Archives for June 2012

Book At Beachtime: Readings for the Summer

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Gemma Jenkins 09:47, Friday, 29 June 2012

Editor's note: The producers of Book at Beachtime write about a special season of readings for the summer on BBC Radio 4 Extra. The programmes can be heard from Monday 2 July at 2.30pm on BBC Radio 4 Extra.. Replay Marina Lewycka's live question and answer chat where she answered questions about her novels and work. PMcD.

Book At Beachtime on BBC Radio 4 Extra


Marina Lewycka, Freya North and Sadie Jones - a dream line-up to mark the return of Book at Beachtime, our season of holiday reads for the summer.

It's always exciting when a series gets the endorsement of a second run and so we were thrilled to get a second chance to flag up some of the most exciting reads for this summer - whether the sun is shining or not! Last year we were there at the beginning of the runaway success that SJ Watson's thriller, Before I Go To Sleep, proved to be - who knows how our three chosen titles will fare this year, but what is certain is these are all writers at the top of their game.

As producers it was a perfect commission to receive in the drab days of the new year too. Suddenly we were whiling away many a cold and dreary commute into work with lots of fabulous reading that transported us across continents and back in time, invited us to fall in love with some characters and to shake our fists at others, spun us stories which gripped from the start and above all was reading that made us forget what was going on outside the carriage window for chapter after chapter.

And as it's become more difficult to use the train for audience research that was no bad thing. It's a little harder these days to take surreptitious peeks at what our fellow passengers are reading as the proliferation of e-readers has effectively put a stop to such snooping! It did encourage a little office discussion as to what people might be reading and wondering whether the arrival of the e-reader goes some way to explaining the sudden surge in literature of a more erotic nature.

While we can't promise listeners anything too frisky - we do go out at 2.30 in the afternoon after all - love and romance sits at the heart of all three of our choices, although fans of Freya North will have to return to the book to read the cheeky Restoration style romp which opens the story! We've also gone for comedy in quite a big way with stories and characters we hope will encourage plenty of smiles and even a laugh out loud moment or two.

GJ: I fell in love with the moustache twirling villain in Sadie Jones' The Uninvited Guests - he really does twirl his moustache! A country house drama, Edwardian England, upstairs downstairs tensions, larger than life characters - you think you are in familiar territory but in this world nothing is quite what it seems so prepare to be surprised as these characters embark on journeys in which they undergo quite remarkable transformations.

Reading Freya North's new romantic comedy Rumours made me think that I really should be a little more adventurous the next time I'm putting together a picnic - I discovered what a cornichon was and realised I'd never eaten one. I ended up wanting to live in the village of Long Dansbury and wishing for an encounter with Lady Lydia - although she'd probably eat me for lunch!

EA: Marina Lewycka's latest novel, Various Pets Alive and Dead is a real treat. Tense family relationship, socialist ideals, the 1984 miner's strike and the recent banking crisis had me racing through the pages. Told from the point of view of four family members, each with a distinctive storyline, it looked a casting challenge, but the wonderful Radio Drama Company came into their own. Here I found the perfect voices to play each of the characters. And so Christine Absalom reads Doro's story, Sam Alexander, Serge's, Susie Riddell, Clara and Patrick Brennan, Marcus. We had an energetic rehearsal where the five of us discussed the dynamic among the family members - and how each of them sounded. The result is a lively, comic and at times poignant listen, which has something to say about the state of Britain past and present.

Once again it's been a tremendous pleasure working on the series and we hope listeners will enjoy hearing the season as much as we enjoyed making it.

Elizabeth Allard and Gemma Jenkins are Producers of Book At Beachtime on BBC Radio 4 Extra

Feedback: Honest Doubt

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Roger Bolton Roger Bolton 09:00, Friday, 29 June 2012

Roger Bolton

"I beseech you, in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken". Those words were spoken by the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell in 1650. He was addressing the general assembly of the Church of the Church of Scotland in Edinburgh.

Over 350 years later a former Bishop of Edinburgh, Richard Holloway, has been making a similar plea on Radio 4.

He resigned as Bishop and Primus of the Scottish Episcopal Church in 2000 and since then his own theological position has become increasingly radical. He still attends church, denies he is an atheist, and prefers to be considered a Christian agnostic and an "after-religionist".

He has just completed a 20 episode series on the network called "Honest Doubt". On the whole it has been well received, with many listeners greatly enjoying his exploration, through history, of the space between the certainties of religious faith and atheism, a journey that made much use of music and poetry and a wide range of voices.

However there were some Feedback listeners who felt that once again Christianity was being attacked in a way other religions would not be. James Pennington asked "Why always Christianity in the firing line?" Why hadn't the Archbishop of Canterbury been offered such a series? Chris Moorsom suggested that "It would have been far more interesting and fair minded to put this into a dialogue format .... based on real debate".

On the other hand an atheist wrote to say she had found it "a captivating programme".

In Feedback this week I talked to Richard Holloway and also to the Radio 4 Executive who commissioned the series, Jane Ellison. Here is our discussion

Also this week Mark Friend, Controller, Multiplatform and Interactive, BBC Audio and Music, explained the changes that have been introduced to the BBC Radio websites, particularly the one for Radio 4.

He was keen to emphasise that this was a "Beta" version, in other words on trial, and he was keen to hear listeners" views about it and said he was very willing to make appropriate changes. So do please have a look at the website and tell him what you think.

One other bit of news this week.

After an extensive review the BBC has decided not to cut any of its 5 orchestras. Instead it has cut their budgets by around 10%. You can read the report on the BBC Trust"s website.

Still no news on the new DG. An announcement is now expected in "early July".

Happy Listening

Roger Bolton

Roger Bolton presents Feedback

  • Listen again to this week's Feedback, get in touch with the programme, find out how to join the listener panel or subscribe to the podcast on the Feedback web page.
  • Read all of Roger's Feedback blog posts.

In Our Time: Al-Kindi

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Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg 17:00, Thursday, 28 June 2012

Editor's note: In Thursday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed the Arab philosopher Al-Kindi. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep - PMcD

al kindi



The range of al-Kindi was almost limitless, it seems. After the programme I was reminded by one of the contributors that we had not discussed his masterly work on the making of swords. Another contributor piped up with regret about the omission of his equally masterly pamphlet on coitus, and how men, properly attended to by drugs and herbs, could defy gravity in a long life.

Out then into the outrageous sunshine of London, as if trying to make up for the torrents of rain and somehow to balance the rage of floods in the North to which I am headed this afternoon. It's the Queen's London at the moment. She's taken over. Nobody seems to mind a bit, except occasional persons on four wheels.

I was in Green Park yesterday and in preparation for the opening of the memorial to Bomber Command - a very large memorial which has occasioned some controversy because of its size - I was lured by the sound of music and a lovely choir singing over this finest royal park. They were rehearsing a concert for the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund. There's something about rehearsals of music that is often more attractive, I think, than the actual performance. The stopping and starting. The empty seats. The informality of the dress. The feeling that you're getting a free concert!

