Archives for December 2011

Don't Log Off: Discovering the real life dramas behind online profiles

Post categories:

Alan Dein Alan Dein 15:34, Friday, 30 December 2011

Alan Dein

It was a simple enough brief - I was to lock myself away for one week to talk to people on the internet, to tap into this babble of voices and experiences and explore the global phenomenon of social networking.

It was a venture which would eventually have me talking to a single parent snowbound in Nova Scotia, an Egyptian whose online romance turned sour, a Pakistani yearning for a girl from the wrong caste, a rapper in Lagos, a man car-jacked in Caracas and a student defying the curfew in a Chinese dorm room.

But it's inevitable that a simple idea would take some serious thought to work. How do we hook up, and talk with an individual residing somewhere in internet-land and, crucially, turn it into a piece of radio?

There was a precedent: back in 2002, producer Mark Burman and I created Don't Hang Up, which involved calling public phone boxes to see who picked up. This proved to be a wonderful mechanism to trigger random encounters and the results were often startling.

But whilst we still wanted to capture the serendipity of random encounters with random people Don't Log Off was to be rather different project - requiring an all-new methodology. Firstly, the surprising technological challenges required producer Laurence Grissell and I to construct a "pop-up" recording studio, tucked away in a room at the end of an almost deserted floor of BBC's Henry Wood House. For one week, in the Winter of 2011, Don't Log Off was "on-air". You can see the building of the studio on the the Don't Log Off programme page.

Don't Log Off producer Laurence Grissell and I scripted a simple title and description for the project, hoping to draw in curious minds, and tossed our mission statement into the mix of online chat rooms and message boards. Some failed miserably, nobody cared at all about our Tweets, and certain online networking sites were either too X-rated, or attracted too many jokers wearing ridiculous monster masks for our purposes.

But progress was made through opening a Facebook page and a Skype account - neither of which I'd ever used before so I was inevitably unprepared for what would happen next.

Within hours, I discovered new "friends" on my Don't Log Off Facebook page. Exotic sounding names like Onyekwere, Amr, Luna, Umar, Daria suddenly wanted to be part of the project. We were connected by the internet, some of them were ready to speak right away, and all within hours of my Facebook page going live.

We soon realised this needed to be a round-the-clock operation - in order to truly span the globe, we'd be in for some late nights. There's a certain hysteria which sets in at 4am, believe me!

But speaking for myself, my producer Laurence Grissell, and producer Sarah Bowen who also took to the controls of our strange little pop-up studio, our week on Don't Log off was a remarkable journey - and what started as one programme became two.

This project really was an eye-opener - to hear tales from those suffering with frustration and depression in countries where you just can't speak openly, and it's only though the certain areas of the internet that people can tell their tale. Also, there are those who have fallen in love with someone they shouldn't have fallen in love with on the internet. How real do you want your internet friend to be?

For all these reasons, Don't Log Off is a great leveller, presenting universal themes that span our national borders. Be prepared though, the tales of ordinary people, can be heartbreaking, and sometimes very shocking indeed.

But I must also add, that I'm in awe of all those people I spoke with from Mongolia or Egypt or Singapore or Uzbekistan and from Ukraine to Iran to Venezuela , who spoke all spoke with me in superb, and broadcastable, English. Don't Log Off is about them.

Alan Dein presents Don't Log Off on Radio 4 on 2nd and 9th January at 11am. The programmes will be available to listen to online shortly after broadcast and as a podcast.

  • While you're waiting for Don't Log Off to start there's a fantastic podcast archive of Lives in a Landscape, BBC Radio 4's series in which Alan Dein goes in search of original stories from around the country, available to download now.

A Tale of Two Cities on BBC Radio 4. And a podcast too!

Post categories:

Jessica Dromgoole Jessica Dromgoole 14:00, Monday, 26 December 2011

Editor's note: Starting on Boxing Day the Afternoon Play is running a five part adaptation of Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. You will also be able to download the series to keep as a podcast from the podcast page. On the blog some of the people who've brought you this marvellous production share some of their thoughts and behind the scenes knowledge with Jessica Dromgoole, one of the producers of A Tale of Two Cities - PM.

The cast

Some of the cast of BBC Radio 4's A Tale of Two Cities in the studio with Andrew Scott and Paul Ready
in the foreground

Paul Ready plays Sydney Carton

I had never read A Tale Of Two Cities before being asked to do this project. I knew the very basics; that it was set in Paris and London and the opening line, but nothing beyond this. I had no idea it was such a gripping and moving story. Having read the book first, followed by the script, I found that Mike Walker's dramatisation was every bit as epic while simultaneously bringing a great freshness, humour and humanity to the story and characters.

And what fantastic characters! Unforgettable. I was thrilled to be asked to play Sydney Carton. I found him heartbreaking - a man with such huge potential but unable to see beyond his crippling self -loathing. The script, for me, is full of characters and moments with which we can identify and is a timeless story about how during the terrifying dark passages of history, of which there are many, it is ultimately acts of love, big and small - that see us through.

Jonathan Coy plays Mr Jarvis Lorry

Actors often say they love playing the baddies - fired by the notion that "the Devil has all the best tunes". I love playing goodness. I believe in 'goodness', in the power of decent behaviour to make a difference. So too, clearly, did Charles Dickens. This whole story is, I suppose, with the ultimate sacrifice in its thrilling finale, all about that concept.

Mr Jarvis Lorry is a good, decent man. A devoted servant of the Bank and its clients, his life has been one of diligence and integrity, without, as he acknowledges himself, the comforts of companionship and family. Late in his particular day, he has the chance to look after the interests of his old friend, Dr Manette, reclaiming him to life after his years of desperate incarceration, and finding in his daughter, Lucie, the child he had never had to love and care for.

My favourite line of Mr Lorry's is when, with his skills and intellect, it is suggested to him that he could have made an excellent career as a lawyer. "Oh, no," he explains, "I have no taste for blood"!

Rikki Lawton plays various roles

Working on The Tale of Two Cities was an amazing experience. It was the longest production in terms of recording time I have been involved in and working with such great actors was a complete honour. The piece itself was beautifully adapted and it was a joy to help bring some of those dirty and gritty scenes to life.

I played a few of the smaller characters throughout the episodes, and felt responsible for creating the right atmosphere of the play, alongside my colleagues. Specifically, in the opening scene where the Dover coach is travelling at night , it was our job to take the listener right smack into the midst of the freezing weather that looms over that frightening evening.

I played the part of Joe in that scene and we wrapped ourselves up in long black trench coats and held them tightly around us when we recorded it. The huge tension throughout that and the thought of potentially being robbed by highwaymen in the middle of the bitter night was quite daunting- thank goodness Joe had his gun stuck to his side the whole time (I did actually have a gun in my hands when recording) - otherwise there would have been trouble.

Alison Craig and Jenni Burnett (Spot Studio Managers)

In A Tale of Two Cities, there were several scenes that needed the intervention of the SSS (Special Spot Services)

"Spot" Studio Managing can run from the hum drum, such as a teacup being placed on a saucer (note to self - I always do this too loud!) to more complex sequences of sounds and action, such as a dragon being hatched from a shell and flying away. It can be creative, it can fun, it can be downright dirty, and dangerous.

Take him away, the pig is drunk!

In Episode five, Carton plies Charles Darnay with brandy to the point where he is physically sick. Now short of sticking her fingers down actor Andrew Scott's throat (which might have prevented him doing his lines, and resulted in a law suit), we resorted to the old Foley trick of using a hot water bottle. The recipe is as follows:
1. Take a hot water bottle, and discard the stopper
2. Fill with cold water and lumpy bits (I use cotton wool, but for particularly graphic effect I hear that tinned fruit salad is especially good.)
3. Get the actor to make retching sounds
4. Hold the hot water bottle upright against your body and, at the appropriate moment, give it a quick squeeze, projecting contents onto the desired target (here, a concrete floor)

Why not try it yourselves this New Year?

What is that damn noise?

A significant sound in Tale of Two Cities is that of the civic grindstone, just outside Tellsons Bank in Paris. It creates an eerie backdrop to several scenes, before coming to the foreground in the final episode.

It's a grindstone - big one. Two men turning it and... They're sharpening swords, knives... Half of the district are lining up... butcher's knives, rapiers, scythes, billhooks, sabres... kitchen knives! Men and women, children too.

Unsuprisingly this sound effect wasn't in our sound effects library, so we had to make it up.

The approach to working out how to recreate a sound is always the same.
What is the characteristic sound?
What are its component parts?
What have we got in the studio that is anything like it?

First for the sound of the grindstone itself, we used 2 flagstones, dragging one across the other in a circular motion. This could then be slowed down to sound bigger, and looped to sound continuous. To this we added the effect of the various instruments being sharpened. I held up a rather heavy piece of iron (hence the pained expression!) while the actors queued up with their ill assorted instruments for grinding, all the while singing the Carmagnole. Only in a radio studio!

She works, our Lady Guillotine...

The Guillotine itself was also a spot effect. The constituent sound being a metallic blade, whooshing though wood (and an aristo's neck) to an end stop. To do this, Jenni held a piece of wood, while one of the actors, James Lailey, had a piece of metal.

On a count of three, together they ran them down the outsides of a door frame, to hit the floor, at the exactly the same time. A cabbage falling into a wicker basket, could then be added for extra horror, although sounding out every nitty, gritty bit of the action is sometimes superfluous to the effect.

Anyway, I think we got away with it this time round. We'll have to wait and see if there's any feedback. Thing is - if it's good spot work, the chances are, you won't even notice it.

Lennert Busch (composer)

Working on the music for A Tale of Two Cities has been a real joy. Me, Jeremy and Jessica (the producers) started very early in the process to find the right themes and emotions for the story. We took our cues from the recurrent sounds - the shoemaking, the footsteps, for example - and from the essential elements of character, for example Carton's instrument always had been the cello. We didn't want to go very "18th century" music but a big story needs large music, and the script contrasts huge crowd scenes with intimate single voice work and two handers. And so the music ranges from big orchestral movements to very small pieces. Interestingly, the very first demo I made ended up being the main theme for the whole series.

Jessica Dromgoole and Jeremy Mortimer produced and directed A Tale of Two Cities for Radio 4

The Front Row Boxing Day Quiz

Post categories:

John Goudie John Goudie 22:30, Sunday, 25 December 2011

Faust

The Damnation of Faust at the English National Opera

Tempted to test your memories of the year's music, films, books and more? Then try these two:

1. What links John Cleese's Alimony Tour, The Damnation of Faust at the English National Opera and a new short opera The Doctor's Tale at the Royal Opera House?

