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Radio review: In Tune, The Sacred, and The Forum

17 March 2023

BBC/Afanti Media

On In Tune (Radio 3, Tuesday of last week), the BBC’s Head of Orchestras and Choirs was questioned about the disbanding of the BBC Singers, pictured here with the Scottish Symphony Orchestra in the City Halls, Glasgow

On In Tune (Radio 3, Tuesday of last week), the BBC’s Head of Orchestras and Choirs was questioned about the disbanding of the BBC Singers, pictured here with the Scottish Symphony Orchestra in the City Halls, Glasgow

THE big story in broadcasting last week was the disbanding of the BBC Singers (News, 10 March). On In Tune (Radio 3, Tuesday of last week), we witnessed a highly unusual scenario, in which Sean Rafferty — the most charming and clubbable of presenters — gave the BBC’s Head of Orchestras and Choirs, Simon Webb, a hard time.

The much-quoted justification for the cuts is “quality, agility, and impact”. Mr Webb talked of choral-development programmes in east London and doubling investment in education. How was this going to be paid for? A doubling of what? Show us the figures, Mr Rafferty repeatedly asked, channelling his inner Paxman. “I do know the figures,” Mr Webb said — but he wasn’t going to tell us.

The exchange served as a reminder of a basic rule of negotiation. You put yourself in a commanding position if you don’t give a damn. As it happened, the Lineker affair came along, and the oxygen available for BBC-directed outrage was reassigned. One might suggest that the money saved by not paying all those sports pundits last weekend might support the Singers for a good few months.

You have to laugh. That, at least, is how Kate Bowler sees it (Features, 7 October 2021). In an extensive interview for the podcast The Sacred (theosthinktank.co.uk, every Wednesday), the author and her interviewer, Elizabeth Oldfield, chuckled, guffawed, and occasionally howled their way through subjects such as televangelism, academic theology, and cancer. “Kate is hilarious,” our host promised us before the interview; and she made every effort to make it so.

The programme gets better about 30 minutes in, and Ms Bowler is, indeed, quite funny — certainly wise and insightful. Her research into the “prosperity gospel” has taken her to interesting places, and her self-deprecating remarks on her Christian adolescence are poignant. It is this kind of intellectual experience which makes her a fine commentator on the social complications of critical illness.

Ms Bowler was diagnosed with advanced cancer of the colon without any previous suspicion or warning that she might be ill. She has been doused in more sympathy than most, and is a connoisseur of the good and bad ways in which to express support. Three rules: don’t start a sentence with “At least . . .”; don’t try to relativise; and don’t talk to them about a documentary you saw last week. Do take them a casserole three months after everyone else has stopped visiting.

Perhaps the challenge lies in our having rituals for events — births, marriages, and deaths — but not for processes, such as long-term illness. In The Forum (World Service, Thursday of last week), Rajan Datar spoke to three experts in very different fields in an attempt to understand what rituals actually do. It emerges that animals display forms of behaviour which once had meaning in their evolutionary past, but are now entirely useless. I expect we can all think of a human equivalent.

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