Archives for October 2012

Alistair Cooke's Letter From America

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Justin Webb 15:30, Wednesday, 31 October 2012

This week Radio 4 releases over 900 editions of Alistair Cooke's Letter From America. You can listen, download and read transcripts of all these programmes that span from 1946 to 2004. Here, Justin Webb talks about the impact and lasting influence of Letter From America.

Alistair Cooke typing

Alistair Cooke © Cooke Americas, RLLP

Alistair Cooke did more than any other single human being to open our minds to the world's greatest, and by and large its most successful, social experiment.

Remember: we did not care about the United States until the Second World War. Churchill was the first serving prime minister to go there. As the journalist Alexander Chancellor put it, "it is difficult to overestimate the ignorance of American history and culture that existed among most educated British people when Alistair Cooke started broadcasting"

That ignorance was not confronted head-on; that was not the Cooke style. He did not employ, in his writing, a spotlight aimed at dark corners. Rather he bathed all of America in a kindly light. And as it grew and changed so did he. The Letters become richer, denser, as time passes and as his love affair becomes more settled, surer, safer.

One of my favourites is from 1966: a man called Meyer Sugarman had written to the White House to complain because the president's party had commandeered, at short notice, the motel where he had been intending to have his honeymoon. The complaint secured an apology from Lyndon Johnson and the restoration of Mr and Mrs Sugarman's honeymoon plans.

Alistair did not approve. He did not say so of course, not in so many words. But what he did say about rights and responsibilities and the former tending to be stressed over the latter, summed up elegantly and adroitly the semi-unspoken fears of the many Americans who viewed the 1960s with growing alarm.

It is a Letter that amuses (Mr Sugarman is gently sent up) and informs and ultimately packs a gentle punch: watch where this is leading. All in a few minutes.

And where it leads Alistair followed; he was there decades later when Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992. Again his point is made with gentle wistful good humour, and he uses sartorial style to make a wider point about the new generation and its attitude to formality and the self-discipline that goes with it.

"Along with the passing of George Bush, we shall see, I fear, the passing of the Blue Blazer."

I wish I had written that. And a thousand other sentences that illuminate and amuse and can now be handed down the generations; a testament to the finest journalism about a nation and a people that the BBC has ever produced.

Justin Webb is a presenter of The Today Programme and former BBC Washington Correspondent he has written recently about the 'special relationship' in his book, Notes on Them and Us.

Radio 4 Extra: Parsley Sidings

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Mik Wilkojc 10:32, Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Editor's note: Parsley Sidings can be heard on Radio 4 Extra from 1 November. Once thought lost, these episodes have been assembled from off-air sources including a listener from East Anglia who read about the project in the local press. Here, Mik Wilkojc, the producer of the programme talks about the origins of the series and the hunt for the missing episodes. PMcD

As Oscar Wilde put it, "life imitates art far more than art imitates life" but, at Radio 4 Extra, we find the latter often holds true. When Doctor Beeching wielded his axe at British Rail in 1963, the BBC perpetrated an equally devastating deed a decade later by mislaying some comedy gems set in a sleepy railway station.

The radio comedy sitcom Parsley Sidings was piloted in February 1971 and, subsequently, two series of ten were made for Radio 2 between December 1971 and December 1973. Written by radio stalwart Jim Eldridge, Parsley Sidings is, apart from the re-writes of Dad's Army, the only radio series to star the much-loved Arthur Lowe. In 1981 Arthur did star in the successful pilot of a show called It Sticks Out Half A Mile - a direct spin-off of Dad's Army set in 1948 - but he died before the series could be recorded. However, his widow Joan Cooper was so impressed by the pilot, that the series went ahead with John Le Mesurier resurrecting his role as Wilson, but by now promoted to bank manager.

All of which makes mislaying most of the broadcast copies of Parsley Sidings even more frustrating. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde this time, "to lose one episode may be regarded as a misfortune. To lose sixteen looks like carelessness."

However, with a bit of Sherlock-like rooting around, we managed to locate versions of most of them. Then enter listener Bob Meade, who supplied better copies of some and, more vitally, the ones that were missing.

Keith Skues at the BBC for the original recordings of Parsley Sidings

Keith Skues recording at the BBC for the original Parsley Sidings programmes

Keith Skues recreates intros and outros for Parsley Sidings in 2012

Keith Skues recreates intros and outros for Parsley Sidings in 2012

The problem was, though, that all of the rediscovered episodes suffered from a technical triple whammy: they were recorded off-air, committed to cassette and then had been digitized as MP3s - all of which have a major detrimental, irredeemable impact on quality. What you'll hear on-air for the next few weeks is cleaned-up, but far from perfect. In addition, as is often the way with home recordings, all of the intros and outros were either missing or chopped off in their prime. This we solved by getting one of the original on-stage announcers, Keith 'Cardboard Shoes' Skues, to recreate them. Deep in the bowels of Keith's own incredible personal archives we not only found some original Parsley Sidings scripts, but the location was also the perfect setting for him to span the decades - as witnessed by the images - original microphone and all.

Parsley Sidings is a fascinating listen for soap fans. There's an evil nemesis at the next station down-the-line; dynastic friction between father and son; criminal overtones courtesy of a shady porter and sexual nuances between a voluptuous blonde and guileless youth. Thursdays now have another appointment to listen, on Radio 4 Extra, on-line or on digital radio.

Okay, a bit of hyperbole there, but if you remember the originals or love Dad's Army, you're in for a treat.

Mik Wilkojc is a producer on Radio 4 Extra

The Public Philosopher: Sharing The American Dream

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Mukul Devichand 08:50, Tuesday, 30 October 2012

Editors note: You can hear The Public Philosopher on Radio 4 at 9am on 23 and 30 Oct 2012. Here, Mukul Devichand who worked on the programme with Professor Sandel talks about the issues raised in the second programme. PMcD

Professor Sandel

"If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help," President Obama proclaimed to a crowd in Virginia back in July.

"There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive."

"If you've got a business - you didn't build that," he continued. "Somebody else made that happen."

For many Republicans, including Governor Mitt Romney who goes head to head with President Obama in the polls next week, this remark became symbolic.

They took it to be proof of President Obama's pro-redistribution, anti-business - indeed, un-American values.

"The President supports redistribution. I don't," Romney said. "It's never been a characteristic of America."

These remarks came after Romney made a gaffe of his own. Secretly filmed, he was heard to attack 47% of the US population he said were living without paying federal income taxes.

For this week's edition of The Public Philosopher with political philosopher Prof Michael Sandel, we challenged a public audience at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government to look on these statements by Romney and Obama not as gaffes - but as moral positions.

"Who built It?" we asked them. "Is the American Dream of individual success a myth?"

This turns out to be a sharply divisive issue - even in the liberal confines of Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Harvard is located.

And because it was in America, this was decisively not the usual Radio 4 fare on the question of welfare.

Our audience looked at healthcare reform and redistributive taxes through the prism of moral arguments.

From a British perspective, the arguments presented were strangely unfamiliar. From the very beginning, everyone in the room talked not about the common good, or shared responsibility - but about freedom.

Libertarians questioned the morality of taking people's incomes, through coercive taxation, for purposes like universal healthcare.

The opening gambit came from a man who questioned why someone else should ever have to pay for anyone's services and products - like healthcare.

"I am one of the someone elses," he said.

But strikingly, those who supported taxation for healthcare also raised the issue of freedom. Without basic healthcare for survival, they argued, is anyone truly free?

Prof Sandel noted that in the US debate, liberals as well as conservatives talk about freedom and coercion as the main rationale for their approaches.

Libertarians and conservatives argue that governments are wrong to take away people's incomes for redistribution - which they say contradicts American values as set out in the Constitution.

But liberals counter by quoting the Constitution themselves: without certain basic access to healthcare, education and so on, they ask, is an equal democracy truly possible?

Prof Sandel pointed out that this split goes way back in American history.

Even Franklin D. Roosevelt argued for his "new deal" reforms using the freedom argument, rather than the "common good" arguments used by British and other European social reformers.

"Necessitous men," said FDR, "are not free men."

  • But what do you think?
  • Does a welfare state limit everyone's freedom - or enhance it?
  • Is it morally right to tax the successful?

Mukul Devichand is a Senior Broadcast Journalist in News and Current Affairs, Radio

In Our Time: Fermat's Last Theorem

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Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg 12:50, Friday, 26 October 2012

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

Fermat's Last Theorem


No sooner had we finished what I thought was a brilliantly clear explanation by the three academics of Fermat's theorem than Marcus du Sautoy said, "the Travelling Salesman Problem is the next one you should tackle".

It sounded like something out of Thomas Hardy, but I still had enough energy to say "what's that?" Marcus explained that the problem was how to find a mathematical formula which would enable you to visit a number of cities in the shortest possible time. This isn't too difficult to do when few cities are involved, but when an enormous number of cities are involved it becomes extremely difficult indeed to find the shortest way. Working it out would also solve another mathematical mystery, the N versus NP problem. The benefits that this could bring to commerce and computing would be enormous, not to mention allowing football supporters (Marcus is, like myself, a disappointed Arsenal fan this morning - we were all over the place, the House of Lords was stuffed with them) to calculate precisely where we'd end up in the Premier League.

No, I mustn't trivialise it. The Travelling Salesman Problem will literally - Marcus again - "change the world". I've spent long enough now with what seem like abstruse or trivial mathematical problems not to believe that the consequences can be colossal for the future workings of the world. So watch out for the Travelling Salesman in a year or two on In Our Time.