2. Which 2011 memoir, by a very popular poet and performer, includes these lines:

The following week it was all over the local paper alongside Arthur Titherington's photograph of me lifted from the cover of my booklet. "Local girl a hopeful for Opportunity Knocks" read the headline with all the dates and information I had given him. My friends were astounded.

Answers below - but don't tell your family or friends. You can remind them of your wide-ranging cultural knowledge when you tune into the Front Row Boxing Day Quiz on Monday at 7.15pm.

Mark Lawson leaves his regular seat in the seclusion of studio 50C for the question-master's chair beneath the bright lights of the Radio Theatre in Broadcasting House, London.

There he lines up these and many more cultural brain-teasers for two competitive teams with buzzers at the ready. Historian Antonia Fraser, crime writer Mark Billingham and Downton Abbey's Dan Stevens face a team of writer and performer Natalie Haynes, playwright Roy Williams and actor and writer Michael Simkins.

It's quite a contest, and even features an artistic "What Happened Next?" round.

John Goudie is the editor of Front Row on BBC Radio 4

  • The Front Row Boxing Day Quiz is on Monday 26 December at 7.15pm on BBC Radio 4 and online shortly afterwards.
  • Answers:
    1. All works involving members of the Monty Python team - The Damnation of Faust was directed by Terry Gilliam, and The Doctor's Tale features a libretto by Terry Jones.
    2. An extract from The Necessary Aptitude by Pam Ayres.

Lives in a Landscape: The Devils of Broughton podcast

Post categories:

Laurence Grissell Laurence Grissell 12:10, Friday, 23 December 2011

Church

St Peter's Church in Broughton

While Radio 4's documentary series Lives in a Landscape is off air, we're steadily making the archive available for download - and this week we're putting up a seasonal classic - The Devils of Broughton on the Lives in a Landscape podcast page.

Alan Dein reports on a curious midnight ritual in Broughton, Northamptonshire where, as Christmas approaches, the villagers beat out the devil in a din of pots and pans, milk churns and hip baths, drums and hammers, colanders and frying pans - anything that makes a noise in fact.

Elisabeth Mahoney in the Guardian wrote of a "beautifully produced" programme featuring "exquisite characters". It'll be available from Friday morning - we hope you enjoy it.

Laurence Grissell is one of the producers of Lives in a Landscape

In Our Time newsletter: Robinson Crusoe

Post categories:

Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg 17:21, Thursday, 22 December 2011

Editor's note: In yesterday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed Robinson Crusoe. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep - PM.

Crusoe

Hello

I'm sitting in my house at dawn on December 21st, the day before the last live programme of In Our Time which we'll follow with a recorded programme to go out at the end of December, so that we can all ease off for a few days' holiday over Christmas and the New Year.

I've looked out on Hampstead Heath, at the dawn. You remember at school when you read about "rosy-fingered dawn" - well, the rosy fingers are at work just over the East End of London this morning. There's, as Wordsworth said, a tranquillity over the city at a time like this, which is as profound as anything you experience in the country.

In fact, one of the things that's changed in my life over the last few years is the discovery that city walking, i.e. London walking, mainly, can be as intriguing and satisfying as walking in Cumbria. Well, not quite, come to think of it. I'm off up there for a holiday and I know that when I get on the fells there will be nothing like it. Nevertheless, it's not a bad runner-up, this city walking. The life of the flaneur.

I'm writing this today because logistically it is impossible for Ingrid and myself to get our act together tomorrow, to get out two newsletters to get to you.

Robinson Crusoe tomorrow. Curious to read it again. How long it takes before Friday appears! How much intense observation and knowledge there is about the art of survival. It could be a Super Scout survival book.

I wonder if Baden-Powell ever read it?

It's far better than Scouting for Boys (not, frankly, that I remember very much about Scouting for Boys sixty years on). Where did Defoe get all that information from? He was a most extraordinary man, publishing his first novel at the age of fifty-nine. It's so full of possible interpretations. Rather like the lady who saw Hamlet and said it was full of quotations. There's the master/slave aspect, there's the cannibalism, there's the conversion to Christianity, there are the adventures and the idea of adventure, there's the notion of the entrepreneur... No wonder it has gone on parallel lines as a discussion document about the history of this country over the last three hundred years, and as a popular favourite into children's books and even unto pantomime.

And then the recorded programme is on macromolecules. I'm very, very pleased that it is recorded! Chemistry was always a bit of a mystery. But I'll be surrounded, as usual, by three experts who will be (touch wood) generous and keen to impart their knowledge to you.

The following week there'll be a programme every morning, Monday to Friday, from about nine o'clock, on 'The Written World'. This is what I've been making with the producer Tom Morris over the last few months.

It is the most extraordinary story. We start at five and a half thousand years ago with cuneiform clay tablets and bring it up to a mention of Kindle. One of the most extraordinary things about it is that every significant artefact on that long journey from the beginning of writing to the present day can be found in this country, in the quite astounding collections at the British Museum, the British Library, at Cambridge, in the Durham Cathedral Library and in private collections.

So that's us. I hope you're all well. Thanks very much for your support this year and I hope that we will meet again in 2012.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

The Christmas Top 10 science style aka So You Want to Be a Scientist

Post categories:

Michelle Martin Michelle Martin 15:47, Thursday, 22 December 2011

football

One of this year's shortlist asks "Does Fergie Time exist?"

The shortlist for this year's So You Want to Be a Scientist is out. Sifting the ten best entries from well over a thousand applications was a herculean task, but one that we in the BBC Radio Science Unit relished.

Over the past three weeks on Material World we've been playing clips of our ten contenders talking about their ideas. There's everything from singing to swimming, football to fashion, all dreamt up by wannabe scientists aged between 17 and 70, from Bournemouth to Inverness.

The quality of ideas this year was impressively high. Entrants had spent a long time pondering the question they wanted to ask, and founding a scientific way of answering it.

But after hours of examining applications on everything from bees to baking, we had a towering pile of around 200 "maybes". Then it was a case of reading the scientific literature on whether dogs really do look like their owners (apparently the answer is "yes" and it's for the same reason we're attracted to partners who look like us). Then we door-stepped academics to find out if cows really do lie down before it rains and whether "Fergie time" exists in football, before whittling it down to the final ten. It's like X Factor, but for ideas.

The next stage is for our panel of judges, chaired by Nobel Laureate Sir Paul Nurse, to select four finalists to turn their ideas into real experiments. And you can hear who they've chosen, and why, in next week's Material World at 4.30pm on Thursday 29 December.

Michelle Martin is producer of So You Want to be a Scientist?

The Thinking Allowed Newsletter: Merry humbug

Post categories:

Laurie Taylor Laurie Taylor 14:21, Wednesday, 21 December 2011

Ed's note: Thinking Allowed is on at 4pm Wednesday 21 December and is available shortly afterwards on the website and as a podcast - PM.

Santa and child

Child and mother meeting Father Christmas

My father hated Christmas and all its trimmings. He detested the infantilism it imposed upon otherwise sensible people: the silly songs and daft customs, the hypocritical exchange of good wishes, the giving and receiving of unwanted and ill-chosen presents.

I can still remember going home to Liverpool in the late 1970s. For some reason or other I'd decided that year to do my very best to overcome my father's traditional aversion to the season by choosing very expensive and very appropriate gifts.

When I arrived at the front door I was so laden with parcels that I had to ask my new wife to ring the bell. From the time it took for there to be any response and then from the long moments of waiting while bolts were withdrawn and latches undone, I guessed it was my father who'd been dispatched from the kitchen to greet us.

As the unlocking continued I gave my new wife a big re-assuring smile. She'd been warned about my father's seasonal churlishness but I still worried that she'd not quite grasped the depth of his distaste.

The door finally opened and revealed dad in his dressing gown. Hadn't he known that we were coming? Didn't he realise that we'd driven the best part of two hundred miles from London that morning? Why hadn't he made at least some sort of effort?

But there was worse to come. Without saying a word he looked down at the parcels we were carrying, at the carefully chosen, beautifully wrapped and perfectly labelled presents that my wife and I held in our hands.

Not one of these niceties, these careful acts of discrimination, impinged upon my father. With his gaze still fixed firmly on our handfuls of gifts, he nodded his head sorrowfully and said "You know, Laurence. You really shouldn't have bothered with all this muck."

I suspect that dad would have been rather pleased with our Christmas edition of Thinking Allowed. We have nothing whatsoever on the anthropology or sociology of mince pies or mistletoe or mumming. Instead we have a serious sit-up straight, put-down-those crackers discussion about two therapeutic ideologies - the anti-institutional psychiatric movement associated with R D Laing and the psychoanalytic movement founded by Sigmund Freud. How do we account for the dramatic rise and fall of the former and the extraordinary endurance of the latter.

That's all at four o'clock today or on our podcast.

One last thing. Because I share my late father's lack of religious belief, I can feel pretty certain that he's not now looking down upon me as I wish all my newsletter readers a very happy Christmas.

Laurie Taylor presents Thinking Allowed

  • You can listen to this episode of Thinking Allowed on the Radio 4 website, subscribe or download the podcast.
  • Sign up for Laurie's Thinking Allowed newsletter.
  • You can find out more about the programme's new partnership with The Open University and related features by going to their website.
  • The picture is from the BBC's archives. The original caption info reads: "Shipmates Ashore: Toys for Children of Merchant Navy Men From Nigerian Listeners 20/12/1944 © BBC Picture shows child and mother meeting Father Christmas. Several crates of toys made by the craftsmen of Iket Ekpene, Nigeria, and paid for by the Chiefs and people were sent at Christmas to Doris Hare, hostess of the BBC programme for the Merchant Navy Shipmates Ashore. London's share of the toys were distributed to orphans of British Merchant Navymen at a party at the Merchant Navy Club which was recorded."

Women and homelessness: Radio 4 St Martin-in-the-Fields Christmas Appeal

street scene

The morning after I had visited The Connection at St Martins, I woke up at 5 am and wasn't able to fall back asleep. It was dark and cold - the timer on the central heating not yet having kicked in - and outside icy raindrops were pinging off the bedroom window. I pulled the duvet up to my chin and remembered Jo who had told me it's early winter mornings that are the hardest when you are sleeping rough.

By that time of the morning, Jo told me, no matter how many layers you've wrapped yourself in, the cold of the pavement has seeped in, through your flesh and into your bones. If you wake up too early, and can't fall back asleep - before the day centre, the underground, libraries or anywhere else that might provide shelter is open - then you're stuck: cold and shivering.

