Archives for November 2012

In Our Time: The Borgias

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Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg 16:39, Friday, 23 November 2012

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

The Borgias

Hello

Well, I hope we didn't shock you too much. It seems from the three scholars sat around studio 50E that there is no proof of incest, either between father and daughter or between brother and sister; there is no proof of poisoning. There is one recorded orgy - the Chestnut Ball; there were certainly murders committed, there were certainly acts of violence, the Borgias were certainly feared and Cesare was not a man to cross. But until more is revealed from the Vatican we have to rest with the Anglo-Saxon version of the Borgias, which gives them a much cleaner bill of health than elsewhere.

It's tempting to send the programme to those who make marvellously dark, sinister and exotically lurid films about the Borgias, while dressing up in fantastic Renaissance clothes and giving it the allure of learned glamour. But I suspect they wouldn't take much notice.

Autumn is a magnificent time to be in the centre of London. The twilight intensifies the attraction of this town which reaches out to Dickens and Conan Doyle on every possible occasion. It seems lamplit rather than street-lit; the alleyways are both tempting and sinister, people pad around, soft-treading fallen leaves turning to mush. The glitter of lights in the upper storeys of tall buildings suggest ... and on it goes.

There was a policeman at the entrance/exit to the House of Lords who I chatted with the other evening and he was singing the praises of being on that spot. What a life to look at Westminster Abbey lit up so well, with the House of Lords behind him, and across the square the Treasury and the Supreme Court, and Whitehall leading up to the gallery. Just to be there was to feel that you were part of "our history", he said. I agree with him.

In one of his essays Cyril Connolly turned around a phrase in the Bible from 'perfect love driveth out fear' to 'perfect fear driveth out love'. In my case at the moment, perfect work driveth out reflection. There's a bit of a storm here. I'm doing a radio series alongside In Our Time with Tom Morris, the producer of that programme, and I'm also revving up to do a programme on William Tyndale, if not the only begetter, certainly the main begetter of the King James Bible and all the literature and language that flowed from that. We're filming for the new series of the South Bank Show as well and I was up in Royston and Foxton last weekend with the crew and Alison Balsom. We talked in the wooden hut in the corner of a car park where the brass band of Royston has practised for the last 50 years. In the evening there was a concert at the little church of Foxton. Candle lit, crowded, Alison Balsom - one of the top trumpet players in the world - sat alongside the members of the band she had joined at the age of six, playing as part of the band. Wine at half time. A woman vicar, Linda, in full and magnificent flow, holding things together. There was something so deeply English about it.

And on we go. Fighting to find time to walk round the streets. Managed to go up the Mall round Buckingham Palace the other evening, in the dark, and back alongside St James's Park, looking over the fence to the little lake with a few reflected lights twinkling on the still surface.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

Saturday Live: Emma Kennedy and John Major's Inheritance Tracks

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Sian Williams 16:20, Friday, 23 November 2012

Editor's Note: Saturday Live is Radio 4's Saturday morning magazine show featuring extraordinary stories and remarkable people. You can listen to the show here. In this blog presenter Sian Williams gives us an insight into her week and looks ahead to the next show. - CM

Sarah Lund in 'The Killing'

Sarah Lund in 'The Killing'. This week on Saturday Live we're learning more about our cousins across the North Sea.

This week, I got to meet the neighbours. Radio 4 had invited its producers, comedy writers, dramatists and presenters to gather in New Broadcasting House, to eat scones and say hello to one another. Those of us who started in Old BH, more than two decades ago remember cramped, fuggy rooms, with suspiciously sticky carpet and a pervading smell of fag ash. It was noisy too, the clatter of typewriters and the bellow of a boss with deadlines. Staff were clearly delineated, the World at One team were in one room and I'm sure Today were on a different floor, but they could have been in a different world. And no-one knew anyone from Television, or seemed to want to. When I told my Editor I was leaving Radio 4 to join the launch team at the new rolling TV news channel, News 24, he sneered, walked across to his programme planner on the wall and wiped my name off it with a look that said " you are dead to me, now".

Twenty years on, here we all are together, Radio and TV people mingling. And gosh, Broadcasting House has changed. It's got a rather large extension. The rooms are not offices but spaces, open, with nowhere to hide, but lots of opportunity to bump into people from different programmes and disciplines. Maybe we can learn something from one another. I realise that might take another couple of decades.

This week on Saturday Live we're learning more about our cousins across the North Sea. Fans of the TV series, The Killing, will already feel they know quite a lot about Denmark. It's often dark and rainy and politicians always seem to get caught up in rather murky business. After watching the first two series, I convinced myself I could even speak a little Danish and had a slight girl crush on the female detective Sarah Lund, with her furrowed brow, scraped back hair, itchy-looking jumper and refusal to eat anything but an occasional fried egg. That is nothing compared to writer, tweeter and columnist, Emma Kennedy who admits to being a Lund obsessive. We will say Hej Emma! This Saturday, as she's our studio guest.

Also on the programme, a farmer who survived being crushed by his own tractor, John McCarthy travels to Maastricht and we enjoy former Prime Minister John Major's Inheritance Tracks.

Jeg skal ga, as Sarah Lund might say (look it up). Saturday Live, at 9am.

Sian Williams presents Saturday Live on Radio 4.

The Mysterious Case of Maria

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Corey Montague-Sholay Corey Montague-Sholay 10:18, Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Editor's note: The Mysterious Case of Maria is the Radio 4 Afternoon Drama on 22 November. Unusually for a radio drama, it was written by a team of young writers. Here, one of the writers, Corey Montague-Sholay, writes about what it was like to be involved. PMcD

promotional iplayer image for The Mysterious Case of Maria on BBC Radio 4

"Maria's case found me in an unexpected way". It's the first line of the play and the best way I can describe the process. The five of us penned it after being invited to workshop ideas at Bush House. What linked us? We'd all written an episode of EastEnders: E20. But The Mysterious Case of Maria, a rom-com mystery centred on a girl finding her way in the city, is a far cry from the webseries.

There were three major elements. One was hearing Ellie's thoughts and having her narrate her story. Second was her fantasy, which comes from the fictional "Bianca Kane" novels (at one point we began writing one!). The other was her dating some pretty... special guys.

I'll never forget our first draft; we each had two/three scenes to write, what came back were five hilariously different takes on Ellie. Her voice was so distinctive we'd all taken something different from it. Our time spent together was used refining her voice and story, and we used a baton pass system between the writers to ensure clarity. The Mysterious Case of Maria changed a lot throughout, the core remained untouched but the piece gave so much scope to be stylised everyone who had an input led it in a new direction.

The main difference from TV is the shift from sight to sound at the forefront. I dreaded the thought of making characters churn out expositional, boring chunks of text to describe everything, "Yes, that chair IS a lovely shade of magenta, don't know why we both had to mention it considering as we can both see it but hey". But I realised noise can be even more useful than sight. I associated sounds and songs to certain people in my day-to-day life.

The best thing is highlighting the right sound can give everyone that same feeling, but let them make it personal. It becomes easier to evoke that sense of fantasy and emotion. When I write a TV script before I put dialogue to a scene I write it in action and images. Now it was action and sound effects.