Yesterday I tried to wind up for this, for me, difficult feat of Fermat. I went on Hampstead Heath which I like to do as many mornings as I can. It was as if it were painted in mist. Which made it, of course, most mysterious (sorry about that, but I do feel rather euphoric after Fermat). Dog walkers came across the hills with their splay of eight or nine dogs. People seemed to drift along the short horizons to unknown destinations. The further I walked the more I came to the wooded parts of the Heath which are now carpeted in yellow gold, with leaves happily rotting into the earth. When I walked on the streets of London later, the same leaves will have been blown into machines or blown off the top of ponds, or nature being destroyed! Or at least, not to be too dramatic, removed from view.

I saw a sign in Soho the other day which said: 'Waxing, £30, body and half leg'. Which leg? Which half? It really did say that!

Last week I did a very long newsletter which taxed Ingrid a bit too much, so this time I will say little except that the Angel Awards earlier this week, founded by Andrew Lloyd Webber, brought to the Cambridge Theatre in London sixteen groups which had restored utterly derelict churches, or factories, or industrial buildings, or barns, or canals - an amazing array of places in this country brought back to function and to splendour by armies and armies of volunteers.

The judges had a tough job. But in the end the four winners were: a derelict railway station in Tynemouth which is being refurbished and rebuilt to extraordinary standards, as high as you would expect from the engineering skills in the North East; a village church - congregation: 6 - which had restored a beautiful medieval tower and re-thatched the church roof and set in motion a thatching family; Droitwich Canals, at which one man had laboured voluntarily for more than fifty years and hundreds, even thousands, had helped him over that time; and the people who had withstood the flood in Cockermouth, and set their minds not only to restoring the town but to making it even better than it was before. This is the One Nation. This is the Big Society. People just getting on with it and not waiting to be told.

I can feel that I have to stop now.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

Feedback: Programmes featuring Prisons

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Roger Bolton Roger Bolton 12:38, Friday, 26 October 2012

Roger Bolton


It is becoming pretty clear that the late Jimmy Savile was very lucky not to spend his last years in prison.

If he had, how should he have been treated by a radio reporter?

With understanding or with condemnation or neutrally?

In Feedback this week we talked to the producers of two different radio programmes about prison.

"Dying Inside", presented and co-produced by Rex Bloomstein, examined the increasing number of older prisoners, many of whom are unlikely to see the outside world again.

In a second series , "The Bishop and the Prisoner", produced by Rosie Dawson, James Jones, Bishop of Liverpool, who believes everyone can be redeemed, had his beliefs put to the test.

Both producers claim that we must know and understand what is happening inside. To understand is not to condone, but it often makes easy condemnation more difficult. Most of us wish to turn away from the unpleasant, however necessary it might be. Are we cowards to do so?

If we eat meat, must we be prepared to visit the abattoir and the factory farm, if not in person then via television or radio?

A more extreme argument was sometimes advanced against capital punishment. If you weren't prepared to carry it out in person, you should not ask someone else to do it for you. A variation of that argument applies to the military today. If we aren't prepared to kill in extreme circumstances, how can we ask young men and women to do it for us? Looking back on the post war political debate is seems to me that prison is one of those subjects where calm informed debate is most difficult. I would argue that the Troubles, the Cold War, and Education fall into the same difficult category.

I hope you feel that our Feedback discussion did let a little light in.

Fortunately there is more to Feedback this week than prison and Jimmy Savile. For those who enjoyed the Chicken Forecast we have a new contribution to the genre.

Here is the Fishing forecast.

Do please keep them coming

Roger Bolton

PS For the record, I am too young to have done national service and fired a gun in anger, I have visited prison, I have commissioned programmes on factory farming and almost vomited in the cutting room as I looked at the rushes, and I did have a holiday job working in a bacon factory, counting the live pigs that went in one end, and the bacon and bone meal that came out the other. I'm afraid that last experience only put me off bacon for two weeks.

Roger Bolton presents Feedback on Radio 4.

  • Listen to this week's 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.

Foreign Bodies - The Martin Beck Killings

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Fiona Hodge 09:00, Thursday, 25 October 2012

Editors note: This week Radio 4 begins The Foreign Bodies series on Radio 4 and the dramatisation of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo's 10-book series featuring detective Martin Beck and his colleagues in the National Police Homicide Department in Stockholm starts on Saturday 27th October 2012. Here producers Sara Davies and Mary Peate blog on bringing the characters to life.

Ah, another Scandinavian detective series: just what the world needs, you might be forgiven for thinking. And, before discovering Martin Beck, we would probably have lined up on that side of the fence. But when two experienced radio writers independently approach two drama producers, raving about a 10-book series written nearly 50 years ago, then it's probably worth taking a look. When Katie Hims and Jennifer Howarth brought their Martin Beck proposals to us, neither of us knew the series, other than for its appearances on those literary lists of 'Best Police Procedurals' or '10 Most Influential European Detective Series'.

So we each started reading, and each became more and more intrigued by Martin Beck and his team of flawed, overworked, generally well-intentioned and all-too-human detectives at police HQ, Stockholm. At which point the then new Controller of Radio 4 (Gwyneth Williams) announced her passion for European crime fiction, the network put its two writers and producers together, and a small but undeniably perfectly formed team was created.

We quickly realised that we were dealing with the basis, not only of much Scandinavian detective fiction, but a good deal of British crime writing as well. The ten books came with introductions by writers at the top of their game: Val McDermid, Henning Mankell, Nicci French, Colin Dexter, all acknowledging their debt to these two deadpan Swedish Marxists.

Once the series of ten was commissioned, we knew we had to find the right Martin Beck, someone who would understand odd, slightly flat, understated power of the character. He's not a flash operator, or a particularly tough nut. He's dogged and taciturn, and quite anti-social and often has a cold. He's sympathetic to the underdog, and a harsh judge of humbug and hypocrisy. Steven Mackintosh was exactly the right actor.

The Martin Beck Killings - behind the scenes

We often do our casting quite close to the recording in Radio Drama; actors can't commit very far in advance to what is usually a short period of work in case a more substantial, more lucrative job comes up which would make them unavailable. Agents are rarely keen to book their clients up far in advance. So, convinced that Steven Mackintosh was our perfect Beck, we offered him the part only a few weeks before our studio dates and then had to wait a tense couple of days, praying that Steven would agree to do it, which after an anxious phone call to check we weren't doing it in Swedish accents, he did. It may seem crazy that we get so far in the process, with everything set up - studio and crew booked, scripts ready, transmission date fixed - without having our leading actor in place, and it can be quite hairy, but in this case we were blessed with the Martin Beck of our dreams.

And so it went on: Neil Pearson was to be Kollberg, perfect apart from one major flaw - too thin - doesn't matter on radio. And on: Ralph Ineson, Adrian Scarborough, Russell Boulter for the rest of the murder squad, great guest leads like Justin Salinger and Beth Goddard all ably supported by the enormously talented Radio Drama Company actors. All of them made our job very easy and extremely pleasurable. It didn't feel like work at-all.

Now we're gearing up to record the next 5 books in the Martin Beck series in the New Year and we're looking forward to seeing what listeners make of the first 5 dramatisations. Please let us know your thoughts in the comments below or on using #bbcforeignbodies.

  • Dramatisation of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo's 10-book series featuring detective Martin Beck and his colleagues in the National Police Homicide Department in Stockholm starts on Saturday 27th October 2012.
  • Listen to the opening moments of Roseanna, the first Martin Beck novel - here.
  • Take a journey through Beck's Sweden.
  • Mark Lawson presents a history of modern Europe through literary detectives in Foreign Bodies which is also available as a free download.
  • Listen to recent and archive interviews of Crime Writers from Front Row.
  • Watch the television trail for the Martin Beck Killings series.

Woolly Mammoth: the Making Of

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Frankie Ward 16:57, Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Editor's note: Andrew Lawrence: How Did We End Up Like This starts this week on Radio 4 in which the Fosters nominated comedian brings us an explanation of human development via stand up, sketch and song. In the first programme Andrew looked at what makes up the human diet and by way of fair-trade and road-kill culminates in a moving song about the extinction of the Woolly Mammoth. Here, Radio Comedy's Interactive Producer talks about bringing the song to life with a day out on location. PM

A few days ago, I ended up outside London's Lyceum Theatre asking the comedian Andrew Lawrence to raise a plush toy woolly mammoth above his head 'like the end of The Circle of Life'.

I was met with the sort of puzzled face one associates with the recognition of lunacy.

I responded with the expression of disbelief; 'you've never seen The Lion King?'

Andrew had not. Luckily Production Coordinator (and all round lifesaver) Matthew was on hand to whip out his phone and present the image I desperately intended to recreate. With the source of inspiration now lodged firmly in his brain, Andrew commendably proved himself up to the task. The task being to take the little mammoth on a friendly tour of the capital to accompany a song from the first episode of his new series, Andrew Lawrence: How Did We End Up Like This?

Andrew and a woolly mammoth recreate the iconic Circle of Life pose from The Lion King

In fact, I have to issue a public thank you to Andrew - right here on the Radio 4 blog - for putting up with me as I chased him around London, camera in hand, getting him to perform a variety of poses with our furry friend (I named him Mammut). We went from Great Portland Street to Covent Garden and then hotfooted it across Leicester Square, Picadilly Circus, down the Mall to Buckingham Palace and caught the tube to the unofficial home of museums, South Kensington. Despite the day being grey and drizzily, and the number of locations ambitious to say the least, Andrew remained the consummate professional (and he let me consume the cupcake featured near the start of the video. It was Toblerone flavoured!)

Andrew Lawrence and woolly mammoth on a park bench

When ended up outside Buckingham Palace I admit that I became bitterly disappointed that 'the men in the furry hats' weren't actually stationed outside the gates. (To tell you the truth, I always thought they were there for my benefit, rather than to actually protect Her Majesty the Queen.) I was rather desperate to get my own picture with the iconic guards, but in the end had to settle for communicating my feelings with a rather forlorn picture of the cuddly Mammut gazing sadly through the gates.