If you've got enough money you might go and get a coffee and sit in McDonalds for a little while, she said. But you have to leave after half an hour which is hardly long enough to chase the chill from your feet or hands.

Tom slept rough for two years before recently having found accommodation. Women joke, she said, about how the female body isn't made for sleeping on hard flat surfaces. Men are made "straight up and and down", perfectly adapted for lying on concrete. Women have too many curves to get comfortable and end up getting horrendous backache.

Early winter mornings, I was told, are even worse than the nights, when passers-by give you a kick, just for the heck of it. Which is most nights, Sarah told me. But not as often as some lairy idiot sees fit to yell insults at you because maybe you haven't had the chance to wash recently and, maybe, you're looking a bit rough.

But not as bad, the women say, as those many nights when, despite your best efforts to hide your gender, you're subject to unwanted sexual attention. All the women have experience of that and know of others who have been sexually assaulted or raped. Because, let's face it, Sarah says, when you're a woman living on the streets it's not just the cold you're vulnerable to.

I didn't expect any of the women I interviewed for Woman's Hour in connection with the Radio 4 Appeal to tell me that rough sleeping or being homeless was "easy".

What did surprise me was how, at certain times in their life, sleeping on the street - even with the cold, the discomfort, the abuse and the constant fear of violence - was still preferable to the "home" situation they had left behind. Whether it was a violent partner, mental illness, a bereavement or some kind of other family breakdown; whether they had been evicted, abused or fighting alcohol or drug dependency issues, the homeless situation these women found themselves in was, often, the only option they felt they had.

What I learned from Jo, Tom and Sarah was that the reasons a woman becomes and sometimes continues to be homeless can be very complex. And that those reasons are always, like the women themselves, very individual.

There is no such thing as a "typical" homeless person.

And ultimately, lying there in my warm bed, snug and dry at five o'clock in the morning, it's hard not to feel how fortunate I have been that I have not faced the same challenges or hurdles they have, because the truth is, it could have been me. Given the wrong combination of circumstances, it could be any of us.

Anna McNamee is a reporter on Radio 4's Woman's Hour and a presenter on the BBC World Service arts programme, The Strand.

The Life of Vaclav Havel

Post categories:

Paul Murphy Paul Murphy 12:25, Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Vaclav Havel

In today's Telegraph the radio critic Gillian Reynolds wrote about The Life of Vaclav Havel which was broadcast on Sunday evening following the news of the death of the Czech playwright and politician earlier that day:

"Born into a professional Czech family, persecuted because of it, the experience developed in him (Havel) a sense of the absurdity of the world, a love of logically constructed arguments to support nonsense, exactly the qualities that made his plays so potent. I remember hearing his The Memorandum on Radio 3, way back in the days when the whole Communist bloc seemed frozen and far away.

Its translation into English was a BBC commission and a far-sighted one, the blackest of bureaucracies rendered farcical for a worldwide audience. It made Czech life instantly familiar, grim but graspable, scary but absurd. ...BBC radio continued to broadcast Havel's plays, from when they had to be smuggled out right up to the one that was about a man who unexpectedly becomes his country's president, as Havel did. The plays will live long after their political history has become footnotes."

Paul Murphy is the editor of the Radio 4 blog.

Five podcasts for the weekend: 16 December 2011

Post categories:

Paul Murphy Paul Murphy 20:00, Friday, 16 December 2011

Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens at the Hitchens v Hitchens debate, Fountain St. Church, Grand Rapids.
Pic by 1546 used under licence

The preamble

As usual I've picked out five of the many podcasts available for your weekend's listening.

You can listen online or download to keep, or put onto your phone or MP3 player. This being the Radio 4 blog I'd also like to direct you to the Radio 4 podcast page.

Some podcasts are available for only seven days (eg Comedy of the Week; Friday Night Comedy) but others do have a huge archive you can download at any time (eg Desert Island Discs; In Our Time). If you haven't used podcasts from the BBC before there's some podcast help here.

This week's selection

1. Last Word
John Wilson looks back on the life of British-born author, literary critic and journalist Christopher Hitchens. Also Jerry Robinson, the comic strip artist who created the character of Batman's faithful sidekick Robin and his arch villain The Joker.
Download here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/lastword

2. Peter Day's World of Business: Cuba Now
After 53 years of revolution, President Raul Castro is trying to change the state-controlled Cuban economy with moves to promote private employment, and an open market in second hand cars and home. Peter Day reports from Havana on an island where in many ways time has been standing still for half a century.
Download here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/worldbiz

3. The Front Row Daily
This week's Front Row has interviews with director David Fincher on The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, historian Simon Schama on his pick of works from the Government Art Collection and Kirsty Lang talks to Meryl Streep about playing Margaret Thatcher in the film The Iron Lady.
Download here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/frontrow

4. Documentary of the Week: Greece: Broken Marble, Broken Future (until Saturday) and then Pop Goes the Bible! (for the rest of the week)
Writer Maria Margaronis revisits her beloved Greece where, amidst the strikes and the tear gas, she hears from Greeks living with their country's spiraling crisis.
And from Saturday Pop Goes the Bible!
What do these all have in common - Elvis Presley ('Adam and Evil'); Bob Dylan (Highway 61 Revisited); Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice ('Joseph' and 'Jesus Christ, Superstar'); The Byrds (Turn! Turn! Turn!); Leonard Cohen ('Hallelujah'), and U2 ('40' and 'Yahweh')? They're all pop songs that have been inspired by the Old and New Testaments.
Download here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/r4choice

5. Play of the Week: The Lamp
By Linda Cracknell. In a remote Scottish library, a farmer's widow and a visiting Kenyan librarian bond unexpectedly over a shared love of books. Recorded on location at Innerpeffray Library in Perthshire. Directed by Eilidh McCreadie.
Download here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/ptw

Paul Murphy is the editor of the Radio 4 blog

In Our Time newsletter: The Concordat of Worms

Post categories:

Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg 16:12, Friday, 16 December 2011

Editor's note: In yesterday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed the Concordat of Worms. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep - PM.
Concordat of Worms

Hello

I'm afraid that after this morning's programme the conversation veered into a different dimension altogether.

There was gossip.

It seems that in the volumes of the university histories dealing with this period, there is an awful lot of gossip. And in other documents there is even more. So as to give body, as it were, to our discussion this morning, I will repeat some of the repeatable bits. It was, in effect, a propaganda war between Pope Gregory and Emperor Henry IV.

Gregory was accused of murdering four previous popes. Henry IV, it was alleged, had too many mistresses, he slept with his sister and in a public council his second wife declared he had indulged in sexual perversions, including asking her to have sexual congress while he looked on.

Gregory was accused of sleeping with the great Matilda (the richest landowner in Italy) and also of hiring a man - an assassin - to shadow Henry IV, with a view to dropping a large stone on his head when he was at prayers. Fortunately - a miracle - he moved at the time and the stone missed him.

John of Crema, a papal legate sent to lecture the English clergy about their morals, was discovered under the altar in Westminster Abbey in Ugandan discussions with a London prostitute.

I think that sums up the gist of it. After that Tom Morris and I went across to fill up the sheets for subjects until the end of January and also to talk about the history of the written word. We've recorded all the interviews now and I'll be doing five programmes of commentary with him in the studio next week.

And, yes, St James's Park was wonderful in the crisp winter air and, yes, I caught the guards on their horses once again. They really do never fail to thrill.

I got to the Lords in time to hear a great chunk of the debate on the issue of same-sex marriages being held in church. The conclusion which was reached was that legislation, as now enacted, made it possible for vicars or priests or chaplains who wanted to conduct such a service to do so, but if they didn't want to do so they could not be forced to, nor could the law be taken against them.

It was a packed House with some extraordinarily good speeches and some, equally extraordinary, legal hair-splitting.

Then to talk about Ken Russell for a BBC Two programme which is coming out in tribute to him and to canter, once again, in the lush old 1960 pasture of the Monitor programme, when I was his gofer for a while and then worked with him on films.

And finally drifting through the twilight north towards home, under the aerial carpet of Christmas lights in Regent Street, and then ducking across to Seven Dials (once a notorious criminal area in London with the seven streets enabling cunning criminals to outwit the police) which have perhaps the best lights I have so far seen, although Marylebone High Street runs it quite close.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

What are your cultural highlights of the year? Tell Saturday Review

Post categories:

Fiona Couper Fiona Couper 13:10, Friday, 16 December 2011

James Corden

James Corden, star of One Man, Two Guvnors in the Radio 4 studios. Pic by Jerome Weatherald

What are the cultural highlights of the year?

That's one of the things we'll be discussing in our final Saturday Review of 2011 (on Radio 4 next Saturday December 24 at 7.15pm). Tom's guests are Giles Fraser, Kevin Jackson and Kathryn Hughes and they will have plenty of ideas of their own - but we'd like to include your contributions too.

Some of you have been in touch - evoking memories of some memorable high points.

Thea Thompson mentions the new photographic gallery at the V&A - and the latest title from Sebastian Barry, On Canaan's Land. Gerard Brown recalls the "fantastic and original" London Road at The National - and A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, "spirited, funny and humane".

A quick round-up in the office has thrown up fond memories of magnificent performances in Frankenstein and One Man, Two Guvnors. British cinema has given rise to some strong contributions too, with the Indie sector - Submarine, Tyrannosaur - standing up well to bigger budgets such as Tinker Taylor Soldier Spy.

What else still resonates? TV's The Slap; Anna Nicole The Opera; the masterful new Charles Dickens biog from Claire Tomalin; The Crimson Petal and The White. And the icing on the cake - for those of a certain age - a new Kate Bush CD, 50 Words for Snow. A year which includes that is a good one indeed.

So tell us what stands out for you from the year in the comments below.

Fiona Couper is the editor of Saturday Review

The Thinking Allowed Newsletter: The Peanut Vendor in Sidcup

Post categories:

Laurie Taylor Laurie Taylor 14:38, Thursday, 15 December 2011

Peanuts

Peanut picture by Steve Snodgrass under licence

Tom and I were broke.

We both had grants which were supposed to sustain us during our three years at drama school but too much drinking in the Station Hotel had dented our funds to such an extent that we'd been reduced to borrowing money from gullible first year students.

But it was the Station Hotel which unexpectedly came to the rescue. We were sitting in there one night, dawdling over our pints so as to save money, when Tom began staring at the small print on the back of his packet of peanuts.

"Guess how many ounces of peanuts there are in this bag?" he said.

"Give up", I said.

"Just two", said Tom, "Just two."

I wondered for a moment if our impoverished circumstances were beginning to affect Tom's mental processes. Things had surely come to a pretty pass when he was reduced to talking about peanuts.

