Kirst when it comes to TV talent

A nomination, a load of new content and the perils of indulging in nepotism

Such a long time has elapsed since I wrote my last blog that I scarcely know where to begin. So let's start with some blatant self-congratulations.

A few days back we were told newstatesman.com is up for an award at the British Society of Magazine Editors annual bash in November.

We're up against the websites of the Radio Times, GQ, Now and various others. All very gratifying and a recognition of how much our very small team has achieved in the space of little more than a year.

Meanwhile we're not resting on our laurels - there's been something of a commissioning frenzy here at Terminal House, home of the NS.

In the past week alone we've published articles from SDP founder turned Lib Dem peer Bill Rodgers. He warned his party not to become a pressure group. We've had debate going on about the Turkish genocide of Armenians. It began with the Armenian ambassador saying there was one. Someone from the Turkish embassy then replied saying there wasn't. Either way it provoked a lot of responses from our readers.

Brian Coleman, meanwhile, has been at it again. This time he's been upsetting the Turkish Cypriot population of North London after writing a blog in wholehearted support of the Greek perspective on the divided island.

It's been quite a week for the Nobel Laureates what with Doris Lessing's remarks about the Twin Towers and James Watson comments on race and genetics.

We asked Open University and UCL academic and genetics expert Steven Rose to dismantle Watson's assertions.

Heard of Arigona Zogaj? She's a 15-year-old Albanian Kosovan who went into hiding when her father and siblings were deported from Austria. Her case had the most extraordinary effect with media across the political spectrum condemning her treatment. At the heart of the campaign was Austrian Green Party chairman Alexander Van der Bellen.

Alexander kindly wrote us an article about Arigona and what her experience demonstrates about the way we approach immigration policy in Europe.

We’ve also had articles about the Swiss elections, class, the Chagos Islands and more.

Next week we're joining up with the Fabians for their Not the general election night - we've done a ring around asking a range of people what they think Gordon Brown should put in his manifesto so have a look out for that.

Anyway I was watching a bit of a TV the other night. It was a programme to find out the worst place to live in Britain.

It was live and presenters Phil and Kirsty fluffed their lines throughout and then - just when you thought it couldn't get any worse - we were whisked off to Middlesbrough to meet Kirsty's sister.

It turned out the north eastern town was the worst place to live. However, it was unclear how much things would improve once Kirst II finished patronising the locals and headed back to Fulham.

I wrote in an earlier blog about how, with so many actors out of work at any given time, it was amazing they managed to find the desert of talent that makes up the Eastenders cast. Talk about deja vu!

Ben Davies trained as a journalist after taking most of the 1990s off. Prior to joining the New Statesman he spent five years working as a politics reporter for the BBC News website. He lives in North London.
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Young people want big ideas – that's why I refuse to dumb down Radio 4

My week, from finding a way through the fog to getting the quarterly audience figures.

I walk to work through Regent’s Park, when possible accompanied by my dogs, which my husband then collects on his bike ride and takes home. If there is time we have coffee together in the small hut just before the inner circle. This is a good way to listen to the Today programme, I find, as I can keep one ear in, achieve a rational, critical detachment and still enjoy the birds, and then add the other ear if a strong interview demands immersion, or take both out altogether when despair creeps up. On the subject of Today, I hope to have some fun with Sarah Sands, whom we have just appointed as the programme’s new editor; it’s good to see an experienced woman brought in at a senior level to the BBC.

 

A winter’s tale

The park through the seasons has become something of an addiction, measured out by inspired planting of appropriate annuals, the names of which I note and discuss with the gardeners when I dare interrupt them.

Memorable events occur quite frequently during this walk: I once stumbled upon a proposal of marriage involving a beautiful young woman who once had worked for me; an elderly Chinese gentleman practises t’ai chi regularly at a certain spot and I imagine talking to him about the changes he has seen in his lifetime back home. I have seen a rare green woodpecker on the grass pecking boldly in plain sight, and hopeless ducks, silent, puffed up, marooned in the fountains, unable to find their way back to the ponds, so close by.

At the start of winter, while walking home one day, I got stuck in the park, with a group of other stragglers, as the gates locked with the onset of darkness. Rather than retreating the way I had come, I accepted the offer (from a rather good-looking stranger) of a lift down from the top of the gate. The atmosphere then was alive, exhilarating, with crowds heading for the Frieze Masters marquee. How different it all is now, in 2017. There’s a new mood, a new American president, a new era.

 

Musical interlude

Recently, Roger Vignoles – the glorious pianist and a close friend – was playing, as he often does, in a lunchtime concert recorded for Radio 3 around the corner from Broadcasting House at the Wigmore Hall, with the baritone Roddy Williams. French songs: Fauré, Poulenc, Honegger, with a handful from Caplet (the latter quite new to me). All thoughts of politics fled, giving way to “L’adieu en barque”, set late one summer’s day on the river, a moment to clear the fog, both within and enveloping us that day in London.

I left an hour later in clear sunshine, feeling smug because we have commissioned Roddy’s Choral ­History of Britain for Radio 4 later this year.

 

Power trip

Waiting for coffee to brew, I was discussing Book of the Week with Gill Carter, commissioning assistant on this slot, when my drama commissioner, Jeremy Howe, put his head round the door. “Clarke Peters (yes, the one from The Wire) is here reading The Underground Railroad for Book at Bedtime.” Assured, deep tones rang out from a tiny studio on the third floor. “I have to keep stopping,” he said, as I thanked him.

Who could not be overcome by this story of slavery and bravery at this moment in American history? I am so glad to bring it to listeners this month. “Can you help?” the producer pleaded as we left. “We’re about to be thrown out of the studio.” That’s real power, I thought, as ten minutes later Jeremy had conjured up the extra time.

Clarke Peters will be back in the autumn with a series about the real history of black music in the UK which, he says, is little understood.

 

Culture and anarchy

This is the time of year when we launch the commissioning round calling for big ideas for next year. It’s a humbling thing to stand in our beloved art-deco Radio Theatre in front of hundreds of programme-makers, hoping that they will be inspired to bring “the best which has been thought and said in the world” (my guiding principle from Matthew Arnold).

I try on these occasions to lay out a little of how I see the shape of the world in the commissioning period ahead. This year the Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner overcame me. Better perhaps simply to outline the way we commissioned the first week of 2017 to catch the mood. T S Eliot, more or less all New Year’s Day, read by the formidable Jeremy Irons, raised an echo of the Thirties, then a factual series of considerable documentaries across the week described The New World, followed by writers around the globe Imagining the New Truth.

Finally, inspired by Twelfth Night and the spirit of misrule, the comedy writer John Finnemore, one of our favourites, took over as the Lord of Misrule himself.

The imaginative world and writers have never been more needed. Whether it is truth or post-truth, I suspect that dramatic, imagined and creative truth when properly achieved is probably the nearest we can ever get to truth itself.

 

Tuning in

It’s the week of Rajar. These are quarterly audience figures for radio. In the past few months, they tell us, over 11 million people have listened each week to BBC Radio 4, setting new records. Just under half are below our average age of 56 and 1.5 million are under 35. At the moment we seem to have over two million weekly visitors to the website and roughly 20 million monthly global downloads.

Who says young people don’t want intelligent content? Who says that dumbing down is the only way to attract big audiences? We at Radio 4 try to be all about smartening up. We mark Rajar Day (whether the numbers are up or down) with cake, so I make my way to Paul for two tarts, pear and blueberry this time.

Gwyneth Williams is the controller of BBC Radio 4

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times