And on past the tumult of people feeding the best-fed ducks in the Western world, across towards Westminster Abbey, and I took to the road because the pavements were so crowded that it would have been as if I were running directly into the All Blacks' scrum just to make the extra yard or two. The idea of the crocodile has died. People, especially crowds of young people, walk mob-handed like medieval armies, occupying all the pavement that there is.

Into the Lords, where the discussion was on the future of English cathedrals. Some fine speeches on a fine subject. Whatever your religion, I think, there are so many layers of interest and richness of history and thought, of skill and definitions of beauty inside these cathedrals, that the efforts now being strenuously made to keep them in good repair is exemplary.

As I sit in the lobby of the Lords and dictate this, I can hear the Lancaster bomber going over Green Park and dropping poppies. The Queen will be there. Slowly the Union Flags are being replaced by the flags of all nations - the Olympic flags - but it's still the Queen's city at the moment and she's taken it without a single voice of dissent.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

Niall Ferguson: Reith Lecture pt.2 - The Dawinian Economy

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Richard Fenton-Smith 08:30, Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Editor's note: In the Reith Lecture this week, Niall Ferguson talked about The Darwinian Economy. The programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep - PMcD

niall ferguson


There will always be greedy people around banks," says Niall Ferguson "after all they are where the money is - or should be."

"But greedy people will only commit fraud or negligence if they feel their misdemeanour is unlikely to be noticed or severely punished."

In the second Reith Lecture in his series The Rule Of Law And Its Enemies economic historian Prof Niall Ferguson tackles the subject of financial regulation - and the need to drastically prune it.

Prof Ferguson argues that the financial crisis that began in 2007 had its origins in over-complex regulation.

Many economists - and members of the public - disagree and believe lax regulation was a major cause of the financial crisis. They blame President Clinton's repeal of the restrictive Glass-Steagall Act in particular.

But they have misunderstood the problem, says Ferguson. He says the major events of the crisis would still have happened even with Glass-Steagall in place. Instead, he says, misconceived regulation was a large part of problem.

Because de-regulation is not bad. It is bad regulation that is bad. Banks were key to the financial crisis - and banks were regulated, he observes.

The more serious failing, Ferguson continues, is the feeling of impunity within the banking industry. This is not an issue of deregulation, but non-punishment. There was a failure to apply the law. The list of people jailed for their role in the USA's sub-prime crisis is "laughably short," says Prof Ferguson.

Extra compliance is not the solution, he says, because adding rules upon rules upon rules removes the need for banks to simply ask themselves "are we doing the right thing?"

Plus, the principal beneficiary of tighter regulation will not be the economy - but the legal profession. Lawyers, he says, will gain lucrative business explaining to financial institutions what the increasingly dense rules mean.

Simplicity is the best defence for taxpayers and citizens, says Niall Ferguson, as it is the only way to ensure a complex financial industry becomes less fragile. Discretion should replace compliance. Combined with this should be strong central banks, run by people of wisdom and experience - and proper punishment for those who break the rules.

  • Do you believe we should have more - or less - financial regulation?
  • Is enforcement of regulation a problem?
  • How do you prove an investment bank was knowingly irresponsible - versus making a bad investment decision?
  • Is it just too late to simplify the banking sector?


Listen to Niall Ferguson's Reith Lectures

Download Niall Ferguson's 2012 Reith Lectures

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Niall Ferguson's second lecture, The Darwinian Economy, will be repeated on Radio 4 on Saturday, 30 June at 22:15 BST.

The third lecture in the series, titled The Landscape of the Law, will explore the rule of law in comparative terms - and its role in the development of countries such as China. This will broadcast on Radio 4 on Tuesday, 3 July at 09:00 BST.

Radio 4 Comedy Round-Up - 23/06/12

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Clarissa Maycock 12:30, Saturday, 23 June 2012

"Star Trekkin' is a song that no-one has ever covered on The X Factor... why is that?" - Charlie Brooker, So Wrong It's Right

Charlie Brooker

There has been some great comedy on Radio 4 this week - including the last in the current series of So Wrong It's Right with Charlie Brooker, Richard Osman, Rob Beckett and Susan Calman.

The panel admitted to some embarrassing teenage moments and came up with some very bad ideas for new laws, but it was Richard Osman from Pointless who broke part of Charlie Brooker's mind with his idea to make it illegal for anyone to use full versions of words:

So we say goodbye to So Wrong It's Right for now, but welcome back everyone's favourite light-hearted science panel show The Infinite Monkey Cage, which returned this week to explore the last great unexplored frontier... the depths of the ocean.

Apparently we know more about the surface of the moon than we do the depths of the ocean - plus there are things with big teeth at the bottom of the ocean.

So... would you rather be James Cameron or James T Kirk?

From the depths of the ocean to the frozen tundra of Antarctica - meet Ben, a lonely scientist working in Antarctica who only has a dodgy internet connection and a dictaphone to keep him company.

Bird Island is a new sitcom penned by Katy Wix starring The League of Gentlemen's Reece Shearsmith and Green Wing's Julian Rhind-Tutt.

In this clip Ben and Graham are faced with a lack of food supplies:

Feedback - Hackney Weekend

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Roger Bolton Roger Bolton 16:30, Friday, 22 June 2012

Roger Bolton

King Henry 8th had a palace there, and principal members of his court, such as Sir Ralph Sadleir, had their houses in the surrounding area.

In 1727 the author of Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe, said that "This town is so remarkable for the retreat of wealthy citizens, that there is at this time near a hundred coaches kept in it", and Defoe couldn't help repeating the crack that "there were more coaches than Christians in it".

He was talking about what is now Hackney Central, only a few miles away from London's West End, but an area associated with high levels of gun crime, high unemployment and social deprivation, where large numbers of kids seem to hang about street corners with seemingly little to do, as police cars speed by, their sirens blaring. In short it is not the place that a late middle aged, middle class, white man would usually go, but I am very glad I went.

For a start the main thoroughfare, Mare Street, has been revitalised.

The Hackney Empire Theatre, home of early 20th century variety, has become a 21st century venue, hosting drama, opera, and comedy productions, and across the way there is a multiplex cinema with coffee bars and meeting area.

This may be a veneer, but it is an attractive one, and it is here that the BBC Radio 1 and 1Xtra Academy is mounting its three week Take It On initiative, urging young people in the area to Get Inspired and Get Involved.

There are free practical workshops on fashion, music, film, radio, gaming and journalism, comedy and business.

All this, of course, leads up to Radio 1's Hackney Weekend where mega stars like Jay Z and Rihanna are performing.

I wanted to find out whether such an initiative does reach parts of the country the BBC normally neglects, and whether there was a danger of raising expectations which could not be fulfilled.

Here is our Feedback report:

Also this week I talked to Ben Cooper, the newish Controller of Radio 1 about his plans. I asked him for his reaction to the BBC Trust's instruction to lower the average age of his audience, in other words getting rid of some of his older listeners.

Here is our interview:

By the end of next week white smoke should be seen emerging from Broadcasting House on the appointment of a new BBC Director General.

Do let us know what you think of the appointment, when it is made, and what her, or his, priorities should be.

Thanks for listening - and reading.

