The unexpected ups and downs of radio presenting in the Highlands

One time I switched on to Two Lochs Radio to find a lady in despair looking at a ruined pie dish. “I don’t know what to suggest, Glenys,” said one of the station’s 38 volunteer presenters. “But I definitely think you should take it back. Pyrex is supposed

Sunday Brunch With Mike
Two Lochs Radio, 106
and 106.6FM

“It’s such a dire day at the moment, it’s unbelievable. I imagine you’re going to stay in but if you’re still in your PJs, remember it’s actually probably not the time you thought it was.”

DJ Mike is manning Two Lochs Radio at 11am on clocks-back Sunday, with the St Jude’s Day storm brewing. He squints, Magoo-like, at the darkening loch. “Has anyone thought about my quiz yet?” On the community broadcaster for the Wester Ross area in the Highlands, Mike gets unnecessarily anxious about feedback or requests.

Undirected, his music can range bewilderingly from rap to “The Ballad of Frank Spencer” but there is little doubting his tact. “Nobody’s come in with an answer yet,” he says, transmitting with great delicacy only a millisecond of umbrage. “So here are the questions again: what 2002 novel by Alice Sebold is the story of a teenage girl who after being murdered watches from heaven as her family and friends struggle to move on with their lives, while she comes to terms with her own death? And, the Aberdeen terrier is better known as what kind of dog?” I suck my pencil. This is absolutely my kind of quiz.

TLR is ten years old this month. Now followed by over 2,000 listeners in the region and several hundred online across the world, it forever conveys a sense that all fences can be mended with a cup of instant around the table, while also remaining a very serious little operation, running all the necessary local notices and magnificently inclusive updates concerning the various trials of its listeners. One time I switched on to find a lady in despair looking at a ruined pie dish. “I don’t know what to suggest, Glenys,” said one of the station’s 38 volunteer presenters. “But I definitely think you should take it back. Pyrex is supposed to be unbreakable.”

At last, a text to the studio! It’s Doreen, requesting “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers”. Mike pauses. One senses that: a) he knows Doreen and everyone at Doreen’s house, and that this presents a major problem because b) he is keenly aware the lyrics to “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” are written to sound sad but are in fact unconscionably violent and bitter (“You hardly talk to me when I walk through the door at the end of the day/you just roll over and turn out the light”).

Bringing Barbra Streisand – she of the terrifyingly manicured nails – into a marital dispute? Now that is violent. Mike blanches. “Dennis,” he says quietly, cutting to the chase. “I think the message is very, very clear. You’re going to have get your finger out and get some flowers.”

The best of broadcasting from the Scottish highlands. Image: Getty

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Should you bother to vote?

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Man alive! Why the flaws of Inside No 9 only emphasise its brilliance

A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking.​ ​Even as my brain raced, I was grinning.

At the risk of sounding like some awful, jargon-bound media studies lecturer – precisely the kind of person those I’m writing about might devote themselves to sending up – it seems to me that even the dissatisfactions of Inside No 9 (Tuesdays, 10pm) are, well, deeply satisfying. What I mean is that the occasional flaws in Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s cultish series, those unlooked-for moments when nothing quite makes sense, only serve to emphasise its surpassing brilliance.

At the end of the final episode of series three, for instance, there came a discombobulating twist. A man we’d thought destined for certain death reappeared, alive and kicking. How had this happened? Were the preceding 28 minutes only a dream? Even as my brain raced, I was grinning. That line about Ron Mueck! In a piece that seemed mostly to be paying topsy-turvy homage to the camp 1973 horror flick Theatre of Blood.

Pemberton and Shearsmith are all about homage: a bit of Doctor Who here, a touch of Seventies B-movie there. Inside No 9’s format of twisty one-offs is a direct descendant of ITV’s Tales of the Unexpected. And yet it is so absolutely its own thing. Only they could have written it; only they could ever do this much (stretch your arms as wide as they’ll go) in so little time (half an hour).

In the episode Private View, guests were invited to the Nine Gallery in somewhere Hoxtonish. This motley crew, handpicked to represent several of the more unedifying aspects of 21st-century Britain, comprised Carrie (Morgana Robinson), a reality-TV star; Patricia (Felicity Kendal), a smutty novelist; Kenneth (Pemberton), a health and safety nut; and Maurice (Shearsmith), an art critic. Hard on their heels came Jean (Fiona Shaw), a wittering Irishwoman with gimlet eyes. However, given that they were about to be bloodily picked off one by one, at least one of them was not what she seemed. “I’m due at Edwina Currie’s perfume launch later,” Carrie yelped, as it dawned on her that the pages of Grazia might soon be devoting a sidebar to what Towie’s Mark Wright wore to her funeral.

Private View satirised a certain kind of contemporary art, all bashed up mannequins and blindingly obvious metaphors. Admittedly, this isn’t hard to do. But at least Pemberton and Shearsmith take for granted the sophistication of their audience. “A bit derivative of Ron Mueck,” said Maurice, gazing coolly at one of the installations. “But I like the idea of a blood mirror.” The duo’s determination to transform themselves from episode to episode – new accent, new hair, new crazy mannerisms – calls Dick Emery to mind. They’re better actors than he was, of course; they’re fantastic actors. But in the context of Inside No 9, even as they disappear, they stick out like sore thumbs, just as he used to. They’re the suns around which their impressive guest stars orbit. They may not always have the biggest parts, but they nearly always get the best lines. You need to watch them. For clues. For signs. For the beady, unsettling way they reflect the world back at you.

What astonishes about this series, as with the two before it, is its ability to manage dramatic shifts in tone. Plotting is one thing, and they do that as beautifully as Roald Dahl (the third episode, The Riddle of the Sphinx, which revolved around a crossword setter, was a masterclass in structure). But to move from funny to plangent and back again is some trick, given the limitations of time and the confined spaces in which they set the stories. In Diddle Diddle Dumpling, Shearsmith’s character found a size-nine shoe in the street and became obsessed with finding its owner, which was very droll. But the real engine of the piece, slowly revealed, was grief, not madness (“Diddle-diddle-dumpling, my son John”). You felt, in the end, bad for having sniggered at him.

If you missed it, proceed immediately to iPlayer, offering a thousand thanks for the usually lumbering and risk-averse BBC, which has commissioned a fourth series. One day people will write learned papers about these shows, at which point, jargon permitting, I might discover just how Maurice managed to live to fight another day.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution