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Radio review: Free Thinking, Crowd Science, and Mark Steel’s in Town

05 July 2024

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Free Thinking (Radio 4, last Friday) considered the difference between escape and escapism

Free Thinking (Radio 4, last Friday) considered the difference between escape and escapism

WE HAVE all met the type: the one who cannot suppress their hyper-acute scepticism, even in the presence of what seems to the rest of us straightforwardly innocent and charming. Someone like Dr Kirsty Sinclair Dootson, a lecturer in media and film, who poured a whole steaming pile of negativity over The Wizard of Oz by telling us — in the course of a discussion on Free Thinking (Radio 4, last Friday) about escapism — that the same chemicals used to create Technicolor were employed on death row.

The host, Matthew Sweet, made some attempt to absolve the Munchkins from association with state-sanctioned murder, but our cheery academic doubled-down by telling us that, in whatever downtime she could find during the Cultural Revolution, Madame Mao would entertain herself by watching colour movies; Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes being her favourite.

Escapism is a luxury, it seems, that always creates victims. While escape is a way of dealing with a problem, escapism is a way of avoiding it, and, unless you carry on with your avoidance by, for instance, reading ever more cosy crime fiction, then it will finally catch up on you.

But the discussion was not an unrelenting downer. We also met the philosopher Jules Evans (Features, 30 August 2019), phoning in his contribution to the show from a beach in Costa Rica, whence he escaped at the start of the winter 2020 lockdown. What was intended as a bid for freedom turned into a life-changing adventure, which has included mixing with an exotic crowd of libertarians, and getting married. Of all the academic contributors to the programme, he sounded the happiest. Perhaps he at least has managed to achieve the correct balance between escape and escapism.

Or perhaps the unearthing of implausible connections between much-loved cultural artefacts and monstrous political violence is itself a form of escapism. Whatever floats your luxury yacht. For the people behind Crowd Science (World Service, Friday), that appears to be answering absurd questions, such as “How many flies have ever existed?” Of course, the joy is not in the destination, but in the journey; and, in the course of this delightfully silly programme, we learned all sorts of useless information; such as: for every human living today, there are 17 million flies; and flies don’t buzz around in circles but in rectangles. On this occasion, the answer eluded even the wonderfully titled Curator of Flies at the Natural History Museum.

When Mark Steel’s in Town (Radio 4, Mondays), one is invited to engage in another pleasurably escapist activity: hearing of the comic inadequacies and embarrassments of an English community. In the first of this new series, the comedian was in Margate, home of such innately humorous phenomena as an axe-throwing centre, a crab museum, and Dame Tracey Emin. The audience of locals whoops with delight as their town is mocked; and there is only the occasional mention of politics. That’s an escape for which we are all surely longing.

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