A woman in China sews protective suits for those handling ebola patients. Photo: Getty
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Status update: the World Service’s reports on ebola

Having listened to the show for three weeks, I am repeatedly struck by its unusually fluctuating tone.

News About Ebola
BBC World Service

At the time of writing, the information and analysis bulletin News About Ebola (weekdays, 7.50pm) had been picked up by 53 local radio partners of the BBC World Service across West Africa – from Sierra Leone’s Radio Democracy in Freetown to Liberia’s Radio Cape Mount and Guinea’s Radio Nostalgie. Known to be a source of reliable information, the show receives up to 3,500 texts a day.

In an email, one of the presenters, Amara Bangura, tells me that the questions from the public cover everything imaginable, not least ebola’s rumoured resistance to a particular brand of rum. Having listened to the show for three weeks, I am repeatedly struck by its unusually fluctuating tone. Using an interview with a World Health Organisation official, a local politician or a person on the street, one programme might be quite formal, almost distant, where others seem to contain the delirium of wounded national identity. Most memorable was a customer at a Freetown market considering the crates of rotten eggs and mould-covered cassava leaves in front of her and saying that opportunists had priced even these too high to buy. And one sharply edited feature at the end of the first week of this month was striking: a UK medic confirmed that up to 600 NHS workers have admirably volunteered their services.

Then to a nurse on the ground in 30°C heat and 100 per cent humidity, describing her protective clothing: “One pair of boots, one waterproof overall, two pairs of gloves taped at the wrists, a waterproof protective hood, goggles, face mask and then a plastic apron over all of it.”

Recent reports that many health workers are prepared to strike unless provided with even more protective barriers couldn’t fail to fill the listener with awe. “Often the fingers in my gloves are full of liquid,” the nurse had concluded, her voice exquisitely neutral. Then she shrugged one simple word: “Sweat.” 

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 15 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Isis can be beaten

Don't Tell the Bride YouTube screengrab
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How did Don’t Tell the Bride lose its spark?

Falling out of the love with reality TV’s wedding planning hit.

Steph, 23, from Nottinghamshire, is standing in a drizzly field wearing a wedding dress. Her betrothed, Billy, is running around in a tweed flat cap trying to make some pigs walk in “a continuous parade”. A man from Guinness World Records is watching with a clipboard, shaking his head. Bridesmaids gaze sorrowfully into the middle distance, each in a damp pig onesie.

Thus ends the second wedding in E4’s new series of Don’t Tell the Bride – and the programme’s integrity with it.

When the classic programme, which follows grooms attempting to plan their wedding (punchline: human males doing some organising), began a decade ago on BBC Three, it had the raw spark of unpredictability. For eight years, the show did nothing fancy with the format, and stuck with pretty ordinary couples who had few eccentric aspirations for their wedding day.

This usually resulted in run-of-the-mill, mildly disappointing weddings where the worst thing that happened would be a reception at the nearest motorway pub, or an ill-fitting New Look low heel.

It sounds dull, but anyone who has religiously watched it knows that the more low-key weddings expose what is truly intriguing about this programme: the unconditional commitment – or doomed nature – of a relationship. As one of the show’s superfans told the Radio Times a couple of years ago:

“It’s perfect, and not in an ironic or post-ironic or snarky way. The format has the solemn weight of a ceremony . . . Don’t Tell the Bride is not about ruined weddings, it’s about hope. Every wedding is a demonstration of how our ambitions curve away from our abilities. It’s a show about striving to deserve love and how that’s rarely enough.”

It also meant that when there were bombshells, they were stand-out episodes. High drama like Series 4’s notorious Las Vegas wedding almost resulting in a no-show bride. Or heart-warming surprises like the geezer Luke in Series 3 playing Fifa and guzzling a tinny on his wedding morning, who incongruously pulls off a stonking wedding day (complete with special permission from the Catholic Church).

For its eight years on BBC Three, a few wildcard weddings were thrown into the mix of each series. Then the show had a brief affair with BBC One, a flirt with Sky, and is now on its tenth year, 13th series and in a brand new relationship – with the more outrageous E4.

During its journey from BBC Three, the show has been losing its way. Tedious relationship preamble has been used to beef up each episode. Some of the grooms are cruel rather than clueless, or seem more pathetic and vulnerable than naïve. And wackier weddings have become the norm.

The programme has now fully split from its understated roots. Since it kicked off at the end of July, every wedding has been a publicity stunt. The pig farm nuptials are sandwiched between a Costa del Sol-based parasail monstrosity and an Eighties Neighbours-themed ceremony, for example. All facilitated by producers clearly handing the groom and best men karaoke booth-style props (sombreros! Inflatable guitars! Wigs!) to soup up the living room planning process.

Such hamminess doesn’t give us the same fly-on-the-wall flavour of a relationship as the older episodes. But maybe this level of artifice is appropriate. As one groom revealed to enraged fans in The Sun this week, the ceremonies filmed are not actually legally binding. “It makes a bit of a mockery of the process that the bride and groom go through this huge ordeal for a ceremony which isn’t even legal,” he said. Perhaps we should’ve predicted it would all eventually end in divorce – from reality.

Don’t Tell the Bride is on E4 at 9pm

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.