And he clearly hadn't finished with the topic. "Right", he said "Just two ounces. And how much did we pay for those two ounces?" "I think it was nine pence," I said.

Tom was scribbling on the beer mat. "That's fourpence halfpenny an ounce", he said. "And that comes out at six shillings a pound. Six shillings. That's a huge sum. Six shillings for a miserable pound of peanuts."

He was now staring at the bag again. "Look here. It says the nuts are packaged by a company called Whiteside. Now how much do you think Whitesides pay for a ton of peanuts. If they paid what they're charging us, if they paid four pence halfpenny an ounce then the peanuts would cost them about six hundred quid. Right?"

I nodded. Better to say nothing and simply yield to Tom's contagious enthusiasm (It was, I can now reflect, exactly that compelling quality which ensured that Tom went on to make a fine living as a film and television actor).

"Now", he said, finishing the pint which was supposed to last him until closing time. "Do you seriously believe that peanuts in bulk cost anything like six hundred quid a ton. 'Course they don't. And that's where we come in. Tomorrow I'll put on my executive voice, ring up Whiteside and ask for their bulk prices. And then."

"Yes," I said emptying my own glass as a symbol of solidarity. "What then?".

"This is where the money comes in", said Tom. "We buy a bulk load of peanuts, divide them up into little two ounce bags and then take a cart out into Footscray High Street and flog them off for half the normal price."

"Why not warm them up," I said. "Get a paraffin heater on the cart. Put a tray on top. And go round the houses. Knock on the door holding a packet of hot peanuts in your hand. They smell the smell and can't resist. What a nice surprise for the wife and the kiddies. I'll take three packets."

"We need a name," said Tom. Between us we came up with Fireside Foods. And to celebrate we dipped into Tom's rent money and bought a round of whisky.

Tom rang Whitesides the next day and was so excited by what he heard that he dragged me out of mime class by waving through the window of the rehearsal room.

"You won't believe it," he said. "But we can buy peanuts in bulk at a price which works out at a shilling for a pound. If we then sell a two ounce bag at 5d instead of 9d pub price we make nearly one and sixpence for every eight bags we sell."

We could hardly wait. Within days we'd both got a peddler's license from the police and could legally sell our nuts on the streets of Footscray.

And the citizens of Footscray couldn't get enough of our wares. We made so much money in the High Street on our first Saturday that we abandoned the idea of trawling our cart round the houses in the evening and contented ourselves with going back to my digs and lying back on my bed surrounded by big plastic sacks of nuts still waiting to be sorted into little paper bags and lots and lots of money - pennies, shillings, florins, half-a-crowns, pound notes.

We began to think big. We could get some more carts and heaters and recruit first year students to take them to other shopping streets in the locality. How much would that come to in a week? How soon before we could buy our own van? How soon before we could increase our profits by buying in greater bulk?

And then the heatwave struck. For the whole of the next month the sun blazed down and the very last thing anyone in Footscray High Street wanted was a bag of hot peanuts.

We struggled on, red faced and sweating by our paraffin stove, still convinced that we'd discovered an idea whose time had come, an idea which would make us millionaires if only the weather would allow it.

But the sun never relented all that summer and we eventually abandoned the enterprise. The last but one act, I remember, was to distribute free bags of cold peanuts to all the third years at our drama school. The very last act took place in the garden of the Station Hotel just before we left for our summer vacation. After three pints each, we bought a 9d bag of peanuts, took it outside, and ritually buried it beneath the bushes, while Tom performed the last rites. In modern parlance you could say that we just failed to reach the tipping point - that moment when a product or a service or a kind of drink or a piece of music suddenly takes off, goes ballistic.

And that will be our subject today when I meet four academics who have been researching the concept of "tipping point" and considering what it adds to our understanding of trends and epidemics in a wide variety of fields.

That's in this week's programme or after the midnight news on Sunday or on the Thinking Allowed podcast.

Laurie Taylor presents Thinking Allowed

The Bob Graham Round: Music meets the Fells

Post categories:

Richard Wigley Richard Wigley 15:26, Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Ed's note: Richard Wigley is the general manager of the BBC Philharmonic in Salford. Like many people he likes nothing better than spending time in the Lake District. But rather than a gentle amble though the hills he prefers a gruelling run. And so he set Italian film composer Maurizio Malagnini the challenge of bringing together two of his loves, the worlds of the Fells and music - PM.

The ridges of Lakeland

The view from Hindscarth, over High Spy (High Scawdel), Grange Fell and Great Crag to Helvellyn.
Picture by Peer Lawther

I do wish I could call myself a proper fell runner. The truth is that I'm very slow and want to give up on every hill I climb. But something rather wonderful keeps me pushing forwards.

Part of my life, the non-BBC bit, is driven by a compulsion to exhaust myself on the fells of Cumbria and experience occasional moments of supreme joy and one-ness.

My chunkiest achievement to date is to knock off 50 Wainwright Fells continuously for my 50th year - it took 27 hours which is 3 hours too long. But I'm no athlete, I just have to get another fix, and another and another.

The fix is the moment when you crest the top of a hill that felt impossible and all below you is revealed in a wonderful patchwork of highly defined colours; or a moment in a cold, misty, rainy, miserable run when your head leaves your body and the synapses connect in a new way and all is right with the world (then the moment passes and it's cold and miserable again); or a moment when you're belting down a hill like a 10 year old; or in the middle of the night when a beautiful moon lights your way. Joy unconfined. In a 24 hour period this lift happens maybe 4 times - and lives in the memory forever.

Even the names are full of magic: Dollywagon Pike (a high level promontory that gives a perfect view of the stars); Sergeant Man (yes, you need to be forced to slog there from Calf Crag); Helvellyn (the most beautifully named hill on the planet?); Green Gable (a moment's respite from wind and scree); Yewbarrow (the clue is in the name); and Steeple and Red Pike, my personal favourites, with their views and dizzying drops all around.

These are a few of the 42 fells that make up the 70 mile Bob Graham Round, a personal challenge to be completed in 24 hours.

There's something highly creative about using your body and surroundings to achieve a transcendent state.

Not unlike listening to long-form symphonic music as in the symphonies of Bruckner where musician and listener invest a great deal in the apparently repetitive to achieve occasional nirvana.

This is fell running for me and I'm looking to Maurizio Malagnini to transport me there at the premiere of his Lakes inspired commission for the BBC Philharmonic.

To hear the stories of the great, great fellrunner and shepherd/farmer Joss Naylor is to hear the voice of deep culture straight from the rocks and grass and sheep and mud and rain and lakes and scree.

For me the only comparator to this is music; both can move you to experience your unalloyed deep self.

And now I find that words become hopelessly inadequate. You have to find this place for yourselves and that is why this non-runner seeks out pain and magic on the fells.

Richard Wigley is the general manager of the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra

The People's Post: The Penny Black

Post categories:

Joby Waldman Joby Waldman 14:50, Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Editor's note: The People's Post: A History of the Post Office, is on at the moment on Radio 4 at 1.45pm weekdays and continues next week. You can hear the episode on the Penny Black online for the next six days and read Joby's previous post here - PM.

Penny Black stamp

Old Original Die (Penny Black). See more images from BPMA on Flickr

Last week I received an email from my German friend with whom I've maintained an exclusively paper correspondence for 15 years.

It actually came from his partner's email account via my wife. It felt a little weird, especially since - in my previous blog post - I'd held him up as an unwavering devotee of "snail mail". And it raised some questions - will sending emails change the stuff we discuss? Will he soon be informing me what he had for lunch? Bombarding me with information about his charity run, or business?

In 1840 the post office saw the single most important reform in its history: the introduction of the Penny Black, the world's first postage stamp.

For the first time anyone in the UK could send a letter to anyone else for one flat fee - a penny (about the cost of a mug of coffee). The brainchild of social reformer Rowland Hill, it was intended to help maintain family ties for a population cast asunder by the industrial revolution. But what really boosted mail volumes weren't the missives of ordinary letter writers, but big business. Before long, Victorian letterboxes were crammed with "circulars" advertising the latest consumer goods flooding on to the marketplace, things like:

Bromo-Phosph, The World's Greatest Tonic, Is a Natural Brain Food. Take it for nervous debility, Take it for the Tired Brain, Take it for General Weakness. Post Free from the Rudolph Drug Company, Reading.
The Domen Belt Corset should appeal to every woman who desires a graceful figure combined with a healthy and comfortable support. Domen Belts Company, 456 Strand, London
Keating's Insect Destroying Powder. Kills Bugs, Kills Fleas, Kills Moths, Kills Black Beetles. May be obtained from all Chemists or Free by Post, 14 and 33 stamps

When it took over the Parcel Post, the GPO offered a genuinely joined up service to enable the spread of mass consumerism. Thanks to the post office you could receive a circular through your door offering the latest fashions, send off the requisite number of stamps or a postal order and receive your new shoes within a week. For remote rural communities the world must have seemed a much smaller place.

The Penny Black also changed the way we do long distance relationships. A good example of this is the correspondence of Bob, a man servant and Jinny, a house keeper during the late 19th century. Over the course of a decade Bob sent no fewer than 60 letters to Jinnie revealing his hopes, desires and fears, though not always clearly:

My dear Jinnie,
Many thanks for your dear letter and also for information about the flannel. No love, I am not as big as I said it was only nonsense and you did not read my letter right; it should read I am getting bald not bold. If I put bold, it must have seemed very bombastic. No dear I am not bold enough however, I shall get on alright I dare say...
My Dear Jinnie,
...really my love, I couldn't understand your letter a bit, you didn't finish some of the sentences, so I shall keep that one until I see you...

Before long the post office came to symbolize much more than letters - it offered banking services for the poor and became a pillar of the community. The internet is rightly considered the defining innovation of our age. But in making the Peoples Post I've realized that almost everything the internet does today, the post office did first. Sending messages quickly and cheaply, fostering a wider sense of community, it helped disperse information, ideas and - yes - junk mail.

Joby Waldman is the producer of The People's Post

Kirsty Lang meets Meryl Streep

Post categories:

Kirsty Lang Kirsty Lang 15:00, Monday, 12 December 2011

Ed's note: You can hear Kirsty Lang's interview with Meryl Streep on Front Row tonight, Monday 12 December at 7.15pm on BBC Radio 4. It'll also be available as part of the Front Row podcast. Details at the end of the post - PM.

Meryl Streep's hand and foot prints at Grauman's Chinese Theater

Meryl Streep's foot and hand prints at Grauman's Chinese Theater by Loren Javier.

The venue was a small, trendy Soho hotel tucked away in a side street away from the madding crowd.