The best and worst thing about seeing the final script is the sense of journey. You can see how far it's developed, but can't help but post-edit. I'd never seen my work recorded and was apprehensive. How would they respond? Cue images of actors storming out or yelling at me through the studio. Gladly (for them, I would've given as good as I got... Or huddled crying in a corner who knows) that didn't happen.

Seeing it come to life with such a clear voice and style made me feel we've done a good job. It's great to see actors enjoying a script and even better deliver lines so well I was genuinely laughing and moved. There's energy and warmth in it which sweeps you up in Ellie's imagination, and if there's one thing I've learnt, it's that a little fantasy can go a long way.

Corey Montague-Sholay is one of the writers for The Mysterious Case of Maria

Time and The Count of Monte Cristo

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Jeremy Mortimer 16:23, Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Editor's note: The Count of Monte Cristo is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 from Sunday 25th November. It has been adapted for radio by Sebastian Baczkiewicz. The following blog was written by the producers Jeremy Mortimer and Sasha Yevtushenko. - CM.

Iain Glen, Toby Jones, Paul Rhys and Zubin Varla

The cast of The Count of Monte Cristo (Toby Jones, Paul Rhys, Iain Glen and Zubin Varla)

Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, laid down the rule that every tragedy, properly constructed, should contain but one catastrophe and should take place over the span of a single day. Alexandre Dumas, when he came to start work on The Count of Monte Cristo, wasn't having any of that. He delivered the catastrophe - the cataclysm of vengeance wreaked by Edmond Dantes on his miserable antagonists - but spread the action of the novel over a period of twenty-nine years. That's how long it takes from the day that Edmond sails into Marseilles, at the helm of the trading ship 'The Phaeron' and all set to announce his forthcoming marriage to the beautiful Mercedes, until he leaves France for good having blasted his way through the cream of respectable Parisian society.

But perhaps Dumas did take a leaf out of Aristotle's book, because the seeds of the drama are indeed sown in the course of that single day in Marseilles, the twenty-fourth of February 1815. On that day, galled by Edmond's success and by his happiness, his rival for the captaincy of The Phaeron, Danglars, and his rival in love, Fernand de Morcerf, hatch a plot with the drunkard Caderousse that marks Edmond out as a potential traitor to the crown, and results in his fourteen-year imprisonment in the fortress of the Chateau D'If.

Jane Lapotaire with writer Sebastian Baczkiewicz

Jane Lapotaire with writer Sebastian Baczkiewicz

The pain and anguish of those fourteen years, during which time Dantes tunnels his way out of his cell and makes contact with a fellow prisoner, Abbe Faria, is the matter of the first hundred or so pages of Dumas' book. But Sebastian Baczkiewicz, in this new radio dramatisation, chose to start the story at the moment that Dantes makes his daring, and almost suicidal escape from the Chateau D'If.

In this new dramatisation, the story really gets going as Edmond returns to life in a new world. A world in which almost a decade has passed since Napoleon's escape from Elba, the battle of Waterloo, and final capture. A world in which Edmond Dantes can assume his new identity as the Count of Monte Cristo, and can begin to put in place the final catastrophe that lies at the heart of his drama-packed story.

Our new radio production of The Count of Monte Cristo probably started when we realised we shared a passion for Dumas' great novel, and approached Radio 4 to see if we could convince them to let us produce it as a four-part Classic Serial.

And so it was that, in early Summer 2011, in a meeting room overlooking the Thames in the BBC's now de-commissioned building Bush House, we met with writer Sebastian Baczkiewicz and began plotting our approach. Chief amongst the challenges was how to squeeze Dumas' 1200-page book into four hours of radio time. However, Sebastian had form in this department (together with Lin Coghlan, he had adapted Victor Hugo's colossus Les Miserables for radio), so we knew the project was in safe hands. It was Sebastian who hit upon the idea of using Haydee, the daughter of the Sultan Ali Pasha and a member of The Count's household, as our story-teller - to guide us through the story's shifts in time, its sometimes labyrinthine plot and large retinue of characters.

Sebastian worked on the scripts throughout the autumn of 2011 and early 2012, whilst somehow also managing to find time to deliver new instalments of his original drama series Pilgrim (also for Radio 4). By May 2012, the scripts were ready and Sebastian's work was done. It was then that Jeremy contacted composers David Tobin and Jeff Meegan, through the musical catalogue outfit Audio Network, and asked whether they would be interested in creating original music for our production. After reading the now finished scripts, they identified key themes and characters in the story and set about creating musical motifs. Mercedes' Lament, for example, captures the cruel separation of young lovers Dantes and Mercedes, and the sense of loss that haunts them ever after. Imprisoned is the music we associate with Dantes' fourteen year imprisonment at the Chateau D'If and the desire for revenge that his confinement engenders.

We began casting in late August 2012, about five weeks before we were due to record. It was a delight to find that the actors we had in mind for the roles responded so well to the scripts and, crucially, were available for our dates. Recording began on September 25th, with a cast of twenty-five actors reading through the first two episodes, and then straight into the studio in Broadcasting House - recording 145 scenes over the following seven days, and the entirety of Haydee's narration on the eighth day.

With the brilliant studio manager Colin Guthrie at the helm, we spent a further two weeks in October weaving together the dramatized scenes with the narration and music. Eighteen months on from our original proposal to Radio 4, The Count of Monte Cristo was finished at last.

The Count of Monte Cristo was directed and produced by Jeremy Mortimer and Sasha Yevtushenko.

The Count of Monte Cristo is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 from Sunday 25th November. All four episodes will be available after broadcast via the Radio 4 website until Sunday 23rd December.

  • Visit the Count of Monte Cristo website and listen to the programme.
  • The Music from Audio Network can be found here
  • BBC Radio 4 Afternoon Drama Series: Pilgrim by Sebastian Baczkiewicz
  • Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, dramatised by Sebastian Baczkiewicz

Alvin Hall's top 12 Letters from America

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Alvin Hall 15:54, Monday, 19 November 2012

Editor's note: Alvin Hall travelled the USA revisiting the places and events in his new series, In Alistair Cooke's Footsteps. Here, he talks about his 12 favourite editions of Alistair Cookes original programmes. You can listen, download and read transcripts of over 900 editions of Alistair Cooke's Letter From America spanning from 1946 to 2004. PMcD

Alvin Hall

I met Alistair Cooke only once--it was a typical New York City chance encounter--as we were both on our way to our dentists at 800 Fifth Avenue. Cooke had come downtown from his apartment and I had come uptown from mine. I recognized him immediately. As we waited in the lobby, I eagerly took the opportunity to talk to him. I told him how much I had enjoyed his television work and admired his books. He was gracious, quite formal, just as I thought he would be, and he sounded just as he did on television. We had a lovely short chat about his work and his travels around America--the kind of light interaction that can happen when you meet an amiable celebrity in New York City. However, for me this chance meeting was thrilling and memorable.

Like many Americans, I first came to know of Alistair Cooke when he hosted "Masterpiece Theatre" on the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) on Sunday nights. Cooke did not "come into my home" as the saying goes; he came into my college dormitory room. Cooke appeared at the beginning and at the end of the program providing summaries of the episodes as well as important details about the plot, characters, and historical references. His was probably the first English accent I ever heard. The way he presented himself in dress and manner as well as the cadence of his voice intrigued me. I began to find out more about him. That's when I discovered his now legendary radio program "Letter from America."