Roger Bolton

Roger Bolton presents Feedback

  • Listen again to this week's Feedback, get in touch with the programme, find out how to join the listener panel or subscribe to the podcast on the Feedback web page.
  • Read all of Roger's Feedback blog posts.

In Our Time: Annie Besant

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Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg 18:13, Thursday, 21 June 2012

Editor's note: In Thursday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed the life of the campaigner and writer Annie Besant. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep - PMcD

Annie Besant - In Our Time



Well, after that gallop through the life of Annie Besant there isn't much left to say. Although of course, in a way, there's everything left to say. Did she have close relationships with the men whom she, if not hero-worshipped, at least took for mentors throughout her life? All the contributors alluded to the close relationships she had with Bradlaugh and Voysey and one or two others, but none, as it were, went into the bedroom. So I won't either. Apart from anything else, I haven't a clue what happened and I don't think it matters very much, if at all, in terms of what she did.

Afterwards the consensus was that she did so many different things that it was difficult to focus on what had made her outstanding. Somehow her success got in the way of her fame. Had women been able to enter Parliament in the late nineteenth century, she would most certainly have swept in and swept through Parliament with her great gift for speech-making and the power of her passion for causes, and been a huge and cleansing force to be reckoned with on the radical side of almost any argument.

But theosophy stepped in. Madame Blavatsky, a woman who claimed she was Russian but was suspected of being an American, cast a spell over women in particular because theosophy made a place for them which they did not have in the other religions at the time and because, clearly, they were intrigued by it.

So off to India in a white silk sari and round the lecture route as she had been in her home country, and once again there were solid achievements - the school for boys at Benares, for instance - and the extraordinary achievement of becoming president of the Indian National Congress. I can't remember whether I mentioned in the programme that she was interned in India, bizarrely, for urging the Indians to rise up against the British while they were preoccupied with World War One.

Then out into London, which is still deconstructing from the great event of the Diamond Jubilee. The Mall is still closed to traffic, which is wonderful for the likes of us who enjoy wandering round the city. St James's Park is gradually being cleared of fleets of lavatories and piles of bins and all the infrastructure of the great day. Central London is full of yellow signs diverting traffic so often that you get to Westminster by way of Bethnal Green if you start off in Barnet. But somehow a cheerfulness prevails, except among those who are driving cars and really want to go a little more directly to Bethnal Green, to Barnet, or to Westminster.

I was in St James's Park the other day when the sun was beaming and it was as it always is - quite magical. I drifted across to Green Park, full of the green and white striped deckchairs and only about half a dozen unoccupied, as London's tourists and, one hopes, office workers taking a bit of time off bathed in the sun. And today, when it's Ladies' Day at Ascot and I'm off to see an opera in the country, it is - I have to dictate this stoically - raining cats and dogs or staircase rods and, it is predicted, there will be thunder and lightning. Hey-ho.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

Niall Ferguson: Reith Lecture pt.1 - The Human Hive

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Richard Fenton-Smith 09:00, Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Professor Niall Fergusson presents The Reith Lectures on BBC Radio 4


“Society is a contract… the state is a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are yet to be born.”

This quote from the 18th Century political theorist and philosopher Edmund Burke summarises much of the argument put forward in the first of the 2012 Reith Lectures given by the economic historian Niall Ferguson, which broadcast on Radio 4 this morning.

Professor Ferguson says we are currently witnessing an unparalleled breach of this partnership because of the huge debts being racked up by governments, which are set to be passed on to younger – and unborn - generations.

Furthermore, says Professor Ferguson, many governments are dishonest about their true level of debt. The present system, he says, is “fraudulent” and “huge government liabilities are hidden from view.”

“No legitimate business could carry on in this manner and the last corporation to publish financial statements this misleading was Enron.”

In the lecture, Professor Ferguson listed a series of proposals for reform of government finances:

  • Public sector balance sheets should be drawn-up so that government liabilities can be compared to assets.
  • Governments should adopt the Generally Accepted Accounting Principles, which corporations abide by. 
  • Above all, governments should be prepared, on a regular basis, to make absolutely clear the inter-generational implications of current fiscal policy.

In the current climate, austerity is something young voters in particular should welcome, he argues – but concedes that winning support for this is a mountainous task.

But, says Professor Ferguson, if we do not embark on wholesale reform of government finance, we will end up with the scenario where Western democracies are going to carry on until one after another they follow Greece and other Mediterranean economies into “the fiscal spiral of death”.

Alternatively, we all become like Japan and face decades of low to zero growth.

What do you think of the issues raised in the lecture?

  • Are Western democracies in denial about their debt levels?
  • Are the alternatives to austerity more effective?
  • Do you agree the baby boomers have benefited at the expense of younger generations?

Listen to the full lecture on the Radio 4 website

Download Niall Ferguson's 2012 Reith Lectures

Richard Fenton Smith is a Senior Broadcast Journalist for News and Current Affairs Radio.


Niall Ferguson’s first Reith Lecture, titled The Human Hive, will be repeated on Radio 4 on Saturday, 23 June at 22:15 BST.

The second lecture in the series, titled The Darwinian Economy, will examine the issue of financial regulation. This will broadcast on Radio 4 on Tuesday, 26 June at 09:00 BST

Selecting The New Elizabethans

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Clarissa Maycock 10:52, Monday, 18 June 2012

Editor's Note: Tony Hall is the Chief Executive of the Royal Opera House. He chaired the panel which chose 60 public figures who define Queen Elizabeth II's reign for the landmark Radio 4 series The New Elizabethans. Here he writes about selecting these New Elizabethans - CM.

Queen Elizabeth II

It was an offer I couldn't refuse. Would I chair of panel of eminent - and feisty - historians to judge "men and women whose actions during the reign of Elizabeth II have had a significant impact on lives in these islands...for better or worse." One thing was certain: whatever decisions the panel came to would be controversial. As with every list, there'd be arguments over who was in and who was left out.

Should the people chosen as New Elizabethans be a collection of saints? Absolutely not was the decision: it would not be an honours list, instead what mattered were people who were 'weather makers' influencing the nation's life. They would paint a portrait of the age. So my hero - David Attenborough - made it through with acclamation. But so too did Enoch Powell, who was at the centre of debates about race and immigration in the '60s and '70s. Radio 4 listeners were invited to nominate their candidates; over a thousand names were put forward, among them Myra Hindley. But that was a step too far: notoriety or infamy do not make a New Elizabethan.

What was incontrovertible in the long list, and then in the sixty names chosen, was the dominance of culture. Excellence here is one of the defining characteristics of the age of Queen Elizabeth II. In painting, Francis Bacon and David Hockney made it through a long list of candidates. Theatre was richly peopled: the final choices of Laurence Olivier, Harold Pinter and Peter Hall were the subject of heated debate. The panel decided that with only 60 programmes, we could only have one poet and in the end decided narrowly on Phillip Larkin over John Betjeman, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath or Seamus Heaney. Music, in which the UK has been outstanding, again made for really difficult choices: John Lennon and Paul McCartney - together in one programme because, to be frank, it was hellishly difficult getting the list down to 60 and because it was impossible to choose between them. But also Benjamin Britten (cheers from me) and David Bowie. And just think who we left out. For writers, the choice narrowed to Graham Greene, Doris Lessing, Salman Rushdie, and, because the panel were keen to ensure an author who wrote for children of all ages was represented, the amazing Mr Dahl. Fashion is represented by Vivienne Westwood, architecture by Norman Foster and design by Terrence Conran. Looking through the lists of so many other exemplary names who never made it into the final list, you can't escape the fact that we're a creative nation and that this is one of the areas that defines our place in the world.