Andrew Lawrence and woolly mammoth eat cake

Now I don't want to spoil the end of the video for those of you who haven't watched it, but it does feature the kitchen here at Radio Comedy HQ, just in case you were wondering why there's a massive image of Tony Hancock's face dominating the background. Unfortunately, it was not intended a subliminal homage to one of the greatest legends ever to work with Radio Comedy, but if you would prefer to interpret it in this way, I would wholeheartedly support you.

But why go to all this trouble, you may ask, for one man and his cuddy mammoth? Why is there even a song about an extinct creature being broadcast on Britain's leading speech radio network? Well, it's all in the name of a brand new series from comedian Andrew Lawrence that looks at how our world has progressed from prehistoric times into the modern aims, asking questions about our approaches to food, health, fashion and other things. (The title, Andrew Lawrence: How Did We End Up Like This? is a particular giveaway.) However, rather than being a show based around pure stand-up, Andrew and Producer Jane Berthoud have added songs and sketches into the mix, the latter being brought to life by Sara Pascoe and Mark Larwood. It's like a history lesson, with added social comedy commentary.

The Gothic Imagination: Frankenstein

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Paula McDonnell 12:20, Wednesday, 24 October 2012

Editor's note: This new dramatisation of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley is part of The Gothic Imagination season on Radio 4. Here, the Producer Marc Beeby talks about the making of the programme. You can hear Frankenstein at 3pm on Sunday 28 October on Radio 4 and for 7 days after broadcast on the iPlayer. PMcD

image to promote Frankenstein

It's a privilege to be making Frankenstein for Radio 4, but it's a daunting prospect. There can't be a person in the country for whom the title doesn't conjure up images - a square-headed giant looming out of the shadows, a wild-eyed scientist, bolts of electricity arcing around strange machinery, portentous thunderstorms. But Lucy Catherine (the dramatist) and I want to make something that's a bit closer in spirit to the book, something a bit less melodramatic, a bit more human, something a bit more real - if this is possible given that this is a story about someone making a man eight foot tall out of grave-robbed body parts!

We're really pleased with the cast. Jamie Parker (Frankenstein) brings authority, obsession and a wracked desperation to the role. He also sounds suitably beaten up in the opening scenes in the Polar wastes, possibly because the poor chap is spending most nights going once more unto the breach as Henry V at the Globe Theatre. But the best thing about what he does is that, despite Frankenstein's arrogance, his lack of care toward the people who love him and the rejection of his Monster, you feel sympathy for him.

This is a bonus. Sympathy is, in a sense, what we're looking for. The Monster, for all his hideousness and capacity for cruelty, is a lost child. Rejected by his 'father', desperate for companionship, tenderness and love, he does some horrible vengeful things out of misery. 'I am malicious because I am miserable' he says - a startlingly modern idea.

But how do we make him? Eight foot tall, covered in scars, immensely powerful? Not things it's easy to convey on radio! But Shaun Dooley (the Monster) is amazing. Physical size and power on radio rely on the voice of the actor and the depth and power of Shaun's voice can make windows rattle. We also spend a good deal of time talking about how the Monster actually speaks. We feel that he needs to have some difficulty with the mechanics of speaking as this helps convey the impression of both isolation and deformity. At the same time, we can't overdo this as it would become intolerable to listen to and some of the scenes would go on for weeks. In the end, Shaun finds a brilliant solution. His Monster's difficulty with words is not a mechanical problem. It derives from his emotion at the moment of speaking - as though feelings were clogging his tongue.

In some ways, of course, the Monster, like a frustrated adolescent, is all feeling. Quite by chance, Shaun comes to the studio wearing a hoody. To our delight, he uses this to help him get into character. Before a scene or a narration, he puts the hood up, hiding his face, and sits muttering and swearing to himself. You'd cross the road if you saw him waiting for you. Before scenes with other actors, Shaun also has the idea of climbing onto a stool and suddenly you understand what it might be like to be terrorized by an eight foot tall homicide.

But these techniques are just stops along the way. By the time we come to the Monster's final scene, we've forgotten them. Shaun has disappeared and in his place is a damaged, lonely human being. And we care for him.

This all sounds very serious, of course. Actually, making Frankenstein is enormous fun. Animating the Monster, for instance, is a scene familiar from a hundred films and it needs to be exciting and scary - and we hope it is. But doing it feels like we've been allowed to play the best game. Jamie throws himself into every take, getting, it seems, more and more intense and frantic and then collapsing into fits of giggles as Shaun, lying on a large blue box - and looking frankly ridiculous - thrashes around as though electrocuted, gasping for breath. It's also difficult to make the more obvious 'horror' moments, like Frankenstein collecting body parts ('I need teeth. Where's my hammer?'), without a lot of delighted cries of 'ugh' as the Studio Managers do marvelous things with squishy sound effects, pieces of fruit and the remains of one long-dead chicken.

And now it's done and I'm sorry it's over. Exploring Mary Shelley's strange, sad world and getting to know her iconic characters, with this cast and crew, has been so challenging and so stimulating I could quite happily do it all again tomorrow. Whether we've done it right is up to the audience, of course. I hope they love it.

Marc Beeby is the Producer of Frankenstein. The story was dramatised by Lucy Catherine for BBC Radio Drama.

The Public Philosopher: Prof Michael Sandel on immigration in Texas

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Paula McDonnell 08:37, Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Editors note: You can hear The Public Philosopher on Radio 4 at 9am on 23 and 30 Oct and 6 Nov 2012. Here, Mukul Devichand who worked on the programme with Professor Sandel talks about the issues raised in the first programme. PMcD

Michael Sandel, Harvard political philosopher presents The Public Philosopher on Radio 4.

If you think Texans attitude towards illegal immigrants is simple - lock 'em up and shut the borders - the first programme in a new series of Radio 4's The Public Philosopher may surprise you.

With the US presidential vote around the corner, we took Harvard political philosopher Prof Michael Sandel to the University of Dallas in Irving, Texas to ask a public audience: how far should an open society go in accepting outsiders?

In other words, what's the moral case for and against immigration, and to what extent should illegal immigrants be punished?

These are tough issues in Britain but in Texas, which borders Mexico, the issue has a unique resonance.

Over a million "undocumented" people, who have crossed the US border illegally, live in the state and across the United States there are an estimated 11.5 million such people - many from Latin America.

That led us to the first moral issue addressed in the programme: now that they are in the USA, what should be done about this huge population living in the shadow of the law?

In particular, what is the right moral attitude towards the children of illegal immigrants, who were brought to America when they were very young?

Some argued that it was their parents, not them, who broke the law - so does that give them a moral right to become US citizens?

One passionate speaker told Prof Sandel it was a double standard for other law abiding Americans to have to tolerate illegal acts - even if the children were not to blame. Then, she revealed that she herself was a (legal) immigrant.

But another young woman - herself the child of an "undocumented" worker - said that her own hard work and contribution to American society gave her a moral right to citizenship.

The future for the children of illegal immigrants is a hot political issue in the US election. The scale of the issue - and the fact that Hispanic Americans are an increasingly important source of votes - meant Barack Obama and Mitt Romney offered their own solutions in their second televised debate last week.

But our approach in this programme was different because it addressed morality, as well as politics. In turn, Prof Sandel encouraged the audience to pull back and ask some difficult, prior, questions:

  • Is it morally legitimate to have any border controls at all?
  • If yes, should they be based on economics - on the skills a country needs - or an idea of shared citizenship, culture and values?
  • If immigration policy is dictated by economics alone, what does that tell us about the political community we create?

Immigration, argues Professor Sandel, is so passionately debated precisely because it lays bare our idea of citizenship political community.

Therefore, to form a view, Americans - and anyone else debating immigration - have to ask what values they, as a nation, really stand for?

Mukul Devichand is a Senior Broadcast Journalist in News and Current Affairs, Radio

Foreign Bodies - An Investigation into European Detectives

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Mark Lawson 12:02, Monday, 22 October 2012

The launch of a long-gestated series always brings a combination of exhilaration and apprehension. And in the case of Foreign Bodies (Radio 4, weekdays, 1.45pm, until November 2nd) - the 15-part series investigating famous European fictional detectives, on which producer Robyn Read and I have been working for more than a year - there were two issues that occupied us until the moment when the transmission managers grab the material and ban any further editing.

The first is plot-spoilers. Having written about culture in newspapers for a quarter of a century - and been an arts broadcaster for almost 20 years - I'm sympathetic to complaints about the tendency of critics to give away endings. And because the best crime fiction involves multiple plot twists, there can sometimes be an issue in this genre with disclosing beginnings, middles and trick endings as well.

But the problem is that serious discussion of fiction involves analysis of details and one of the specific questions we address in Foreign Bodies is the decision a crime-writer has to make about whether justice will ultimately be done. In English detective stories, for example, the culprit is almost always apprehended in the final pages, although there is a particular book by PD James in which the outcome of the investigation is ambiguous, in the way that it will often be in real police work.

And, in Italy, where political corruption and Mafia infiltration can encourage cynicism about the reliability of the legal system, there are a number of novels - by authors such as Leonardo Sciascia and Andrea Camilleri - in which the perpetrator gets away with it or an innocent person takes the fall. This is an unusual and striking aspect of the country's crime literature, but how can these twists be high-lighted without spoiling the books for any listener who is (as obviously we hope some might be) encouraged to read them? Our solution has been to mention when a novel has an especially shocking or bleak conclusion - for example, Sciascia's Equal Danger - but to remain vague about the nature of the twist.

