Archives for January 2012

A name change for dramas on Radio 4

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Jeremy Howe Jeremy Howe 11:01, Tuesday, 31 January 2012

I am writing this a few days after the first Audio Drama Awards, which I hope you agree is an exciting departure for drama that is heard but not seen. I just wanted to let you know about a change we are putting in place on Radio 4 next month.

As from February 18th we are going to re-name some of the drama slots, so that the drama in Woman's Hour (and the repeat broadcast after Front Row) becomes 15 Minute Drama, Afternoon Play becomes Afternoon Drama, Saturday Play becomes Saturday Drama and Friday Play becomes Friday Drama.

Not rocket science, I know, and  there will be no difference to what you are hearing in the actual contents of the programmes.

So why are we doing it?

The drama on Radio 4 is part of the BBC's drama push whose tag line is Original British Drama - you will see it on your screens shortly - and we decided that this was an opportunity to bring the drama output on Radio 4 into line with the rest of the BBC.

I always refer to myself as the commissioning editor of drama, the people within the BBC who make our programmes refer to themselves as drama producers, I think we all generally refer to what we see on television and listen to on the radio as drama, not as plays. Or to put it another way we don't really make plays, we make drama.

Two pictures convinced me that we were on the right path - a picture of Kenneth Branagh scowling as Victor Schtrum and his family in last year's Life and Fate more completely sums up what we do than a picture of a bunch of thesps on a stage a long long way away.

Theatre scene and Life and Fate promo picture

Don't get me wrong I love the theatre - I used be a theatre director - but that's not what we do, and I am not sure that is how you see what we do.

So we changed the names of the slots - but not the programmes we are putting into them.

Jeremy Howe is commissioning editor for drama, Radio 4

In Our Time newsletter: The Scientific Method

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Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg 14:20, Monday, 30 January 2012

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

Laboratory

Hello

After the programme Simon Schaffer made a dash for King's Cross, the train to Cambridge and what looked like a full day's lecturing. He talked about our New Year series, The Written World, in which he played a magnificent role explaining the value of Newton's notebooks.

It seemed that the programme arrived at a time when the Cambridge Library was about to open up access online to some of the extraordinary written material it has, and so was an accidental bull's-eye. Michela Massimi said that the experience had been different from what she'd imagined. It was 'cosy'. And instead of talking to lots and lots of people, she realised she was only talking to one or two. Once again, someone who came on to the programme, never having been there before, and within five minutes of being in the studio was thrown into the deep end, simply sailed after an initial shyness.

John Worrall, who neatly reversed the two questions I wanted to ask him (deduction should always have preceded induction of course!), went into a wonderful aria about the need to do a programme on evidence-based medicine.

He spoke powerfully about the effect of placebos, saying that you could cut somebody's ribcage open after an attack of angina, and instead of operating just stitch it up again and say you had done the usual surgery, and that placebo effect could result in just as good a recovery as that resulting from the surgical intervention.

He put it more elaborately than that, but certainly he gave both Tom and me the taste for evidence-based medicine in a future programme.

Off across the road to a meeting with a writer from Caldbeck in Cumberland, Kathleen Jones, who is writing the biography of Norman Nicholson, an extraordinarily fine Cumbrian poet who died only a few years ago. He was on the favour and favour list. He won the Queen's Medal for Poetry. He was highly praised by no less a critic than the late Ian Hamilton. At the moment his poems are out of print, but I hope this book will encourage people to put him back in print.

And so to the office for a meeting about the new South Bank Show, looming in May, and then to lunch with an old friend, and down to the House of Lords to listen to some of the debate on the Scotland Bill; and meet a young man who is, as it were, a secular godson and have tea, a wander round and a visit to the Commons, where the British Armed Forces were being massively defended from the Tory benches and the whole question of cutting them would signal the end of the known moral world.

And no park today, but just the London streets in the most extraordinary winter light. Such bright blue skies and such a chill tang in the air.

Maybe the air is not fresher when it is cold and tangy like this, but it feels so much fresher. Pavements up and down Whitehall crowded, of course, with school parties, but the good weather, as usual, brought out a feeling that we were all very lucky to be enjoying it.

And then the evening.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

New on Radio 4: Sport and the British

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Paul Murphy Paul Murphy 08:00, Monday, 30 January 2012

Fanny Blankers-Koen of the Netherlands finishes first in the Women's 100m during the XIV Olympic Games

Fanny Blankers-Koen, far right, of the Netherlands finishes first in the Women's 100m during
the XIV Olympic Games Circa August of 1948 in London

Clare Balding's new 30 part series on sport in Britain starts today at 1.45pm on BBC Radio 4 after the World at One. The first part looks at the Rise of Olympism while tomorrow Clare visits Broad Halfpenny Down in Hampshire, regarded by many as the birthplace of cricket.

The series is also available to listen to online as well as a downloadable podcast.

Paul Murphy is the editor of the Radio 4 blog

Play of the Week podcast: The Jinx Element

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Paul Murphy Paul Murphy 20:00, Friday, 27 January 2012

Ed's note: This week's drama podcast to download, keep and listen to whenever you want is The Jinx Element. Download it here - PM.

Edith Wharton

Portrait Of Edith Wharton

Stephen Wakelam's play The Jinx Element follows on from last week's adaptation of Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome in that it tells the story of the author's affair with the journalist Morton Fullerton as seen through the eyes of her friend and fellow writer Henry James.

While Wharton's characters are often trapped in bad relationships or confining circumstances, her own life stands as an example of the obstacles that a woman of her time and place had to overcome to find self-realisation.

Fenella Woolgar voices Edith Wharton in both Ethan Frome and The Jinx Element.

Paul Murphy is the editor of the Radio 4 blog

Feedback: Local Radio, Science and Home Planet

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Roger Bolton Roger Bolton 18:01, Friday, 27 January 2012

radio set

Picture by gull@cyberspace.org

I have, of course, heard of win win situations, but this week's decision by the BBC Trust to ask (ie order) the Executive to reverse most of the cuts it planned in local radio looks like a win, win, win situation.

It's a win for local radio supporters who will see some much loved programmes preserved.

It's a win for the Trust as it appears to show they listen to licence fee payers and are independent of BBC management and it's a win for the Executive as the sums involved are miniscule compared with the rest of the 20 per cent cuts which will apparently now go ahead.

Oh, and there is a fourth set of winners, those MPs who campaigned to have the cuts cut and can now tell their constituents that they "saved their local station".

Now let's hope we can get back to what really matters, the range and content of programmes.

This week on Feedback Radio 4's coverage of science came under scrutiny. The trigger for the debate was the decision of the Controller, who protests her passion for science, to cancel Home Planet, which, judged by the correspondence we received, was a much loved series about environmental science, and which had a special relationship with its listeners.

Two of them, Eileen Halsey and Howard Sherwood, came into our studio to meet Mohit Bakaya, who commissions science programmes for Radio 4, and BBC News's first science editor, only appointed last week, David Shukman.

There ensued a vigorous discussion which began with Eileen telling me how she felt when she heard about that Home Planet had been sucked into a black hole. You can hear it on the Radio 4 website.

We would like to do more such discussions in which you the listener get to meet and challenge those who decide what is in the schedules of all BBC radio stations.

We guarantee to read and listen to everything you send us. So please get in contact.

Roger Bolton presents Feedback

The BBC International Short Story Award

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Di Speirs 17:26, Thursday, 26 January 2012

books

 

With just a month to go until entries close for this year’s BBC International Short Story Award, it’s really exciting to see that the Costa Awards too are going to celebrate and reward short story writers next year.  It’s great news for short story writers and their audiences, and yet more tangible evidence of how radically the landscape has changed over the last decade.

When we began the campaign to launch the BBC National Short Story Award, the genre was not only overlooked, but in severe danger of terminal decline.  While stories remained on air, the chances of publishing them were diminishing everywhere.  I recall one of our past judges, the award winning writer Naomi Alderman, telling me she was advised by her tutor at UEA never to write a short story if she could possibly manage a novel.  What publisher was really going to be interested?  And how could you garner attention without prizes or earn a living without outlets?

It’s beginning to feel as though the art of short story writing – a precise, honed and difficult craft that is as challenging as any novel – really is getting the recognition it deserves.  And it is gratifying to have been part of what turned the tide!  The BBC National Short Story Award has played a real part in changing attitudes – and there are some palpable illustrations of how the lives of some of our winning and short listed writers have been changed too.