I go up the stairs past the candy pink sofas and expensive looking contemporary art. A PR person tells me Meryl is running late. She's jet-lagged and hungry so do I mind waiting while she has a sandwich. I'm shown into a comfy suite where I meet Meryl's personal make-up artist who is clearly a regular companion.

He's on the phone ordering the sandwiches. "She forgets to eat on these trips" he clucks in a maternal way. He's late 50s, grey haired, dressed in black, slightly camp but not in an over the top way. He asks us if we've seen the musical Priscilla. Apparently the make-up is stupendous. My producer, who is about to get married, gets some tips on applying false eyelashes.

After 20 minutes we are ushered along the corridor to meet Meryl.

It's dark outside and the light in the room is dim but I note that there is something luminous about her skin. The make-up is minimal, she looks almost bare faced, not a false eyelash in sight. Dressed in black trousers and a green silk top, I observe that she's smaller and thinner than I imagined, but then movies stars always seem diminished in real life, stripped on the lights, the large screen and the celluloid.

Meryl is clearly nervous, arms crossed over her chest. "I don't like radio interviews" she confesses. I wonder if she needs a camera to feel comfortable but keep that thought to myself. This is a performance for her but not one she relishes. As the interview progresses I conclude that Meryl Streep prefers to inhabit the skin of others, not her own, certainly not in front of a stranger and a journalist to boot.

We're discussing her role as Maggie Thatcher in The Iron Lady which I've seen the day before. She is nervous about the way we Brits will perceive her portrayal. It's flawless of course. The accent is pitch perfect and so is the body language; the purposeful stride made staccato by high heels, the large handbag gripped with just the right amount of force and the smile stretched rigidly across the Iron Lady's face.

Hard work goes into a performance like that. She says she locked herself in a hotel room for over a week and watched tapes of Maggie over and over again going right back to her very first TV interviews in the 1950s when she was first elected as an MP to Finchley. Her voice was very different then - higher - says Meryl who then launches into an imitation of the sort of "elocution posh" we're used to hearing in post war British films.

I point out that the film will probably upset a lot of people. The Left won't like it because it's too sympathetic and the Right won't like it because it shows Thatcher as she is now, diminished by dementia. Meryl points out it's not her job to judge. She's just trying to empathise, to slip into Thatcher's skin.

After a while I try to change the subject from the Iron Lady to Meryl Streep.

But she's not having any of it. I begin to understand why we know so little about this Hollywood star. She won't let us in. I ask how she feels about three of her four children going into showbiz. She smiles fondly "Are you asking whether I would have preferred them to become bio-chemists or doctors instead of actors?"

A big sigh follows, "I worry for my two daughters with a mother like me but they seem happy" she tails off. There's a knock on the door. My time is up. I've met Meryl Streep but then again I'm not sure...

Kirsty Lang presents Front Row on BBC Radio 4

In Our Time newsletter: Heraclitus

Post categories:

Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg 13:38, Monday, 12 December 2011

Editor's note: In last week's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed Heraclitus. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep - PM.

Heraclitus

Hello

After the programme Angie Hobbs told us the saying that she most liked: "Mortals are immortal, immortals mortal, living their death, dying their life". Then we talked about drink. "A dry soul is wisest and best", says Heraclitus.

Plato, however, encouraged all older people to drink, even to get drunk, in order the better to enjoy themselves, particularly to dance. And young people, he thought, should drink to test their manhood. Galen said that the soul must be part of the body, because when you are drunk it changes your state of mind and body.

We then tried to work out a word for what this library of In Our Times could be called. It's a sort of encyclopedia. Peter Adamson suggested "audiopedia"; James Warren suggested "acoustopedia". Neither sounds quite right. By the way, there's a DVD of Heraclitus being read in Greek.

In the storms from Europe and the storms from what used to be called the heavens, there were still a few moments. I was in St James's Park the other day and saw a tall, angular, young woman. Near her was a chap, smiling away. She put her weight on her left leg and bent her right leg, and chucked as you do when you want a horse to come to you. A squirrel appeared, ran across to her, paused at her foot, ran up to her knee as she held a breadcrumb between her index finger and thumb, and then from her knee to her thigh, and then up to her shoulder, looked in her face and she popped the breadcrumb in its mouth, and down the squirrel went and back across the path.

She nodded. Her chap smiled. She chucked again.

And another squirrel did the same thing. The chap had a wonderful beam of happiness on his face and so had I. It was a trick she had. It turned out that she and her chap were Estonians, studying here. A bit of circus in St James's Park.

On Hampstead Heath were the birdwatchers beside the special bird pond. Binoculars, beards and haversacks - never can people be more innocently employed. But I wondered what the birds made of this flock on the ground. Did those eyes take them in? Did we even figure in their landscape? Hampstead is well served with magpies.

And walking down from London University through Trafalgar Square, there was Nelson on the top of his column on a mild, dusky evening, with a flotilla of grey clouds beyond him. He looks down towards Westminster. Perhaps he was sending down some relief vessels.

It's been busy. James Cook, a producer, and myself have been doing a programme on Ted Hughes which goes out tomorrow night (Ed's note: That was last Friday. You can hear the programme online for the next five days - PM) on Radio 4 (at 8.00pm!). This was triggered by Ted Hughes's entrance into Westminster Abbey in Poets' Corner.

It was a wonderfully simple service, conducted, with his usual style, by the Dean of Westminster. Juliet Stevenson and Seamus Heaney read poems and Seamus gave a superb address, part of which will be in our programme. Carol Hughes, Ted's second wife and obviously widow, organised the event and she, too, is on the programme, giving a very rare interview.

The other task has been continuing the pursuit of the history of the written word with Tom Morris. This time we went to London University to see an extraordinary collection of more than 15,000 implements and artefacts to do with the written word - clay tablets, papyri, early pens, early books, etc - all collected by a Mr Cole of Enfield, who's devoted his lifetime to bringing together what is a unique assembly which is now to become an online museum.

Where would we be without such benign obsessives?

Then off to York for the final talk of the year on the book about the King James Bible and a chance to look at their magnificent Christianity and Culture resource centre, which is reacclimatising schools and universities to the idea that those two have had, over the past few centuries, a profound connection.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

Five podcasts for the weekend: 9 December 2011

Post categories:

Paul Murphy Paul Murphy 19:00, Friday, 9 December 2011

Ian Dury

Ian Dury (naturally enough) chose Gene Vincent but who else's music did he pick to take to the Desert Island?

The preamble

The big news this week is the continuing expansion of the Desert Island Discs archive, now with close to a 1,000 podcasts to download. See below for more information.

As usual I've picked out a few of the many amazing BBC podcasts available for your weekend's pleasure.

You can listen online or download to keep, or put onto your phone or MP3 player. This being the Radio 4 blog I'd also like to direct you to the Radio 4 podcast page.

Some podcasts are available for only seven days (eg Comedy of the Week; Friday Night Comedy - this week The Now Show) but others do have a huge archive you can download at any time (eg Desert Island Discs; In Our Time). If you haven't used podcasts from the BBC before there's some podcast help here.

This week's selection

1. Play of the Week: Burning Both Ends: When Oliver Reed Met Keith Moon
The story of one of the most infamous, unexpected and touching of friendships between two icons of the 1970s, Oliver Reed (Sean Pertwee) and Keith Moon (Arthur Darvill). Mercurial and unpredictable, both men were at the top of their game - but the top can be a very lonely place.
Download here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/ptw

2. Desert Island Discs: The Sue Lawley Years on podcast
The Radio 4 interactive team have been beavering away and have added another 400 episodes from Sue Lawley's 18 years at the helm. New additions include Ian Dury, Petula Clark, John Lee Hooker, Julie Andrews, Paula Rego, Judi Dench, Alan Alda, Dirk Bogarde and four former Prime Ministers Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, John Major and Ted Heath.
Browse the archive here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/features/desert-island-discs/find-a-castaway

3. Thinking Allowed: Teenage sex in the parental home
Laurie Taylor examines research into the advice offered to parents and looks at comparative research in America and Holland into teenage sex in the parental home with sociologist Amy Schalet from the University of Massachusetts.
Download here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/ta

4. Great Lives: Philip K Dick
Actor Michael Sheen explores the life of Philip K Dick, and explains how this enigmatic science-fiction writer has influenced his recent production of Hamlet.
Download here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/greatlives

5. The Life Scientific: Uta Frith
Professor Uta Frith came from a grey post war Germany to Britain in the swinging sixties, when research into conditions such as autism and dyslexia was in its infancy. At the time many people thought there was no such thing as dyslexia and that autism was a result of cold distant parenting, but Professor Frith was convinced that the explanation for these enigmatic conditions lay in the brain.
Download here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/tls

Paul Murphy is the editor of the Radio 4 blog

Radio 4 Christmas Appeal - our photographers around the UK

I had this slightly mad idea. I knew our slideshow A Step Away from Homelessness made for the Radio 4 St Martin-in-the-Fields Christmas Appeal would be showing on BBC Big Screens all round the UK. The slide show is about life on the streets, how you become invisible and how it's often difficult to be homeless in your home town because you don't want people to know you're homeless so you head to London where no one knows you. I wondered what our slideshow about life on the streets would look like on the streets around the UK.

But how to find out? I enlisted the help of twitter. Was there someone in Manchester or Bristol who could take a picture for me? The slideshow was going out at 12.30pm on Wednesday and Thursday.

First to answer my request was Richard, a retired BBC employee! He was so kind and said that his wife was a special needs teacher and they would be in Cardiff with a group of children on Wednesday and he could take a picture.

Cardiff big screen

The Cardiff big screen, picture by Richard

Then there was Antonia in Manchester. She works one day a week in the city centre for Big Issue North. She would be there on Thursday and could get a picture for me. Clare who works for the Mines Advisory Council also braved the winds in Manchester to take a picture.

Manchester big screen

Manchester big screen

Aurelia who is a designer took this one in Bristol in the Millennium Square.

Bristol big screen

Bristol big screen

In Belfast, Karen, seen here amongst the trees, works for Capita. They answer our Radio 4 Appeal calls each week and drafted in an army of volunteers on Sunday to help us answer all the extra calls for the St Martin's appeal. Karen and colleague Michael ventured into the Christmas market to take this picture.

Belfast big screen

Belfast big screen

Finally a photo from Woolwich in London. I described my mad idea to Sue one of our studio managers and she immediately said, I could ask my husband to take a picture for you - so thanks Mike.