That decision, I hope, will for more frustrating for us than for the audience. With another question of contention, it's likely to be the other way round. In any radio or TV programme with foreign culture as its subject, pronunciation becomes an issue. This is partly because of inconsistencies in British delivery of overseas names: for example, we say "Versailles" in an approximation of the French style and yet deliver "Paris" in an Anglicised manner.

And European crime fiction proves to be surprisingly treacherous. In this country, for instance, readers and BBC continuity announcers pronounce Henning Mankell's detective Kurt Wallander more or less phonetically as Woll-un-duh. But I once chaired a debate about the popularity of this character at the Swedish embassy, where the Swedes in the audience took a considerable time to understand who we were talking about because they say the guy's name VOL-ander.

Even more complicatedly, Jo Nesbo's Norwegian private eye falls on the English reader's eye as Harry HOLE - as if he were a tear in a sweater - although the local pronunciation is HULA, as if he were swinging a hoop around his hips. However, when I raised this in an interview with Nesbo, he insisted that he was happy for Harry to be pronounced Hole in English, pointing out that the first novel (The Bat) takes place in English-speaking Australia, where there is a running joke that Aussies address him as Mr HOLY.

Accordingly, I called him HOLE in a trail, leading a thoughtful listener with Scandinavian connections to contact the BBC and gently suggest the use of HULA. However, we will continue to follow the advice of Harry's creator, although, in a Paris-type inconsistency, I pronounce his first name YO in line with Norwegian convention. Which, I can already see, will lead some listeners to conclude that we have dug ourselves into a HULA.

The only consolation I can offer is that final plot-twists are generally protected. Anyway, see what you think.

Mark Lawsonis a journalist, broadcaster and author and he presents BBC Radio 4's arts magazine Front Row.

  • Mark Lawson presents a history of modern Europe through literary detectives in Foreign Bodies, starting on 22nd October 2012. Also available as a free download.
  • Listen to recent and archive interviews of Crime Writers from Front Row.
  • Dramatisation of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo's 10-book series featuring detective Martin Beck and his colleagues in the National Police Homicide Department in Stockholm starts on Saturday 27th October 2012.
  • Watch the television trail for the Foreign Bodies series.


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Michelle Martin Michelle Martin 09:31, Monday, 22 October 2012

shaun keavney

My name is Shaun Keaveny, I am a music broadcaster, and a long-term sufferer of a sometimes debilitating condition. It is devastatingly virulent, indiscriminate, and can strike the patient down at any time, anywhere. It is the Earworm.

An earworm is a parasitic little fragment of music that burrows its way into your cortex. It can be impossible to remove and can remain in its host for days.

Do the Conga!

As I play music for a living, I am particularly susceptible to earworms. One morning on my 6 Music Breakfast Show, after a particularly extended bout of earworm-related torture involving the Thin Lizzy song Chinatown, I mentioned the phenomenon to my listeners who replied in their droves with their own maddening inner soundtracks. The collection and playing of listener Earworms has been a mainstay of my programme ever since.

The Macarena!

My earworms are often caused by audio-visual stimuli of some kind. The aforementioned Chinatown seizure happened as I was strolling through London's Chinatown, inevitably. But other things can kick them off too... the note of a screechy brake, a pinging sound from a malfunctioning computer, a phrase someone utters... anything can plunge your mind into a musical reverie that can be difficult to extricate oneself from.

The Birdie Song

In the documentary we put together on the subject, we managed to get some very interesting answers from scientists as to why they happen, what function they may serve, and who is most susceptible. We also hear some harrowing and amusing first hand accounts from the pitiable wretches whose lives have been blighted by an incessant loop of Bananarama or My Lovely Horse.

Of course, earworms are ultimately harmless, and it can even be argued they should be enjoyed. But its hard to see it that way when you have been whistling the theme tune to the Muppet Show for fifteen solid hours without respite.

I can only hope that


you can get to the end of this article without picking one up. If you are a sufferer, why not share your experiences. Don't suffer in silence. (Chance would be a fine thing).

Shaun Keavney is the presenter of Earworms. He also has a regular show on BBC 6 Music

In Our Time: Caxton and the Printing Press

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Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg 13:05, Friday, 19 October 2012

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

Caxton and the Printing Press


The Caxton programme comes at a curiously appropriate time for me. I'm on the Communications Committee in the House of Lords and we are currently experimenting with the notion of abolishing paper and having all our business news - the mass of information we have to read before each weekly meeting - on iPads. The notion is that if we can make it work, it will spread through other committees and other areas in the Palace of Westminster and we will become a paperless place.

This might be as significant as the day that Herr Gutenberg saw metal before his eyes and preferred it to the woodblock.

It will be some relief, at last, for trees. All over the world they can cease their trembling and shivering in the wind and know that they will no longer be forest-farmed for mega-bureaucracies.

I wonder where all this will go to?

Out into London, first to another meeting with Tom Morris about the culture programme we're trying to put in place for the first week of next year, then a walk down to the Lords through this strange bubble which is London at the moment. It is so busy; it looks so cheerful, it can't be right. But there we are. There's something strange, though, about the way that it has its prosperity.

After the Lords I went to lunch with James Hunt from Sky Arts television to talk about future programmes and wandered back a long way round and happened on Belgravia. Full of grandeur and emptiness. What does this say about London? Well, according to a friend of mine who has a flat in the area, a lot of the property is empty and is not for living in but for investing money in as part of an international portfolio.

I watched carefully in the three quarters of an hour stroll and there was not a beggar on the street, not an alcoholic on a park seat, no litter. It was a weird world and all the buildings seemed to have been painted ice-cream vanilla white in the last couple of weeks.

Previously in the morning I talked to Mike Smith from the Salford branch of the BBC about a programme we're going to do on William Tyndale, whom I think of more and more as the real founder of the modern English language and I look forward to trying to substantiate that.

And on we go. The week's been a very funny one. Andrew Lloyd Webber got a gang together to go and see Johnny Hallyday on his first ever concert in London. This seventy-something French rock star is a phenomenon. The French don't like rock and roll, or they didn't when I first went to Paris to work in the late 50s and then frequently in the 60s, the French loved jazz, especially black jazz, and their own chansons and ballads. Rock and roll they regarded as vulgar. Johnny Hallyday, who had spent part of his early life in America, loved rock and roll and set out to become the leading, in fact the solitary, rock and roller in the whole of France. He dominates France. His concerts are always sold out, but elsewhere in the world he is ignored and sometimes even dismissed.

He's a good old rocker and he filled the Albert Hall with wildly enthusiastic French people who sang along to his songs, and he did the rock and roll thing of holding out the mic so that they could sing while he took a break. He was dressed head to toe in leather. The light show was blinding so that you needed dark glasses just to pick him out on the stage. He has a voice which has the power of a Harley Davidson at full throttle.

But it was a strange cultural transposition.

So back into London and wandering round the streets, which is such a pleasure and gets more of a pleasure. Going along Knightsbridge towards the Albert Hall I saw on my left a little slit of a street, the width of a door, and went down it to discover about ten small restaurants I'd never seen before in an area called Knightsbridge Green. It seemed to be populated by people from, I would guess, the Middle East who were having a ferociously good time arguing whether they should go to the Bulgari Hotel for a drink before they went to one of these restaurants for a meal.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

PS: They've already put up the Christmas decorations in Oxford Street!

PPS: I'm walking through Soho and a young man with a ring in his nose comes to me, shakes my hand very firmly and says "I once tried to cast your nose in plaster. You said no very nicely. Thank you". And then he moved on. Just down the street a young lady swishes by in full evening dress which you would have expected in Belgravia which, as I said, was empty, now that all those great houses have been turned into embassies.

Feedback: Reporting from Whitehall and Westminster

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Roger Bolton Roger Bolton 11:43, Friday, 19 October 2012

Roger Bolton


It was bliss being a young BBC political producer in the 1970s.

The country wasn't having such a good time, what with strikes, the three day week, bombs going off, the oil price shock, and the cold war still going on.

The political parties were also split, spin doctors were in their infancy and the party conferences, particularly Labour's , were often blood baths. Little was predictable, other than the willingness of almost everyone to come accept my invitation to appear in front of the microphone and be indiscreet.

Things really began to change when Margaret Thatcher came to power.

Gordon Reece, later knighted for his services, decided that she needed to lower her voice and change her hairstyle. He took great interest in the colour of the studio set in which her interview would take place and brought flowers to place upon the table. All in attempt to soften her image. He then saw to it that she appeared more often on Wogan and Jimmy Young, than opposite Robin Day.

Impressions were what mattered, he said, not answers.

Then, when she did become Prime Minister, her press secretary Bernard Ingham, later knighted for his services, perfected the devastating off the record briefing.

Because he enjoyed her complete confidence, lobby journalists knew that, when he said a minister was "semi -detached", the PM would shortly detach that minister completely.

All this, of course, was before the age of Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell. What is it like today?

Feedback listeners are curious to know how much collaboration there is between lobby journalists and politicians, what expressions like "sources close to the Prime Minister" or "No 10 says", really mean and who are the shadowy figures briefing the journalists.

So on Wednesday this week, on their behalf, I went down to BBC Westminster to follow Radio 4's Chief Political Correspondent Ben Wright, as he prepared to cover Prime Minister's questions for WATO, the World at One.

There were no restrictions on what we could cover, other than confidential conversations, and no bar on where we could go, except that imposed by the Sergeant at Arms. And no BBC minder with us.

(Oh, I did promise Martha Kearney I would say that WATO has higher audience figures than ever)

I had a lot of fun. I hope you will too when you hear our Feedback feature.

By the way, I see that Woman's Hour is going to produce a list of the 100 Most Powerful Women in Britain, and one of its presenters, Jane Garvey, was reported by the Independent newspaper as saying that "You could be forgiven for thinking it's still a man's world and we're lucky to be in it". Do you think that applies to BBC radio? My two producers, both women, would like to know.

