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Radio review: Life Changing, The Cows Are Mad, and When it Hits the Fan

03 November 2023


In Life Changing (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week), Dr Sian Williams interviewed Rachel Watkyn about her unusual back-story

In Life Changing (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week), Dr Sian Williams interviewed Rachel Watkyn about her unusual back-story

AS A general rule, if you want your daughter to fit in at school, it is not a good idea to tell her that all the local children are peasants; nor that “Pardon?” and “toilet” are the patois of the contemptible working class. But the childhood of Rachel Watkyn did not conform to any general rules.

The backstory alone would require too many column-inches. Suffice to say, Rachel’s father was a delusional drunk who believed that the family were related to German aristocracy. His attempts to raise three daughters as baronesses were constantly thwarted by the realities of poverty, and moments of Eliza Doolittle-ish shame, such as when the young Rachel parted company with the Prince and Princess of Monaco with a cheery “See you later.”

All the amusement and horror was revealed in Life Changing (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week), in which Dr Sian Williams interviews people who have experienced an upheaval so complete that it overturns their entire sense of themselves. For Ms Watkyn, it was the discovery of a box of letters after her father’s death — although one gets the impression that she and her sisters had more than an inkling beforehand that things were not as they should be.

Dr Williams is keen to dress all this up in the language of self-worth and empowerment; but the essential life lesson here is: there’s nowt so queer as folk.

The equations that govern the science of risk include assessments not only of probability, but also of the nature of the impact of a possible outcome — however unlikely. In such an equation, the lingering death of a young man as the result of a degenerative brain disease is an outcome so horrific that no amount of risk aversion could achieve balance.

It was quite proper that, in The Cows Are Mad (Radio 4, weekdays of last week), Lucy Proctor set beside the ruminations of civil servants and politicians the experience of Christine Lord, whose son, Andrew, died, aged 24, from variant CJD. On the other hand, one feels some sympathy for those who were trying to manage the public messaging of an issue — that of “mad-cow disease” and its potential to infect humans — without destroying an entire sector of the economy.

Lives and economics are entwined: that was the conclusion of Sir Richard Packer, the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Agriculture in the 1990s. There is much here to ponder, as the fog of Covid dissipates: not least the relative status of scientists, political pragmatics, and sceptics.

But the image from that episode which lingers in the mind more than any other is that of John Gummer as he fed a beefburger to his daughter. Had he had the benefit of hearing When It Hits the Fan (Radio 4, Wednesday of last week), might he have done things differently? The show, hosted by a former editor of The Sun, David Yelland, and the PR veteran Simon Lewis, analyses the ways in which business news and celebrity gossip are presented. Whether you are a shareholder in EE, or a fan of Britney Spears, there is much wisdom therein.

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