stage — as beatification is to canonisation — on the road to becoming a National Treasure, then James Runcie is surely there. Let us call him a National Trinket. And, on Private Passions (Radio 3, Sunday), he displayed with abundance those qualities that might earn him such an accolade. Gentle, witty, intelligent: your perfect Sunday-lunch guest. You could imagine the host, Michael Berkeley, and him nattering on about Bach all afternoon.

Yet such urbane, clubbable ease does not come without effort. In describing his father — “graced with a religious aura which covered over the performative element” — he described, himself, too: driven to be forever interesting. It was something bred into him: both parents needed to be the centre of attention and found different ways to be so. In the case of his mother, the medium was music. One of Runcie’s best anecdotes is of a visit to the parental home of his lifelong friend the pianist Joanna MacGregor. When the guest sat down at the piano, his mother, Rosalind, began vacuuming.

Runcie not only knows his classical music: he knows many of those who perform it. So, in his introductory remarks to each chosen work, he was able to give some sense of the nuts and bolts of music-making. That same interest was what inspired his play and novel about Bach’s St Matthew Passion (Books, 8 April). Eschewing many of those clichés about transcendence with which writers attempt to approach the ineffable nature of great music, Runcie instead adopts the perspective of the jobbing musician, who has to write the music, book the players, and direct the performance. It is no surprise to hear that, in the Runcie household, religion was voluntary, but music practice was compulsory.

According to a claim that certainly demands an investigation by the BBC’s fact-checker, no good classical musicians have ever come from suburbia. This we were told by one of the contributors to In Suburbia, a three-part documentary, presented by Ian Hislop, on suburban culture (Radio 4, Monday of last week, repeat). If one were being generous, one might interpret the claim as referring to the suburban mind-set rather than the physical location of one’s upbringing. That would, in turn, bring us back to the question at the heart of Hislop’s inquiry: What is suburban culture?

Last week’s episode pondered this in relation to classic sitcoms such as Terry and June and The Good Life. One might hope that our comedic tastes had grown more sophisticated in recent decades; certainly, the TV executives who told Lee Mack that “the sitcom is dead” thought so. But that was before Mr Mack launched Not Going Out, which has proved to be the second longest-running sitcom in British TV history.

If you never found that or any sitcom funny, you might like to listen to last week’s Crowd Science (World Service, Friday), which tried to find out why we find different things funny. Alternatively, you might just be the normal one.

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