Roger Bolton

Roger Bolton presents Feedback on Radio 4.

  • Listen to this week's 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.

Radio 4 Extra: 'Week Ending' - the Lean Months

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Frankie Ward 11:00, Thursday, 18 October 2012

Editor's Note: Ged Parsons is a writer for shows such as Dara O'Briain's School of Hard Sums, Alexander Armstrong's Big Ask, Mock The Week, Strictly Come Dancing, The Two Ronnies Sketchbook, and Have I Got News For You. Here, he writes about getting into comedy via open-door policy shows such as the Radio 4 Extra comedy staple, Newsjack. PM

December, 1985 (1). As a newly-fired Advertising Research Executive (2), I'd just read an article about the BBC Radio 'Comedy Corridor' (3) and its 'open-door' policy on submitting material. So, nervously, I decided to turn up at the BBC Radio Light Entertainment Department Writers' Room - a place almost as big as its own sign (4) - for the meeting of the 'Week Ending' (5) non-commissioned writers. I soon discovered that, for that week at least, I was the 'Week Ending' non-commissioned writers. So the producer and I re-located (6), and had a pleasant chat about comedy instead. He concluded with the double-edged comment, "I look forward to reading your material - best stick to the little stories, eh?"

The next day, I was in the Writers' Room proper, together with the hallowed commissioned writers, including several well-known stand-ups. Undeterred, when one of the writers later appealed to the room for help with a sketch, I shyly proffered a possible line, in response (7). Two nights later, I heard my line being broadcast, along with my name in the closing credits. Heady stuff - but even that high excitement paled when the cheque for £12.00 arrived. I was delighted, as the line had been only a two-word gag (8). It seemed that my comedy-writing future was assured (9).

'Week Ending' returned a fortnight later, in early January, with a different producer. For the next three months, I got nothing on whatsoever - not the merest hint of a trace of a sniff. Rien. Nichts. Niente. Nada (10). Every week I turned up, wrote sketches and lines, tuned in, heard much worse stuff than mine (obviously!) be broadcast, and wondered whether it was worth all the effort. Young ingénue (11) that I was, I became convinced that the producer, my bête noire (11), was enjoying muchos (11) Schadenfreude at the non-comms' expense. I even returned briefly to my former employer, in a slightly different role (12). It seemed that my non-comedy-writing future was assured.

On Friday night, I listened as usual, sneeringly, as usual, as another me-free edition was broadcast - only this time, I knew in advance nothing of mine would be included, because I hadn't gone in and written anything. The end-credits were read out. And then kept being read out. In all, after the same, familiar commissioned writers, there were a dozen or more new, non-commissioned names. And then the producer's name. A different one. I rang him at 10 am on Monday morning to make sure it was still OK to attend the next non-commissioned writers' meeting (13). Apparently, it was.

That week, after a non-comm meeting that was 'standing room only' - word got round quickly - I had my first sketch broadcast. I went on to have something go out on every show, for the remaining six months of that year, (even when the producers kept changing), and some of it was almost fairly funny. Three of us got our commissions that December, and even the fact we were told it should have happened about four months earlier didn't manage to take the shine off things.

My early experience of starting to write on 'Week Ending' taught me a few valuable lessons; keep on writing. Don't stop. Don't give up. And some producers just don't know what they're doing. In fact, if a producer persists in not using your stuff, the best thing you can do is to go up to them, and tell them that they don't know what they're doing, right to their face (14).

Good luck, and best wishes,

Ged Parsons

1. Height of Thatcher's premiership - boo! / yay! / who? (delete as applicable).
2. Don't ask.
3. Narrow first-floor corridor of 16, Langham Street, (now demolished), location of the offices of all the producers in Radio Comedy, and also the Writers' Room, complete with frequently-working typewriters, and piano, (covered with piano-shaped pile of old newspapers and cigarette-ends). Chaos reigned, and much hilarity would ensue, (as per stipulated contractual obligations).
4. Not really - that would be stupid.
5. Long-running, late-night, Radio 4 topical satire show - non-audience, and quite often non-jokes, too. An almost compulsory gig for every post-1970 comedy writer.
6. To his nearby office, not Salford.
7. Accounts of this incident vary - a writing colleague has since told me, "Shy? - after you gave him your line, you spent the rest of the day checking with him 14 times that it was still in."
8. 'Terrapin bowling'(You may like to have fun working out the context for yourself).
9. Please bear in mind that, at the time, there were many matters about which I was idiotically naive.
10. At university, I read Modern and Mediaeval Languages.
11. See note 10.
12. Again, don't ask.
13. See note 9.
14. See note 4.

Newsjack broadcasts on Radio 4 Extra on Thursdays at 10.30pm. If you want to know more about submitting your writing, please read our submission rules.

Desert Island Discs: Release of New Programme Fragments

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Alison Hughes 09:40, Thursday, 18 October 2012

Editor's note: Desert Island Discs has just released over 200 programme fragments which have been painstakingly restored from different sources including the British Library. Here, Alison Hughes, producer of Desert Island Discs talks about the latest archive project. PM

Christmas has come early for the Desert Island Discs fan because recordings of more than 250 past castaways have been unearthed from the archives and are now on the website for your listening pleasure.

Dating back to the early 50's there's more than a sprinkle of Hollywood glamour, like silent film start Bebe Daniels and bon vivante Tallulah Bankhead, who claims she only went into the theatre because she was too lazy to do anything else. Jimmy Stewart recalls his faithful chaps, worn in every western he made, and Christopher Plummer bemoans never being cast in a comedy.

The great British thespians are there too, like Sir John Gielgud who decided early on that he just wasn't cut out to play a baddie, and Alec Guinness, sanguine about the fact that big ears and a bald head did not a romantic lead make!

Writers are well represented, from Jilly Cooper to Elizabeth Jane Howard, and Dick Francis to Jean Plaidy. And with the film Skyfall released at the end of the month, have a listen to the creator of James Bond, Ian Fleming. Apparently the character of Bond didn't come fully formed - as a confirmed bachelor, Fleming was so terrified in the run up to his wedding, he needed something to take his mind off it and plunged himself into writing. I'd imagine Mr Bond would feel the same!

Author Ian Fleming

Music of course is the heart of Desert Island Discs and this latest selection features some of the greatest names of the musical world. Opera giants like Joan Sutherland and Kirsten Flagstad, pianist Alfred Brendel, conductor Leopold Stokowski - all names which crop up in other people's choices, here making their own. For pop music there are the likes of Cilla Black and Tony Bennett, and from the jazz world, Dave Brubeck recounts how his talent for the piano saved him an immediate posting to the front line in the Second World War, to a battle that killed his entire platoon.

In this Olympic year, it's fascinating to listen to some of the stars of past Games, like Judy Grinham, who won swimming gold in Melbourne 1956 in the 100m backstroke, or Lillian Board, silver medallist in Mexico 1968 for the 400m. In other sports there are cricketers Jim Laker and Geoffrey Boycott, boxer Henry Cooper, and if you think that today's footballers are sometimes less than articulate, listen to Danny Blanchflower talking in 1960 to know it wasn't always thus.

And that of course is one of the joys of an archive - it's that flavour of another time. Listen to Mary Wilson, wife of Harold Wilson talk about life at Number 10 in 1969, broadcasters David Frost or Joan Bakewell at the start of their careers, to John Noakes, a rather plummy actor (who knew?!) talk about Blue Peter, or to prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn recount how she used to concentrate so hard she had to be reminded from the wings to smile. With all this to listen to, who needs reminding!

You'll notice when you dip in to these recordings that they are not full programmes, just fragments of them. Back in the day, radio programmes were recorded on reels of tape which posed two problems. The first was that a reel of tape is quite big - 12 inches - and there simply wasn't enough physical space for the BBC to save and store everything. The second was that tape was expensive, and more often than not would be recorded over once a programme has been broadcast. Imagine being the person with the responsibility of deciding what stays and what goes!

The majority of these newly available recordings actually belonged to a long time producer of Desert Island Discs, Derek Drescher, who on his retirement gave his collection to the British Library. These tapes have been loaned back to the BBC to be converted into digital files. You'll also notice too that the recordings have no music in them, which is another vagary of how the programmes were saved. Happily of course, we do have the track information of all the castaways on the Desert Island Discs website.

Some of the recordings were sent in by listeners and it's wonderful that when we think some of these programmes have been lost forever, that they have been lovingly saved by the audience. If you have any recordings of old programmes which we don't have on the website we would love to hear from you - it could be a team effort!

Alison Hughes is Producer of Desert Island Discs

The Gothic Imagination: Bloody Poetry

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Alison Hindell 09:37, Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Editor's Note: Bloody Poetry is part of The Gothic Imagination series on Radio 4 which includes new drama adaptations of Dracula and Frankenstein. You can hear Bloody Poetry on Saturday 20 October at 2.30pm and for seven days on the Radio Player. PM

Bloody Poetry brand image from BBC Radio 4

Getting the opportunity to direct Bloody Poetry as part of The Gothic Imagination season was a real gift. It's a play that I've admired since first coming across it in the 1980s and this was a great chance to explore Howard Brenton's versions of Byron, Shelley and Mary Shelley.

The play opens in 1816 when the three writers spent the summer together by Lake Geneva. Byron was a fugitive escaping the opprobrium caused by his affair with his half-sister Augusta, and Shelley had abandoned his wife and run away with his lover Mary Godwin - and other lover, Claire Clairmont. Both poets were outraging English society with both their writing and their lifestyles and their meeting was the start of a passionate but complicated set of friendships.

