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Radio review: The Journey of the Magi, The New Gurus, and Hunting Ghosts with Gatiss and Coles

06 January 2023


A new version of W. R. Rodgers’s The Journey of the Magi was broadcast on Radio 3 on New Year’s Day

A new version of W. R. Rodgers’s The Journey of the Magi was broadcast on Radio 3 on New Year’s Day

“A COLD coming we had of it.” T. S. Eliot’s 1927 masterpiece tends to crowd out any other poetic evocations of the Magi. Yet spare a thought for the work of W. R. Rodgers, whose The Journey of the Magi was offered in a new version (Radio 3, New Year’s Day), accompanied by a sumptuous, filmic score specially composed by Paul Campbell.

Rodgers, a Belfast-born Presbyterian minister and poet was encouraged by the poet Louis MacNeice to work for the BBC, and in 1948 composed this approachable and whimsical account of the Epiphany story for broadcast.

Some of the same themes as Eliot’s denser text are present here, including the Kings’ bewilderment: “What all of it was about, not one of them knew.” But there is much lightness, too, ill-served here by a ponderous delivery that failed to capture the light, skipping rhyme. “King Caspar got drunk, Melchior met a lady, Balthazar was involved in something shady.” Supported by Campbell’s music, with its mash-up of carols and classic scores, the programme offered a form of accessible, public art familiar in the broadcasting landscape of the post-war era, but now almost vanished.

If you are looking for a guide through the contemporary culture wars, then you could do worse than Helen Lewis. She has a credible pedigree, having gone 12 rounds with Professor Jordan Peterson and survived, and won the virtuous scars of a Twitter pile-on. In an eight-part series over the Christmas period, she has been exploring The New Gurus (Radio 4, final episode of eight, Thursday of last week): that breed of sage which has flourished since the birth of the internet and which brings us “certainty in an uncertain world” (for all her admirable qualities, Lewis is not averse to the occasional clunking cliché). Her subjects here include health faddists, diversity gurus, and futurologists predicting the end of the world. We live, she declares, with evident relish, in “a golden age of gurus”.

That the world on which she reports is one of trickery and distortion is best represented by one instance, plucked from a multitude of eligible anecdotes. It tells of the bioethicist Alice Dreger, invited by The New York Times to a photo-shoot in support of a story about the intellectual dark web. This supposedly tight-knit alliance of alt-Right disrupters and sceptical subversives of which Dreger was supposed to be a member was so tight-knit that Dreger had never met any of them — and some of them she had not even heard of. When the photographer asked her to pose in the shadows, and stare moodily at the lens, she called a halt.

In a more congenial example of shadow-chasing, in Hunting Ghosts with Gatiss and Coles (Radio 4, Christmas Eve), newly formed chums Mark and Richard bond over spooky tales from a Northamptonshire churchyard and some light-touch theology. Perfect Christmas fare; and Coles’s story of reading the psalms to a dying parishioner is a gem.

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