D W Wilson, who at 26 was our youngest ever winner last year, has now had his first collection (previously only available in Canada) bought by Bloomsbury in 2012; ‘Once You Break a Knuckle’  published in April this year.   It will sit alongside at least four other short story collections at Bloomsbury, including Jon McGregor’s brilliantly titled collection ‘This Isn’t The Sort Of Thing That Happens To Someone Like You.’ – a volume which contains not one but two stories which have been fantastic Runners Up.
At the same time the annual anthology of the Award’s shortlist regularly sell over 2000 copies.

Meanwhile I’ve been having fun working with another previous winner, Julian Gough, for the second time.  Two years ago we dramatised a short story of Julian’s about boom and bust; this time he’s written from scratch a story about the sovereign debt crisis. It may not sound a subject for humour but he’s turned it into a comedy that throws a new light on the current economic situation.   Listen out for it – starring Dermot Crowley, Rory Keenan and Stephanie Flanders – on the 28th February.

Tonight Tessa Hadley – one of our judges last year – celebrates the publication of her new collection Married Love.  You can hear five stories from that on the new Short Story Zone on Radio 4 Extra in March;  this week Lucy Wood’s lovely and magical stories Diving Belles are on in the same slot, and listen out for Roshi Fernando very soon.

2012 will be an exciting year for the BBC Award – with an opportunity for writers in English from all over the world to enter in this Olympic year.  This September we’ll have ten rather than five short stories on air, and a chance to hear all the writers on Front Row.  As the entries roll in from around the world, it’s clear it’s going to be a good year for the short story on all fronts, with the lovely added bonus of Costa being there too very soon.

Di Speirs is Editor, Readings at BBC Radio 4

 

70 years of Desert Island Discs

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Paul Murphy Paul Murphy 16:00, Thursday, 26 January 2012

Ed's note: This Sunday sees the 70th anniversary edition of Desert Island Discs, where Sir David Attenborough, in the company of Kirsty Young, chooses his eight tracks, book and luxury item. Here producer Leanne Buckle reflects on her eight years on the programme - PM.

Kirsty and Sir David

Leanne Buckle writes:

"After seventy years of gulls and gramophone records, Desert Island Discs is celebrating its birthday.

As well as our wonderful anniversary programme this Sunday, Kirsty will also be presenting Castaway - 70 years of Desert Island Discs at 8pm on Radio 4 this Saturday evening. So, as the anniversary has neared, in the office we've been pondering its remarkable staying power.

It is a perfect format - who isn't interested in the richness of human experience? It promises inspiring stories and personal memories, often triggered by the individual and meaningful music choices. They're very important of course, but over the eight years that I've been producing the programme, it seems to me that what the programme also offers, in an uncertain world, is rules.

Anthropologically, I wonder whether we don't need the notion of rules to survive - we like the idea of acquiring a moral boost from sticking to them (and perhaps even more, we like knowing transgressors are duly punished).

I'm probably asked more about the rules than anything else - and the implication is always that we don't apply them strictly enough. How impractical should the luxury item be? How much shelf space can a bespoke book occupy?

Of course, the point of asking our castaways for their luxury and book is to acquire further insight - a slender volume of poems by one author tells far more than a fat compendium of a thousand verses.

Our castaways are heart-warmingly inventive when it comes to bending the rules (Vikram Seth isn't the first to try to smuggle another person onto the island, but to try to take someone else, in addition to an elaborate set of calligraphy equipment is decidedly cheeky.)

Nigella Lawson took liquid temazepam and David Walliams a loaded gun. both thinking they might want their stay to be a finite one - a fascinating insight, but are they luxuries? We take a firmer line now against radios - but there are stacks already on the beach.

If anything, it feels as if we're saying "no" more than we used to -but still, the island is piled high with survival guides, penknives, cooking equipment and mosquito nets - and also boasts a good number of boats bobbing nearby.

Often the luxuries tell of the optimism of the human spirit - scores of pianos, violins, trombones and a brace of violas - our castaways are a self-improving lot. Languages too - any number of books taken 'in the original' as well as French, Spanish, Latin and German primers - how uplifting, I think, that in a situation where there is no-one else to talk to - our castaways resolutely hope they will master a new language.

Search our website to see what else has been smuggled on and ponder too whether, if you were being cast away, you wouldn't ask for your family photo album but also try to slip something actually quite useful in your pocket.

Even our wonderful 70th anniversary castaway, Sir David Attenborough, not a stranger to the shores of our island, will be cribbing from a survival manual (and if he needs help from a text-book, heaven help the rest of us)."

Leanne Buckle is Producer, Desert Island Discs

Diving Belles: Short stories on Radio 4 Extra

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Paul Murphy Paul Murphy 12:55, Thursday, 26 January 2012

Ed's note: You can catch the last two stories from Diving Belles on Radio 4 Extra tonight and tomorrow (timings at the end of the post) but you can hear all five stories for the next five days on the Radio 4 Extra website - PM.

Lucy Wood

Lucy Wood

Paul Arnold, 4 Extra presentation producer, writes:

A commissioned programme on Radio 4 Extra is an event for us. Being primarily an archive network, we try particularly to celebrate the drama, comedy and readings that are made just for us. The other thing about 4 Extra is that with no news bulletins, we do have some time to hear from authors, actors, comedians and producers about what they've been up to.

So when I heard that we'd commissioned five readings from a new collection of short stories - Lucy Wood's debut Diving Belles - it seemed like a great chance to get Lucy in to chat about them.

At first sight, tales based on Cornish folk-lore might seem unpromising, but with the modern setting and imaginative flair that Lucy brings to them they're a captivating listen.

The opening tale describes the efforts made by an old lady to find again the husband lured away by a mermaid so many years before. As Lucy told our presenter, Susan Rae:

'I was particularly interested in the mermaid folklore. Stories particularly about men from fishing communities being lured out to sea by mermaids. I wanted to pick out the darker elements of this. Those are stories about loss, about tragedy...'

Listen to the full interview with Lucy Wood:

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Paul Arnold is a producer for Radio 4 Extra

  • Diving Belles is on BBC Radio 4 extra this week, at 11am and 9pm and you can listen online to the series for the next five days.
  • Diving Belles is produced by Gemma Jenkins and Liz Allard

The Thinking Allowed Newsletter: Paranoids are after me

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Laurie Taylor Laurie Taylor 15:43, Wednesday, 25 January 2012

eyes

Jimmy MacDonald was convinced that there was a conspiracy against him. It was led, he believed, by members of the Catholic Church who regularly got together in secret meetings and decided on new ways to punish him for the fact that his sister had got "in the family way" and deserted the church.

As a result of these secret meetings he'd received poor marks for his fifth form essays, been told that he was not intelligent enough to progress to the sixth form, and been excluded from the school's cadet force.

And if this wasn't enough proof of the conspiracy against him, then how about the fact - it was always a "fact" - that Brother Murphy, the headmaster of our school at that time, always walked straight past him rather than giving one of those affectionate nods which he bestowed on the other boys in his charge.

And how about the other "fact" that he was in the school"s second team for football even though his brother had once had a trial for Everton.

And how about the other "fact" that a car had driven straight at him last Thursday when he was crossing the road to buy some sweets at the Endbutt Stores.

We did occasionally try to argue Jimmy out of his conspiracy theory, to point out that his essays were not of the highest standard, that lots of other boys had never made it to the sixth form, that people who were below average height (MacDonald only came up to my shoulder) were rarely recruited to the cadet force, that Brother Murphy only smiled at the younger prettier boys in the school, that his brother's prowess at football was no guarantee of his own ability, that people were always having narrow escapes when they dodged through traffic to get to the Endbutt Stores.

But to tell the cruel truth we devoted considerably more time to feeding his paranoia.

We routinely stole text books from inside his desk, moved his satchel around the classroom, failed to pass the ball to him during playground games, and, on occasions jammed a lock so that he was imprisoned in a toilet cubicle for the whole of a lesson.

Conspiracy theories are greedy animals.

They swallow every titbit that is lobbed their way. So perhaps it was not too surprising that by the time Jimmy left school he was in possession of a belief system which was totally at odds with reality. It was a belief system which led him to marry his sweetheart Jean in almost total secrecy in case the Catholics found out about his plans and refused him the sacrament.

And it was the same paranoia which led him eventually to join the police force. When he told us about his decision one night in the Legs of Man pub, he said at first that he'd joined up because of the free housing provided by the force. But only moments later he'd added the information that once he was in the force he'd not only be safe from further persecution by the Church but could also investigate some of its sinister practices.

I lost touch with him during his days in the force but about five years later I accidentally met up with Vinnie, his footballing brother.

"Is Jimmy all right these days?" I asked carefully. "Not really", said Vinnie. "They asked him to leave the force." "Any particular reason?" "Well, apparently he got some bee in his bonnet about how the Catholics were running the local crime scene."