Champions of free love, revolution and, for Shelley, atheism, they were to write some of the most beautiful and memorable poetry in the English language but neither of them was any good at domesticity and stability - as both Mary and Claire were to find out to their cost.

But Mary also was a writer and for her this summer was to inspire one of the most famous, long-lasting and frequently reinvented modern myths. One stormy night, the friends told each other ghost stories and Mary started to create the tale of Frankenstein.

Shelley got so excited or spooked by the evening that he seemed to have a kind of fit. This key scene in the play is quite long so we decided to record it with a hand-held boom mic to follow the action so that the actors could lounge, or writhe, at will (see the photo below).

It's striking how young all the characters are (they range from 18 - 28 in the first scene) and this combination of youth with radical (or subversive) thinking and its implicit threat to the status quo brings to mind the energy of more recent youth movements such as the punks. So we tried to capture that sort of energy in the performances.

The cast during the recording of Bloody Poetry on BBC Radio 4

The young cast of Bloody Poetry during the recording of the drama.

The examples of Shelley's poetry in the play are driven by a strong sense of rhythm and rhyme so even if some of the contemporary references escape modern-day readers or listeners, the pace and tempo are not too far from performance poetry or even rap.

And perhaps these parallels come over even more clearly on radio where the listener engages with the words and the characters' emotions and is not distracted by the period costume, while the actors don't have to worry about ruffles or bonnets! It enhances Brenton's memorable achievement with the play which is to have made these iconic figures of English Literature, celebrities of their day, into real and believable people, with whom we sympathise despite their sometimes dreadful behaviour.

In the moment of its creation, of course, none of them could know the full significance of the Frankenstein myth and how it would long outlive all of them. But it was interesting to us that, shortly before recording, Byron's own copy of the first edition of Frankenstein, inscribed, 'To Lord Byron from the author', was rediscovered in a library and put up for auction. Originally published in a run of only 500 copies, this one was expected to go for half a million pounds.

Bloody Poetry was directed and produced by Alison Hindell.

Radio 4 Extra: Comedy Controller: Alexei Sayle

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Peter McHugh 10:47, Tuesday, 16 October 2012

Editor's note: You can hear Comedy Controller: Alexei Sayle on Radio 4 Extra on Saturday 20 October at 9am and 7pm and for seven days after transmission on the iPlayer. PM

One of the great moments when Alexei Sayle interviews Lenny Henry on Radio 4's Chain Reaction is when Lenny tells him how nervous he was about first meeting him in 1981. Alexei had a fearsome comedy reputation. So was I a little bit nervous when I got in touch about being Radio 4 Extra's Comedy Controller? Maybe...just a this day I still can't shake the terrifying landlord Mr. Balowski crashing down the Young Ones door.

Alexei Sayle: Comedy Controller on Radio 4 Extra

Yet - whether age might have mellowed him (he turned 60 in August) - or not, Alexei was the epitome of helpfulness and fun when he came into Broadcasting House. Alexei himself played with the idea of his fearsome past, about having been in the 'alternative comedy vanguard, comrade,' when we he came into the studio.

Alexei's choices really draw on all aspects of his life. It was important for him to explain how comedy seeped into every part of his childhood in Liverpool - a city, he says, with its own historical line-up of "comedy intelligentsia." How he listened to Round the Horne with his mum and dad. How listening with mum and dad was soon left behind, or should that be under, as Alexei went 'under the bedclothes' to listen to I'm Sorry, I'll Read That Again.

He talks about comedy writing with Andrew Marshall (Two Point Four Children) and David Renwick (One Foot in the Grave) on his TV show, Alexei Sayle's Stuff. We get the chance to hear Renwick and Marshall's genre busting 70s radio comedy, The Burkiss Way (one with a political flavour - this is Alexei Sayle, after all). Alexei still marvels at the team that created Radio 4's On The Hour, especially its producer Armando Iannucci. It's a comedy Alexei thinks contains a profound truth about the "news" and those that make it. That thread of playing with forms inspired his fifth choice, the musings of "award winning" phone in DJ Gary Bellamy, in Radio 4's Down the Line. And let's not forget his largely ranting callers and the fact that all might not be as it seems. So much the better, for Alexei. He loved the fact that it challenged listener's expectations.

And then we come back to where I started. Alexei's been in radio comedies like Lenin of the Rovers and About Last Night, but he wanted to choose something very personal to him. Something he thinks is one of the best things he has ever done on the radio: interviewing Lenny Henry on Radio 4's comedian- interviewing-comedian show, Chain Reaction. It's a great interview: playful, funny and revealing. As Alexei says himself - "that's the power of radio isn't it. It's so intimate...." Just Lenny and him chatting..."in front of an audience of 200 people in a studio." But joking apart - as he talked about it, I could feel that it is still something that holds a great deal of value for him, both the making of the programme and the celebration of its subject, his friend Lenny Henry.

Working with Alexei that's what came over the most to me: a fearsome generosity of spirit.

Peter McHugh produces Comedy Controller: Alexei Sayle

Feedback: Apologies and Drop Outs

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Roger Bolton Roger Bolton 15:28, Friday, 12 October 2012

Roger Bolton


"Feedback - The programme in which BBC managers explain why they are always right about everything".

I saw that amusing and rather pointed remark on an email the other day. It does have an element of truth, though it is rather too sweeping.

One could also say, again with an element of truth, that Feedback is "the programme in which many executives try to avoid appearing, sending in a statement instead of being cross examined by its presenter."

That would be unfair to bosses in BBC News in particular who almost always accept our invitations, but other areas of the BBC can be less cooperative.

However if you raise an issue we will broadcast your views even if we hear only silence in reply.

Presenters are often protected from appearing on Feedback by their Editors, (Well we presenters are so sensitive. We can dish it out but are less able to take it.) However this week one did appear of Feedback, and he did apologise.

I speak of the paragon that is the presenter of Broadcasting House, Paddy O'Connell.

Also this week we featured a breakdown on Radio 2 which lasted nearly 30 minutes. I say a breakdown, more accurately I should say that the network was unable to broadcast Elaine Paige on Sunday filling the airtime with unrelated music.

Choral Evensong also broke down this week.

Elsewhere the Today programme frequently loses lines to contributors who either don't make it onto air, or who suddenly disappear, leaving presenters in tight, and sometimes embarrassing, corners.

Please do let us know if you hear any breakdowns and drop out.

We keep being told by the BBC that the causes are varied and unrelated and that things are not getting worse.

Is that true?

Please let us know.

Best Wishes,

Roger Bolton

PS I never met Jimmy Savile, and you have not written to me about him. So this week's Feedback is Savile free. Next week?

Roger Bolton presents Feedback on Radio 4.

  • Listen to this week's 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: Hannibal

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Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg 12:59, Friday, 12 October 2012

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



Of the first half dozen people I met in the House of Lords this afternoon, three of them said "there weren't enough elephants". I don't know whether they were referring to the lack of forces in Hannibal's army or the lack of reference to elephants. It is very strange, isn't it? That Hannibal, regarded by so many generals over the last 2,200 years as one of the - if not THE - greatest of them all, should be remembered not for his 22 battles on the Italian mainland (not one of which he lost), nor for his subduing of Spain and the Gallic tribes and restoration of the glories of Carthage, nor for attempting to take a huge army across the Alps, but for the elephants. I suppose their effect in northern Italy was shock and awe. They have certainly been a limpet to his reputation ever since.

After the programme I said that I wished we'd had time to talk about his character. But then somebody pointed out that Polybius of Megalopolis, the Greek historian, wrote "you can't know anything about his character because he was riven to do things against his character". He used to put on disguises and wander round his own camp to find out what the mood of the army was about him and about the enemy. When he returned to the Carthaginian Senate for a while, he behaved so roughly, i.e. like the soldier he was, living with armies from the age of nine, that the aristocrats of that ancient city were most disturbed. He was also very stingy, or thrifty as might be better put, which was extremely helpful for the replenishment of Carthaginian coffers, but not quite the thing when you were an aristocrat and a leader and a famous figure in the known world.

After the programme I came back to the office and talked to two ladies from Canterbury Cathedral about a conference that they are going to have next year. Nowadays you don't just turn up to give a speech, you are interviewed about it beforehand, you are filmed saying what you are going to do months before you've given the speech, and so the trick is to try to think of what you're going to say in the speech. This publicity has now become a 360 degree industry.

Off then, out into a wet Soho with glistening pavements and a little forest of umbrellas, and all the usual pavement jostling and murmurs of purpose that you get in that forever odd and vivid little square mile. I went through Chinatown and made a note of a building that I've passed many times. It is the Exchange and Bullion Office, 1798, no bigger than a small Georgian townhouse, and there it still stands, above the Nippon and Korea Centre, and also above a Chinese medicine shop.

This evening I'm off to the British Library to listen to Hunter Davies talk about John Lennon and his letters, and see some home movies, and then watch the tribute band which will bring the past into the British Library, where McCartney's lyrics are celebrated in a scholarly fashion. Who would have bet on that in the 1960s?

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

PS In 1978, when I began the South Bank Show, I ill-advisedly wrote a manifesto saying that I wanted to analyse and celebrate the arts across the whole waterfront, from pop music to Wagner, from television drama to classical painting. To show I was serious I began with Paul McCartney, although the Berlin Philharmonic and the Royal Shakespeare Company were in the wings ready to be transmitted. A certain section of the press dumped on this, expressing the view that the Beatles could never be art, and that I was completely mistaken in this doomed venture. About 33 years later I ended the series with a programme on Carol Ann Duffy, the Poet Laureate. Nothing but acclaim, rightly.

