Friday 3 December 2010, 11:13
A few weeks ago, at the Bristol Old Vic, Sue MacGregor announced to the audience that this was to be her final programme as the regular presenter of A Good Read. Our guest reviewers were the acclaimed actor Timothy West, who has a strong connection with the theatre and with Bristol, and the best selling novelist Amanda Craig. But, for many in the audience, the chance to see a Radio 4 legend in the flesh and watch an edition of a Radio 4 favourite being made was their main reason for being there. The demand for tickets exceeded the capacity of the theatre. That edition was broadcast on Radio 4 this week and, not surprisingly, listeners have been in touch with us expressing both their regret that Sue is stepping down from the programme and their concern that she is leaving Radio 4 (definitely not true) and asking who could possibly fill her shoes?
Here in Bristol, where A Good Read has been made for more than 30 years, we're also sad that Sue has decided to finish this particular chapter of her long and illustrious career. I'm glad to say we will still be working with her on other programmes for Radio 4. In fact we're making a programme with her right now about the legendary broadcaster John Freeman and, of course, she still presents her superb series "The Reunion" but we also understand, better than most, why she has called it a day.
Sue holds the record for being the longest serving presenter on the programme. Seven years. She narrowly beats Edward Blishen who presented A Good Read between 1990 and 1996. Over that period she has read and reviewed around 500 books from cover to cover. That works out at roughly 70 books a year. How many of us, in our time pressured lives, get through more than one book a week? Another challenge for the presenter of A Good Read is that, for each programme, there is a personal book choice to make. At the beginning this isn't too difficult. If, like Sue, you are a genuine lover of books, titles come thick and fast. But, by the fifth year, it starts getting harder. You can't, of course, choose any title that has been featured in previous programmes and, faced with a reading list that never diminishes, finding time to read books for personal pleasure becomes impossible. You become a reading machine. I remember Sue telling me that the concept of holiday reading was a distant memory as she was voraciously devouring books to see if they were good enough to recommend to Radio 4 listeners. Sue did find 150 original titles for her own personal choices which is a feat in itself. And, like the consummate professional she is, it sounded effortless.
A Good Read is a special programme and guests are happy to come on to talk about their own choices and curious to read what others have picked. Lord Carrington, Prue Leith, Fay Weldon, Jo Brand, Nick Horby, P D James, Sir Roy Strong, Jon Snow and Sir Digby Jones are just some of the people who have appeared on the programme while Sue has been presenting. They enjoy it because the programme is driven, at its core, by a personal passion for books and a basic need in most of us to talk about something we love. Of course, at times, not everybody agrees but fervent differences of opinion make for compelling radio.
The programme began in Bristol in 1979 so, in effect, A Good Read was the first popular broadcasting book club long before anyone had even heard of Oprah Winfrey or Richard and Judy. Listeners often write to tell us how they've discovered their own personal all-time favourite through a recommendation on the programme. There was an extraordinary reaction from listeners when Josephine Hart presented Bernard Schlink's novel 'The Reader' as her choice back in September 2003. Sue and her guests have dissected and discussed all genres - biography, historical novels, fiction, romance, crime, graphic novels and even self-help manuals. As long as the books are still in print, widely available and in paperback then they are eligible for review on A Good Read.
Sue MacGregor has been a wonderful ambassador for the programme and A Good Read has flourished with her at its helm over the last seven years. Her intelligence, warmth and genuine enthusiasm for books could be heard in every programme. Her preparation was meticulous. No short-cuts or skim reading for Sue. She read every book properly. Her ability to chair each discussion with authority and inquisitiveness but always putting listeners first is what makes her one of our best broadcasters. So who can follow her? Well, for us, the search has begun but we intend to take our time to get it right. Ultimately A Good Read is about wonderful writers and wonderful books and conveying the passion we share for them.
Clare McGinn is Editor of Audio & Music Production at BBC Bristol
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