Woolwich big screen

Woolwich big screen

So five down, sixteen to go - if I am to get every BBC Big Screen. So if you live (or know someone who lives) in Birmingham, Bradford, Coventry, Derby, Dover, Edinburgh, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, Middlesbrough, Norwich, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Swansea, Swindon or Waltham Forest and want to be part of a rather mad challenge then the slideshow will be showing on Tuesday 13th and Wednesday 14th December at 12.30pm.

Tweet your picture using our hashtag #R4Xmasappeal or post it on the Radio 4 Appeal Facebook site or email it to: charityappeals@bbc.co.uk

Meanwhile on Sunday when the appeal launched I was fortunate enough to be amongst the volunteers taking calls. It is a very heart warming way to spend time. We've had lots of phone and web donations but the biggest proportion of donations for this appeal have always come in the post, people like to write cheques. So we hope the post man is kept busy.

Sally Flatman is producer of The Radio 4 Appeal

  • You can donate to the Radio 4 Christmas Appeal on the phone by calling 0800 082 82 84, online or send a cheque made payable to the St Martin-in-the-Fields Christmas Appeal and post to:
    St Martin-in-the-Fields
    Trafalgar Square
    London
    WC2N 4JJ
  • Where are the BBC Big Screens? Details here

The Thinking Allowed Newsletter: Lock up your daughters

Post categories:

Laurie Taylor Laurie Taylor 13:40, Thursday, 8 December 2011

steam train

Great Northern Railway - Belfast to Dublin express leaving Belfast, 1943

"And tell me, Mr Taylor, do you have a hobby?"

I was ready for the question. In those days being in possession of a hobby was routinely regarded as evidence of sound character. Only those who had devoted several hundred hours of their childhood to sticking stamps into an album or constructing precarious balsa wood models of warplanes could possibly possess the tenacity to hold down a proper job.

This had the effect of turning large number of teenage job applicants into accomplished liars. "Oh yes", we'd say, "I'm very much into philately. Or numismatics. Or brass rubbing".

On this particular occasion, when I was applying for a very ordinary job in the sales office of a brewery, I'd opted for an appropriately mundane hobby.

"I collect train numbers", I told my inquisitor. "Mostly LMS and LNER".

"That must take up quite an amount of your free time".

"Oh yes", I said. "It really fills the hours."

I didn't get the job. Someone told me afterwards that back in those days that particular brewery preferred not to employ Catholics so really my hobby was utterly irrelevant to my rejection.

Perhaps I should have simply told the truth about my real hobby. Perhaps I should have told the bigot behind the desk that nearly all my spare time was not taken up with collecting bus tickets or completing jigsaws or building Meccano battleships.

It was almost wholly spent looking for a place where one might be able to have sex with one's current girl friend, looking for what we always called "knocking places".

This was an almost constant topic of conversation among the randy sixth-form boys with whom I spent most of my evenings and weekends. Jim always reckoned that it was impossible to beat the Formby seashore. This did, however involve some complex negotiations with your girl friend who not only had to be persuaded to travel three stops on the electric train from Crosby, but then had to be additionally seduced into walking nearly a mile to the edge of the pinewoods which bordered the sandy seashore. (One or two of us who'd tried Jim's option also had disturbing news about the manner in which sharp pine needles could interfere with one's erotic coupling.)

Dave preferred more domestic options. Indeed, he'd acquired something of a reputation for effecting congress in out-of-the-way telephone boxes. I can't now recall the precise details but I do remember that they involved a skilful positioning of the telephone directories and a careful avoidance of any sudden physical movement which might lead to undue pressure on Button B.

There was also an allotment near Sefton Park where one could with luck manage to sneak into a wobbly hut and make love among the rakes and hoes and bags of horse dung.

It was around that time that Kevin Mack started to go out with Jill Ryder. He didn't have much competition. Jill was flat-chested in an un-reconstructed era which placed considerable emphasis upon girls being able to fill tight sweaters. She was also, in an age in which women were expected to defer to male opinions, rather too keen upon presenting her own views.

But, as we quickly learned from Kevin, she had one great advantage over every other young woman in Crosby. She could not only take her boy friends back to her home but could then - and I can still see the amazement on Kevin's face as he imparted the news - take them up to her bedroom, and then, if the last bus had gone, could let them spend the night with her. In bed. All night. And the parents knew.

It was extraordinary news. So extraordinary that it exposed the contradictions in our own moral stances. While we didn't, despite our Catholic upbringing, feel any guilt about having sex before marriage, we were frankly shocked by the idea of there being parents who condoned such behaviour in their own children. It was, as though, the pains of making love in telephone boxes and allotment sheds were accepted as costs of our own deviance. They were a necessary penance.

All those years of looking for suitable places to have sex, of course, interfered with our capacity for appreciating life's other pleasures.

I remember persuading Jim to join me on a Crosville bus for a day trip to Windemere. At the time I was studying Wordsworth for 'A' level and had some pretentious ideas about reciting bits from his verse about the wonders of nature as we tramped around the perimeter of the lake.

Jim had quite other ideas. No sooner had we left the bus station and found ourselves staring across miles and miles of empty and isolated verdant countryside, than he delivered his verdict on the scene.

"Look at that. One vast knocking place."

In Thinking Allowed I'll be meeting the author of a paper on contemporary parental attitudes towards teenage sex called appropriately enough, Not Under My Roof.

Also in this episode of Thinking Allowed - do parents really need all the advice they're currently offered by the growing legions of parenting experts?

Laurie Taylor presents Thinking Allowed

Pearl Harbour seventy years on

Post categories:

Paul Murphy Paul Murphy 12:36, Wednesday, 7 December 2011

Women fire fighters at Pearl Harbour

Women fire fighters directing a hose after the Japanese attack on the US naval base at Pearl Harbour

This morning's Random Edition looked at the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour carried out on 7th December 1941 through the pages of the newspaper the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.

You can see the Honolulu Star-Bulletin's front page here (scroll down).

The unexpectedness of the attack is captured in the newspaper. Civilian casualties are named and there are reports of suspected Japanese saboteurs. But, as the programme reports, as there was only time to change a few pages of the newspaper, the Star-Bulletin also paints a picture of a Hawaiian community preparing for Christmas and following sport and movie stars.

Paul Murphy is the editor of the Radio 4 blog

The People's Post: A History of the Post Office

Post categories:

Joby Waldman Joby Waldman 11:27, Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Ed's note: The People's Post is on weekdays for the next three weeks at 1.45pm on Radio 4. You can catch up online for up to seven days after each episode is broadcast - PM

People's Post

About three times a year an envelope comes through my door, addressed in familiar hand-writing.

It comes from a friend who lives in a caravan in a tiny village in North East Germany. He has no mobile phone, no internet connection and no email address, and if i want to exchange thoughts with him I've no option but to put pen to paper, find an envelope, buy a stamp and remember to post it. To be honest the whole thing feels like an enormous chore. So when my wife suggested the post office as a possible documentary idea (she later came to regret it) I couldn't honestly claim Royal Mail was a big part of my daily routine.

As a young(ish) person working in the media, with family living around the world, digital media - emails, texts, video calls on the internet are a sometimes exasperating part of everyday life. And it didn't take long to realise that for an awful lot of people, over a vast span of time, the post office meant the world, or at least the world beyond their neighbourhood.

Early in my research I discovered a new book by Susan Whyman, The Pen and The People. In it she describes how a gradually reforming postal system in the 17th and 18th centuries enabled ordinary people - labourers, sailors and merchants - to run their businesses and maintain contact with loved ones. As Ruth Followes, a Quaker preacher who travelled the country preaching the gospel, wrote in 1760:

"Dear and Loveing husband in unfeigned Love to thee and my Dear and Tender Children do I now write and although it is so ordered that wee are separated from one another ... yet I am near to you in spirrit...."

It was fascinating also to see how ordinary people addressed their letters, even when one (or both) of them had no fixed abode, and somehow they got through. A sailor's wife addressed her letter in 1697:

"Thomas Bowery on board ye St George Galley Riding in the Downs If ye ship be gone to be returned to Mrs Mary Bowery att Mr Gardiners, an apothecary Pray my dear let me hear from you for that [is] the only cumfor I have now"

For many people like Mary Bowery, sending a letter wasn't a burden but a great privilege. Furthermore it wasn't a privilege they were given, but a right that needed to be fought for, by a series of visionaries and entrepreneurs. Names like Dockwra, Palmer and Hill who introduced Penny Posts, mail coaches, and - ultimately - the very idea of public service.

Having collaborated with historian Dominic Sandbrook on the Radio 4 series, 1968 Day by Day, I knew he was fascinated by the big and small changes which have shaped British life, and after he agreed to present the series, everything else pretty much clicked into place.

The list of valued contributors is far too long to namecheck everyone here (see the credits for full details) but I will say this - There's something about the Post Office which seems to engender goodwill. Throughout the project I've been lucky to work with people as inspired by the story of the post office as I have become.

It seems that although for many of us the post means little more than bills, and the occasional letter, it retains a certain, undefinable, nostalgic affection. Discovering the source of this affection has been one of the underlying questions of the series.

Thanks for listening.

Joby Waldman is producer of The People's Post

A day with the Radio 4 Christmas Appeal

Appeal

As I emerge from the Tube at Embankment, I step over a pile of crushed cardboard boxes, surrounded by a scatter of tins. Somebody's bed last night. It's after 9am but the cold still strikes through my fleece and I'm glad to get indoors at the building opposite St Martin-in-the-Fields which houses the Connection - the centre for homeless people - and the Christmas Appeal office.

Inside, there's a lively buzz. The phones have been going since 7.30 and the first shift is leaving, including a BBC foreign correspondent and an editor from Current Affairs. I sign in, do the data security briefing, find myself wearing a headset and immediately the phone rings.

The first caller gives £100. He gives every year to the Radio 4 Appeal: "I'm not sending cards or giving presents this Christmas but I want to do something to make the world a better place."

A woman gives £200: "It's my winter fuel allowance. To be honest I don't need it anywhere as much as the people you help, so I'm sending it to St Martin's."

Another woman phones to say how important she thinks the appeal is, and although she can't donate immediately (because her utility bills are due) she will send a cheque after Christmas. Both these callers mention, when asked if we can gift aid their donations, that they don't earn enough to pay tax.

There are only seconds between calls. One comes from a woman who herself became homeless aged 50.

A tray of tea appears. Around me, there is a constant trill of phones and murmur of voices: "How much would you like to donate? Would you like a newsletter? What is the long number? And the expiry date? Thank you very much and a happy Christmas to you."

The volunteers include St Martin's parishioners, BBC colleagues, staff from a City accountancy firm. A mother and daughter have travelled 2 hours from Dover to help. Everyone feels privileged to be part of it, welcoming this flow of human kindness.