Over the years friends from Britain would tell me about "Letter from America"--how it gave them their first mental pictures of America and Americans, and made them want to see and experience America for themselves. Finally, during my first trip to London in 1985, I heard "Letter from America" live. I don't remember the subject of that letter, but I remember my thoughts about its structure. It seemed a somewhat wandering compilation of several different thoughts and digressions around the topic.

When the book "Letter from America" was published in 2004, I was able to sit down and read them--with my version of Cooke's voice in my head. (Listening to his real voice in the Alistair Cooke Archive recordings online is a special joy for me.) Impressively, many of his insights, thoughts, and conclusions about America remain relevant today, decades after Cooke broadcast the original letter. However in other cases, I felt some letters did not reflect the America that I had experienced in the US, especially during the earlier years of his broadcast. Why were his letters so timeless in many ways, yet a bit blind in others? As he gained insight about the US, so too can we gain insight by tracing, with the benefit of hindsight, his personal journey and evolution in America through his reflected in the 58 years (1946-2004) of the weekly "Letter from America."

I've listened to a considerable chunk of Alistair Cooke's Letter from America posted on the Archive's website. Each one is around 15 minutes long. I listened to them in my apartment in New York and during my commute on the subway to work; during flights across the Atlantic to and from the UK as well as across America to and from California; on trains to the English countryside; and during the road trip with my producer Bill Law as we retraced Cooke's travels around America and visited some places that he returned to repeatedly in the letters.

The ones that captured my attention, while being both effective and memorable, are those that combine the historical and the personal. They do this often in a way that includes a little history lesson to provide an appropriate amount of context; a bit of personal reflection about the situation currently; and then the delivery of his insightful conclusion or thoughts about the subject and its relationship to an aspect of America--its world status, its global or domestic politics and responsibilities, its social issues and attitudes, its culture, its dreams, and its future.

The 12 programs I've chosen are those I would recommend to anyone who wants to hear Cooke at his best, but who also wants to get a feel for the breadth and depth of the subjects that Cooke covered over 58 years. Some of the letters I've selected deal with important historical events; others cover events that I experienced; some mark key points in Cooke's career. All are fascinating. The word "encyclopedic" always comes to mind when I consider the range of topics about which Cooke wrote and broadcast over his career at the BBC.

1. The First Letter From America 1946, re-read 22 March 1996 In the original letter, Cooke returns to New York following a month's stay in the UK during the worst year of post-war deprivations. He reflects directly, and ironically, on the differences between the UK and the US at the time, and on the types of deprivations for which Americans will stand in line.

Vietnam protests in USA - Getty image for Letter From America promotion

2. 1000th letter - American reactions to Vietnam, 24 March 1968 Cooke describes a Congressional Inquiry into the Vietnam War and then the war itself. About five minutes into the Letter he asks a series of questions that still apply to America's involvement in wars today. It is an unsettling--and therefore brilliant--letter to listen to because the underlying issues--rhetoric, policy, and the cost of the war--of America's involvement in various world conflicts that Cooke succinctly summarizes remain the same. One need only substitute the current names of American congressmen and generals.

3. Assassination of J F Kennedy, 24 November 1963 This letter, about the meaning of the assassination of JFK, is one of Cooke's shining moments. He captures brilliantly what Kennedy meant to "a new generation of Americans" and what a blow to the country his death was. His comments about JFK's rhetoric and the blockades he faced early in his administration could have been written today about President Obama's early days in office.

4. The LA Watts riots, 30 May 1965 This letter about the Watts riots contains so many of the prejudices, stereotypes, and statistical bigotry of its day that it is difficult to listen to. It's an example of how Cooke's privileged, white "Fifth Avenue" American lifestyle blinded him to the reality of the daily lives of black people across America at that time. What he says about the south, where I was growing up in 1965, is so rose-colored as to be offensive. Listen carefully to his tone of voice, his metaphors and similes, the examples and the words he chooses, and you can see how much he had absorbed and justified this pervasively negative point of view about black Americans. The underlying premise of Cooke's letter is that the riots are caused by envy of the white man and his material possessions. As I listened, I wondered if Cooke had ever talked to a black American in the south, north, east, or west about his or her life in 1965.

5. Boston busing crisis, 18 October 1974 Cooke discusses enforced busing in Boston in a detached, cool manner that summarizes the issues in a way that is a bit too simple. Interestingly, in his descriptions of the black community, probably inadvertently, he does not mention directly that there were working families there too as they were in the nearby working-class Irish community. He also seems to play down the horrible vitriol and frightening bigotry that was on display every day by a hardcore group of people in the Irish enclave. Today, the underlying issues that Cooke discussed are still alive in Boston and the US, but in different, somewhat more subtle ways. Cooke's attitudes revealed in the letter have changed since his letter nine years earlier on the Watt's Riots, broadcast on 30 May 1965.

6. Bobby Kennedy's assassination, 9 June 1968 Cooke describes the events leading up to and following his being just on the other side of the doors from where Robert Kennedy was assassinated at the Ambassador Hotel on June 6, 1968. His description of Ethel Kennedy's eyes, the emotional, visceral reactions of people in the room upon hearing the news, and his own feelings are vivid and unforgettable--Cooke at his best. But then he steps back, using the device of talking about the situation with an old friend to place the assassination in the context of the larger struggle for civil rights by black people in America and what their reaction to Kennedy's killing might be. His closing summary is very much what the majority of white people in America, then still viewing all black people as one dark, unfamiliar "other," feared most--wrongly.

7. How ice cream changed America, 4 February 1994 I like this letter because Alistair admits that he was wrong and has changed his mind. Being British, he quickly apologizes for this change. This letter covers the issues of American English and immigration. He illustrates why he changed his mind through the stories of four immigrants. Two deal with teaching bilingual education and some of the problems surrounding this approach. Stories three and four, however, are not just about immigration--they are stories about two brilliant, simple entrepreneurs. Cooke weaves his personal experiences, his historical perspective, as well as his insights about human beings into a satisfying letter that is timeless.

How ice cream changed America - Getty Image for Letter From America episode

8. The English language and immigration, 18 December 1992 Starting with a curious discussion of a British writer's perceptions of American names, this letter provides an intriguing, sometimes amusing and always informative essay about immigration at that time as well as about learning English and other related issues. Cooke offers a quick historical sketch of some of the anti-immigration movements in America and the groups at which each was aimed. Cooke is an admirer of President Theodore Roosevelt's beliefs about the need for all immigrants to speak English. What's fascinating is that parts of this 1992 letter could have been written about immigration in America today.

9. Duke Ellington, 31 May 1974. Beginning with a little history lesson about the St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York City, Cooke offers a thoughtful, personal tribute to the art of jazz, but moreover to the music and accomplishments of Edward Kennedy Ellington, "The Duke." The insights Cooke provides in his digressions, especially those about Earl Fatha Hines, and his memories of the recording sessions he did with The Duke are unforgettable and illuminating. The story of his visit to Ellington's apartment is a jewel. Throughout, it is clear that Cooke admired Duke Ellington as a musical artist, as a stylish human being, and as a symbol of humanity. Before closing the letter, Cooke does a lovely twist on a phrase that at the time was, among black people, thought of as a backhanded compliment for a good black person. The letter closes with a superb adaptation of a quote by John O'Hara!