Last night at the British Library, Hunter Davies's book on John Lennon's letters was given pride of auditorium. There's an exhibition of John's letters in the library. There is close textual attention, and the Quarrymen played for us all. A week before I'd introduced Carol Ann Duffy at that same library, in the same venue, with the same measure of attendance and enthusiasm. As the poet said, "The times they are a'changin."

The Gothic Imagination: Dracula

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Paula McDonnell 12:10, Monday, 8 October 2012

Editor's note: This week Radio 4 begins The Gothic Imagination series on Radio 4 with a dramatisation of Bram Stoker's Dracula. You can hear the programme on Sunday 14 October at 3pm. The novel was adapted for Radio 4 by Rebecca Lenkiewicz, an award winning writer for stage, screen and radio, here, we ask her some questions about the project. PM

gothic imagination promo image


What appealed to you about adapting Dracula?

I was attracted to Dracula because the Gothic has always appealed to me, the vampire, the Undead, I have been a fan of horror since a child when I would watch the Hammer House of horror double bill late on a Friday night.

What do like about Bram Stoker's story?

I enjoy the way that Stoker tells the story from so many different viewpoints. The various strands, it's all quite filmic how we jump from the castle to Renfield in his asylum and then to Whitby. It travels fast and over continents, it's great.

How have you found the process?

The process has been interesting, I can't say how it's been ultimately until I hear it as that's the end of the process, but so far it has been a challenge and a pleasure.

What were the main challenges in adapting it for radio?

The main challenge is editing it down to such a fraction of the novel's former self. Losing so much texture and detail and hoping that the story can survive these blows.

Have you any favourite moments?

The visits from Dracula work well, the sonic nature of impaling a woman's neck. The various other sounds are wonderful, the sea, storms, creaking doors, bats, the lapping up of blood from an asylum floor. I enjoyed the rats in the chapel and the terriers coming for them at the sound of a whistle.

You're part of an entirely female group of writers working on the Gothic Season (alongside Lucy Catherine and Nancy Harris). Have you brought out a (more) female perspective to the story do you think?

Stoker's women are great characters. They're young but strong and intelligent, nothing of the whimsical victims about them. I tried to follow his lead and I wanted to explore their sexuality in the piece, the idea of the virgin.

How did you find the read through/recording?

We had no readthrough as the time was better used to dive straight in. The recording was great. Jessica Dromgoole is always fantastic to work with and the actors and the creative team were incredibly impressive.

What do you think are the key features of a Gothic Drama?

For me a great gothic tale is about suspense and psychology and characters and places that enhance the frisson of danger and darkness. There's always a very strong undercurrent of desire. It makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up.

How have you found writing an original gothic story at the same time as working on Dracula? Has it made it easier?

Working on Dracula in parallel to a modern Gothic drama was interesting. But it's hard to say how it will feed into the writing of the shorter play. They're quite different creatures. But Stoker's novel is so great about time and place and so bold. It's been great to immerse myself in that.

Rebecca Lenkiewicz is an award winning writer who, in 2008, was the first living female playwright to have her work (Her Naked Skin) produced on the Olivier Stage at the National. She has written, and adapted, widely for theatre, with plays recently at the Old Vic, the Tricycle and the Tramway Theatre Glasgow. Her radio work includes The Man in the Suit, shortlisted for a Prix Europa 2010, and Sarah and Ken, shortlisted for the BBC Audio & Music Award for Best Original Drama, and Highly Commended by the Tinniswood Award. She has written for Secret Diary of a Call Girl, and wrote The Typist for Sky Arts Live last year. She is currently writing an original screenplay for Pawel Pawlikowski, a new version of The Furies for Radio 3's Oresteia, and adapting Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant by Anne Tyler for Radio 4.

Launch of iPlayer Radio

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Nigel Smith Nigel Smith 09:59, Monday, 8 October 2012

Radio 4 beta home


In June I wrote a post inviting listeners to look at the beta version of the new Radio 4 and Radio 4 Extra homepages and send us their feedback.

Later today, the new site will replace the one you've been used to. This is part of the launch of iPlayer Radio, which creates a single coherent experience for all BBC radio across PC, mobile and tablet.

It includes the release of the first bespoke BBC radio smartphone app (freely available from the Apple store at launch, other mobile platforms to follow). Mark Friend, Controller of BBC Audio & Music Interactive, has written in more detail about iPlayer Radio and you can read his post, and leave a comment, on the BBC Radio blog.

If you are more interested in the technical side of things, Andrew Scott, Head of the Radio & Music Product in BBC Future Media, has written another post on the BBC Internet blog.

Everything you were able to do on the old Radio 4 and 4 Extra sites is possible on the new ones but the way you do it may be slightly different. The navigation bar at the top of the page lets you find programmes by Category, A to Z, Search and via the Schedule.

iPlayer Radio navigation bar


To listen to a programme that's live on air right now, click on the On Air tab on the left-hand side of the screen. This also shows the name of the programme that's currently on air.

iPlayer Radio - on air tab


The other tabs on the page showcase daily Highlights of programmes and clips you can hear online plus Factual, Drama and Comedy programmes.

iPlayer Radio genre tabs


Links to the Radio 4 & 4 Extra blog and Downloads (podcasts) are now towards the bottom of the homepage rather than in the top navigation bar.

Blog and download image


We'd still really value any feedback you have on the new BBC radio sites and your experience of them on PC, mobile and tablet. Comments on this post are closed so we can collate all feedback about every station in one place, on the BBC Radio blog. I will read all of the comments on Mark Friend's blog post and if there are recurring questions about Radio 4 and Radio 4 Extra I will answer them in another blog post here later in the week.

The desktop sites will roll out over of the course of this afternoon, and we anticipate the iPhone app will be available to download for free from the app store by the morning. I hope you enjoy using them.

To leave a comment about the changes to the Radio 4 and Radio 4 Extra websites please visit the BBC Radio blog.

Nigel Smith is the Interactive Editor at Radio 4 and Radio 4 Extra.

Feedback: Political Interviews

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Roger Bolton Roger Bolton 09:03, Monday, 8 October 2012

Roger Bolton

This week on Feedback I talked to that most thoughtful of political correspondents, Steve Richards of the Independent, about the state of the political interview. Our discussion followed a particularly rowdy interview on the Today programme by Evan Davis with the Labour leader Ed Miliband.

They frequently talked over each other and several of our correspondents switched off.

Interviewers tend to feel that politicians arrive with sound bites they are determined to utter regardless of the questions being asked, and politicians seem to believe that those questioning them have their own agenda and are just trying to trip them up to get a news story.

Whatever the truth, the audience is not well served when it is impossible to hear what each party to an interview is saying.

Are things getting worse?

Looking back over 40 years it seems to me that political interviewing has become more difficult.

In the 70s and 80s the parties were openly split on major issues and few made any attempt to hide their differences with colleagues.

This provided an opportunity for expert interviewers like Sir Robin Day to utilise their considerable forensic skills to explore both policies and personalities.

Then, under the tutelage of Sir Gordon Rees, the conservative party became more concerned with presentation and impression. Margaret Thatcher was given a new hair style, taught how to lower her voice and was made more easily available to Terry Wogan and Jimmy Young than to Sir Robin.

New Labour soon followed suit. Tony Blair had seen how former leader Neil Kinnock had been treated by the right wing tabloid press, and was determined to suppress internal dissension. He brought in Alastair Campbell, who with Peter Mandelson, succeeding for some time in controlling the political agenda in their favour.

The sound bite ruled and everyone had to be on message.

Today that ought to be more difficult , given the proliferation of media outlets and the rise of social media.

Yet there are many politicians, producers and listeners who are increasingly frustrated with the present state of political interviewing.

Here is Feedback's treatment of the issue.

It will be interesting to hear the tone adopted by whichever Today interview talks to David Cameron and George Osborne. If the interview is a gentle one there will be calls of bias, but if it is as rowdy as that between Evan Davis and Ed Miliband, then many listeners may well switch off.

I'll be listening.

Roger Bolton

Roger Bolton presents Feedback on Radio 4.

  • Listen to this week's 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: Gerald of Wales

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Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg 12:05, Friday, 5 October 2012

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


Well, that took the biscuit! By the way, Gerald of Wales was exceptionally tall for his time and a fearsome, warrior-like man. That's about the only thing we didn't get in! Sometimes an academic conversation turns into a romp without ceasing to be an academic conversation. This was one of those. At the end I didn't know whether to burst out laughing or to applaud. Instead, as usual, we had a cup of tea. Looked at a croissant. Passed on it. And then cleared up the studio for the World Service to take over with matters of international importance.

Went back to the office which is mercifully near now that we have moved three blocks away from Soho. Saw Cherie Blair in the street outside a local Italian. Clearly after a breakfast power meeting. "Don't come near," she said, "I've got a stinking cold".

And on to the office which is next - in case I haven't told you - to a stern and splendid Welsh church which could not be more appropriate. Who raises these coincidences?

Always a pile of stuff to do in the office. Oh, I forgot, before we came back to the office, Tom Morris and I went across the road for a coffee and did more work on the five programmes on culture which we're going to put out from December 31st onwards. It's an ambitious project. There are obviously problems of casting, selection, writing, production and delivery. Apart from that, I think we should have a good time.

And then to lunch with yet another academic who is writing a book about my books, which is flattering and intriguing, and it was a good lunch. (I pinched that last phrase from Hemingway in a writerly fashion.)

With a bit of spare time I went into Regent's Park, it being a sunny day, and was met by flocks and flocks of young girls in fancy dress. I do mean flocks. Perhaps I should say hordes. Some were dressed as Superman, some as Batman, some as Spiderman. Many were dressed as angels, wandering round the park with great insouciance. Some were dressed as cowboys; they occupied the southern part of Regent's Park. I did not stop to ask why. I just thought that this was a vision and some Anglo-Fellini was shooting it from behind a tree.

