Wassail all over the town: A Cause for Caroling on BBC Radio 4

A show for anyone seeking “refreshment in songs and other amusements”.

A Cause for Caroling; Lives in a Landscape
BBC Radio 4

A cute series tracing the origins and characteristics of the Christmas carol in Britain from its earliest medieval records (8-12 December, 1.45pm) concluded that they had been invented to “promote positive nostalgia”, as much for those in the streets and pubs as in cloisters – anyone seeking “refreshment in songs and other amusements”. Someone pointed out the beauty of the lyrics to old carol-lullabies such as “Lullay mine liking, my dear son, mine sweeting”, which was set to different themes countless times in an attempt to find the perfect tune.

The presenter and conductor Jeremy Summerly was particularly taken by the idea that carols were sometimes improvised off the back of one word and confessed that he’d been cycling around town extemporising “rejoice” like mad to make up a carol that sounded convincingly 1312. Off he went into a bit of humming, completely absorbed and happy in his own world, like someone eternally plopping a dollop of mashed potato next to some suet and steak pudding on his plate and then shuffling along the bench at high table for lunch.

There was something of the old-fashioned dip-pen and Victorian copperplate to his voice, even though he only sounded around thirty and would occasionally break out of his own little monologues to speak to other people with the incredibly deep attention of a spectator at Wimbledon.

As a presenter, he was in his way as natural as Alan Dein, who returned with yet more unmissable Lives in a Landscape (Wednesdays, 11am), travelling to meet a woman in Burnham Market called Helga, once wife of the country’s premier Cliff Richard impersonator. Now divorced, Helga – a kind of über-delightful Mrs Fezziwig – lets out her spare rooms to young people who agree never to keep guinea pigs but must take part in her annual Christmas entertainment (“a kind of Norfolk’s Got Talent”).

One of her residents, Wayne, is a scaffolder who likes to borrow her hairdryer. Alan sat on the floor in his room and listened to him play Nirvana covers on his guitar quite badly for some time, no more worried about the listeners getting bored or dying from a laughing fit than Summerly was. These are presenters without an agenda, just intelligently interested and sympathetically amused.

Wassailing in the orchards in Somerset, UK, January 1931. Photo: 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 12 December 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Power Games