Radio picks for the Christmas holidays

On the boiling of eggs and heads.

“Robin on a leafless bough,/Lord in heaven, how he sings!” For the past eight months, anyone tuning into BBC Radio 4 at 5.58am has heard Tweet of the Day, a pocket celebration of different species of British bird. Each programme lasts just two minutes and mixes stories about the bird’s habits or history with a little stretch of its song. The series, which continues till the spring, is hands down my programme of the year: always perfectly balanced, sound and silence, words and song, infinitely poetic. Pure radio. On Christmas morning, we’ll hear about our national bird, the robin – how, until 1861, postmen wore red coats and were nicknamed “redbreasts”, establishing an irresistible connection between these winter birds and the person who brings Christmas greetings.

My pick on the BBC World Service over the three festive weeks (16, 23 and 30 December, 8.30pm) is the science programme Discovery, which will join a team of researchers in Antarctica on board an ice-breaker retracing the dangerous route to a fiercely harsh part of the region taken between 1911 and 1914 by Douglas Mawson, while the more celebrated Scott and Amundsen raced to the South Pole. This remotest of areas hasn’t been studied systematically since, so the expedition will be reporting about the changes it finds. We are, among other things, promised “the underwater song of seals”.

On 27 December, the musician P J Harvey guest-edited the Today programme on BBC Radio 4 (6am), which included a frank interview with the photojournalist and documentary photographer Giles Duley, a triple amputee, talking about how images of injury in conflict are managed by the media. Joan Baez plays music and Ralph Fiennes reads poetry – he is an unusually good reader of poetry. In his rendition of The Waste Land, for example, he entirely resists the temptation to overdo it. Fiennes just keeps it steady and is pin-precise with his pronunciation, whether Sanskrit or German. (A note to anyone considering buying Faber & Faber’s Waste Land app as a Christmas present: do so. It’s worth it for Viggo Mortensen’s reading of “The Fire Sermon” alone.)

BBC Radio 3’s Sunday Feature (29 December, 6.45pm) gives a nod to the pantomime season in Anything but Banal: the Fascination of the Villain. A look at malefactors in everything from Shakespeare’s plays to Hollywood films, there are game contributions promised from those such as Antony Sher and Stephanie Beacham. Sher, doubtless, will be the best of the lot, having written on the subject of evil brilliantly in his 1985 memoir Year of the King, documenting his time spent playing Richard III for the RSC while the Nilsen murder case filled the papers with its stories of heads boiling on stoves and flesh stuffed down drains. Sher spent hours sketching Nilsen, looking for signs in that ordinary face that he could connect to villainy, to his portrayal of Richard. He asked his boyfriend if he thought we all had a Nilsen in us. “Well, certainly not you,” was the reply. “You can’t boil an egg, never mind someone’s head.” Happy new Year! 

P J Harvey (who has guest-edited the Today programme on Radio 4) performs in 2011. 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 19 December 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Triple Issue