"Doesn't sound enough to get him sacked." I said sympathetically.

"No, I agree" said Vinnie. "But as I've heard it, matters came to a head when he arrested the parish priest."

"On what grounds?"

"Well, according to Jimmy, he was a leading member of the conspiracy and had personally tried to get Jimmy off his back by giving him a poisoned communion wafer."

"It sounds as though he really flipped."

"Yep" said Vinnie philosophically "And he's now lost his job and his house and believes it's all down to the Catholics."

"Was he always a bit on the paranoid side?" I asked gently.

"Not really" said Vinnie. "He only got really bad when he started having all those delusions at school."

"Delusions?"

"Yes. He somehow got it into his head that someone was stealing his books and moving his satchel and even locking him in the lavatory."

Conspiracy and paranoia. They'll be up for discussion when I meet the author of a new book on the global phenomenon of conspiracy theories.

That's at four o'clock today or after the midnight news on Sunday or on our podcast.

Also on the programme: what determines our reaction to the suffering of strangers?

Laurie Taylor presents Thinking Allowed

Sing in the The People's Passion

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Christine Morgan Christine Morgan 12:45, Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Choir

The Craigie Community Choir perform in 2008's Last Choir Standing

If you're in a choir why not learn and sing a brand new choral work available from BBC Radio 4 for Easter this year? It's all part of The People's Passion - a project that's been growing over the last few months and just keeps getting more exciting as more choirs sign up. It wasn't this big at the start...

Cathedrals, what they're for and what they mean to people in modern Britain has become a really hot discussion point since the St Paul's story broke, but we've been thinking about what's special about cathedrals for well over a year.

Working with BBC Drama, we started with an idea for five plays based around a fictional cathedral which could go out in Holy Week - one each day leading up to Good Friday. Then we added five features, in which we take a couple of people into one of Britain's real cathedrals to explore life in our great cathedrals now; looking at the music, people, belief and belonging, art and heritage.

One of the storylines in the plays is the rehearsal of the music for the Easter Sunday service and it was then that the idea was born for Radio 4 to commission a new choral work that would get the nation singing. All of a sudden we could see a fantastic opportunity to get as many choirs as possible around Britain singing the same piece of music for Easter 2012.

We brought together Manchester Carols composer Sasha Johnson Manning and the celebrated poet Michael Symmons Roberts and they've written a wonderful mass setting of Sanctus, Gloria, Agnus Dei and Anthem - all of which can now be downloaded as sheet music or recorded versions - including a simplified version for less experienced choirs or schools. There are also backing tracks in case you don't have your own pianist so it's all there to get you started!

BBC Local Radio will be helping us to spread the word and following choirs in their area, looking at their own local Cathedrals and linking to The People's Passion website. We're also using social media to link choirs to each other and log performances. Plus, programmes like Radio 4's Sunday, The Choir on Radio 3, and Good Morning Sunday with Aled Jones on Radio 2 will all be covering progress around the country.

We're aiming for as many performances as possible of our beautiful signature anthem, if not the whole setting. And we've got over 60 signed up on our choir-ometer already! Go on. Have a go. Singing makes you feel great and it's fun.

Go to our website and click on Contact Us to register so we know who you are and whereabouts your choir is in the country. And listen out for the broadcast premier from Manchester Cathedral on Radio 4's Sunday Worship on Easter Day at 8.10am.

Christine Morgan is Head of Radio, Religion and Ethics

Play of the Week Podcast: Ethan Frome

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Paul Murphy Paul Murphy 20:00, Friday, 20 January 2012

Ed's note: There's a new Play of the Week podcast every Friday to download and play at your leisure. This week it's Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome. On the Radio 4 blog the play's producer Sally Avens discusses the adaptation and The Jinx Element, Stephen Wakelam's play (on this Saturday) telling the story of Edith's affair with the journalist Morton Fullerton - PM.

Portrait Of Edith Wharton

Portrait Of Edith Wharton

Drama producer Sally Avens writes:

I chose to adapt Ethan Frome because I was completely in love with the novella. It always struck me as different to Edith Wharton's other works and had this wonderful, slightly ghostly Tales Of The Unexpected sensibility to it. As Wharton's other books generally focused on American high society, Ethan Frome stands out as this devastating window on the poor in rural Massachusetts and is by far one of her most affecting stories.

Whilst Ethan Frome is not nearly as well known as The Age of Innocence or The House of Mirth, it grips you with the intensity of the writing and the mystery behind what has caused Ethan to be such a broken man both physically and emotionally, and dramatising it meant a chance to bring it to a wider audience.

2012 is also the 150th anniversary of Edith Wharton's birth so there seemed to be no better time to adapt Ethan Frome, and as it mirrored many themes in Edith's own life, to pair it with a play about her own difficult marriage and a passionate affair on which she embarked with a younger man.

Stephen Wakelam's play is a powerful look at the woman behind the literary figure as seen through the eyes of her friend, Henry James and is broadcast on the Saturday following this week's Woman's Hour serialisation of Ethan Frome, which has been dramatised by Lin Coghlan, who has brought a brilliant sensibility to the task.

You will notice that the brilliant Fenella Woolgar voices Edith Wharton in both Ethan Frome and The Jinx Element. In the original novella the narrator is a man who is visiting the town where the story is set, not Wharton at all, but knowing that we would be creating a Wharton theme strand for the week on Radio 4 with a tie-in biographical play, I felt it might be truly effective to have Wharton feature as narrator in the Ethan Frome adaptation as well as the lead character in The Jinx Element; this would give us a familiar voice connecting the serial to the Saturday Play, and hopefully that lovely intriguing and thematic feel we had been aiming for.

I hope you've enjoyed the programmes and do please download the podcast before next Friday if you missed any episodes or simply want to hear them again at your leisure. Make sure not to miss The Jinx Element this Saturday too.

Sally Avens is the producer of Ethan Frome and The Jinx Element

Feedback: How easy is it to contact BBC programme makers?

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Roger Bolton Roger Bolton 16:35, Friday, 20 January 2012

Kenneth Williams, Tony Hancock, Bill Kerr and Sidney James

Hancocks Half Hour 07/10/1956 © BBC Kenneth Williams, Tony Hancock, Bill Kerr and Sidney James

Feedback returns this week at 4.30pm on Fridays with a repeat at 8pm on Sundays and we are of course available on BBC iPlayer.

So this week I was sitting in Western House, next to BH in central London, waiting to interview Radio 2's Head of Programmes, Lewis Carnie.

The young man in charge of the studios looked of course around 12, and behind him on the wall were black and white photographs of the comedy greats of 50 or even 60 years ago.

Of course, dear reader, I recognised them all.

Tony Hancock, for example, was flanked by Kenneth Williams, Sid James and Bill Kerr. Around the corner was a photo of "Professor" Jimmy Edwards with Joy Nichols (shortly to be succeeded by June Whitfield) and Dick Bentley rehearsing "Take It From Here".

So in writing this week's Feedback script I popped in a TIFY catchphrase "Black Mark Bentley".

None of the people in the office, and some are not in the first flush of youth, knew to what or whom I was referring. The reference was removed from the script.

I tried another tack, this time to demonstrate that I was not totally out of touch with contemporary culture, referring to TOWIE.

This half the office did get, although of course they would not admit to watching ITV's The Only Way is Essex.

So how wide and how old can cultural references be on Radio 4?

Just yesterday on the Today programme I heard Leonard Cohen (oh you know him) quoting Yeats (WB the poet) about "The rag and bone shop of the heart".

I turned away from these reflections to the business in hand and asked Lewis Carnie why he had chosen Richard Madeley to stand in for Chris Evans on his station's breakfast show.

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We also explored how easy or difficult it is to contact BBC programme makers. Do let us know how you get on in trying to make your point.

Roger Bolton presents Feedback

The In Our Time newsletter: 1848 - The Year of Revolution

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Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg 10:59, Friday, 20 January 2012

Editor's note: In yesterday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed 1848, the year that saw Europe engulfed in revolution. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep - PM.

1848

Hello

I waited for two or three minutes after the programme had finished. I chatted away with the others of course, but I knew that really I was waiting. But nobody said it. I think this is a record and deserves to be noted.

Nobody said "I wish we'd included this..." or "why didn't we have time to do that..." or "we missed out an entire section, or the whole point of it, or the core of the subject, or the meaning of it all..."

There was cautious but modest agreement that, on the whole, given the time and given the fact that it was a radio programme and not a seven-day seminar in Frankfurt, we had covered the field pretty comprehensively.

I wonder if you'd had a coach with a fast set of horses you could have chased the revolutions around Europe in those months, as a sort of revolutionary Grand Tour?

Let's see how they're revolting in Budapest. Off to Venice to see how good they are at it... The programme demonstrated that there are an infinite variety of patterns in history. So many explosions. So little gunfire. So soon over. So much achieved in the long after-effect.

Over the years of this programme the pieces are starting to fall into place, all over the place, and this centre of the 19th century - almost literally - was a big piece of the jigsaw. Perhaps we didn't make enough of the fact that the Communist Manifesto was published in 1848.

But at the time nobody else did either.

Tim Blanning said afterwards that Louis Philippe, in his dash away from Paris, was an old man; he didn't want any blood or any trouble, his son had just died in a bad coach accident and he was tired. He adopted the disguise of a servant and forgot to take any money.

When he got to Boulogne he was broke and couldn't find the cash to pay his ticket for the boat. To his great credit, the British Consul in Boulogne dug into his pocket (or were trousers in those days too tight to have pockets; in that case his coat pocket) and brought out the lucre to pay for the passage of a king of the French to safety in England.

He seems to have lived reasonably contentedly ever after; probably, Tim thought, well-subsidised. Or was that tongue in cheek? But certainly someone subsidised him. Claremont House was no Left Bank garret. He is said to have met Metternich on the steps of the British Museum reading room. I do hope that's true.

I decided to go the direct route and not loop around St James's Park today. So I went down Wardour Street and across Shaftesbury Avenue and - behold - walked into the wonderful decorations for the Year of the Dragon in Chinatown. Yellow and red lanterns swaying in the streets everywhere. Gerrard Street itself a carnival.

And then through Trafalgar Square where Leonardo still nestles, and to my right, just along a bit and up a bit, the Royal Academy, where I saw Hockney in all his great Yorkshire pomp the other night, with an exhibition which, in every way, fills that great gallery.

And down to the House of Lords, to be met by several of their Lordships who deeply approved of the revolutions of 1848.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

Songs for Tahrir: What makes a composer a legend? And what makes a revolt a revolution?

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Reem Kelani Reem Kelani 18:00, Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Ed's note: You can listen to Songs for Tahrir on the Radio 4 website. There's also more information and photos on the website - PM.

Sayyid Darwish

Sayyid Darwish (Picture courtesy of the Friends of Sayyid Darwish Association)

Since childhood, I've had this love-hate relationship with Arabic music, and it was two factors which brought me closer to the 'love' side of it. The first was old Palestinian women, whom I call the Big Mamas, who taught me traditional Palestinian songs. The other factor was the Egyptian composer Sayyid Darwish (1892 - 1923), whose music has been inspiring people across the Arab world for almost a century.

What connects these two vital components, is the collective, the context which gives purpose and meaning. Add to that, the music stands in its own right as great art.

The legacy of Sayyid Darwish has infused the repertoire of most Arab singers, me included. Eight years ago, I embarked on a project that's so far taken me from the British Library to Syria, Turkey and Egypt, researching his music within the following framework:

  • Darwish's contribution to Arabic music, including group singing, dialogue, musical theatre, expressionism and, albeit untrained and instinctive, counterpoint, harmony and polyphony;
  • Darwish's attachment not just to Egyptian folk music, but to Egyptian folk, the people. Many of Darwish's songs were written for manual labourers and builders, as well as for marginalised communities such as the Nubians. He also wrote songs for the Egyptian Labour Corps which was forcibly enlisted to serve the British in the First World War;
  • The influence of Greater Syria on Darwish, especially with regard to the two years he spent in Aleppo between 1912 - 1914;
  • The importance of Darwish's music and the lyrics of his librettists, notably Badi' Khayri and Bayram al-Tunisi in the 1919 Egyptian Revolt against the British.

It was with the above focus that I have been travelling to Egypt over the past two years. It was music for musicians like me, a Palestinian from the wider area of Greater Syria, music for the people and music for the revolution. And on 28th January 2011, the first day I'd ventured out to join my husband (who had himself been in Tahrir Square on 25th January), I found those four elements before me, with an urgent and bewildering kick!

Demonstrators faced tear gas, buck shot, water cannon, and even live fire, not to mention volleys of rocks thrown by the security forces themselves; at the same time, they came up with ingenious slogans and chants that spread 'like fire', as we say in Arabic. Sayyid Darwish's music was not the only music that was sung in and around Tahrir Square. True, I felt overwhelmed to hear echoing around me, the very songs which I had been researching, but I was especially moved by two other types of music rising up to the skies over Cairo:

  • New music, some of it written, performed and filmed in the midst of the protests. Here was something fresh and novel, an emergence into the open of the underground arts scene which had been building in the latter years of Mubarak's regime;
  • Other music which had similarly been sidelined by the regime because it was seen as subversive or anti Western. Songs by Umm Kulthoum, and El Shaykh Imam, for example, rang out across Tahrir Square; either played through amplified recordings, or sung 'grunge-style' by the people. Abd el-Halim Hafez's songs from the days of Abdul Nasser were sung with special vigour and pride. I knew that the initial phase of the revolution had succeeded when, on the morning after Mubarak's resignation, a presenter on a local radio station said: "I've never been allowed to play El Shaykh Imam's music on radio, and so today, I open the programme with a song by Imam. Long Live Egypt!"
Funeral procession

Women singing at funeral procession in Tahrir Square, minutes before the announcement of Mubarak's resignation (Picture by Chris Somes-Charlton)

During those 18 pivotal days leading up to Mubarak's ouster, I tried to keep a blog, but the task was not made easy by the authorities who cut mobile telephone and internet lines from 27th January onwards. One famous Sayyid Darwish song from 1919 spoke of the revolutionaries who cut the telephone and rail lines to isolate Cairo from London. The irony was that this time, it was the regime that cut the lines of communication.

When I finally got back online, I found an email from producer Megan Jones, with whom I had worked before on Salome: Dance of the Seven Veils for Radio 4. She'd heard my interview with Mary Ann Kennedy on BBC Scotland, which included some of my field recordings from Tahrir Square. Thus, Megan and I came to be in Cairo in November 2011, arriving on the very night when, by chance, demonstrations flared up across Egypt.

If Megan was a little apprehensive on arrival, it took less than four days in Egypt to make her rue the prospect of leaving Cairo so soon. It's this feeling about Egypt and its on-going revolution which we tried to capture in this programme. Our aim was not so much to offer a comprehensive survey of all the music that accompanied the revolution, an impossible task, but to shed light on elements which had perhaps gone unreported in the Western media. These elements included independent artists and many unsung heroes who put their lives at risk to make their demands in a courageously creative manner.

We provide below links not just to our contributors and their music, but also to other music that I heard around me during this time. The old line that we had more wonderful verbal and musical contributions than the scope of this programme could allow, was never more true.

A propos of Sayyid Darwish's music, Aladdin El-Kashef, Grammy Award winning sound engineer for Youssou N'Dour's album Egypt, opined that "Good art never dies". Singer Maryam Saleh, whose voice combines the prehistoric and postmodern as heard with the Choir Project, showed us the strength of the people's resolve: "Although we may not win, we'll keep protesting and singing".

Special thanks to Dr. Fathi Alkhamisi, Professor of Musicology at the Academy of Arts in Cairo, for his expertise and his insights into Sayyid Darwish and the history of nationalism in Egyptian music. His last words to me were: "Mubarak and his army may be thousands... but we, the Egyptian people, are millions."

Reem Kelani presents Songs for Tahrir

Related Links
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external websites

Our Contributors

Khaled Abol Naga, Egyptian film actor, producer and filmmaker
www.NagaTime.com

Tamer Abu Ghazaleh, Cairo-based Palestinian musician and composer
http://www.facebook.com/tameragh

Zein Alabdin Fouad, Egyptian poet
http://www.facebook.com/zafouad

Sally Hamarneh, Syrian-Jordanian architect and urban planner
http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=809310480&ref=ts

Samia Jaheen, singer with the Egyptian band Eskenderella
http://facebook.com/samiajaheen

Lina Megahed, Egyptian student activist
http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=615710111

Salam Yousry, Egyptian painter and theatre director
www.ebs-art.com

Performers featured in the programme
The unsung heroes of the Egyptian Revolution, the old masters Sayyid Darwish, Ibrahim Hammouda and Muhammad Bakhit, as well as:

The Choir Project
http://www.thechoirproject.webs.com

Eskenderella
http://www.facebook.com/EskenderellaBand?sk=info

Maryam Saleh
http://facebook.com/mar.yamm.baraka

Massar Egbari
http://www.massaregbari.com

Ramy Essam
BBC News: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-14254564

The Strand on BBC World Service
http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p00hwsbt/The_Strand_21_07_2011/

Outlook on BBC World Service
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00hz33y

World Routes on BBC Radio 3
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b018sqq0

Video clips of music featured in the programme

The Choir Project, singing Hayaat el-Midaan [Life of Tahrir]
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LCBVwJ4DT10

Eskenderella, singing Itgamma'ou el-'Ushshaa' [Lovers Have Come Together], lyrics by Zein Alabdin Fouad and music by El Shaykh Imam
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PkgqGG_reNI&feature=youtu.be

Massar Egbari, singing Sayyid Darwish's classic Aho Da Lli Saar [This is Where We're at]
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Brw2yZoEdBs

Trailer for the award-winning film 'Microphone', featuring the underground music and arts scene in Alexandria, released in 2010
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CjWqHm66xfM

Ramy Essam, singing Irhal! [Leave!]
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QrNIF4gLkvo

Other musical highlights of the Egyptian revolution that were not included in the programme due to time constraints

Cairokee & Hany Adel, singing Soat el-Hurriya [Voice of Freedom] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fgw_zfLLvh8

Muhammad Munir, singing Ezzay? [How Come?] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p9TOi3EwRQw

Ramy Gamal & Aziz al-Shaf'i singing Bahibbik ya Blaadi [My Homeland, I Love You] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=btXZMh5tHDA

Some of the revolutionary oldies that were revived during the 2011 revolution

Abd el-Halim Hafez (1929 - 1977), singing Ahlef bi-Samaaha ou bi-Trabha [I Swear by Her Sky and Her Sand]
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uRFANvYRD6Q&feature=related

El Shaykh Imam (1918 - 1995), singing Ya Masr Oumi [Rise, O, Egypt]
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o2lTs4tWnVY

Umm Kulthoum (1898 - 1975), singing Ana al-Sha'bu [I am the People]
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qnIS9-kxbFI

Najah Salam (b. 1931), singing Ya Aghla Ism fil Wugoud [O, Most Precious Name in the World]
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vO8nTq4DD2I&feature=related

Shadia (b. 1931), singing Ya Habibti Ya Masr [Egypt, My Love]
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_cHUlR4B37Y

Sayyid Darwish in his own voice

Oum ya Masri [Rise, O, Egyptian]
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QIb_PvQ_kcE

Special Thanks

Khaled Abol Naga: for fitting us into his tight schedule (on his birthday!), and for his helpful suggestions.
Aladdin El Kashef, Ultra Productions Studios, Mohandessin, Cairo: for technical assistance, and for talking to us about the music scene in Egypt.
King Hotel, Dokki, Cairo: for kindly providing space to conduct our interviews.
Fergus Nicoll & Helen Merriman, BBC World Service: for allowing us to use their recording of our sing-a-long in a local café on the eve of Mubarak's resignation.

The Thinking Allowed Newsletter: Just another little drink

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Laurie Taylor Laurie Taylor 15:04, Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Beer in a glass

"Same again, Laurie?"

It was the best part of fifteen years since I'd last seen my old drinking mate and fellow sociologist Mick, so it would have seemed positively unfriendly to refuse his offer of another pint.

But this would be our fourth in less than an hour and a half and I was only too aware that, in the years since we'd last met, my capacity for drink had seriously declined.

Anything more than two and a half pints and I was in danger of repeating my dramatic 2008 Christmas Eve fall down the steps leading to the men's lavatory.

"Cheers", said Mick, gulping a third of his new pint. "Cheers" I said, sipping from my glass as though sampling a fine wine.

"Where to next?" said Mick looking around the pub as though in the hope of encountering an invitation.

I was rather less concerned about our next destination than finding some way of disguising my desperate need to visit the gents for the third time during our session.

"Crisps?", I offered, realising that the morass of drinkers at the bar would make it easy for me to disappear for a couple of extra minutes.

It was at this point that the tell-tale signs of incipient drunkenness became all too obvious. I seemed only able to stand at the urinal by placing my right hand against the dank wall for support.

And as I climbed back up the stairs, I paid so much attention to each step that I missed the top one entirely and was in danger for a moment of hurtling forwards like an out-of-control drone into the far end of the saloon bar.

"Drink up", said Mick, when I got back to the table with two packets of sweet chilli flavour. I lifted my pint, opened my throat, and poured down the remaining three-quarters of a pint.

Somehow I managed to follow Mick out of the pub and lurch alongside him until we reached this little bar he knew in Soho where they kept quite the best pint of Gruttocks to be found in the whole of London.

The rest is more or less a blank. I can only vaguely summon up memories of being refused entry to an Indian restaurant, singing interminable choruses of You'll Never Walk Alone, and missing the seat when I climbed into the taxi that was taking me home.

The next day, Mick rang my mobile and said that we'd had a really great night.

"Just like the old days. We must do it again soon."

"Yes, it was fantastic" I said feeling relieved that Mick was referring to our joint enjoyment of the evening. It sounded as though we'd been as drunk as each other. Equal drinking mates. Yes, just like it had been in those days.

"How are you feeling now?", said Mick.

"Oh fine", I said. Big drinkers didn't complain about their hangovers.

"No bruises?"

"Bruises?"

"From when you fell down those lavatory steps", said Mick.

There'll be more stories about drunken nights out when I meet the author of a research article on British stag party tourism called Off the Leash and Out of Control.

That's at four o'clock today or after the midnight news on Sunday or on our podcast.

Also today - how fathers cope with childbirth.

Laurie Taylor presents Thinking Allowed

The Print Master: Stanley Jones

Post categories:

Sara Jane Hall Sara Jane Hall 10:41, Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Curwen Studios

Artist Susan Aldworth (left) at the Curwen Studios in Cambridgeshire

Imagine meeting a "Living National Treasures" (or more correctly the less wieldy "Intangible Cultural Properties"), the honorific title given to artists or crafts people in Japan reflecting their contribution to a skill such as pottery or calligraphy. They are revered as the holders of great knowledge and experience.

Stanley Jones, were he Japanese, would no doubt have been honoured in this way. As it is, the MBE he received in 2000 for 'services to lithography' is not bad.

Stanley probably knows more about the fine-art of lithography than any living person; he has worked with Henry Moore, Elizabeth Frink, Barbara Hepworth, Patrick Heron and David Hockney to name but a few, and his influence on the print making revival in Britain, from the 1950s onwards in incalculable.

Stanley Jones

Stanley Jones

It was my delight to spend time with the artist Susan Aldworth as she learnt the tricks of the trade with Stanley at the Curwen Studios in Cambridgeshire.

I spent a day trying to record the sounds of print making - jumping backwards when the industrially built machines whizzed past at speed, keeping out of the way of the vast stones that great artists had made their mark on, from Man Ray to Paula Rego.

We were also lucky enough to visit both Paula and David Gentleman, two more members of the 'Stanley fan club'. Both artists concurred with Susan that the his knowledge of colour, his tact, and a talent for collaboration, had contributed enormously to their lithographic experiences; which included Paula Rego's "Jane Eyre" series and David Gentleman's "East Anglia" prints.

Susan spent two months at the Curwen as artist-in-residence, finishing off 14 editions of her print work - that's a lot of signing to do. One of the strange facts I found out was that authentic numbered prints are signed in pencil. So if you can rub out the signature it's genuine, if you can't it's a fake.

Stanley, the grammar school boy from Wigan, was quietly spoken, steady and modest, a battle at times to hear over the machinery in the print works at Chilford Hall.

The day I visited there was frost in the fields, a low sun and as the temperature dropped below zero the huge industrial heaters pumped up to full blast. But dropping the microphone under the clanging brass rollers, or catching the sound of hand made paper being ripped skilfully to finish off a print, I had a feeling that digital printing would never sound or smell as atmospheric as this.

Sara Jane Hall is the producer of The Print Master

In Our Time newsletter: The Safavid Dynasty

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Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg 15:48, Friday, 13 January 2012

Editor's note: In yesterday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed The Safavid Dynasty. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep - PM.
image for IOT

Hello

Sometimes when you finish a programme, you really do think "How did we get through it? How did they - the contributors - manage to put so much into so little with such accurate scholarship?"

That was what I felt after we had - or rather they had - somehow covered almost 300 years of the Safavid dynasty.

We had the Sunni and the Shi'a; we had the Jews, the Christians, the Armenians, the Ottomans, the Uzbeks and the Afghans; we had Abbas I and Ismail, the boy wonder; we had Isfahan and architectural beauties and the silk trade; and more, much more, and in my view they managed to make it coherent and exciting.

Of course, when we finished Robert Gleave spoke for all of them and said "We didn't get round to..." It would take a day to get round that amazing swirl of the Middle East at that time.

All the time we were doing it, I kept clocking off what the Tudors and Stuarts were doing back home. That was when our Reformation began; that was when Elizabeth I came to the throne; that was when we had our Civil War; that was when William of Orange came in; and still the Safavids blazed on.

Robert Gleave also praised their propaganda. They embraced everyone. A leading Portuguese Augustine came to the court - "He is one of us!", they declared. Everyone, it seemed, was one of us.

This did not stop them torturing to death the Georgian queen because of her Christianity. Persian became the language not only of a country but of an entire region through these people, and architecture and art took a step forward. And yet we also witnessed the parallel development of a civilisation which did not embrace the Enlightenment or seed the Industrial Revolution. It was high excitement throughout.

Tom Morris and I went across the road to do a post-mortem on The Written World and fill in a few gaps over the next two or three months of subjects that we wanted to bring on to In Our Time.

And then I stepped out into the world called the South of England. Such blue skies. They've been like that for weeks. The flowers are confused. The birds are bewildered. People flap around in sandals and open-necked shirts.

Don't they realise it's the middle of winter?

We certainly did in the North where I spent Christmas and New Year. Northern Britain was a weather battle zone. The winds blew and cracked their cheeks, they raged, they stormed; it was as if there were dreadful portents going across the land.

We felt quite a bit of it in the North West of England. Horizontal hailstones. Sudden gusts of wind that blew you off your feet. But, nevertheless, it was the time for family walks and on family walks we went.

On the New Year's Eve walk, by the time we had got from the pub to the lake, we were pretty well soaked. Nevertheless, we walked the length of the lake and turned back to find some woods for a bit of shelter. It had never stopped raining.

We came on an open space which was open because big trees had literally been uprooted. Tall pines had been snapped in two by the force of the wind. It looked like the set for one of those apocalyptic Hollywood movies. It was here we had our picnic. Turkey sandwiches, of course.

And so back to London to the surreal tranquillity of St James's, with the ducks a-ducking and children throwing pieces of bread, and persons of many nationalities lolling on seats and not a branch stirring. It was a walk in the park.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

The Thinking Allowed Newsletter: Over here, Fatty

Post categories:

Laurie Taylor Laurie Taylor 11:38, Thursday, 12 January 2012

Hall of mirrors

A woman poses in a funfair hall of mirrors, circa 1935

I have always been fascinated by the results of a social psychology experiment in which a number of people with varying self-conceptions were asked to stand in front of a range of distorting mirrors (much as one used to find at fairgrounds) and report on the degree to which their body was shortened, lengthened, widened, or thinned.

If I remember the results correctly, it turned out that those with the most uncertain sense of self reported the maximum degree of distortion. However, those with complete confidence in themselves and their bodies could stand in front of a mirror and report very little distortion at all.

I've often wondered how much these results might be affected by age.

Although I have no scientific evidence to cite, I've come to believe that the older you get, the more likely you are to think of your own body as just about appropriate. It's as though after many years and many attempts to influence your body shape with exercises and diets and even cosmetic tweaks, there arrives a moment when your proportions suddenly come to seem natural.

You can check this out with the Auntie test. Do you have an auntie over the age of sixty? Could you imagine her having any other shape than that which she currently displays?

Exactly.

I've certainly tried throughout my own life to improve my body in a variety of ways. There was the six-month abortive attempt to build my upper body strength with an expensive set of weights. And there was my thigh-building regime on the exercise bicycle and my stomach-tautening period on the rowing machine.

During all these regimes, I had brief moments when I believed I was effecting some transformations - moments when my sweater seemed stretched across my shoulders, when my thighs snagged against my jeans, when I could tighten my belt by at least one extra notch.

But when nobody else apart from myself and my mirror noticed any of these changes, I happily allowed my body to enter the process which statisticians, I believe, refer to as regression to the mean.

It was an instructor at my local gym who gave the final nudge to this decision. After an hour's assessment in which I'd been variously required to run round an indoor track, try out different speeds on a treadmill, lift an assortment of bars and weights, and attempt to raise my prone body from the ground using only my arms, he asked if I had any specific objectives I'd like to achieve.

As usual I mentioned the extra inches on my upper body, the strengthening of my thighs and the tightening of my stomach.

He gave me what, for a young man, was a remarkably old-fashioned look. "Professor Taylor", he said glancing at my date of birth in the right hand corner of the assessment form, "I've made a careful note of your objectives and we can certainly work towards them. But," - and here he gave me a small but sympathetic smile - "I fear that time may not be on our side."

But my sentimental notion of everyone eventually arriving at their proper body shape is already being dramatically undermined by the growing popularity of cosmetic surgery - the prospect of being able to mould your body to an artificial shape which accords with your own desires. And there's no need to stay at home for such improvements.

In this week's programme I meet two researchers who have made a special study of that brand new form of holiday - cosmetic surgery tourism.

Also in the programme is the author of a book which argues on the basis of extensive historical and anthropological research that our existing ideas about money and credit are quite simply, wrong.

Laurie Taylor presents Thinking Allowed

Tina C's Global Depression Tour

Post categories:

Christopher Green Christopher Green 14:10, Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Ed's note: Starting tonight at 11pm on Radio 4 Christopher Green's country music legend Tina C investigates the financial crisis and looks for a solution to the global recession with help from economists and financial journalists, including Will Hutton, Paul Mason and Gillian Tett -PM.

Tina C

This is the fifth Tina C project I've made for BBC Radio 4. Tina has explored the UK, Europe, Australia and given her thoughts on the eve of the Presidential Elections. She gets around...

Back at the start of 2011 it seemed like a good idea to propose the notion of this country music global celebrity solving the financial crisis. Maybe it was just naïve to imagine that things wouldn't be a complicated or as genuinely depressing as they did in reality during the year. It was very easy to get obsessed with the small details of various countries economic woes, especially in Europe.

Once I started writing the series in October, I had realised that what I had to do was keep focusing the series back on the character of Tina C. She is a very useful tool for looking at what is going on in the world.

As a celebrity she has enormous influence, little education, huge naivety and fundamentally a good heart. This is a dangerous combination. And a not at all uncommon in the culture we have allowed to be created around us.

So Tina sets out to win a bet with three prominent US bankers and financial experts - which amounts to the same thing - as Gillian Tett points out in the first show Wall Street and Washington are both in thrall in to the same handful of guys who claim to know how the money markets work.

Tina is travelling the globe at vast expense to visit the poverty stricken and she genuinely wants to know how she can help. The series can't be topical in that it wasn't recorded on the day of transmission, so some things are kept deliberately vague. But there are many hours of research behind a very trite joke. I pride myself on such things.

There were two joys for me in making this series. One was setting myself the challenge to write at least two new comedy country music songs per show.

It turned out to be 14 songs about the global financial crisis. That's quite a specific challenge and testament to the way my mind works that I really enjoyed it. You can hear a bunch of the songs here.

My aim with the series was to get away from buzz words, and technical financial language. I think it is that kind of talk that allowed the crisis to happen in the first place.

For years we've been hearing the financial reports as part of the news and not really understanding what it means, sort of trusting it was all OK, signing up for mortgages with fingers crossed that someone understood the small print. Tina states several times that the series is "intellectually simple and emotionally complex". The songs allowed me to do that. Hopefully the listener is encouraged to look at greed, capitalism and need inside ourselves rather than as an abstract notion. Tina sums this up in the song I Have Therefore I Am in which she disses Descartes (though she likes his classy watches).

The second joy was getting to interview top financial journalists and ask them honest to goodness questions such as "Should I only get paid in cash from now on - and in gold?" We had fantastic contributors from some of the most influential names in the game and it was genuinely chilling being able to ask them about the ongoing crisis in the Euro zone, and to hear how close we are to things not being alright.

And that's all Tina really wants. She wants everyone to be alright. Because she is a nice person, and because she wants everyone to be able to buy copies of her albums, and for America to be powerful forever more.

To answer the question that most people ask me: I don't do interviews for radio dressed up in character. Maybe I should but I have always found that people are able to play along even if not distracted by the long legs and the high heels.

Martha Kearney interviewed Tina just before the Presidential elections in 2008 and it was more painful than hearing Palin and Couric, but Martha didn't need the short skirts to make it authentic. A lot of my work making interactive theatre is simply encouraging people to play in an unselfconscious way. All I had to do was simply to allow that to happen whilst getting my contributors to outline global fiscal strategies in a cogent and engaging way.