It was also amazing to look back at the scientific discoveries and innovations made by Britons during the reign. The inclusion of figures like Dorothy Hodgkin, Richard Doll, Robert Edwards and Francis Crick demonstrate the huge advances made in medical science - the discovery of the structure of penicillin; research showing the health damaging effects of smoking; IVF and the discovery of the structure of DNA. And of course in Dorothy Hodgkin we also had the first British woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize for science. We also included Jocelyn Bell Burnell for her breakthrough as an astrophysicist, identifying the first radio-pulsars - described as the "greatest astronomical discovery of the twentieth century." And we couldn't leave out the computer scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee for his role in bringing about perhaps the biggest game-changer of them all - the World Wide Web.

The panel were keen to capture some of the key changes in all our lives over the last 60 years - but intolerant of duplications. Again hard choices. Alan Sainsbury, one of the supermarket pioneers who brought us, amongst other things, oven ready frozen chickens and Sir Ralph Robins who made Rolls Royce one of Britain's biggest manufacturing successes are included. Roy Jenkins as a reforming Home Secretary. David Trimble and John Hume who shared the Nobel Peace Prize for Northern Ireland, whose descent into and recovery from violence was one of the dominating themes of the Elizabethan years. Germaine Greer representing the women's movement, surely one of the biggest changes of the last 60 years.

We also looked for people who are not household names but who have nonetheless had a huge impact on our society. So, very much guided by Max Hastings, Talaiasi Labalaba - a Fijian born NCO who the special forces regard as their great hero for his unbelievable courage in a secret operation in Oman, where he lost his life - was chosen. And Jayaben Desai, the truly inspirational leader of the Grunwick strike, whose actions helped to improve conditions for immigrant workers, especially women. Or Vladimir Raitz, inventor of the package holiday, which has revolutionised the way we travel.

In the end, after three long, noisy and highly entertaining meetings, the emphasis of the group changed from reducing the numbers through voting to thinking about how the sixty felt as a radio series. Were the sixty rounded enough to represent the Elizabethan era? In the end it's a matter of judgement. But what is clear is that Queen Elizabeth's sixty years have been just an interesting, if not more so, than the reign of her namesake Elizabeth I.

Tony Hall is the Chief Executive of the Royal Opera House

  • Visit the New Elizabethans website to the full list of public figures included in the series.
  • Download the podcast
  • Follow Radio 4 on Twitter and Facebook.

Ulysses on Saturday Live

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Katherine Campbell 18:55, Friday, 15 June 2012

Sandymount Strand, the stretch of water near Dublin where several scenes from Ulysses take place

On Saturday 16th June, Radio 4 is broadcasting a seven part dramatisation of James Joyce's Ulysses. To mark the occasion, Saturday Live will be in Dublin. Here, Dixi Stewart, Executive Editor of Saturday Live, describes her experience of reading the book.

Sometimes when you're making programmes things just fall into place. I've spent the last few weeks working out how Jeremy Mortimer's beautiful dramatisations of Ulysses would sit in Saturday Live's unpredictable mix of remarkable people and their extraordinary lives.

I'd spent many hours talking about it with my wise and thoughtful colleagues at Radio 4, I'd asked JP Devlin to go to Dublin to record a Crowdscape feature and I'd arranged for him and Bloomsday presenter Mark Lawson to join us live over a breakfast of kidneys. I'd invited the classicist, comedian and commentator Natalie Haynes to be our studio guest as she knows all there is to know about the original Greek Ulysses, but, like most of us, has never read the James Joyce book, and the Saturday Live team had gathered some cracking stories and features (Norman Lamont's Inheritance Tracks, anyone? One choice is Je ne Regrette Rien).

I wasn't too worried. I'd spent a half-term week next to the snotgreen and doubtless scrotum-tightening sea with a copy of Ulysses, and so much of the text was pure Saturday Live: 'the druidy druids', 'the wavewhite wedded words', 'the sunflung spangles' and 'the deaf gardener with Matthew Arnold's face'. But I was still looking for one story to bring it all together. At our programme meeting on Tuesday we had various alternatives but none was quite right. Then on Wednesday evening I was chatting to Sian Williams when I remembered a story she'd sent me some weeks before about a woman called Susan Richards who, 20 years ago, had been inspired by a stall full of books at a damp June fete to send a million books to the former Soviet Union. Meteorologically topical, we thought, and a literary theme, and wouldn't it be perfect if we could find someone in Russia who'd received some of the books?

So the next morning I called the splendidly knowledgeable Susan Richards who not only agreed to come into the programme but who also generously offered to track down Ekaterina Genieva, who'd organised the distribution of the books in Moscow to see if she could join us too. Yesterday evening, I got the call: Ekaterina could join us from Berlin to tell her side of the story and how the shipment of books had changed people's lives. What was most extraordinary was that Ekaterina herself studied English literature, and had written her thesis on - would you believe it? Ulysses.

Saturday Live: pure serendipity. I do hope you can join us tomorrow at 9.

In Our Time: Ulysses

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Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg 15:22, Friday, 15 June 2012

Editor's note: In Thursday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed Ulysses. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep - PMcD

James Joyce


What a joy Joyce was! I will try to write this piece without any full stops, but I'm absolutely sure that Ingrid will not let that happen (Ingrid is going to put a full stop here. I just know it.). In fact, Ulysses is full of full stops. He has short sentences and shorter sentences and one word sentences, each one of those, in most of the book, is followed by a full stop.

As I've not been able to wander around town after the programme because I am confined to offices and work and answering emails and setting things up, I hope, for the next few months, here are a couple of things.

Firstly, I was astonished to learn that Joyce wrote at least a third of the book (i.e. about 80,000 words) in the last few weeks. You expect a masterpiece to be carefully crafted over the centuries. But no. When he got the proofs he pounded through them and added and added and added. It seems he was not a cutter. He was a piler-on. Maybe that would account for some of the extended passages of interior monologue, which can (sorry) have the effect of leading to a closing of the eyes and a turning off of the tap of attention.

The problem is what is the root of it? If, like the scholars on board this morning, you are deeply aware of the root and if, like the Joyce scholars throughout the world, you are alive inside this book and can recite chunks of it by heart and turn up in Dublin on Bloomsday and resent (I've already had those phone calls and it's only 12.15) any criticism whatsoever of Joyce, then that is practically unsayable. Exile from the literature department of the university will surely follow.

But it seems to me that many massive masterpieces have great stretches of rather boring, often bemusing, sometimes even sterile, territory. Not that I'm accusing Joyce of this. I'm admitting that if I go back again and again and again, then there is much to be dug out. The problem is, for most of us, reading a novel is something we want to do once or at the most twice, but spending a lifetime reading one novel is simply - well, most of us haven't got that sort of lifetime.

I remember reading it when I was - 21? - and being excited by it and tremendously impressed, particularly by the opening plain passages, and then carried through by the rushes of interior monologue and the excitement of so many allusions to classical scholarship. Reading it again this time, I wondered what the significance of those allusions should be? Just flicking in names does...what? Of course I'm not suggesting that Joyce did that, but sometimes it seems perilously like that (I'm getting in deeper here). Yet the fact remains that it is an extraordinarily vivid read, a brainstormer if ever there was one, and I've had much pleasure over the last few days.

Craving Ingrid's indulgence for one more moment - when I read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man it was my first introduction to Roman Catholicism. We had a Roman Catholic church in the town and it was very well attended. I had Roman Catholic friends outside the school. But the closeness of the intensity of the Roman Catholic Eucharist to the High Anglican Eucharist struck me - shall we use a pagan term and say like a thunderbolt? I thought that their practices were so different.

Lots more to say, but that's where Joyce leaves you. Except that it is curious that the accurate, even innocent, and unsalacious description of Leopold Bloom in the jakes should arouse such fear and disgust in the mind of the great modernist himself, Ezra Pound.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

PS: After the programme Tom Morris, the producer, told me something that the Irish writer Fintan O'Toole said: "You're allowed to skip. The Joyce police will never know. If it's not working for you, move on. God knows there's plenty more."

Feedback: Broadcast breakdown

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Roger Bolton Roger Bolton 11:34, Friday, 15 June 2012

Roger Bolton presents Feedback on BBC Radio 4


How can I express to you what it feels like to be a producer whose live outside broadcast has just broken down? It is the stuff of nightmares.

You feel utterly helpless and sick in the pit of your stomach. You look beseechingly at your engineers, desperate for reassurance that the interruption won't be long. Then you try and work out what you will say when you get back on air, if you get back on air. What will you have to cut in order to get out on time at the end of the programme.?

I remember an edition of Panorama in which a young David Dimbleby was left talking to camera with nothing to say for what seemed a lifetime. Every time he though salvation was in sight and was told to got to another programme source - there was nothing there , no film, no video tape, no OB, nothing.

Each time the studio director cut back to an increasingly bemused looking Dimbleby, who was reduced to picking up a phone and pretending he was having a conversation with his producer, while a pink glow gradually enveloped his cheeks. I also remember a Thames Television news magazine programme presented by Bill Grundy.

After the opening titles ran and the vision mixer cut to Grundy he grimly explained that he had nothing to say. No film or vt reports were ready, no guest was in the studio. Then there was the noise of doors opening and closing and someone running across the studio floor . The camera cut to a guest climbing onto a seat and fiddling with a microphone. Grundy allowed him to settle and then asked his first question.

The guest opened his mouth, but no sound emerged, except for that of air being gulped by someone who had just run up two flights of stairs and was literally speechless. So when I heard that the transmission of Radio 3's Choral Evensong had been interrupted twice in two weeks I was quite sympathetic.

But there was another breakdown on the 23rd May and a fourth on the 30th May.

That made 4 breakdowns in 5 weeks.

Surely there must be a common thread?

Some fans of the programme believe there is and they wonder if the breakdowns are the result of cutbacks in back up facilities.

In Feedback this week I put their concerns to the Head of Radio for BBC Religion, Christine Morgan.

By the way, there are rumours that the name of the new DG will be released next week. If it is, do let me know what you want to know about him or her and we'll try and get the appointee or the Chairman who appointed him/her onto the programme as soon as possible.

After all, you pay the Director General's salary.

Roger Bolton

Roger Bolton presents Feedback

Reading Ulysses

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Reverend Richard Coles Reverend Richard Coles 11:07, Friday, 15 June 2012

On Saturday 16th June, Radio 4 is broadcasting a seven part dramatisation of James Joyce's Ulysses. To mark the occasion, Saturday Live will be in Dublin. Here, Saturday Live presenter Reverend Richard Coles talks about his experience of reading Ulysses.


I had a fight with a monk a couple of years ago. I was staying at a monastery in Yorkshire and I was obliged to watch one evening a DVD of the Lord of the Rings. This, for me was purgatorial, and I'm afraid I couldn't resist sighing and tutting at its more egregious moments. This, understandably, annoyed everyone, especially this one monk who turned on me for sneering at a film so faithfully based on what he called "the greatest novel in English".

Outraged, I shouted back, "ULYSSES!" and our argument got so heated others had to intervene and we went grumpily back to our cells.

I think I was at least partly right, though. Ulysses is certainly up there, with Moby-Dick and Middlemarch and possibly the Map and Lucia novels of EF Benson, but its almost certainly the least read among them.

I have read it, first as a teenager, partly because I was dutifully working my way through a list of Penguin Classics, but mostly because I was anxious to display my prodigious erudition to an indifferent world. I carried it around faithfully for weeks, making sure the advancing cracks in its spine were visible, and read it on the bus in what I hoped was a posture of devoted attention. How I managed to do this without being punched is a wonder.

I read it as an enthusiastic neophyte might read the wisdom of his ancients, diligently, religiously even, but without taking much of it in. The urinous kidneys, the various voidings of human waste and the sex briefly held may attention, but the rest might as well have been a telephone directory for all the good it did me.

It was only later, reading it as an adult, that I think I actually read it at all. I had browsed the Idiot's Guide to Modernism by then, and didn't feel duty bound to plough through it as I would a detective novel, carefully, from beginning to end and in the right order so as not to miss anything; its formal difficulty began not to seem so difficult as I gradually got more and more interested in what was happening at narrative's edges and in its backwash; also I was better tuned to its music, finding the once bewildering torrent of seemingly undifferentiated stuff now resonant, humming with something I recognized from my own experience of life in all its peculiarly lovely banality.

Also, it occurred to me after Compline when we were - infuriatingly - in Greater Silence, it isn't a film script waiting to happen. It can't be turned into a film at all, though a couple of people have tried. What better endorsement could there be?



Revered Richard Coles presents Saturday Live

  • Visit the Ulysses website and listen to audio clips of the drama
  • See when the episodes of Ulysses are being broadcast on Saturday 16th June
  • Visit the Saturday Live website and subscribe to their newsletter

Help us test the new Radio 4 & 4 Extra homepage

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Nigel Smith Nigel Smith 17:55, Thursday, 14 June 2012

Screen grab of Radio 4 beta homepage

You may have noticed a link on the top of the Radio 4 and Radio 4 Extra homepages pointing to 'RADIO BETA' and inviting you to 'Try it now and tell us what you think'. A 'beta' website is one that's still in development and being tested. This week we've started testing new beta homepages for Radio 4 and Radio 4 Extra. These will replace the current ones later in the year when the BBC launches its new Radio & Music Product - a one-stop shop for listening to live and on demand radio from the BBC on any digital device. We'd really like to hear what you think of them to help us to continue to improve these pages before they move out of beta. The Welcome page explains the new features while this blog post by Chris Kimber, the Executive Product Manager for the Radio and Music product, has more detail about the release. As well as leaving a comment here, the feedback page has the option to complete a brief survey and send an email to us directly. If you're discussing the beta site on Twitter please use the hashtag #bbcradiobeta so we can keep track of all comments. Many thanks in advance for any of your feedback. There's more information via the links below. Nigel Smith is the Interactive Editor, Radio 4 and Radio 4 Extra

Dramatising Ulysses

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Clarissa Maycock 14:44, Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Editor's note: Robin Brooks dramatised James Joyce's 'Ulysses' for BBC Radio 4. Here, he writes about the challenges of adapting Joyce for radio. Ulysses is broadacst in seven parts on Satuday 16th January -CM.

Henry Goodman and Niamh Cusack

So, Ulysses, whose idea was that then, eh? Reader, it was mine. But it was producer Claire Grove's idea to do it all in one day. Brave - foolhardy - at the time we said were looking for a challenge. We got one.

We also got a chance to do some development work; I was sent away to hash out sample scenes, and made a deceptively encouraging discovery. Part of the difficulty of reading Joyce comes from the fact that he doesn't often distinguish between voices on the page: narration - interior monologue - dialogue - all flow one into another, and it bewilders the eye. But when you lay out the work as a script, you have to apportion those voices, and as soon as you do, suddenly everything becomes much, much more accessible. That was the good news. But then work started in earnest.

The very worst thing about that utter cad Joyce is that he's such a slippery little beast. Just when you think you've worked out what some of it means and how to have a go at it, he moves the goal-posts. Throughout the book he makes radical changes to the style in which he presents what might otherwise be the simple story of a day in the life of an advertising canvasser. He does this with every one of the eighteen chapters that make up the novel. Sometimes he moves the goal-posts an inch or two, sometimes he transports them to another country entirely. There's the chapter which is written as if words are musical notes. There's the chapter which is written in factual question and answer form, as though compiling entries for an encyclopaedia. There is, my personal least favourite, the chapter in which Joyce changes the style with each paragraph, in order to chart the history of English prose - why does he do this? I don't know - starting with pre-historic gibberish, up through Anglo-Saxon, Mallory, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Pepys, a tour round various eighteenth and nineteenth century prose writers, and ending with modern slang - that's to say more gibberish.

All this takes a while. More people are press-ganged onto the project; some highly experienced sound engineers, and producers Jeremy Mortimer and Jonquil Panting. It's years, for me, from our initial proposal to the afternoon when I am sitting in Studio 60A listening to Niamh Cusack performing the last chapter. This is Joyce's consoling lollipop: a dramatic monologue that doesn't have to be dramatised at all, nothing to do with me, so this bit I can recommend to you with a clear conscience. Niamh is utterly fabulous, and so is Joyce, really. The more we worked on him, the more we dealt with his infuriating, bizarre, wilful, lunatic excesses, the more respect we came to have for him and his bloody great book.

Robin Brooks dramatised this weekend's adaptation of Ulysses.

  • Visit the Ulysses website and meet the main characters
  • See when the episodes are being broadcast on Saturday 16th June
  • Read Jeremy Howe's blog about celebrating Ulysses on Radio 4.

Feedback: BBC Jubilee Coverage

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Roger Bolton Roger Bolton 17:10, Friday, 8 June 2012

Thames flotilla for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee

Thames flotilla for the Queen's Diamond Jubilee

Sixty years ago it was relatively simple...

BBC television had no competition (ITV would not start until 1955, BBC2 began in 1964 Channel 4 not until 1982, Sky in 1990 and Channel 5 in 1997)). Once the permission of the Abbey was obtained and Richard Dimbleby, the "Gold Microphone in Waiting", safely booked, the Coronation coverage was relatively plain sailing.

The BBC was the "voice of the nation" and on Royal occasions unquestionably Royalist. (It was the first television event I watched, indeed the reason my father bought the black and white 12 inch set before which we crouched in awed attention. In front of it was a large magnifying glass, to enlarge the picture, but which also enlarged the noses of the Royal family.

All the relatives crowded in to our front room, which otherwise was only used for visits by the Vicar, and was kept spotless. The day ended, as I remember, with the lighting of beacons, which we, in Carlisle, could not see because of the rain and wind. The weather hasn't changed that much evidently.

The coverage of the Diamond Jubilee celebrations presented rather more complex problems. For a start, the question of whether and how to reflect the views of the 13per cent or so who say they are republicans. Then what should be the tone of the coverage? The Corporation decided that a different one was required for the River Pageant than for the other events, and has received some pretty stinging criticism for not just the tone, but also for the quality and accuracy of the coverage.

There was also criticism of the lack of coverage of the Pageant on Radio 4.

Overall the BBC's coverage seems to have been regarded as a triumph, with massive audiences, great audience appreciation and slick, seamless production, but something seems to have gone wrong when it came to that Pageant.

This is how we dealt with the concerns on Feedback

Roger Bolton

Roger Bolton presents Feedback

James Joyce's Playlist

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Clarissa Maycock 14:30, Friday, 8 June 2012

As part of Radio 4's countdown to Bloomsday on 16th June, James Joyce's Playlist is broadcast Saturday 9th June at 10.30. Recorded in James Joyce's Martello Tower near Dublin, presenter David Owen Norris discovers and recreates James Joyce's favourite songs. The programme's producer, Elizabeth Burke, has written this blog about why James Joyce is such a good candidate for the Playlist Series - CM

The Martello Tower in Dublin

The Martello Tower in Dublin

I`ve always been afraid of James Joyce. Too difficult, too clever, a club I didn`t feel able to join. I spent three years studying literature without reading a word. I owe my Joyce education to my son; he took me on a Joyce pilgrimage and I walked round Dublin listening to `Ulysses` on my headphones. I suddenly understood: this is writing which makes sense when you hear it aloud: like music.

So it was no surprise to discover that James Joyce`s first ambition was to be a professional singer. The summer he was 22, he entered a prestigious singing competition; he flunked the sight-reading test and only managed the bronze medal. But Joyce carried on singing, and on the way to a gig he spotted a pretty girl in the street. She was Nora Barnacle; it was June 16th 1904, and the rest is literary history. This was the day on which Joyce set `Ulysses`, a date celebrated round the world as `Bloomsday`.

James Joyce is the perfect candidate for the `Playlist` series I`ve been making with musician David Owen Norris. We hunt out the favourite songs of great figures from the past - Dickens, Jane Austen, Shakespeare. We ask biographers and historians to tell us what music they played and sang, and we discover their own sheet music. (Samuel Pepys` was covered with wine stains; Jane Austen`s had caricatures in the margins.) David arranges the music in a jazzy contemporary style that you don`t even notice as a style - so we hear it as we hear music now, not as historical Early Music. It works, with the odd result that few notice the care and inspiration David brings to the arrangements. We record with musicians from very different backgrounds. Gwyneth Herbert is a jazz singer, Thomas Guthrie a classically-trained singer and opera director. Violinist Camilla Scarlett, clarinettist Andrew Lyle and guitarist Johan Lofving complete the team. With sound engineer Jon Calver, we squeeze into my sitting room, David Owen Norris at the piano. (My husband`s grandfather`s piano, a wonderful Steinway.) It`s fantastic fun. Then David and I take our recorded tracks to a location associated with the person -Thomas Hardy`s house, or Robert Burns` cottage, or Buckingham Palace even - and there we meet our experts and listen to the music with them.

