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Radio review: Archive on 4: Saints and sinners, and Real Dictators

12 January 2024


In Archive on 4: Saints and sinners (Radio 4, Saturday), Canon Giles Fraser offered a take on the history of religious broadcasting

In Archive on 4: Saints and sinners (Radio 4, Saturday), Canon Giles Fraser offered a take on the history of religious broadcasting

IN THE early years of religious broadcasting, clergy anxiety about the new technology would fixate on the thought that liturgical celebrations might be experienced by the laity while supping a pot of ale or washing the dishes. Cathedral deans, in particular, were resistant to the innovation, launched on the feast of the Epiphany 1924. One hundred years on, and, as Canon Giles Fraser wryly observed in Archive on 4: Saints and sinners (Radio 4, Saturday), there are few clerics who have not themselves delivered the word of the Lord from a sitting room or even a kitchen.

To plot a line through the vast amount of material available, Canon Fraser offered a polemic: that the history of religious broadcasting — on radio and television — might be interpreted as a “battle for control”, or a sequence of battles, between forms of presentation and instruction, and, more fundamentally, spiritual ambitions. Fortunately for his listeners, Canon Fraser lost his own battle for control over the material, and we were instead treated to a rich archival miscellany, highlights of which included Adam Faith in conversation with Archbishop Donald Coggan; a sequence from Sunday featuring Dennis Potter; and extracts from a revealing interview with Eric Fenn, assistant director of religion in the late 1930s and early ’40s.

One sympathises with Canon Fraser’s predicament; for, beyond that amused sense of the quaint and petty which such histories elicit, there is an overwhelming sense of futility, as all that wealth of theological discourse from bygone eras falls away. At the end of the programme, Canon Fraser called for the BBC to re-engage with the Reithian project, in the advancement of religious literacy. Looking back at the concerns of those prelates in 1924 from the post-Zoom 2020s, it is not so much a shift in the sense of propriety that is striking as the notion that anybody outside a very small segment of the population might understand the issue, or indeed care two hoots.

Catching up on some listening from the Christmas period, your reviewer chanced upon Real Dictators: a BBC Sounds podcast from Noiser Productions, with no scheduled broadcast slot, but worth seeking out. Among more obvious candidates for the series, the producers have slipped in two episodes devoted to Herod the Great. Scripted by Kate Harrison, and narrated in suitably portentous tones by Paul McGann, this is a lively account of a colourful life.

Most of the colour, it should be said, comes from Josephus, who — with the help of Nicolaus of Damascus — is the main source for Herod’s life, although credit should also be given to the guest historians whose enthusiastic contributions help to zhuzh up the ubiquitous internecine slaughter. As when reading I, Claudius, one sometimes wonders how anybody with a ha’penny to their name stayed alive. So bloody were the times that the Slaughter of the Innocents warrants no mention in Josephus, although the abomination is true to form. Nor does it help to humanise the tyrant to learn the surprising fact that Herod’s first wife was called Doris.

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