10. Louis Armstrong, 10 July 1971 This Letter opens with Cooke's memory of his ordering and receiving his first jazz record, "St James Infirmary" by Louis Armstrong. After a brief lesson on the early negative reactions to jazz (which were certainly part of my childhood), Cooke makes a beautiful transition into a tribute to Armstrong's distinct life (especially the early and later parts of his life); his exceptional talent (among both black and white jazz musicians); and his originality that was praised around the world.

11. Chicago and the Democratic convention, 30 August 1996 In this letter, Cooke talks about the history of political conventions in the city of Chicago and reflects on Clinton's decision to hold the 1996 Democratic convention there, the first to be held in the city since the "disastrous convention" of 1968. He begins by reading passages from a 1968 letter describing his dismay at the "murderous ferocity of the [Chicago] police" and more. The 1968 letter is unusual because Cooke's anger and disappointment are apparent, especially in his word choices. However, in the middle of the 1996 letter he incorporates a wonderful encapsulated history of the "astonishing" city of Chicago, a place he admired despite some unfortunate aspects of its history. Cooke makes the good and bad of the city memorable, and leaves you wanting to know more.

12. Alistair Cooke's Last Letter, 20 February 2004 This is Cooke's last letter. And while it is probably not one of his best, one has to be curious about how an iconic broadcaster closes out a 58-year run. The letter says a lot about how he saw himself and his career. He uses the motif of a fairy tale to look back and summarize the state of US foreign policy through Saddam Hussein, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, weapons of mass destruction, John Kerry's presidential candidacy, and the hopes of the Democratic Party. There was no personal statement, no goodbye to his audience, no summary of his 58 years in broadcasting, no sentimentality at all. Near the end of the essay he says that the three top concerns of the US public in 2004 were to recover the two million jobs lost; to reform of the healthcare system; and Iraq. He tried to--and did--remain relevant until the end.

Wall Street educator and broadcaster Alvin Hall presents "In Alistair Cooke's Footsteps" on Radio 4.

In Our Time: Simone Weil

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Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg 15:15, Friday, 16 November 2012

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

Simone Weil

Hello

Reading Simone Weil for a week and being involved in an intense programme and then thinking more about her feels like being locked in a cell of my past, both the religious angst, the philosophical yearnings and the French connection.

It became even stranger when, immediately after the programme, I went up one floor in Broadcasting House to read a bit of Alice Through The Looking Glass for a forthcoming BBC celebration programme.

Out into the streets and the Christmas lights still blazingly on at 10:30 in the morning, which to a thrifty Northern soul seems to be a bit of a waste of electricity! But the other side of that thriftiness is a completely undiminished pleasure in Christmas decorations and so I hope they're on all through the night.

Last Friday I went to dinner with friends and, being early, walked the length of Oxford Street at about eight o'clock at night, magnificently arrayed (though not as good as Regent Street) in their Christmas finery, especially the big stores sheeted with decoration, sometimes a little bit too tasteful for me. There was a bunch of young lads - bulging muscles, white T-shirts - using the scaffolding outside the building to do exercises they would normally do in the gym and attracting as big a crowd as if they'd been a jazz band. There were the remnants of a jazz band - a single trumpeter - playing rather dolefully, a little bit worse for drink, I'm afraid, but full of the Christmas spirit, and then turned the corner into Park Lane, not lit up, the comforting darkness of Hyde Park across the way, the big hotels, discreetly shepherding their secrets towards the festive season.

Saturday was a day of Establishment. Off to Wadham College, Oxford - my old college - again early, so wandered through Oxford and came across a bunch of about 30 diminutive carol singers with lanterns and parents going up one of the little lanes around the Radcliffe Camera. I could have been in a Dickens film. Perhaps I was? And on to the Great Hall at Wadham, with the candles and the silver candelabra and people dressed up to celebrate the 90th birthday of Claus Moser, Warden of Wadham for many years, and a man who has spread his great talents across our culture since he arrived here from Germany in the late Thirties. What an amazing life he has had, from watching Hitler's torchlit marches from a flat in which some of the finest music in Berlin was played (and he was one of the instrumentalists), to moving to this country and becoming a leading figure in Harold Wilson's Civil Service and ... too much to relate, as I discovered when I tried to select the highlights for the toast that I made to him.

Sunday was back with the populace on Hampstead Heath. Such a glorious day, but after the Remembrance Service - another mass occasion which is getting ever bigger, I think, and the small crosses outside Westminster Abbey grow every year like winter crocuses (soon to take the whole of the lawns over) - on to Hampstead Heath, absolutely jam-packed with visitors. You mustn't complain about visitors if you are one of them. And what is there to complain about, with so many folk come to this postage stamp Lake District, overlooking London, and full of amiability and enjoyment of a glorious Indian autumn?

Sunday was hard reading. Monday was the beginning of what could only be called an Establishment week. I asked a question about overseas students in the House of Lords. Then there was a meeting at the British Academy of some of the hundred or so scientists and others who have come together to defend British universities. Later in the week there was the Royal Institution where Bill Clinton and Tony Blair were going to speak. Blair, alas, couldn't come because of the illness of his father, but to see Clinton in action was worth the ticket. He just loves it. Even after a long talk he went to shake hands and mingle, ever Presidential and much thinner than he was. The drawl is entrancing and the use of plain and folksy metaphors gives wonderful colouring to his speech.

The next morning to the Royal Society to talk to Paul Nurse about the programme that Tom Morris and I are doing about the changes in culture in this country over the last 120 years. It's odd really that these great Establishment places - oh, I forgot! Westminster Abbey on Wednesday to hear Professor Angie Hobbs (a regular on In Our Time) talking about Plato and secular morality - harnessing their energy to so many causes so well-directed to the 21st century.

At least, that's my story.

It would be great to have the space to make a number of connections here, between classes, between periods in our history and between the metropolis and the provinces, but Ingrid quite rightly will be saying "Enough is enough".

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

Saturday Live: Val McDermid, Ulrika Jonsson and Glenn Tilbrook's Inheritance Tracks

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Reverend Richard Coles Reverend Richard Coles 15:00, Friday, 16 November 2012

Editor's Note: Saturday Live is Radio 4's Saturday morning magazine show featuring extraordinary stories and remarkable people. You can listen to the show here. In this blog presenter Richard Coles gives us an insight into his week and looks ahead to the next show. - CM

Saturday Live Guest Book

Lenny Henry's message in the Saturday Live guest book.

Lonjeray. Why do we pronounce lingerie lonjeray? I can understand how something that smacks faintly of sauciness we want to dress up in French, French being the language of duvets and ooh la la!, but why do we mispronounce it too? Lonjeray, a bit mademoiselle from Armentiers parlay voo, why not say lanzheree or an English sounding linjerie?

