Reviewed: Tweet of the Day on Radio 4

Morning has spoken.

Tweet of the Day
Radio 4

A new year-long series started this week – every day (5.58am), early risers heard the call of a different species of bird and a brief description of its quirks. Each programme lasts just 90 seconds, David Attenborough presents this month, and others will pass the baton until next spring. Of the 596 species on the official British bird list, 286 are considered rare and the BBC’s natural history unit has gone through thousands of old bird recordings and made some new ones, starting with the spring song of the male cuckoo.

Just enough of the cuckoo’s call was broadcast to cast a spell (immense, immediate) and then precisely the right amount of information about its migration patterns or habits or history given in between each little stretch of the song itself – it used to be believed that the cuckoo turned into a sparrowhawk in winter. The minute and a half was perfectly balanced. Sound and silence, words and song, infinitely poetic: pure radio.

Simon Armitage, in his introduction to his 1999 collection of very short poems, writes about poetry being radiophonic. “Poetry, like radio, enjoys the open space that surrounds it, and invites the imagination to fill that space. On the radio that space is silence and the absence of any visual stimulation; in poetry that space is empty white paper surrounding the text.” He is right. Not even fleetingly did you miss a visual image of the cuckoo even when Attenborough almost taunted us with Wordsworth on how hard they can be to spot with the eye: “Shall I call thee bird/Or but a wondering voice?” The sound was quite enough. Presence in its most concentrated form.

Later in the week the wood warbler’s song was described as a “spinning coin on a marble slab” and swifts as “these screeching gangs of tearaways” – lovely writing. The only drawback to these tiny, shell-perfect meditations is that no larger point is ever drawn, and if there is one to be made about our primal fondness for birdsong it might simply be that if the birds are singing then the world is not yet, not quite, defunct.

Or as Ted Hughes put it when writing about Swifts returning to his garden: “They’ve made it again/Which means the globe’s still working, the Creation’s/Still waking refreshed, our summer’s/Still all to come.”

Birds on the wire. Photograph: Getty Images.

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 13 May 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Eton Mess

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Against the Law: Peter Wildeblood must be one of the bravest men who ever lived

BBC2's historical gay rights film evokes bewilderment, fear and agonising pain.

My head told me that Against the Law (26 July, 9pm), the BBC’s film about Peter Wildeblood, the only openly gay man to give evidence to Lord Wolfenden’s committee, wasn’t up to much. Wildeblood was one of the three men who in 1954 were convicted of buggery in the notorious Montagu case (the others being Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and his cousin Michael Pitt-Rivers) – a trial that led, thanks to unease about the verdict, to the inquiry that resulted in the Wolfenden report, which in 1957 recommended the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Britain.

The film is based on the book Wildeblood published (he was a journalist) after his release from Wormwood Scrubs. Its script, by Brian Fillis, was underpowered and off-puttingly didactic, and I couldn’t understand, at first, the decision to keep interrupting the drama with the spoken-to-camera recollections of a series of elderly gay men. But at some point my heart, which was aching, told my head to shut up. This is… good enough, I thought, watching the film’s last few moments, in which the 89-year-old Roger and the 77-year-old Percy tenderly kissed for the camera. I was mad for Roger. Did he remember Wolfenden? My dear, how could he ever forget it? At the time, he was having an affair with Lord Wolfenden’s son, Jeremy, which certainly added piquancy to the newspaper reports as he read them over breakfast.

If I’d been casting this piece, I might have gone for a floppy-haired Matthew Goode type for Wildeblood, the former public school boy – but that would have been my mistake. It’s hard to imagine a finer performance than the one given by Daniel Mays, an actor who is not even remotely floppy haired.

Here was all of the wit and compassion you find in Wildeblood’s prose, combined with emotions I’d hitherto only been able rather half-heartedly to imagine: bewilderment, fear, agonising pain. As Wildeblood watched his former lover, an RAF corporal called Edward McNally, turn Queen’s evidence during his trial, May’s face grew slack with disbelief. He looked, to me, as if some unknown hand was quietly disembowelling him. By which had he been most betrayed? Love, or the law of the land?

Everyone knows what followed, but it was horrible to see nevertheless. Mailbags were sewn; aversion therapy was discussed (the prison shrink, played with viper-like precision by Mark Gatiss, told Wildeblood he could either receive a series of electric shocks or a drug that would make him vomit for two days). I thought, not for the first time, that Wildeblood must have been one of the bravest men who ever lived – though it’s not as if he wanted for company: the director’s talking heads, silver of hair and soft of jowl, reminded us of this at every turn, and I was glad of the human punctuation they provided. For most of us, this stuff is history. For them, it had been life.

Some people are devoted to newts, and others to hobbits; a few enjoy recreating the battles of the Civil War. The film My Friend Jane (17 July, 7pm) got down and not very dirty with the Austen super-fans, by which I mean not those who have read Sanditon and The Watsons but types who like to dress in full Regency garb and dance to the sound of a spinet come Saturday night. Actually, it’s scarier than this. A former doctor, Joana Starnes, breathlessly described her new career as a writer of “top-tier JAF”. Translated, this means highly superior Jane Austen fan fiction. She’s produced seven JAF novels, which sounds like a lot until you discover that 60 come out every month.

Zack Pinsent, meanwhile, who is 22, makes his living as a period tailor in Hove, where he likes to promenade in fall-front trousers – a flap enables the gentleman thereby to pee – and top hat. I wanted to laugh at him, and all the other empire-line eccentrics in this odd little documentary. But there was something touching about their obsession; at least they didn’t attempt to intellectualise it, unlike those literary fan girls who have lately taken to writing entire books about why their lives would be meaningless without this or that great writer for company. 

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 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue