Radio - Rachel Cooke
A new Radio 4 phone-in fills me with dread. The only thought it provokes is: what's on television?
An ominous development at Radio 4. On Tuesday (11pm), there began a series called Down the Line, a phone-in programme in which listeners are invited to "let off steam about whatever is bothering them". In charge is an "award-winning" talk-radio DJ called Gary Bellamy. Never heard of him? Me neither. But according to the BBC press office, 35-year-old Bellamy began his career in hospital radio before joining the BBC as a researcher on Today. He then moved to Toronto, where he landed his own show on Canadian Radio 1, won three prestigious Molson Awards and became famous (in Canada). The only trouble was, he still longed to make it back at home - so he returned. At first, he struggled.
Then, just as he was about to quit, Matt Weston, once a fellow researcher on Today and now a Radio 4 producer, contacted him. He was putting together the station's first phone-in programme. Perhaps Bellamy would like to host it.
Down the Line goes out live, so I couldn't review it in time for my NS deadline. (I will let you know what I think in future weeks.) Yet the mere idea of it fills me with dread. Bellamy is untested in this country; he has not presented so much as a travel bulletin. Radio 4 should be wary of importing a presenter in this way. And aren't there enough phone-ins on 5 Live? Why must Radio 4 listeners endure them as well?
The BBC press office blithely insists the new show will be as "thought-provoking, controversial,
intelligent, well-informed and funny as the average Radio 4 listener". Good grief. Who writes this stuff? Not anyone who listens to Any Answers? on Saturday afternoons, otherwise he or she would know that the usual kind of listener who rings the station is an incoherent, ranting nutter. The only thought they provoke is: what's on television?
I must calm down. It's difficult, though, because I have just finished listening to Archive Hour - High Society (Radio 4, 29 April, 8pm). The Archive Hour is a hit-and-miss kind of a show, but this episode - about tower blocks - was gripping.
Actually, chilling would be a better word. I pray that John Prescott, who is planning to demolish more 19th-century houses in order to replace them with God knows what, was listening. The programme went over familiar territory - from the first tenants' hope, through their disappointment and on, ultimately, to fear. So there was T Dan Smith, who wanted to make Newcastle the "Brasilia of the north"; and there was the 1968 explosion at Ronan Point, in the East End, when a tenant put her kettle on the hob and her brand-new home literally buckled beneath her.
The programme's power lay in the way it juxtaposed voices. An architectural historian said he thought it "unsavoury" that certain types of housing are demonised for causing social ills; such attacks are like "surrogate public executions". He was an articulate cove, and this argument sounded mighty slick - until, that is, we heard an old recording of a reporter, Chris Searle, as a tenant showed him her flat in Liverpool. She had to do this by candlelight: no electricity, you see, on account of the damp. The mould was so bad, it had colonised the bedlinen. Searle sounded sick to his stomach, as well he might. I listened, and I thought about the treacherous gully between political promises and political deeds. Most of the towers are gone now. Metaphorically speaking, however, they are still being thrown up all over the place: so many castles in the air. The fine words continue.
How hollow they sound. How tinny.