This has been much in my mind following the triumph we had at the Bowls Club the other night with a Fashion Show in support of our Organ Restoration Fund. We've never had a fashion show in Finedon before and our dressier ladies and gents have had to go two miles down the road to smart Burton Latimer to be truly a la mode. Perhaps the novelty, then, explained the popularity of the evening - we sold out, the Bowls Club was packed to the gunwales while a load of our ladies (and three of our gents) admired the twenty outfits that floated by, modelled by members of the congregation, who got a 20% discount for their pains.

In the eighties, when I was more in that world than this, I used to go to fashion shows sometimes and found them terrifying, partly because I could make Armani look like Primark merely by trying it on, partly because I have always felt cowed by the glamorous. And I don't get it, why that hemline is better than another hemline, or the difference between taupe and a biscuity mushroom.

This is not inverse snobbery - I would dearly love to get it and can be most particular about a mezzo's fach or a Precentor's epiclesis - but fashion on the whole defeats me. I may have been defeated, but I wasn't intimidated by our show, however; the clothes were within the realm of the wearable and the affordable, and there was Tea and a raffle which always helps; but mostly it was because we all knew each other, which took the terror out of it. Also we were raising money for our Organ Restoration Fund, a noble cause for which we have to dig deep, and there was something faintly virtuous about that which helped too.

Saturday Live Guest Book

Ben Elton's message in the Saturday Live Guest Book.

A propos virtue, for Children in Need we're putting up this year's Guest Book for auction, signed by all the great and good who have been on the programme, from Joan Collins to Jarvis Cocker to Edwina Currie to Tanni Grey-Thompson, and it could be yours simply by clicking around our website. Give it a go?

Why not also give the programme a go on Saturday? We'll be talking to the crime writer Val McDermid and ex-offender Junior Smart who is helping gangsters stay on the straight and narrow, broadcaster Jeremy Vine talks about his early career on Drainpipe Radio, TV presenter Ulrika Jonsson reveals her Secret Life, John McCarthy continues his exploration of Utrecht and Squeeze's Glenn Tilbrook shares his Inheritance Tracks.

And by the way, the tunic is going to be HUGE in Finedon next season.

Richard Coles presents Saturday Live on BBC Radio 4.

The Writer's Prize

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Kate Rowland Kate Rowland 11:22, Friday, 16 November 2012

Editor's note: BBC Audio and Music has joined forces with BBC Writersroom to launch The Writer's Prize: a prestigious new writing opportunity for radio drama and comedy writers. The closing date for entries is 9am, Monday 3rd December 2012. PMcD

The Writers Prize

You already know as avid listeners what a brilliant medium radio is, and at some point you've probably encountered a programme that was so compelling, emotionally engaging and informing that you stopped what you were doing and stayed hooked to the radio, well that's what the judges for The Writer's Prize are looking for.

Whether you are writing drama or comedy we want to see bold, ambitious ideas, rich, funny, complex comedy characters, scripts that will resonate and make us want to hear your idea on the radio and see those characters come to life.

Years ago I directed the first radio play by the then unknown writer Lee Hall. I Luv You Jimmy Spud. The imagery and ideas were so inspiring they literally leapt out of the radio into our hearts and minds. The main character Jimmy was a little Geordie lad, interviewed by the Angel Gabriel for the chance to become an angel and save his Dad who was dying of cancer. Jimmy encountered prejudice and suspicion but was determined to change the course of history. Because radio inhabits our imagination and allows us to into the world created by the writer, no one was in any doubt that Jimmy had wings and could jump off the Tyne Bridge. Jimmy Spud was full of humour and humanity, intimate and epic at the same time. So your writing can involve talking horses, personal tragedies, Dickens London, the possibilities are endless but you must know who your characters are, what they want to say and why you want to write this particular comedy or drama.

The majority of R4 drama is a single authored piece and allows the writer incredible freedom but you've got to have enough story, complexity, twists and turns to keep the audience listening for a full 45 minutes.

Remember everyone in the audience will dress their characters differently, visualise the world in a distinct and unique way; in the main it's a one to one experience and that relationship allows you to tell stories in ways that that you wouldn't be able to in other mediums.

So if you've got a story to tell why not take the chance and enter The Writer's Prize which has opened its doors to original drama and comedy scripts.

My fellow judges writer Roy Williams, writer/performer Miles Jupp and commissioners Caroline Raphael and Jeremy Howe are all excited by what this award might bring. So don't miss the closing date of 3 December 2012, and get writing, and here's a round-up of some of the very good reasons why any writer should want to write for radio:

  • BBC radio is by far the biggest single commissioner of original drama and comedy in the world - full stop.
  • You can get amazingly successful and celebrated actors to be in your radio comedy or play - and they don't even need to shave/do make up/commit to weeks of filming.
  • Radio is the cinema of the airwaves - it's all about the visual world conjured up in the listener's head, and the ambition and scope the writer brings to it.
  • You can take your story, characters and listeners anywhere in the known (or unknown) universe without the budgetary constrictions you'd get with a film or TV shoot.

Here are some useful links which you might find helpful to get you started. Good luck!

Kate Rowland, Creative Director, New Writing

Feedback: Crisis at the BBC

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Roger Bolton Roger Bolton 09:38, Friday, 16 November 2012

Roger Bolton

 

Am I the only BBC presenter who hasn't expressed his view about the present crisis at the BBC?

Perhaps I should join some of my colleagues on Twitter so that you can enjoy my immediate, uninformed, and prejudiced response to events about which I know little. Actually I do have some understanding of what journalists in the BBC have been going through.

I edited Tonight (the predecessor to Newsnight) Panorama, and Nationwide, and still have the scars to show from it. I also managed to get myself disciplined and ultimately fired, or as the Corporation put it, made redundant. (Of course later they re-employed me, in a different capacity).

In my case it was over the coverage of the Troubles in Ireland.

One row was about a programme that didn't go out, the other about one that did. Along the way there were arguments about lines of authority , who said what to whom, and the relationship between the journalists, the management and the Governors ( who have now become Trustees).

There wasn't was much of an argument about the facts, only about whether and how they should be reported, and how independent of Government the Corporation should be.

In all of the rows about who said what to whom, and whether the key attribute of a Director General should be the ability to put John Humphrys, the Beeb's "attack dog", back in his kennel, one principle needs to be adhered to ruthlessly.

The BBC must always tell what it believes to be the truth to its audience, regards of how difficult or dangerous for the institution that is.

If the BBC now pulls its punches in an attempt to see off its critics, then its existence should be questioned.

I don't think it will pull back, at least not in the long term.

All we can do here at Feedback is to guarantee not to censor your views, or to do private deals with BBC bosses and producers which protect them from answering your concerns.

Which doesn't of course mean that the BBC always does what its audience wants , fortunately for Feedback.

This week I went to the annual Radio Festival in Salford, to discuss what sort of relationship producers really want with their audience.

Three of our listeners came with me: Paul Beckwith, Andrew Tonkin and Sandi Dunn.

Feedback is off the air now until January, but please stay in contact. We read everything you send to us. That's another promise.

