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Radio review: Beeb Watch, The Essay, and Witness History

27 October 2023


In the podcast Beebwatch (rogerboltonsbeebwatch.com, released Fridays), Ed Stourton speaks of his time at both ITN and the BBC

In the podcast Beebwatch (rogerboltonsbeebwatch.com, released Fridays), Ed Stourton speaks of his time at both ITN and the BBC

IT WAS a rookie error: to let on to his employers that he knew something of the Roman Catholic faith. But the young Edward Stourton, fresh from Ampleforth and Oxford, was eager to please; and his reward was to cover the visit of Pope John Paul II to Britain, and, in passing, to explain the theology of transubstantiation.

In Beeb Watch (rogerboltonsbeebwatch.com, released Fridays), Stourton expressed nostalgia for the cowboy years at ITN. No targets, no strategies — just a bit of native intelligence, topped up with swagger.

Stourton is one of the nice guys. If his memoir, published this year, didn’t tell us that, then his latest book — on the history of Radio 4’s Sunday programme, co-written with Amanda Hancox — surely does. For all the indignities from which religious broadcasting has suffered over the course of his career, Stourton remains wholly affable. Even the company of Roger Bolton, who set up this podcast as a means of expressing his exasperation with his former employer, could not stir him to anything but benign criticism of the Corporation.

Not that civility is always the best strategy, as Stourton bravely recognises. During a period when so many former Roman Catholic priest-teachers were being outed for conduct unbecoming, he and his peers would exercise a form of memory repression with regard to their own school experiences. There comes a time when the old-school bravado must give way to critical self-examination.

In 1924, Beatrice Harrison achieved celebrity with a recording made by the BBC of her duetting on the cello with a nightingale. Almost a century later, as part of her series for The Essay (Radio 3, Tuesday of last week), Kate Kennedy managed a feat more enterprising still: playing a cello that had been repurposed as a beehive. With the instrument’s cavity occupied entirely by wax and honey, she avoided as best she could squashing any bees buzzing around the strings, and made a decent impression of a Bach sonata.

The “Bee Cello” — part engineering experience, part ecological statement, part art installation — is the work of Professor Martin Bencsick, a physicist who, like many a beekeeper, seems to prefer his own company to his fellow humans’. The cavity of the cello, saved from a skip, is home to 400,000 bees. The bees reportedly like to admire themselves in the varnished case.

Finally, a paean to Witness History (World Service). Every weekday, it releases a ten-minute nugget from the archive, accompanied by a short interview from someone who was there. Last week, we were treated to episodes as diverse in subject as they were in register: from the Cambodian peace marches to the “Osmondmania” that swept Britain 50 years ago. In the case of the latter, Donny Osmond guided us through the mayhem, while delivering a sober message on the fickleness of Dame Fortune.

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