Radio - Rachel Cooke
Sir Walter Raleigh, Milton's Rebel Angels and a Eurosceptic tank? Radio 4 must be dumbing up
If I were a noble, sensible, cultural kind of person, I would devote this entire column to the extraordinary return of This Sceptred Isle to Radio 4 (weekdays, 3.45pm). The team behind the sweeping history of Britain first broadcast ten years ago is back: this time, the focus is "empire". In 90 parts, each of which is a perfect 15 minutes long (in other words, a mere quarter of your average school history lesson, so that, just as you are drifting off, the thing deftly ends), this version began in the 12th century with Henry II's dubious conquest of Ireland and will sweep onwards, taking in the Indies, the Americas and, of course, the tea drinkers way out east. It is brilliant. Why? Well, for one thing, the narrative (Juliet Stevenson reads, with suitably imperious impressions of Elizabeth I from Anna Massey) does not aim solely at bald facts, or even simple chronology: it is sly, occasionally sarcastic, and highly opinionated. I like my history on the grumpy side; it reminds me that it matters. For another, it is - dread word, this - relevant. The legality of an English invasion was first discussed way back in 1156, although in those days it was the Pope, rather than the United Nations, whose permission had to be sought (good "Christian" nations were supposedly out of bounds). As I listened to an account of Sir Walter Raleigh's attack on Irish "insurgents" - he had an hour to tear out the throats and rip open the stomachs of 600 men holed up in a Munster castle - I could not help but think of the foreign adventure in which we are currently embroiled, and worry that the consequences may be longer-lasting than even the doomiest of Tony Blair's critics imagines. This Sceptred Isle, combined with the fact that the week's Book at Bedtime has been Milton's Paradise Lost (introducing Satan and the Rebel Angels as they are vanquished on the burning lake in Hell), is proof that, the Today programme aside, Radio 4 is dumbing up rather than down - and also that, post Hutton, it is going for the carefully oblique route when it comes to criticism of the status quo. Do not forget that Milton was also the author of Areopagitica, in which he defended the freedom of the press.
But I have drifted from my point. Sometimes I am not a noble, sensible, cultural kind of person. In fact, I can be rather shallow. The real highlight of my week was the return of Think the Unthinkable (Wednesdays, 3.45pm), a sitcom about rubbish management consultants, starring Marcus Brigstocke. People (ie, comedy nerds) often go on about how much funnier shows such as Little Britain and The League of Gentlemen were when they were on the radio. Maybe so, but the truth is that the radio is a very forgiving medium for comedy. Your expectations are reasonably low, and you can always busy yourself with toasting cheese or combing your eyelashes during the unfunny bits. Think the Unthinkable has lots of unfunny bits but, when it gets it right, it is very funny indeed. I love Owen, the computer geek who says "Classic!" a lot, and although Ryan (Brigstocke) can be a bit David Brent ("Are you with me? Run towards it!"), there is a nicely surreal edge to some of his lines. This time, the consultants were asked to market - or, as Ryan has it, "imaginate" - a "Eurotank". Unfortunately, thanks to EU directives, this fighting machine had full disabled access and, when it moved backwards, a female voice could be heard saying: "This vehicle is reversing" in six languages. Well, I thought it was funny.