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: 90 x 90

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Nick Baker 16:58, Friday, 9 November 2012

Editor's note: At 5.33pm on Wednesday 14 November BBC Radio will be coming together to mark its 90th anniversary live with Simon Mayo from London's Science Museum. Here, Nick Baker, talks about how Radio 4 Extra will be joining the celebrations. PMcD

90 by 90

For the last few months I have been working on 90 90 second programmes to celebrate BBC Radio's 90th anniversary. These miniatures celebrate, calibrate and curate the diversity of radio in its widest form in the BBC's 90th year - serious, funny, evocative, personal, provocative, and they'll be heard across all radio networks. Each represents one year of the 90. They say "hooray for radio" in 90 very different ways. But delving into the BBC archive isn't always straightforward, because the idea of preserving radio programmes wasn't always popular.

Picture the scene: It is 1922, the year of the BBC's birth. In a wood panelled conference room in London, a group of pipe-smoking executives, some still Edwardianly bearded, (not the women, because there aren't any) are discussing the future of the world's greatest broadcasting institution. The chair speaks up: "It is imperative that we initiate a system whereby all our "wireless programmes" as we might call them, are recorded, preserved, catalogued, archived, and made available to our listeners whenever and wherever they should desire to listen to them, forever and a day. All our improving "programmes" should be made available upon MP3 devices and smart telephones, as well as upon the inter-net, whenever that might arrive. Those in favour?"

Hindsight, especially in black and white, is a wonderful, though deceptive thing. The reality is the new BBC faced an uncertain future when it was born, with very little recorded at the outset, and a history of gaps, oversights and under-archiving. Initially, nobody saw the value of keeping stuff, when there was so little stuff to keep. But there's no point wagging an accusing finger at the past. It took a while for the BBC to realise the wireless had a history worth preserving. It had other things on its mind. The General Strike. The Second World War. The on-air resignation of Dave Lee Travis.

Instead, we must celebrate some of the heroes and heroines of the archive. So, enter Mrs Slocombe! One of our 90x90, the one dated 1937, features the voice of a visionary BBC employee, Marie Slocombe, remembering her boss asking her to throw away a load of old BBC records, only to find herself having to bin the voices of George Bernard Shaw, H G Wells, Anthony Asquith and others. She refused, and started to collect audio treasure. She was a pioneer of the archive, a woman who saw the future. And realised the importance of the past.

Nick Baker is the Producer for 90 x 90 on Radio 4 Extra

Saturday Live: Alfie Boe and Andrew Motion's Inheritance Tracks

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Sian Williams 15:54, Friday, 9 November 2012

Editor's note: Saturday Live is Radio 4's Saturday morning magazine show featuring extraordinary stories and remarkable people. You can listen to the show here. In this blog presenter Sian Williams gives us an insight into her week and looks ahead to the next show. - CM

Sian Williams

This time last week, I was in the US, collecting a race number, all ready for the New York marathon. Around twenty thousand foreign runners were urged to come to the city, to support it after the havoc of Hurricane Sandy. Carbo-loading away on Friday night, the waiter said to me: "You don't really need all that pasta, now the marathon's cancelled, do you?".

My fellow runners were furious that the decision was taken so late. One single mum, in tears in a hotel lobby, told me she had spent years raising money for the fare and entry to the race. The marathon was a lifetime's dream, she said, and she couldn't afford to come back again. On Saturday, many people, who'd been training for six months or more, ran the distance anyway, by lapping Central Park four times.

New York was a city divided. In Midtown, everything hustled and bustled as usual. But Downtown, people had no water or electricity and further away, on Staten Island, where the race was due to start, residents had lost homes, people had lost lives.

Could we have really run through districts, taking bottled water from a sponsor, when locals couldn't find anything to drink? Should the electricity generators be powering the marathon media tents or providing power for those cut off? Pretty soon, most runners donated their marathon gear and many offered to help distribute supplies. The grumbling stopped when they saw the devastation for themselves.

That hurricane hit many people's plans, including those of British tenor, Alfie Boe. He was on a tour of the US and had to pull out of a concert in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He's with us in the Saturday Live studio this weekend.

Alfie was discovered while he was an apprentice mechanic in a TVR workshop, singing opera for customers while he fixed their cars. We'll take him right back to when he was holding that greasy rag in Blackpool, with our listener's sound sculpture this week - the noise of a TVR exhaust.

We'll be exploring a day in the life of a circus ringmaster, hear from a teenager who's joined the British Legion and listen to the Inheritance Tracks of poet Andrew Motion. Roll up, roll up and open your arias for Alfie Boe et al, Saturday Live, at 9am.

Sian Williams and Richard Coles present Saturday Live at 9.00am on Saturday mornings on Radio 4.

    Visit the Saturday Live website and hear the most recent episode.

    Listen to Inheritance Tracks - the music that Saturday Live guests cherish and would like to bestow to future generations.

    Follow Radio 4 on Twitter and join the conversation by using the hashtag #saturdaylive.

Feedback: The future of digital radio

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Roger Bolton Roger Bolton 09:15, Friday, 9 November 2012

Roger Bolton

 

I live in Hertfordshire, in the Chiltern Hills, less than 30 miles from London . This is hardly the back of beyond, and you would not think that hills barely 500ft high would prove an impenetrable barrier to a digital signal, but that seems to be the reality in parts of my village, though not where I am.

I have a digital radio in my car and often drive up to Cumbria, losing the digital signal on parts of my journey.

I also have analogue as well as digital radios at home and I never know which one I should set my watch by since they broadcast the pips at slightly different times.

I listen to the Today programme most days and have lost count of the times one of its digital lines goes down suddenly leaving the presenters (almost) lost for words. You may gather from this that, like many Feedback listeners, I am sceptical about some of the claims made for the quality and range of digital transmissions.

On the other hand I really enjoy 6 Music, so nearly defenestrated from Broadcasting House, and also 4 Extra,(although The Navy Lark and the Clitheroe Kid do not hold up as well as I had hoped) and I think that podcasts and the iPlayer are fabulous.

So I approached this week's Feedback discussion on the future of digital radio with real anticipation.

Here is some background.

  • 20% of all listening is done in cars.
  • Just under a third of all listening is now done via digital and the target of 50% of all listening to be digital by 2013 will not now be met.
  • The Government says it will announce by the end of 2013 whether there will be a so called digital switchover (and analogue switch off) at all.
  • New research at a recent conference about digital receivers in cars suggested that a third of people in the UK did not see the need for DAB radio at all.

That was the background to my discussion with the BBC's outgoing Director of Audio and Music, Tim Davie (he is off to run BBC Worldwide), Steve Humbles, who is Product Marketing Manager, Ford of Britain, and listener Michael Hingston, who can't listen to his DAB radio in Welwyn Garden City, in Hertfordshire.

Here is our discussion

By the way Feedback on Friday afternoons is slightly shorter than the repeat of the programme on Sunday evenings. This is because 4 minutes are edited out to make way for the Listening Project. It is the shorter version that is available on iPlayer.

So if you want more Feedback, do listen on Sunday nights - and do keep telling us what to do.

Your wish is our command.

