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Radio review: Boris, The Long History of Argument, and Witness History

29 July 2022


Boris (BBC Sounds) scrunises the outgoing PM’s character

Boris (BBC Sounds) scrunises the outgoing PM’s character

“THEM’S the breaks.” No sooner had the immortal line been uttered than a box-set podcast appeared on BBC Sounds scrutinising the character responsible. For those who don’t have the digestive capacity to binge on Boris, the eight episodes are broadcast every Saturday afternoon on Radio 4.

In keeping with the hasty commissioning of this series, each show manages only a clutch of witnesses who phone in with stories that have presumably been honed over many years of retelling; and the programme is just as entertaining and exasperating as the subject matter.

While the ambition is to explain why Boris Johnson is as he is, the Boris origin stories do nothing more than confirm what we all think we know. Bio-docs of this kind display the same level of psychological insight as medieval hagiographies. The only difference is that, instead of leaping out of the womb crying “Deo gratias!”, Boris apparently emerged with a shock of blond hair and exclaimed an inchoate “Cripes!”.

Even when the chief character is absent, the personality demands and receives a level of indulgence that is afforded few. Thus, in the episode on Mr Johnson’s career at Oxford, both Anne McElvoy and Dr Jeya Wilson were prepared to cut him some slack, while the FT columnist Simon Kuper came across as chippy and petulant as he laid into “toff” culture. What is to some an ironic, mischievous twinkle is to others the ghastly leer of elitism.

We should expect our soon-to-be-ex-PM to feature in a forthcoming episode of The Long History of Argument (Radio 4, Tuesdays), in which his former opponent for the leadership, Rory Stewart, is examining good and bad debate. What makes it good or bad, the first episode contends, is not so much the truth or otherwise of the arguments being made, but whether they are made in good faith. You can see how Mr Johnson might fit nicely into this discussion.

Mr Stewart is himself a fine presenter, who honed his skills in those debating societies so snarled at as “parlour games for the privileged”. The programme also gives an opportunity to brush up on your glossary of rhetoric. What is a rising tricolon, and the difference between anadiplosis and anaphora? Nothing, though, about the Ciceronian technique which entails repeated reference by the orator to Peppa Pig.

Few will remember in a year’s time what they were doing when they heard of Mr Johnson’s resignation. But, 42 years on, there are millions who recall vividly the shooting of J. R. Ewing. In Witness History (World Service, Wednesday) we were treated to an archive interview with one of the greatest TV villains of all time — or, at least, the man who brought him to life, Larry Hagman, although it transpires that the demarcation line between actor and character was somewhat blurry.

Hagman took the opportunity of J. R.’s shooting to negotiate a substantial pay-rise, and, when the studio caved, he celebrated his return to set with a studio shower of specially printed “Hagman dollars”. ‘I should have asked for more’, he drawled.

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