It`s taken a year to assemble our guests for James Joyce`s Playlist. Declan Kiberd, the eminent Joyce scholar, was teaching in the US; the actor Barry McGovern was performing in LA; and Katherine O'Callaghan was about to have a baby - and start a new academic job in the States. Finally, David and I arrived with researcher Frances Beere at Joyce`s Martello tower to meet our dream team. They were terrific, as you`ll hear. Barry even played Joyce`s guitar for us. Best of all, there weren`t enough chairs and so I had the unforgettable experience of recording the programme perched on James Joyce`s bed (sheets none too clean). And to think I used to be scared of him.

Elizabeth Burke is the producer of James Joyce's Playlist.

In Our Time: King Solomon

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Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg 12:08, Friday, 8 June 2012

Editor's note: In Thursday's programme Melvyn Bragg and his guests discussed King Solomon. As always the programme is available to listen to online or to download and keep - PMcD

king Soloman



There's a sense in which the programme this morning reminded me in its form of Solomon and his decision to slice the baby in two, in order to discover who was the real mother. Although I don't think we discovered who was the real mother. Our slicing was between minimalists and maximalists.

The last three weeks have had the subtext (on In Our Time) of scholarship about scholarship. When we discussed Marco Polo, part of the discussion was - could we believe much of what he said and, indeed, had he said it?

When we discussed the Trojan War, similar problems of the authenticity of the written and the archaeological evidence came through. And again this morning, the records about Solomon were written three or four hundred years after his death, at a time of ideological emphasis in Israel when, as Martin Palmer pointed out, they were determined to have the great man that they thought Solomon had been.

The maximalists rely quite strongly on the Scriptures, however late they were written. The minimalists tend to point out the paucity of archaeological evidence. One thing that was missing entirely was a consideration of oral evidence, although I don't know how one gets at this.

The fact seems to be that in many of the greatest of the old civilisations - the Celts would be a fine example - oral evidence was the main source of historical, mythological and cultural continuity within a society. It is galling, to say the least, that we have no access to this.

What I would contend is that although the Scriptures in the Old Testament in which Solomon was mentioned were written three or four hundred years after his death, it is not impossible that a strong and carefully schooled oral tradition (such as we know the Celts to have been), could have taken through the main points of that story, even over that long time.

Formal oral traditions prided themselves on their accuracy. In fact, one of the reasons they would not have things written down was because they thought the written word could be so easily twisted and turned, whereas the spoken word, spoken by people who had been disciplined to learn accurately, was far more reliable.

And so out into the rain this time. Went down to St James's Park yesterday to see the dismantlement of that monument to scaffolding which looked like a Meccano set. Still crowds going up the Mall, perhaps just for the sake of going up a Mall free of traffic, between the Union Flags, and a final act of homage, or more likely, I think, a continuation of the sense of amiable, congenial, decent people in large numbers, quietly enjoying themselves, without extrovert bluster and over-organised pleasure. Very pleasant. But walking in the rain in central London is always pleasant. There's always somewhere you can duck into and shelter for a while. A convenient doorway.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

Celebrating Ulysses on Radio 4

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Jeremy Howe Jeremy Howe 17:00, Wednesday, 6 June 2012

James Joyce - author of 'one of the least read novels of the century, as one of the filthiest novels ever written and as one of the cleverest.'

Now this is a challenge! James Joyce's Ulysses has an awesome reputation - as one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century, as one of the least read novels of the century, as one of the filthiest novels ever written and as one of the cleverest. It is all of these, and more, but let's get something straight - for all its wit, bravura and its tricksiness, it is also one of the funniest most entertaining books to come out of Ireland, and is one of the most tender accounts of everyday life ever written. It is a completely engrossing portrait of the life of a great city over one day - Dublin on June 16th 1904, now known as Bloomsday after the workaday hero of the novel. Which is reason enough for Radio 4 to break its schedule and broadcast it across one day on June 16th.

We are in safe hands I think - Melvyn Bragg will set the book in its context in In Our Time a couple of days before, Mark Lawson, live from Dublin, will guide us through the novel as it is being broadcast, and the dramatisation - co produced by Jeremy Mortimer, fresh from his Sony triumph with A Tale of Two Cities, and Jonquil Panting, written by Robin Brooks who dazzled us with his version of I, Claudius a few years back, and starring Henry Goodman, Andrew Scott, Niamh Cusack, Stephen Rea and a stellar Irish cast - promises to be wonderful.

But it is pretty earthy too: it has one of the best toilet scenes in world literature, and enough sexual content for it to be seen as a work of pornography when it was first published. And Radio 4 is doing it all. To do Ulysses without the sex would to be unfaithful to one of the most beautiful books in the English language, and we think our audience would not thank us for censoring a masterpiece. Or as my boss, the Controller, Gwyneth Williams, says, luckily for us James Joyce was writing with the Radio 4 schedule in mind - although we have no watershed on Radio 4, all the sex scenes come late at night.

You have been warned - but it promises to be a real treat and great days listening, and if you cannot catch it all on air, it will be there to listen again and download for a fortnight after transmission. Please enjoy!

Editor note: James Joyce's Ulysses will be broadcast in seven parts on Saturday 16 June. The dramas will be available to download. Clips, videos, character profiles and a series of blog posts wil be available on the Radio 4 website.

Listen to clips, meet the characters, sign up for the downloads and find out more about this landmark dramatisation on the Ulysses site.

Feedback: Are some things too horrible to broadcast?

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Roger Bolton Roger Bolton 17:00, Friday, 1 June 2012

Roger Bolton

Feedback's presenter Roger Bolton

"Did they really say that? Why on earth would they want that broadcast? Do they really know what the consequences could be of millions of people listening in to some very private moments?"

All these thoughts went through my head when I heard the two part series The Trouble with Kane on Radio 4.

The producer followed a 12 year old boy arrested for possession of cannabis, who instead of being taken into custody is one of the first people in Britain to be dealt with through a combination of family therapy and home drug testing.

Of course I was riveted by the programmes, and stopped the car until they were over, but I wondered whether I should feel guilty for listening in?

And how much detail do we need to know about the horrors of the world?

Foreign Correspondent Mike Thomson talked to Zawadi Mongane a woman who had suffered terribly at the hands of rebel Rwandan rebel soldiers in the Congo. They made her hang her own child.

Did we need to know that and to listen to her tearful interview?

Another programme, Victoria Derbyshire on 5Live, broadcast from an abortion clinic, talking to some of the clients and spelling out the details of what happened there. Was this suitable for broadcasting to a mass audience?

All these were undeniably powerful, and in some cases, award winning, programmes, and three of the reporters and producers involved came into the Feedback studio to discuss the issues raised.