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: The Upanishads

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Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg 17:40, Thursday, 8 November 2012

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

The Upanishads

Hello

I think that's the first time I've ever mentioned the newsletter on air and I made a promise that I would talk about the horse. So bang goes a description of the autumn/winter cusp in London, with golden carpets turning to brown slush and then recaptivating a windblown freshness when the sun comes out and fakes us into early autumn again. A band setting up in Trafalgar Square. Still teeming streets of London and amateur photographers with their families monopolising the two scarlet horsemen outside their boxes on Whitehall. At the British Museum the other night to see the Shakespeare exhibition - a combination of museum and RSC and Oxford - an extraordinary, exhilarating exhibition with a great number of Tudor portraits and views I'd never seen before and so many rare objects. I think it's one of the most original exhibitions I've ever seen. It also proves that in the year 1600 London was already a global city. And much else but Ingrid only has a certain amount of patience and we return to the matter of the horse.

Simon Brodbeck, in his notes, talked about the Upanishads being focused on the meaning of the sacrificial ritual, and he admitted it could be quite hard for a modern-day listener or reader to understand. He gave an example of their obscurity. This is the first line of the oldest Upanishad, and it begins by talking about the different parts of the sacrificial horse. Why does the Upanishad begin with these lines about the horse? Simon Brodbeck explains that all the different parts of the horse relate to different aspects of the world that we know. The translation (Valerie Roebuck's for Penguin) - which I think is magnificent and poetic and unlike anything else I've read - is as follows: "Dawn is the head of the sacrificial horse. The sun is the eye of the sacrificial horse, the wind his breath, the fire that is in all men his open mouth, the year his body. The sky is his back, middle-air his belly, earth his flanks, the directions his two sides, the intermediate directions his ribs, the seasons his limbs, the months and half-months his joints, the days and nights his feet, the constellations his bones, the clouds his flesh. The food in his stomach is the sands; the rivers are his bowels, liver and lungs; the mountains, plants and trees are his hairs; the rising sun is his front half, the setting sun his rear half; when he yawns, it lightens; when he shakes himself, it thunders; when he urinates, it rains; speech is his voice."

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

Feedback: Food and Farming Awards and tickets for comedy shows

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Roger Bolton Roger Bolton 15:33, Friday, 2 November 2012

Portobello Road in west London contains some of the most expensive shops and houses in London, but that is only at what one might call the Notting Hill or Hugh Grant end of the road.

Follow it north under the tube line towards the Regent's Canal and a different London appears, a relatively poor, multi ethnic and multicultural one. There are franchised pizza restaurants of course, but among the halal butchers and African food stores you can still find an old fashioned café specialising in jellied eels and pies.

On Wednesday morning this week I got off the tube at Ladbroke Grove, walked a few blocks north before turning right, crossing the northern end of Portobello Road, and entered Golborne Road, part of which has been taken over by Moroccan families. Parked along the side of the road were vans dispensing freshly cooked North African food. There I found two of the judges of this year's Food and Farming awards, chef Valentine Warner, who looked as if he runs a marathon every day, and restaurant critic Charles Campion who does not. Hovering around them as they tasted a variety of soups and tagines was the Food Programme producer Dan Saladino (and that is not a nom de plume).

I was there because, although the programme is very popular, it has a number of critics among Feedback listeners who think it is largely for rich foodies, who can afford to buy the finest organic ingredients and who mostly live in the south east of England. Now undoubtedly we could have recorded our feature at restaurants with eye wateringly priced menus, instead of tasting Mohammed's food which cost between £2.50 and £5.00 a dish.

His cooking was superb however, and Mohammed had been nominated by one of his clients for the best street food/takeaway award. Afterwards I had some of the pea soup, price £2.50 with bread. Wonderful. (And don't worry, dear licence fee payer, I did not charge it to expenses).

One thing I did not really have time to pursue was the crippling embarrassment that some of us feel in an intimidating restaurant when the food is not up to scratch or had not been cooked as requested. Some of us, OK, I still find it difficult to make a fuss and ask the food to be sent back, particularly if my daughter is pulling at my jacket and begging me to be quiet .

But perhaps we should not be silent when the French make their hoary old prejudiced complaints about the food we eat.

Charles Campion claims that there are more varieties of food to eat in Britain than anywhere else and that the quality is often outstanding. Well I can certainly recommend Mohammed's fast food in West London, and if you are anywhere near Brampton in Cumbria, it has a cracking farmer's market and some of the best meat and cheese sold in Britain. Couple that with the local beer, try Hellbeck for example, and you really do not need to visit Paris anymore, well for the food anyway.

Here is this week's Feedback feature on food.

We also followed up our item last week when listeners told us how hard it was to get a ticket for the recording of some BBC shows, and that getting a ticket was no guarantee of getting a seat since some licence fee payers, ticket in hand, had been turned away at the door. The BBC , like airlines, routinely hands out more tickets than seats , claiming 40 per cent of ticket holders do not turn up for recordings.

Why not charge? Well the BBC says licence fee payers should not have to pay twice for a programme.

Some programmes do charge however, such as I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue. Its producer, Jon Naismith, is a firm advocate of charging, which pays for larger venues, and ensures that every ticket holder who turns up gets in.

He points out that the Proms charge as well and that you can still listen to them and his programme for free . Being present for a recording is a different, additional, experience.

What do you think?

Do let us know.

Roger Bolton

Roger Bolton presents Feedback on Radio 4.

Saturday Live: Jan Ravens, Charley Pride, Les Dawson's family

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Reverend Richard Coles Reverend Richard Coles 14:32, Friday, 2 November 2012

Editor's note: Saturday Live is Radio 4's Saturday morning magazine show featuring extraordinary stories and remarkable people. You can listen to the show here. In this blog presenter Richard Coles gives us an insight into his week and looks ahead to the next show. - CM

Jan Ravens

Jan Ravens is a guest on this week's Saturday Live

A day of being poacher turned gamekeeper today.

My new book has been published so I was on the other side of the BBC's baize tables, from the Today Programme yesterday morning to Steve Wright in the Afternoon yesterday, well, afternoon.

It was odd because the last time I was interviewed in this sort of way was when I was in the Communards, back in the days when we played records and had industries and no-one did trick or treat, so it was, first, like a weird flashback, and, second, required different circuits to fire up from the ones which fire up when you're doing the interviewing.

First call was the Today Programme, where I was on just after the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who, unlike me, did not have Marmite on his face (egg possibly, after the Europe vote yesterday) . I actually know all the presenters but, in that radio way, by voice rather than by person. The live trail on the Today programme Sian and I do every Saturday morning is down the line, because they're in White City and we're in Broadcasting House, so you only recognise someone when they speak.

I was sitting with my toast and coffee when a nice lady came in but it was only when she said hello I realised it was Sarah Montague. Corrie Corfield, whom I know from Broadcasting House came by too, and Martha Kearney, and suddenly it was time to go into the studio.

It is quite odd seeing the radio programme I have listened to practically every day of my life for the past twenty five years in the flesh, as it were. I think of it, completely irrationally, coming from a studio that looks like the Houses of Parliament, all green leather and portcullises, but actually it's a rather modest affair, and... I tremble to write this.... not as nice as the Saturday Live studio; ours is roomier, and we have a cooker although we're not allowed to switch it one unless there's a fire officer present.