On the office wall there's a coloured map of the UK, showing the distribution of funds from last year's appeal, from Cornwall to Cape Wrath. There are only 2 or 3 counties in which grants have not been made, helping vulnerable people at moments of critical need.

Many donations are of £10 or £20, the givers always saying a variation of: "It's not much, I know, but I want to do something to make a difference." Often they say they have heard Libby Purves' Received With Thanks. One man says it "melted my heart of stone".

A retired nurse calls. She has already given £10 but when she heard Libby's programme she decided to phone and give another £10. She says she is on benefits herself but she knows from work with homeless people that there is nothing better than helping someone get back on their feet, and you never know someone's story until you really listen.

A man calls from Sweden to donate and tells the story of his youngest brother, who fell on hard times living in London, lost his job and home and became alcoholic.

"An intelligent guy, nice background and family - but it can happen to anyone." The Connection at St Martins helped him and he got into a hostel and, eventually, a flat. But he didn't recover from the alcoholism and died at 45. "I really believe in this appeal, " says the caller.

When told how big the response is, despite difficult economic times, he remarks that "it says something very special about the British public". And so it does.

Denis Nowlan is the Network Manager Radio 4

  • You can donate to the Radio 4 Christmas Appeal on the phone by calling 0800 082 82 84, online or send a cheque made payable to the St Martin-in-the-Fields Christmas Appeal and post to:
    St Martin-in-the-Fields
    Trafalgar Square
    London
    WC2N 4JJ

Book of the Week: Just My Type by Simon Garfield

Post categories:

Simon Garfield Simon Garfield 11:59, Monday, 5 December 2011

Ed's note: Just my Type is on Monday to Friday this week at 9.45am on Radio 4. You can catch up with any missed episodes on the website - PM

Hunky Dory

Bowie's Hunky Dory: "The swell of the type (Zipper, I now know) promises an expanding consciousness
even before the needle hits the groove..." - picture by Badgreeb Records

What makes a typomaniac?

That is to say, what makes a perfectly sensible middle-aged man go to the cinema and find himself unable to enjoy the movie just because he can't identify the name of the typeface in the opening credits?

And what would make him drive past a sign above a shop and be bugged for the entire morning if he couldn't determine whether it was written in Baskerville or Garamond? That would be a rather thankless obsession, would it not?

Welcome, gentle reader, to my world.

I'm grateful I'm not alone. There's a whole load of us out there, and not all of us are in graphic design or therapy. We convince ourselves that typefaces are beautiful things (they are, or at least most of them), and that they are capable of expressing all shades of human emotion. Typefaces - or fonts, as they are most commonly called on our pull-down menus - are like clothes for words, and we should choose them according to moods, trends and decorum. Many have fascinating histories, which is why I've written a book about them (and which ones to avoid at all costs).

Where did my own passion-cum-obsession begin?

Probably the same way Steve Jobs's did, with handwriting. When Jobs dropped out of college in the 70s, he began attending lectures from volition rather than obligation, and one of these was in calligraphy. He discovered the quiet elegance of a well-created alphabet, and although at the time he thought he'd never find a practical application for his new love, history surprised him: a decade later he designed the first Macintosh and gave the world its first choice of fonts. Before that, we were mostly reliant on Letraset and the golfball typewriter.

My early type interest was also calligraphic, although it yielded less of a universally beneficial outcome. My handwriting was pretty illegible (GPs used to struggle with it), so when the chance came not only of word processing but word processing with a choice of fonts - sober, comic, alluring, subtle - it made me instantly more productive and expressive.

Before, that I lay all responsibility for my type love at the feet of David Bowie and Marc Bolan.

In 1971, when I was eleven, the Hunky Dory and Electric Warrior albums entered my home, and I became entranced. One spent a lot of time staring at record sleeves in those days, and one couldn't help but become visually literate, or at least gently manipulated by the design team at the record companies. I liked the way the gold outline capitals (T.REX) mirrored the halo around Marc Bolan and his amp; I saw how the swell of the Bowie type (Zipper, I now know) promises an expanding consciousness even before the needle hits the groove.

Zipper was a classic bit of buzzy sci-fi text that suggested something spacey and robotic (the songs were actually spacey and vulnerable).

It soon became clear that type was strong stuff, able to confer a nuance and association well beyond the words themselves. With Bowie the fascination continued through his golden years, culminating for me on the Diamond Dogs album, on which the lightning flash that first appeared on his face on Aladdin Sane found an echo in the B of his surname on the Diamond Dogs sleeve a year later.

Those albums taught me a surreptitious lesson we would all do well to heed: type is not chosen at random, and it should be used with consideration. It is the cheapest, simplest and most powerful form of influential communication we have, and the font menus on our computers provide just a glimpse of what's possible. So next time you're tempted to use the default choice, perhaps think again and choose something with more individuality. Not that I'm advocating the perils of typomania to anyone...

Simon Garfield composed his blog in Georgia, but it's displayed (Ed's note: "almost certainly") here in Arial

Some links you might like:

Making the invisible visible - The Radio 4 Christmas Appeal starts this Sunday

Ed's note: The Radio 4 Christmas Appeal starts this Sunday. You can hear from people helped by previous appeals in Sally's last blog post. Details of how to donate can be found here - PM

Bus

If you phone us to give a donation on Sunday - we promise we won't play you music whilst you wait to give! You will hear Libby Purves giving you some facts and figures about why your donation is so crucial.

You may hear the bells of St Martins - each year we set up a call centre manned by volunteers, in the church offices - just alongside the church. Or you might go through to one of our volunteers in Belfast - organised by our colleagues at Capita. We'll be keeping them going all day with copious amounts of tea, coffee and cake. (This Radio producer feels that cake is always the solution!)

homeless photography exhibition

Work by the homeless photography and writing group at St Martins

It has been a busy week. On Monday we put up an exhibition of work by the homeless photography and writing group on the railings of St Martins. It has been great to watch people stopping to read the boards.

David a former homeless client found he was suddenly greeted by a group of school children who had recognised him from the photographs! Making the words and pictures of homeless people 'visible' is for me the real power of this work. You can also get a taste of these pictures thanks to a slideshow made for us by the BBC magazine Ariel.

On Wednesday the Connection will open their doors to the public so if you are around London that day and would like to see at first hand the place you have heard about over the years - do drop by. Libby Purves will be opening "Behind Closed Doors" at 1pm. The centre will be open through till 6pm with an art exhibition, music, food and refreshments and a chance to see at first hand how the centre works.

I think if you ask most of us to picture a homeless person what may come to mind is someone lying in a doorway... not a young woman staring into brightly lit shop windows thinking that if she could just step through that door, that glass, she could be back in the world with everyone else.

I made this slideshow with an artist Betsy Dadd - she said that the power of the photographs taken by homeless people was for her that we were not just presenting a caricature of what it is like to be homeless.

The homeless person has taken the pictures, thought what they want to say - told their story. The slideshow hopefully helps to make the invisible visible.

So thank you to everyone who has given in the past and if you are new to this appeal - welcome to a charity that has been going for 85 years, some of our donors started giving when they were children and are now in their eighties - you're in good company.

Sally Flatman is producer of The Radio 4 Appeal

Bookclub: Sebastian Barry's The Secret Scripture

Post categories:

Jim Naughtie 23:59, Friday, 2 December 2011

Ed's note: Radio 4's Bookclub is on at 4pm this Sunday 4 December and is repeated on Thursday 8 December 2011 at 3.30pm. You can also listen online after broadcast or download the podcast - PM

Sebastian Barry

Sebastian Barry, author of The Secret Scripture

I'm in danger of slipping into cliché with this newsletter, but you may understand why. There is something about Irish writers.

So many of them are unafraid to speak poetically about their craft and, instead of trying to explain the nuts and bolts of their writing, to appeal to their readers' feelings for the romantic and even the mystic. This may seem a little trite, but I'm afraid after our Bookclub session with Sebastian Barry it is nothing short of the truth.

Not only is he a lovely writer - we were talking about The Secret Scripture, and many of you will know of his current novel, On Canaan's Side - but he talks with a beguiling passion about what moves him, and his sense of memory and loss which are the feelings the sustain the story.

There is a mystery - and a revelation - which, in traditional Bookclub style, I shall not reveal, for fear of spoiling the enjoyment of some of you, but there is plenty to say without that. (Radio 4 Bookclub this Sunday 4 December at 4pm, and next Thursday 8 December at 3.30pm and online too.)

Sebastian Barry tells the story of an old woman, Roseanne, who is writing down her account - it's the secret scripture of the title - of the traumatic events that were the break with Britain after 1916, and the Irish civil war that followed in the early 20s. So in telling her own story, which has brought her in the end to an old-style asylum, she is also painting a portrait of her country - its twentieth-century political origins, its customs and languages, and its hidden agonies. Her psychiatrist, Dr Grene, is drawn to her and it's the working out of their relationship that carries the book along.

Sebastian, who talks like a poet, revealed that the title came from a poem which allowed him to rescue the sacred word 'scripture' for the vernacular - a sonnet by a nationalist poet, Thomas Kettle, who wrote it in France during World War I for his daughter at home, sensing that he would die (which he did).

Know that we fools, now with the foolish dead,
Died not for Crown, nor King nor Emperor -
But for a dream, born in a herdsman's shed,
And for the secret scripture of the poor.

He told us that he was intoxicated by the writing of a book which no-one would read - Roseanne kept the manuscript in a hiding place under the floorboards and intends it entirely for herself. The revelation of its existence is an important element in the sheer excitement of the story, and it adds to that feeling of being inculcated into a private world of one family with all its ambiguities and secrets, such as we all have to some degree.

During the writing, his own mother died. During her illness, he would come home after visiting the hospital and return immediately to check that she was still OK.

"It gave me an enormous sense of appeasement that there's a cable between you and your mother that's buried so deep no bulldozer of ordinary life can trouble it. I felt it was a graceful thing. It fed into the book - the whole idea of mother and son, the enormous distance, coming stormingly together."

He spoke about the secrets that swirled around his own family - everyone had two or three, he said - and one of the absorbing qualities of the book is the difference between Roseanne's recollection and Dr Grene's own effort to establish how much of it is true and how much imagined, or altered. He has to use the memory of the fallible and not very nice local priest Father Gaunt to help in this task, and decides that although the priest's may be less fallible it is also less appealing.

"You can make up an account of your life willy-nilly or unbeknownst to yourself it will serve you well."

