When I began this column five months ago, I said that Ian McMillan, the "Bard of Barnsley", had crept all over the BBC schedules like bindweed on an allotment. Soon after that, I began to wonder if someone -
possibly the controller of Radio 4, Mark "Axeman" Damazer - had sprinkled weedkiller about the place, for McMillan's "ecky thump" vowels seemed to be gone for a time. Now, though, he is back, presenting a five-part series called Worked Out (Radio 4, Tuesdays, 9.30am), in which he explores Britain's lost coalfields - small, long-forgotten and never nationalised pits in such places as the Forest of Dean and Whitehaven, in Cumbria. Well, that's bindweed for you: look away for a second and it'll be back, more vigorous than ever.
I loved the idea of this programme; it often feels as if our recent industrial past is in danger of being forgotten altogether. In my home town, once so famous for its steel, the furnaces no longer burn. You drive past them on your way to the shopping centre. The nearest most children get to grasping how their grandfathers made a living is watching waterwheels turn during school trips to the "industrial hamlet". In Shropshire, where McMillan began his memorialising, only one former miner from the former Madeley coalfield is still alive.
It was spellbinding listening to this miner - Jack Smart - tell of life below ground and, for a while, I was able to put my feelings about McMillan to one side. Furthermore, when McMillan reminded Smart that a miner's life was "horrible", that he'd best not get too sentimental about it, I was relieved: believe me, there is nothing worse than a Yorkshireman with a selective memory. Then it happened. Inevitably, McMillan had written a poem about Jack, and he decided to share it with us. I have, of course, tried to wipe this schoolboy effort from my mind but one phrase has stuck, like chewing gum to a shoe: "His watch is ticking like water drips." For the full effect, read this aloud, slowly and portentously, in an accent straight out of a Hovis ad. Pam Ayres could have done better.
McMillan appears to have been given licence to splatter his verses over any programme with which he comes into contact - a perfect illustration of the weirdness (and tweeness) into which Radio 4 occasionally lapses. This is why the debate about Damazer's move to lose "The UK Theme" has left me so bewildered. Doesn't he - not to mention those who have been driven so demented by his decision - have more important things to worry about? As for me, I can barely sleep at night for fear that Clive Anderson (or, worse, Jeremy Clarkson) will replace Simon Hoggart as the chair of my beloved News Quiz, or that Aled "my-voice-broke-in-the-end" Jones, fast becoming ubiquitous on Radios 2 and 3, will start popping up on 4 as well. I also spend a lot of time wishing someone would shove Sheila Dillon, co-presenter of The Food Programme, head first into a vat of butterscotch Angel Delight. That'd teach her to be so stern about carrots.
If Damazer could reassure me about the first two of these things, and at least think about the delicious prospect of the third, I would be grateful. His recent appearances on Feedback (Sundays, 8pm) have not really done the trick. In the meantime, however, he should tune in to Worked Out. No one should have to put up with listening to McMillan droning on, least of all a former miner in his nineties who is too frail to run away.