I can't tell you what conclusions Tina comes to at the end of her mission to save the world in six weeks. You have to go through the emotional rollercoaster with her - because, of course, there are no easy solutions. But how bad can anything seem when you're singing along with Lefty Frizzell's If You Got the Money Honey, I Got The Time?

Christopher Green is a writer, performer and creator of Tina C

Thank you: A record year for the R4 St Martin-in-the-Fields Christmas Appeal

Ed's note: This is another amazing record year for the Christmas Appeal. Here's the latest news from Radio 4's Sally Flatman and Sophie Balaam from the Connection at St Martin's. Find out more about the appeal and you can still make a donation on the Radio 4 website - PM.

Volunteer

Alison, one of the many volunteers who work on the Christmas Appeal

"A gift from one lucky person to one who's less fortunate this year" - A quote from a donor to the Christmas Appeal

Thank You to everyone who has donated to this year's Radio 4 St Martin-in-the-Fields Christmas Appeal. As the Christmas decorations come down on this 12th night we'd like to share with you the fantastic news that the appeal has broken new records and to date stands at £1,523,000.

Sophie Balaam from the Connection at St Martins went to meet the team of volunteers who work away each day opening all the post that has been sent:

"There are 6 volunteers and they are all working like busy bees, the scene reminded me of Santa's Grotto! But instead of presents there are boxes and boxes full of post. There are piles of cheques being counted and hundreds of Christmas cards from donors which brighten up the room.

You might think this is a tedious job. The volunteers have been working every day since the appeal launched on the first weekend in December. But a couple of the ladies I spoke to said how much they enjoyed opening the post because lots of people include hand written notes, or letters, and many of the donations come with Christmas cards.

The generosity of those that donate is incredibly humbling - especially during these financially difficult times - in fact the average donation is £50 and Alison, one of the volunteers, said it's not unusual for people to give £200. And there is still plenty of post to open!

I want to thank everyone that has donated so far. You really are making a big difference to the appeal. And another thank you to our volunteers - keep up the good work!"

Sally Flatman is producer of The Radio 4 Appeal

In Our Time: The Written World podcast and listen online

Post categories:

Tom Morris 13:57, Friday, 6 January 2012

Ed's note: The complete series of The Written World is available to download as a podcast until Monday morning, after that you will still be able to listen online but the downloads won't be available - PM.

St Cuthbert Gospel

The 7th century St Cuthbert Gospel - the earliest intact European book

In a nondescript seminar room in the British Library, Melvyn Bragg and I sit waiting at a conference table. We are there to interview the library's Lead Curator of Medieval and Earlier Manuscripts, Claire Breay, who after greeting us has disappeared into the bowels of the building to retrieve a prop.

After a few minutes she reappears, carrying a small wooden box. It doesn't look much, but it contains an object so precious that it's kept in a strongroom, and only one person - Claire - is allowed to handle it.

She slides off the lid to reveal a small linen-wrapped package. There is an undeniable tension in the room as she removes this protective covering to reveal a small leather-bound volume.

This is the St Cuthbert Gospel, the oldest surviving European book, produced in Northumbria in the 7th century; it owes its immaculate condition to the fact that it spent the first four hundred years of its existence in the saint's coffin.

A great privilege, to see such treasure at close quarters. But over the course of a few weeks in November while recording In Our Time: The Written World, Melvyn and I had several of these memorable encounters.

In the atmospheric library of Durham Cathedral, Richard Gameson showed us a detail in a medieval Gospel and casually let slip that we were looking at the oldest illuminated manuscript in the Western world. In Cambridge, Simon Schaffer showed us one of Newton's most celebrated experiments, described (and drawn) in the scientist's own hand.

And then there was the never-to-be-repeated day in the British Library, when in the space of a few hours we were shown a dizzying array of priceless objects: the world's oldest printed book (not European but Chinese, produced in 868); the only surviving manuscript of Beowulf; and not one but two Gutenberg Bibles.

When Melvyn and I first came up with the idea for this series early last year, our intention was to investigate how the inherent qualities of writing have shaped intellectual history. We wanted the focus to be artefacts: tablets, manuscripts and books, all of which in some way represented a turning point in the history of ideas.

Choosing the right ones was quite a challenge: five programmes, it turns out, is not much airtime to tell such a vast and complex story. So we asked some of the academics who regularly appear on In Our Time for advice. Their recommendations, and those of the institutions we visited, made up an almost bewildering list of goodies - ruthlessly and reluctantly pruned back to a more manageable fifteen or so.

Having a wishlist of precious objects is one thing; getting to see them quite another. But we were treated with great indulgence by all the institutions we approached: the British Library gave us wonderful access to some of the greatest things in their collection; Cambridge University Library filled a meeting room with Korans, history scrolls and - wonder of wonders - Newton's student notebooks; and in Durham we saw one of the earliest copies of Bede's Ecclesiastical History.

If I have one regret, it's that we left so much untouched.

We squeezed in all we could, but it would have been nice to have had time to discuss Jewish scriptures, Islamic science, the birth and spread of the novel, the impact of writing on politics... the list goes on.

Perhaps one day we'll have an opportunity to fill some of these gaps. And no doubt we missed all sorts of unmissable documents, turning points in the history of the written word that should have been included - if so, please feel free to let us know!

Tom Morris is producer of In Our Time

Dickens On Location on Radio 4 Extra

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Ben Motley Ben Motley 11:50, Friday, 6 January 2012

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It wasn't a typical Monday morning. I was standing amongst the gravestones of a remote churchyard, seabirds and crows grazing with sheep in a nearby field and the occasional moo of distant cattle drifting across desolate marshlands on an icy breeze, waiting for Jools Holland to arrive and talk to me about Charles Dickens.

"Dickens On Location" is a series of short pieces on Radio 4 Extra in which places described by Charles Dickens are brought to life by people who live and work in them today.

graves

The churchyard in question belonged to St James' Church in Cooling, on the Hoo Peninsula in Kent, the spot that inspired the wonderfully atmospheric opening paragraphs of Great Expectations. It is here that young Pip first encounters the menacing Magwitch, a convict who has escaped by dragging himself across the mud, and hides behind the tombstones as Pip mourns for his family.

It was only as I stood by the church, gazing north across the marshes and the Thames to Essex in the distance, that I realised just how spot on Dickens' description is. He writes about the landscape as a series of horizontal lines - marshes, river and sky - and that's exactly what you see today.

In the foreground were fields, even ploughed horizontally, then a line of trees, then the marshes, then the estuary, then the industry and incline of Canvey Island beyond, all groaning under the weight of a leaden grey sky.

The Thames estuary is over a mile wide at this point but the land is so flat that you'd hardly know it was there, save for the incongruous sight of a huge container ship apparently slicing its way across the land.

As I clutched my copy of the text and stamped my feet against the cold I suddenly understood that it's not just Dickens' description of the landscape that's so evocative, but the writing itself. In a single, long sentence Dickens introduces 'the marsh country', laying down short descriptive passages in quick succession that mirror his horizontal lines.

The churchyard, dykes, mounds, gates, river and sea are all summoned to give the impression of a huge bleak panorama, and at the bottom of it all is Pip, a 'small bundle of shivers' crushed as much by the weight of the landscape as by the grief that he feels.

Dickens' ability to conjure both the physical and atmospheric properties of a place is surely one of the reasons he endures today. Kent and London are littered with places that cling jealously to that heritage, and most of them have a passage of text with which they will forever be associated.

From the wooden-trousered boatmen of Broadstairs to the soaring spire of Canterbury Cathedral, Dickens wrote not only about how places looked, but how they felt.

And it's something you can still experience today. When I started this project I expected to discover how places have changed since Dickens described them, but the overwhelming conclusion I've drawn is that not as much has changed as you might expect.

Camden Dickens plaque

Dickensian type characters still populate the streets of Camden. Smithfield Market, though cleaner than it once was, still reverberates to the sound of cursing and quarrelling.

And on the Kent marshes, despite the threat from plans for London's new airport, you can stand in one of the most remote places in the South East of England and imagine that Magwitch himself might be revealed at any moment.