Of his own writing, Sebastian Barry revealed that he couldn't really read or write until he was 8. And nobody, including him, was bothered by the fact. The family was one of storytellers, so it hardly mattered.

"When I'm working, the English of the language comes from those ancient days when I wouldn't write at all."

We talked about the civil war, and the church, and de Valera, and the way that more than once he takes a character from one book (Eneas McNulty) who turns up in another:

"I allow the amorphous thing to happen."

Why should it matter? I reminded him that he was a novelist, not a historian.

"They sing to each other and they are at ease with each other."

That phrase gives you a hint of what the conversation was like - natural, uplifting, poetic.

We had a good time, and I do hope you enjoy the programme.

I should let you know about our next planned recording for which places are available - Alan Hollinghurst on January 23rd in London when we'll talk about his book The Line of Beauty. Go to our website for details about tickets.

And before that a special treat for New Year's Day.

Hunter Davies on the only authorised biography of The Beatles, written in the sixties when he was the first writer to be able to spend a long time with them. The story, with an updated introduction, is a vivid memoir of happy days. We recorded it, for the sake of authenticity, on the site of the Cavern in Liverpool. For some of us of a certain age, a treat.

Happy reading

Jim Naughtie presents Bookclub

Five podcasts for the weekend

Post categories:

Paul Murphy Paul Murphy 18:10, Friday, 2 December 2011

Confederate Flag in Biloxi

Confederate Flag in Biloxi: Pic by akasped

The preamble

Here are some of the many amazing radio podcasts available from the BBC. I've picked out a selection for your weekend's pleasure.

You can listen online or download to keep, or put onto your phone or MP3 player. This being the Radio 4 blog I'd also like to direct you to the Radio 4 podcast page.

Some podcasts are available for only seven days (eg Comedy of the Week; Friday Night Comedy) but others do have a huge archive you can download at any time (eg Desert Island Discs; In Our Time). If you haven't used podcasts from the BBC before there's some podcast help here.

This week's podcast selection

1. Friday Night Comedy: The Now Show
Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis are joined by Jon Holmes, Jan Ravens, Andrew Maxwell and Mitch Benn to scour this week's news for comedy.
Download here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/fricomedy

2. Play of the Week: The Man in Black - Containment
By David Lemon. Mark Gatiss is The Man in Black in an unsettling play set in a storage facility. A lost soul clutches at hope when it's offered but there's a sinister price attached. With Clare Corbett as Helen.
Download here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/ptw

3. Documentary of the Week: Blood Stained Banner
The Confederate Flag was first flown in November 1861. 150 years on Gary Younge explores what attitudes to the flag say about American identity today.
Download here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/r4choice

4. Comedy of the Week: Dilemma,episode 3 (until Sunday)
Sue Perkins puts four guests through the moral and ethical wringer in this show show in which there are no "right" answers - but there are some deeply damning ones. This edition features comedians Shappi Khorsandi and Simon Munnery, broadcaster Fi Glover, and journalist Hugo Rifkind.
Download here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/comedy

5. The Film Programme: Martin Scorsese on Hugo and the future of cinema
Martin Scorsese talks to Francine Stock about cinema's future, his passion for its history and the way he's used 3D to conjure them both to life in his new film, Hugo.
Download here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/film

Paul Murphy is the editor of the Radio 4 blog

Can the world's population really fit on the Isle of Wight? More or Less is back

Post categories:

Ruth Alexander Ruth Alexander 12:21, Friday, 2 December 2011

More or Less

"And, this week, that train of thought led us to try to squeeze as many Radio 4 presenters and producers
into our studio as possible..."

A bunch of attention seekers would be one way of describing the More or Less team.

With the Financial Times' Undercover Economist Tim Harford at the helm, we go to great lengths to get listeners to tune in to chat about statistics. They can be revealing, surprising, unexpected and, of course, confusing, contradictory or plain bogus.

But on More or Less, we aim to provide a clear way through the numbers of the moment.

And, this week, that train of thought led us to try to squeeze as many Radio 4 presenters and producers into our studio as possible.

With the UN recently announcing that the world's population had grown to 7bn, we thought there was no time like the present to test the popular belief that you could fit everyone in the world on the Isle of Wight (people really do believe this, and have done for a long time - type it into your search engine), if they stood shoulder to shoulder.

If we could fit about 74 people into our studio, we calculated, then the whole world could move to the Isle of Wight. If it so wished.

Measuring just 4m2, once you take away the furniture, our studio's modelled in the finest BBC broom cupboard tradition.

It wasn't immediately clear it was advisable to stuff it full of human beings. But we did. (We consulted a BBC health and safety adviser - and persuaded him to squeeze in too).

We had strict rules - keep your hands to yourself and you're only allowed in if you've deodorised. Money Box presenter Paul Lewis was first through the door, followed - if you'll believe us - by dozens of his production staff. Other Radio 4 presenters appeared, rallying round to help the programme. And it was a tight fit.

"Oh, I can't get in there!" Jim Naughtie was heard to exclaim, while Gerry Northam sat on Winifred Robinson's knee. Tim was in charge of the counting, partly because he is good with numbers but mainly because he's really tall.

Meanwhile I, as producers always are, was in charge of worrying that something might go wrong.

You'll have to listen to find out how many we squashed in and how many of the big name presenters were really there. Suffice to say, I was quite surprised. And a bit hot.

Ruth Alexander is series producer, More or Less, BBC Radio 4

In Our Time newsletter: Christina Rossetti

Post categories:

Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg 12:00, Friday, 2 December 2011

Editor's note: In yesterday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed Christina Rossetti. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep - PM.
Christina Rossetti

Hello

I'm sitting in the middle of Green Park, near the middle of London, in the middle of the afternoon, just after the middle of the week. Piccadilly to the right, Buckingham Palace to the left, the Ritz, a green sward (!) behind me, and before me an autumn landscape: stripped trees with just a few leaves hanging on and the ground carpeted in russet, dead, brown leaves, sometimes in thick piles - quite wonderful to slush through.

Thursday is always an exceptional day.

By the time I've finished In Our Time at quarter to ten I have a feeling I've done much of a day's work, as I get up at about five to do the final swotting before I meet the three profs. I didn't read English at university and so there are gaps as well as the inability to keep up with the textual pyrotechnics that many of my contemporaries, or those younger than me, can indulge in so easily after their literature courses.

So Christina Rossetti, save for In the Bleak Midwinter, which I recognised very early on (at the time when I didn't know that carols were actually written by people) was wonderful to sing, was relatively new to me. I didn't know about the quite extraordinary, bizarre, erotic (innocently so, I think) Goblin Market. But I did know about Remember. I came across that as I was writing my last novel and wove it into the end of that novel. I think it is a most remarkable, mysterious, moving and true poem.

Out, then, after In Our Time, after a brief talk on King Lear for a Shakespeare programme, to accompany Tom Morris in our quest for the history of the written word.

This time to the British Museum.

Three locked doors took us into the storeroom of papyrus in the Egyptian section. Almost four thousand examples there and in Richard Parkinson, a brilliant explainer along the way. Poems, lists, a story that foretold the ghost in Hamlet... treats all the way and then, as often on Thursdays, a lunch with a pal.

It's a day for lunch, because by about midday I've just about had it and a pick-me-up with a friend and a couple of glasses is just the ticket. This time it's Nick Elliott whom I met in 1977 when I joined LWT. In fact, it was he who persuaded me to join LWT. He was the best Head of Drama there's ever been in this country, for ITV and then for the BBC and back to ITV, and now happily retired in deepest Dorset, with his wife turning out one of the great gardens and himself following up a pursuit which he began in university (in the betting shops) i.e: horses, now the ownership of a few - remarkably successful, as you would expect from Nick. There's little to beat lunch with a good friend. As I get older, there's near as dammit nothing to beat lunch with a very good friend.

So, over the russet leaves, there's a gaggle of joggers, innocently employed, pounding their knees into cartilage problems. What else is going on? Well, as Harold Wilson once said, I'm going on, this time back to the British Museum to talk to an expert on cuneiform script.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

PS: Tom Morris and I have just returned to the British Museum to look at the very earliest writing which is on cuneiform tablets. One thing which is intriguing about it is that it is accountancy. It began as accountancy and it stayed as accountancy for hundreds of years. So, we all owe a lot to those accountants.

PPS: The British Museum, as we found in the British Library, is in some rooms aswarm with young children, well supervised, looking intently at the exhibits. It's quite wonderful that this opportunity exists. It is one of the glories of this country - a big plus on the bright side - that the free libraries and free galleries movement has gathered such strength and brought in so many people who would not have dared cross the threshold before. They're astounding, our galleries; they are really wonderful.

Martin Scorsese on The Film Programme

Post categories:

Francine Stock Francine Stock 15:30, Thursday, 1 December 2011

Ed's note: The Film Programme's Francine Stock met director Martin Scorsese earlier this week (as you can see in below in spectacular blurry-vision) to talk about his latest film. You can hear the interview this afternoon at 4pm on Radio 4 and shortly afterwards on the website - PM

Francine and Martin

In film, "passion project" can be a euphemism for self-indulgent failure. But not with Martin Scorsese's Hugo.

It might be an adaptation of an existing book, Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret - but its vitality springs from the director's encyclopaedic knowledge of (and devotion to) cinema history. Set in 1931 Paris but travelling back to the first years of the 20th century, the film itself is an exercise in time travel, using the very latest in digital 3D to recreate the past.

With characteristic attention to detail (OK, that should maybe read obsession) Scorsese has created an enchanted treasure chest that teems with references and magical effects - all set against a real sense of the darkness and oblivion that mortality implies.

He may have been seriously asthmatic as a child but when Martin Scorsese talks, he barely seems to draw breath.

I once hosted a celebration of his work at BAFTA in which he talked (pausing only for the odd film clip and even a few questions here and there from me) for more than two hours. And no-one in the audience grew restless.

He takes on projects with alarming rapidity: he's currently on the slate for two directing projects and at least three as producer and then there are the ongoing commitments to a documentary about British film history and to the rescue of "at risk" old films through his nonprofit Film Foundation.

Some directors become jaded or start repeating themselves after even a couple of decades. Scorsese seems voracious for the new - or at least for fresh and effective ways of recapturing the spell of the films that so entranced him when he saw them in childhood on television or on trips to the cinema with his father.

He says today that he would have made Raging Bull in 3D if that had been around at the end of the 1970s.

I'm still struggling with that idea - for me, it's on a short list of near-perfect films, as absorbing and three dimensional in my perception as I think I can cope with; I'm not sure I want him even considering that idea.

Francine Stock presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4

More from this blog...

Categories

These are some of the popular topics this blog covers.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.