And back to the office for work on a talk I'm giving tonight on John Constable up in Hampstead. He rented a cottage in Hampstead for several years and used Hampstead Heath as an extension of Dedham.

At the moment I'm most struck by the crowdedness of London, which is neither intimidating nor oppressive but entirely enlivening. Why is this? Am I in a good mood? (Not particularly, I've had a lousy time with health and other, more serious matters.) Is it that the sun is out today? (A possibility.) More likely it is because people themselves in this part of London, in this bubble of Europe, feel exceptionally cheerful. Seize the moment. I'm going out this evening to be cheerful alongside the rest of them.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

PS: Among the usual cluster of emails there was one about the beaver which may take your fancy. It comes from the Chief Executive of the Scottish Wildlife Trust, which is currently involved in a pilot scheme to reintroduce the animal to the Argyll countryside:

"Aesop's Fables presented the myth about beavers sacrificing their own testicles to hunters in the erroneous belief that the testicles were the prize. In fact it is the castoreum in the anal glands which was sought by hunters. Castoreum contains salicylic acid from which aspirin was developed; it is also used as base for perfumes, and in the USA is still used as a food additive. I am happy to report the beavers in Argyll still have their testicles and anal glands intact."

Bookclub: Marilynne Robinson - Gilead

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Jim Naughtie 16:06, Thursday, 4 October 2012

Editor's note: Radio 4's Bookclub is on at 4pm this Sunday 7 October and is repeated on Thursday 11 October at 3.30pm. You can also listen online after broadcast or download the podcast. Here, Jim Naughtie talks about the themes that are discussed in Bookclub this week with Marilynne Robinson discussing her novel, Gilead. - PMcD

Marilynne Robinson

When Marilynne Robinson talked to this month's group of Bookclub readers, we were discussing an unusual novel. First of all, in Gilead there is very little dialogue between the characters, because it is written in the form of a long letter, from a man approaching the end of his life to his young son. Second, it is the story of a good man. As Marilynne pointed out, this is unusual. Yet when the Rev John Ames "presented himself to her" as she put it, he did so as an unquestionably decent human being. "The voice makes the rules, and this is the voice of a good man."

She went on to say that she was driven crazy, as a teacher and writer, by the clichéd assertion that it is difficult to write novels about good people, because damaged characters are thought to be more interesting. "I think anyone who tries to be good knows there's nothing simple about it, much easier to be bad. I knew that about the character - and, also, I don't quite believe in bad characters."

It is just as well that Ames is good, because as a pastor he has to lead his flock. That is his calling, in the American mid west, and Gilead is a picture of a society - just before the middle of the nineteenth century - that Marilynne knows well. It is her territory, and the church where she is still an elder and sometimes preaches is conscious of precisely the same sense of mission, and the set of community values, that drive Ames. We spoke about that piece of American history, and I for one was happy to be reminded of a phenomenon which is often forgotten when people talk about the westward movement of Europeans in the 1830s and 40s.

There was enormous pressure on new states to permit slavery in the manner of the south. As a countermovement, large numbers of people - often a third or a half of a church congregation - would leave relatively comfortable lives in New England and travel to the undeveloped prairies to fight that proposition, bringing instead the ideals that had been taken to the north-east by the first pilgrims, bringing their religious beliefs together easily with ideas of democracy and equality.

So Gilead is a book with an unusual epistolary form, and one that is rooted in a particular, vivid chapter of American history. It is also, as you'll hear on the programme when Marilynne reads a passage, an intensely poetic work. It was only her second novel, and quite different from her first, Housekeeping, which was immensely successful. There is a gap of 24 years between the two, which is remarkable in itself, and it is difficult to read Gilead without feeling that it has been maturing for a long time. The delicacy with which Ames's feelings are described; his feeling for the bittersweet autumn of life; his concern about his son's future under the influence of friends and neighbours who don't share his values - they are all fully-realised, and beautifully rendered. It is a book in which each word seems perfectly placed.

It is also a book which deals with profound themes - the loss of a wife and daughter, the balancing of religious loyalty and the loss of faith which coexist in any society like Ames's, and the contemplation of the end of life. I do hope you enjoy Gilead. Marilynne spoke compellingly, with great wit and insight.

I should let you know that our next recording for which we have places is with Ben Macintyre, talking about Agent ZigZag on 4 December. If you'd like to take part please apply for tickets.

And the next programme to be broadcast will be with David Almond on Skellig, with a lively group of readers in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, on Sunday 4 November at 4pm. Incidentally, Radio 4 Extra will be broadcasting a dramatisation of Skellig on Friday 12 October at 11.15am.

Happy reading


Jim Naughtie presents Bookclub

International Short Story Award: Winner Announced

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Di Speirs 13:20, Thursday, 4 October 2012

Editor's note: The International Short Story Award winner was announced this week. Here, Editor of Readings Di Speirs talks about the awards. Find out more on the ISSA webpages. PMcD

Chairman of the judges Clive Anderson and winner Miroslav Penkov

And so to Freeword on Wednesday night for the 2012 BBC International Short Story Award announcement which was live on Front Row, hosted by the always knowledgeable and enthusiastic John Wilson, in front of a packed audience of writers, agents, publishers and guests, as well as the doughty souls from Booktrust and the London Readings Unit who keep the award running smoothly every year.

This is the third time the Award has been held at The Freeword Centre in Farringdon and it feels a very appropriate space to celebrate the best of short story writing, given the belief in the power of the written word there. It's always a little tense in the run up; perhaps because we had six of our ten short-listed writers present, some of whom had come from as far as Australia and South Africa to be there, the tension was even more palpable than usual last night.

Of course it's the one moment when being on the short-list may feel a little double-edged for some. There's the obvious agonising over whether or not your story has won, coupled with anxiety about either not preparing any speech so as not to tempt fate - or getting caught out and having to ad lib. And of course in the excitement it is also possible to forget any carefully planned words anyway. Last night, watching the faces of the writers as they heard clips of themselves and their stories and counted down the minutes - and they really had no idea what was coming! - I had a momentary worry that this was almost cruel.

And yet the reception once the announcement was made was hugely generous from everyone. Contrary to those suspicious of literary back-biting on such occasions, every writer I spoke to afterwards was full of enthusiasm for the award, for the short story and for the winner. They all felt the journey worthwhile and that being part of what is a genuinely cohesive short-list was a spur to their writing.

And it would take a heart of stone not to have been moved by Miroslav Penkov's utter astonishment and absolute delight at being crowned the winner of the 2012 BBC Award. Indeed Kyoko his wife came close to a dead faint with shock! It was an emotional moment seeing a great word-smith who had already told various people that being on the short-list was more than he could have hoped for and who had been so generous about the quality and strength of his fellow writers, almost lost for words as he accepted the award.

In this year when the world has come to London to compete in harmony in many spheres, it felt absolutely right that we had a Bulgarian writer, who now lives and writes in the US but is heavily rooted in the Balkans, and who is married to a Japanese Maths Professor as our winner and a South African, Henrietta Rose-Innis, as the runner up. And that a story, East of the West, which is part about boundaries and barriers but equally about love and friendship across the water, should be the winner.

Di Speirs is Editor of Readings for Radio 4

Can't See, Will Cook

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Paula McDonnell 14:04, Wednesday, 3 October 2012

Editor's Note: Can't See, Will Cook is a short series included as part of the In Touch programme on Radio 4. Here, reporter Richard Lane talks about the series. Listen to clips of the recipes discussed in Can't See Will Cook or download them on the In Touch website. PMcD

It's Saturday morning. I've a strong coffee in a mug and Radio 4 on in the kitchen. Bacon and mushrooms on the grill, toast in the toaster, and a couple of eggs spitting in the pan. It's an easy routine repeated in kitchens up and down the country but, crucially, neither easy or routine if you're blind.

The smoke alarm goes off - because I've forgotten to turn on the extractor fan - Simpson, my dog starts to howl at the noise (and adding to it!) Breakfast is a miserable offering of burnt eggs, a surviving rasher of bacon and some black toast. A grim and dispiriting experience. Things could only get better....

can't see will cook

That happened five years ago, and despite taking many culinary strides forward since then, I have not tried to repeat the fry-up. What I did manage to do was to convince the In Touch team to let me present a series of cookery items on their programme.

Listeners offered their favoured and most practical recipes and we set out to track down competent and imaginative visually impaired cooks who could demonstrate how cooking with little or no sight could be fun, safe, and creative.

The response was immediate, and within weeks we had Can't see Will Cook, launched and under way. Our first stop was to Ann Scroggie, sadly now no longer with us, with her no-nonsense Mrs Beaton approach to fish pie in her home near Motherwell; next stop, south-west London, where partially sighted Ben gave a masterclass in how to cook up a superb Thai Chicken Curry while deploying his magical garlic roller. In Cheshire, we met Gill Burrington who does all her cooking (including her signature Spanish Pork Stew) in an electric wok. Rory Roberts in west Wales, when not telling me off, made an unforgettable festive Nut Roast; Janet in north London showed me how to make Lemon Drizzle Cake, then back up north to Preston for Kathy Lester's Creole Fish Stew and Dry-Roasted Cabbage (yes, really); Maxine Turkington, ably assisted by husband Syd knocked up a speedy and delicious summer three-course menu, and Ian Macrae treated us to his favourite fishy dishy, Cod Eleanor, to the accompaniment of music of Lindisfarne. And we ended with Mohamad Khalife's memorable Lebanese feast ... fantastic.

I've enjoyed some delicious food, put on weight and most importantly I've gained confidence in the kitchen. I hope listeners can benefit similarly.

Richard Lane is a reporter for Can't See, Will Cook.

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