Ben Motley produced Dickens On Location for BBC Radio 4 Extra

  • Dickens on Location will be appearing throughout the Radio 4 Extra schedule during January and February. Jools Holland at Cooling Church is on this Saturday 7 January at 1.10pm this Saturday.
  • David Copperfield is on Radio 4 Extra at the moment. You can catch up on the Radio Player for the next four days and also listen live on 4 Extra weekdays at 10am and repeated at 3pm.
  • Hard Times follows starting Monday 16 January, then Barnaby Rudge starting Wed 25 January and Little Dorrit starting Mon 30 January. Our Mutual Friend follows that starting 6 February.
  • The Old Curiousity Shop also started this week - running for 5 weeks at 2pm on weekdays, followed by Nicholas Nickleby the following 6 weeks.
  • Details of Dickens on Radio 4 including an interview with Claire Tomalin on Front Row and Dickens discussed on In Our Time.

The Thinking Allowed Newsletter: Borstal Boys

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Laurie Taylor Laurie Taylor 13:38, Thursday, 5 January 2012

Dining hall at the Swinfen Hall borstal, 1963

The dining hall at the Swinfen Hall borstal near Lichfield, Staffordshire, 1963.

"Why do you think you're ready to go?" I asked. Even as I spoke the words I felt as though I should apologise for the absurdity of the question. Here I was in my local borstal, asking one of the inmates to provide me with a reason why he should be released before the full term of his sentence.

The sad ill-nourished boy who sat across the desk from me knew as well as I did that this was an elaborate game.

Back in the seventies, borstals were the favoured form of detention for young delinquents and their declared emphasis upon "training" rather than punishment meant that every sentence was indeterminate. Those boys - or "lads" as they were officially described - who could display evidence that their training had been successful could expect to be released after a mere six months.

"Oh yes, I've learned my lesson", said the boy. He might look sad, I thought, but he's obviously been quite alert enough to learn from his mates about how to answer questions from a member of the borstal's Board of Governors.

"You genuinely regret the violent behaviour which led to your custodial sentence?" I said glancing down at his file.

"Oh yes", he said, "I now realise that I deserved my punishment."

"And you have a place to live and a job to go to?"

"Oh yes. My auntie will take me in and I can get my old job on the building site again. And that'll keep me out of trouble in the future."

Several days later, I joined the other borstal governors for a board meeting and announced when it was my turn to speak that in my opinion the sad under-nourished boy was now "ready to go". He had, I said, obviously benefitted from his training. He was duly released.

It was probably my sense of absurdity of the whole process - the assumption that Borstal really did prevent re-offending and that asking inmates about their sense of contrition was an adequate way of measuring such alleged efficacy - which led, at a later meeting, to my explosion of anger.

The board, in its usual self-congratulatory manner, had been talking about ways in which the "training" of the "lads" might be even further improved. "Of course the trouble with many of these lads", said one senior member of the Board, "is that they lack any proper sense of self-awareness. They don't think for themselves. They go along with the crowd". There was a mumble of agreement.

I raised my hand and the elderly chairman nodded in my direction. "Yes, Professor Taylor."

"Well", I said "It's not too surprising really that the boys, or the lads, lack any individuality. After all, we are constantly regimenting them. We march them around in groups and make them keep in step. We insist they shave every day and keep their hair neat and tidy. And most of all we make them wear a uniform. How much individuality can they possibly show when they have to dress every day in long grey shorts and grey shirts? Instead of allowing them to develop some idea of their distinctiveness which might lead them away from future delinquencies, we persist in putting them all into a uniform which announces their criminal homogeneity."

I was a relatively new member of the board and this was quite my lengthiest and certainly my most passionate contribution to its proceedings. I was, however, very quickly put in my place. The aged chairman barely looked up from the fat folder of delinquent case histories which sat on the table before him.

"Professor Taylor", he said. "Your attack on uniforms is quite unjustified. What you fail to remember is that some of the finest feats ever performed on behalf of this country were carried out by men in uniform."

I remembered that occasion and the speciousness of the chairman's argument when I read a new research article about a management experiment in a UK hospital which required all professions (with the exception of doctors) to wear the same "corporate uniform". Did this provide the wearers with a welcome sense of corporate identity or did it lead to the obliteration of boundaries which were essential to their self-identity?

You can learn the answer in this week's programme repeated after the midnight news on Sunday or to download now from our podcast.

Also in the programme, an interview with the author of a book which claims that our cities are now rapidly becoming battle spaces.

Laurie Taylor presents Thinking Allowed

Bookclub: Hunter Davies and The Beatles

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Jim Naughtie 12:37, Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Ed's note: In this month's Bookclub, recorded at the Cavern in Liverpool, Hunter Davies talks to Jim Naughtie and readers about his biography of The Beatles, first published in 1968. On the blog Jim reflects on his own failure to see the Beatles and Hunter Davies' recollections of them. You can listen to this episode of Bookclub online, download the podcast or it's repeated this Thursday, 5 January at 3.30pm on BBC Radio 4 - PM.

Hunter Davies and Jim Naughtie

Jim Naughtie and Hunter Davies at Bookclub

I could have seen The Beatles, but didn't.

I was 12 at the time, at home in north-east Scotland, and they were playing in our local town. The date of the gig was January 2, and it was a white-out. Their plane from Hamburg had been diverted by weather and the snowed-up roads meant they just couldn't make it to the Longmore Hall, Keith, in time. As a result their first tour of 1963 began the next night in The Two Red Shoes, Elgin, a place I subsequently came to know as a haven of mild debauchery. They were described as "The Love Me Do Boys" and were supported by the Alex Sutherland Sextet, a local band that I suppose were Elgin's equivalent of Joe Loss and his orchestra.

So I missed my chance. The truth is that I was just a few months too young - a year later and I would have been trudging through the snow to the Longmore Hall - and the fact that they were playing had passed me by. She Loves You hadn't yet catapulted them into the stratosphere.

But such memories swam back when I went down the alleyway in Liverpool that is Mathew Street, site of the Cavern Pub, where Hunter Davies came to talk about his book The Beatles with this month's group of readers - a group, I may say, who strangely seemed to be about my own age.

We had a good time, surrounded by posters on the walls that took us all back to the days when Gerry and the Pacemakers and The Searchers were vying for top billing, and The Beatles might turn up on a Sunday night just for fun.

Hunter remains the group's only authorised biographer, having spent eighteen months or so with them from 1966 - the year in which they played their last tour gig in Candlestick Park, San Francisco - and we reflected on how brief and extraordinary the phenomenon had been. When he persuaded them to agree to let him hang around - he'd met Paul McCartney in the hope that he might write some film music for an adaptation of a novel he'd written - the conventions of fame that we've come to accept as normal hadn't kicked in. There was no template from which they could learn how to handle it: no-one had seen screaming hordes of girls camped outside theatres in that way before, and no bunch of Liverpool boys had ever found their lives quite so transformed so quickly. Hunter's own account to us reflected that air of innocence that still surrounded them, even as they wrestled with worldwide fame.

He described for us his unravelling of the characters - the quiet, thoughtful George, who was always searching for something and even then wanted to escape, the book- devouring Lennon (who'd grown up with Alice in Wonderland, Robert Louis Stevenson and Just William), the prolific tunesmith Paul and Ringo - "the luckiest man alive".

There were long nights in the Abbey Road studios, where Hunter swept up scraps of paper after day and night recording sessions and years later discovered they were more valuable than his house. (It should be recorded that he has given them to the British Library.)

It's a story that hasn't lost its appeal after 45 years - and is in print again in paperback, with a reflective introduction by Hunter - and catches the spirit of an age in which class barriers were being attacked, assumptions about fame were changing, and a youth culture had been let out of its box.

Above all, Hunter was talking about characters whom we've all known, it seems all our lives - the boys themselves, and Brian Epstein, John's Aunt Mimi, Yoko Ono, and of course the Maharishi, who lured them to the Himalayas.

He tells the story well, remembering the bust up with John when he described the book as "a whitewash", to Hunter's fury. Hunter tried to protect Aunt Mimi, by cleaning up some of the stories of their off-stage antics, and had concealed (thinly) the obvious fact that Epstein was gay, and therefore still on the wrong side of the law. But he remembers so many good times too, on the road and in the studio, where he had a ringside seat at one of the great sixties' parties.

It's an enthralling conversation for New Year's Day, with a good dollop of nostalgia mixed in. I left Liverpool wondering why it was that I hadn't made it to Elgin to hear them. What a miss: but I don't think my parents would have understood. It hadn't quite happened. A few months later...well, that would have been a different story.

Happy days.

Our next recording is with Anne Enright, and we'll be talking about her Man Booker prize winning novel The Gathering. That's on Tuesday 27 March at BBC Bush House in Central London at 5.45pm. Tickets are free and available via our website.

Our next programme on air, on Sunday, February 5, is with Art Spiegelman, 25 years on from his ground-breaking graphic novel about the holocaust, Maus.

Happy New Year and happy reading

Jim Naughtie presents Bookclub

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