Here is that discussion.


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Afterwards I wondered if there was an age issue here.

My parents were born before the first world war and were pretty tight lipped about their private feelings, at least outside the home.

Although I would probably count as a child, or at least a teenager, of the 60s, I too was, perhaps still am, reticent about my private life., not that there is much to hide I say quickly.

Are today's teenagers, with information about anything, including porn, a mere switch way really any different? I suspect talking about ones deepest feelings is never easy, for anyone.

Roger Bolton presents Feedback

Bookclub: Philippa Gregory and The Other Boleyn Girl

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Jim Naughtie 16:21, Friday, 1 June 2012



We really can’t get enough of the Tudors, it seems. 

It’s hard not to believe that at some stage readers will feel that they would like a break… but there is no sign of it. Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies whizzed up the best-seller list the moment it left the warehouses three weeks ago, and C.J.Sansom’s thrillers set on the fringes of the Tudor court, in the teeming streets of London, have been extraordinarily successful; perhaps because they are gripping pieces of storytelling. 

In this month’s Bookclub (Sunday 3 June at 4pm and online too) we’re talking to Philippa Gregory about her book The Other Boleyn Girl which is another piece of the jigsaw – the popular opening book in her Tudor sequence, featuring Mary, sister of Anne Boleyn.  

The back story is familiar – Henry VIII, Philippa told our readers, became an insane tyrant after he had Anne executed – but when she started to write the book, little was known of Mary. She’d noticed that the King launched a ship called Mary Boleyn, found it intriguing, and started to burrow away.  

She realised that Mary had been Henry’s mistress before Anne, and had probably borne him two children, one being a boy. And since the publication of her book there have been three biographies. The industry thunders on.

This meant, of course, that historians were trading different theories about the little-known sister. Was she older or younger than Anne? Philippa, unapologetically, makes her younger and thinks that the psychology of the birth order helps with the plot. 

But if there were incontrovertible evidence that she was older she’d change the author’s note (people do leap from fiction to history, she says) but she wouldn’t change her story. She’s a teller of tales rather than a historian, after all. I asked her why she thought she knew Mary: “Sleight of hand. I made her up…” Exactly. 

And she finds it easier to work out what Mary might have been thinking 500 years ago than she would in trying to get inside the head of the presenter of Bookclub. I must say I was relieved, and I understood. 

Philippa is serious about her history, but also about the liberating power of fiction. 

That is one of the reasons she wrote the book in the first person, to avoid what she calls the great curse of the historian – hindsight.

“Nowhere in this book, I hope, does anybody think that Anne Boleyn is going to end up dead, not even when the scaffold is built for her. You’re always hoping she will get away with it.”

This is certainly setting great store by the willing suspension of disbelief. Her claim is that she can lure readers into the book through history, and then intoxicate them with the story of a woman who is so fascinating that she begins to fly on her own, a character released from the nuts and bolts of the historical record. 

This may be the reason why the Tudor story is so gripping, beyond the moments of drama themselves (beheading, divorces, and the birth and death of children). As Philippa put it, the atmosphere of the time was engrossing: who wouldn’t want to be the King’s mistress, and there was lots of sex going on between people who were married to other people. Fact. 

“It was a highly sexualised time. Everybody was very young and they were eating 80% meat in the diet, so they were pumped up young people.” I must say that I hadn’t thought before of the place of meat in the emotional  life of Henry’s court… but you learn something new every day.

And she was able to weave a story involving the three siblings – Anne, Mary and George Boleyn – which is, in part, the account of the fall of a great family – its lands, its heirs, its place in the realm. 

Simultaneously with that decline was the transformation of Henry from the “adorable” man who had married Katharine of Aragon to the tyrant who murdered Anne and drove himself mad as a consequence. It is that corrupting story of power and ego that drives the story, and perhaps that continues to draw us so powerfully  to the story of those years, six wives and all. 

The simple truth is that there is no period into which is packed such a rich collection of characters whose private dramas seem utterly fused with the life of country. Or so we believe. It may be an illusion, but it is one to which we still happily surrender.

The Tudors remain irresistible. And for a historical novelist, intrigued by the operation of intellect, lust and ambition at a distance of 500 years, they remain the happiest of hunting grounds. I do hope you enjoy Philippa’s conversation – in which, incidentally, she comes out as “a Republican at heart.”

Our next recordings are with Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient) on Tues, June 19th, and Victoria Hislop (The Island ) on July 10th. Remember that on the Bookclub website, you can find out how to join us for one of our sessions with an author.

Happy reading


Jim Naughtie presents Bookclub


In Our Time: The Trojan War

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Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg 15:13, Friday, 1 June 2012

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

Trojan Horse



I am in such awe of scholars that when they pronounce and I think that I have an alternative, nay, contradictory opinion, I clam up. And such it was this morning, ladies and gentlemen, when Susan Sherratt said that I was wrong to say that Aeneas was half man, half god. Edith Hall (after the programme!) said that I was right. His mother was Aphrodite. This tiny patch of knowledge on the subject is only because I "did" the Aeneid for A-level!

Otherwise, it was again an example of a programme that was both full of scholarship and questioning scholarship. In that way, similar to the Marco Polo programme.

And so out into London. The West End is en fete. Regent Street, Bond Street, Jermyn Street, all sorts of streets in the West End are flying the flag. Hundreds of flags. Big Union Flags. Arrayed in, as it were, columns, they're rather like the guards marching in full step, with the red stripe down the outside leg and the drums beating the time. The Union Flag en masse becomes impressive. Shops, coyly or boldly, express their loyalty and affection to HM The Queen, and again it is always centred around the Union Flag, save in the Burlington Arcade where we have paper coronets (but are they merely paper in the Burlington Arcade?). Apart from most of the centre of London being shut off for the Great Day(s), there is a pleasant murmur on the streets.

Of course, this early flash of summer is a help. It brings out the smiles and the feeling of being rather blessed, which we English always have when we get good weather. But snatches of conversations tell you that in this village they are resurrecting the notion of boundary stones. In this street they are having a party which will go on until midnight. In this other place they are doing nothing but rather embarrassed about it, and perhaps if they get a move on they can do something.

It is tempting to think that the general geniality and affection which is being displayed for The Queen is not only for herself and her sixty faultless years, but also to emphasise how much a deeply trusted person doing a job well and, indeed, to the highest possible standards, contrasts with the witterings of Westminster.

That is a cross-party remark.

And so to wandering around the town to have lunch with a pal and back to the offices, which we still boast of as being the smallest offices in Soho, and we are suffering for that with the intense humidity. But never mind, it's London, it's 2012, we have a special bank holiday, The Queen has been on the throne for sixty years. I'm leaving the office in an hour or so to go to another meeting at seven o'clock. I'll be walking through Green Park and St James's Park to get there and having a deep conversation with the ducks, half expecting the pelicans to be painted in stripes of blue and red to go with their white.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

PS: (Sorry Ingrid!) In St James's Park, looked across to Buckingham Palace. It had disappeared. What faced me was a monstrous meccano of scaffolding, quite fantastical. Might be worthwhile keeping it up for a few months.

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