We'll be cooking with gas on Saturday, with JP filling in for Sian who's down to do the New York Marathon, Frankenstorm permitting: on the menu are Jan Ravens, comedienne of a thousand voices; the wife and daughter of the late Les Dawson, comedian of a thousand faces; a British woman who worked as a hostess in a Japanese bar; the head of the British Roundabouts Appreciation Society; and country music's greatest black singer, Charley Pride. Bon appetit!

Richard Coles presents Saturday Live at 9.00am on Saturday mornings on Radio 4.

  • Visit the Saturday Live website and hear the most recent episode.
  • Listen to Inheritance Tracks - the music that Saturday Live guests cherish and would like to bestow to future generations.
  • Follow Radio 4 on Twitter and join the conversation by using the hashtag #saturdaylive.

Bookclub: David Almond - Skellig

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Jim Naughtie 10:40, Friday, 2 November 2012

Editor's note: Radio 4's Bookclub is on at 4pm on Sunday 4 November and is repeated on Thursday 8 November at 3.30pm. You can also listen online after broadcast or download the programme. Here, Jim Naughtie talks about the themes that are discussed in David Almond's novel, Skellig. - PMcD

David Almond author of Skellig

Bookclub went to Newcastle to record a conversation about Skellig with David Almond, who had an extraordinary success with the book when it was published in 1998. It was appropriate to be in the North-East, because that is David's home territory and also because the story - a journey of imagination for a 10-year-old boy, full of fears and excitements - has a mystical background that has connections with the experience of St Bede and St Cuthbert whose tracks are all over the history of the area. Mysticism is at the heart of the story, because Michael - our hero - discovers when he meets a mysterious figure (Skellig) who seems to live in the garage of his new family home that the real world that he can touch around him has another, deep layer of which he becomes conscious and in which his imagination can take wing.

Wings, indeed, play a part in the imagery of the story, because David found the influence of William Blake forcing itself upon him: Blake's angels and his towering imagination are threaded through the story of Michael, his friend Mina, and Skellig. Yet it is not religious in a formal sense. David's Catholic upbringing gave him a feeling for a world of saints and angels, but he describes it as a spiritual book rather than a religious one. "It is about a triumph of hope over adversity, but it is a secular religion." Asked by one of our readers to describe Skellig, he said "it is about faith, optimism and hope."

The story immediately became a best-seller, and raised an interesting question. Was it a children's book or not? David is one of that happy band of writers who deeply dislike the categorisation of books by age - he can't bear the sight of bookshop shelves marked 8 - 10 or 13 - 15, as if some books are automatically suitable or unsuitable the moment a particular birthday has come or gone. "Adults came to me who were deeply moved by the story," he told us. "There was something about the way I wrote Skellig that enabled me to reach adults in a quite different way."

The style of the book is simple, it is quite a short story and written straightforwardly, but the ideas have a vibrant life of their own. Michael's mind is opened up by the appearance of Skellig - a figure who seems scary at first, like a shabby ghost or a menacing interloper - because the relationship allows him, and especially Mina, who later became the subject of a book in her own right by David, to escape from the here and now, which we all know is exactly what children of that age are always trying to do. Skellig, says David, is just a fragment of a mysterious universe, in which it is quite easy to imagine an angel walking down the street if you try hard enough.

I suggested to him that he might be writing in the style of magic realism, the phrase that I suppose became particularly popular after the publication of Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children thirty years ago. "When people began to describe me as a magic realist," David says, "I thought - I'm just me." The right answer.

I should say that one of the joys of the recording was that we invited this month's readers to the Newcastle-upon-Tyne Literary and Philosophical Society library, a wonderful institution dating from the last decade of the eighteenth century which still operates as a subscription library and is a glorious place, imparting its own atmosphere to the business of reading for pleasure. Long may it thrive.

Our next book is Sathnam Sanghera's memoir, an account of a Sikh upbringing in Wolverhampton, The Boy with the Topknot goes out on BBC Radio 4 on Sunday December 2nd at 4pm (repeated on Thursday 6th at 3.30pm) and our next recordings are with Ben Macintyre (Agent Zigzag) on December 4th in London and the Turkish novelist Elif Shafak on The Forty Rules of Love in London on January 17th - get information and apply for free tickets here.

I do hope you enjoy Skellig on Sunday, or the repeat on Thursday.

Happy reading

Jim

In Our Time: The Anarchy

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Melvyn Bragg Melvyn Bragg 17:35, Thursday, 1 November 2012

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

The Anarchy

Hello

Our head of department burst into the studio after the programme, full of enthusiasm for it, but anxious to know what had happened to the Empress Matilda. Well, she lived to a ripe old age in Normandy and did many magnificent things, and is thought in the parts of Europe she touched to be a formidable woman and not written out, as she is in this country, largely as an over-arrogant, over-obdurate, Germanically-trained person.

It is wonderful to look back on the Middle Ages. You forget how much it was a warrior society at the top and how keenly warriors waged war on other warriors. That, after all, was their raison d'être. That's why they were fed better, and put on horses to be higher, and given armour and swords to look and act stronger than anybody else.

Out into London, first for another meeting with Tom Morris about our imminent series on culture over the last hundred years, and then down into Regent Street and New Bond Street, on the way for a haircut. Everywhere in central London now the crowds are so numerous that walking on the street itself is a preferred option. There will very soon come a time when pavements are separated into channels - as happens at airports - and we all move through in our narrow, little, controlled lanes, probably with people with megaphones bellowing out "hurry on there" or "slow down there". You read it here first.

Westminster is almost at a standstill with the global village that turns up to see our parliamentary headquarters. In the House of Lords there was a debate on the future of the police and I was struck by two things. First of all, the ferocity of the attack on recent examples of police corruption; secondly, by the high level of debate and the high information content of people in the Lords who knew a great deal about the subject. In many respects it was the House of Lords at its best, but one speaker did say rather plaintively "is there nothing good to be said about the police?" and I think that was a fair comment. On the other hand, there was a root and branch atmosphere which does credit to our democracy.

Last night I opened the Affordable Art Fair on Hampstead Heath. The affair was in an instant tent, the size of three or four ballrooms, which was on the site recently vacated by Zippos Circus, and before then the site of the four-times-a-year funfair, and before then the finishing point for many a charity run. I was doing a sort of charity run when opening the Affordable Fair. Those who run the fair have a preview night in which they favour one local charity. This time it was the local library - Keats Library - which the local community took over last April to tremendous effect. Two thousand subscribers already and going strong with that ready army of volunteers all over this country, which doesn't need to be told it's the Big Society or that it's One Nation. They just get on with it.

The lights are up in Oxford Street and Regent Street. They were up a couple of weeks ago but I didn't want to mention it, not because I am curmudgeonly about lights going up too early but because they obviously remind me of Christmas, and they also remind me that Christmas keeps coming round faster and faster.

But it was a Matilda day. "I liked the Matildas," said three baronesses (not in chorus but independently). In St James's Park (please believe me), at a time of what seemed global half term, one French teacher - it must have been - called out to a young girl "Matilde!" and she turned around and sped towards him, looking exactly like the Matilda in the hit show in London. Matilda is back in town.

Best wishes

Melvyn Bragg

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