When the workers knew their place

Crisp and chilling interviews with 1930s British fascists

In the interests of modernity, I was going to write this week about 4Radio. This is Channel 4's online radio station, and its bosses have high hopes for it - ridiculously high, if you ask me. On the one hand, they believe it will attract precious young listeners. On the other hand, they hope it will, in the long run, go after some of radio's sacred cows, such as Radio 4's Today. Channel 4's head of news and current affairs, Dorothy Byrne, thinks Today's world-view is that of a "middle-aged man from Bournemouth with a strong interest in birdwatching, whose wife wears cashmere twinsets and is active in the bowling club". She is planning a young (and non-birdwatching) pretender.

I logged on to 4Radio, only to log off, 20 minutes or so later, tomato-red with frustration. The station doesn't yet have a wavelength, so, to listen, you have to download the shows. Download a podcast of an hour-long radio programme from the iTunes Music Store, and it will take you less than a minute; download a half-hour show from 4Radio, and you'll be sitting at your computer for at least ten minutes. At the end of all this, I was able to hear something called Big Brother Round-Up, which was just lots of shouting punctuated by the Geordie whose voice we know from the telly. Gaaargh! Life is just too short, don't you think?

So I listened instead to Archive Hour - Potteries Fascists (24 June, 8pm, Radio 4). I've said before that Archive Hour is among the very best shows Radio 4 has to offer, but this was spellbinding. Its subject was the rise and fall of Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts in Stoke and its surrounding towns. In the 1930s, Mosley was the most celebrated Staffordshire man since Josiah Wedgwood - "he was the goods", as one local man put it. This, combined with the terrible unemployment in the area, helped his New Party to achieve a singular popularity in the Potteries; only in London did it do better.

It was fascinating to be reminded, via old BBC interviews, of how deferential the working man once was to the toff politician. David Cameron works hard to play down his Old Etonian background but, back in the day, voters required their leaders to be posh. Norman, a former Blackshirt who recalled how, during the Depression, his family of three had survived on a single egg at tea, spoke admiringly of Mosley's "straight back", and used the expression "ruling class" as a statement of fact rather than a justification for class war. The programme reinforced the notion that the roots of extremism lie in poverty and desperation; all these men needed to set them on the road to fascism was someone canny enough to exploit their misery.

But the main reason why the programme made for required listening was that it contained an interview recorded with Mosley in 1975, when he was almost 80 - one never before broadcast on national radio. This was amazing. Although it was horrifying listening to him slickly deny all the charges of anti-Semitism (a weasel denial that was later demolished by Bernard Levin), there was no denying his cleverness as a speaker, and you got a keen sense of his charisma and (periodic) charm. Most astonishingly of all, he sounded exactly like a rabble-rousing MP of today (I'd better not say who). Deference may be long gone, but the cadences of the small-town demagogue remain irresistibly the same.

Pick of the week

Looking for Middle England
Saturdays, 10.30am, Radio 4
Ian Hislop tries to find out if such a place exists. Outside the pages of the Daily Mail, that is.

Opera on 3
1 July, 6.55pm, Radio 3
A rare treat – Tosca, live from the Royal Opera House, starring Angela Gheorghiu and Bryn Terfel.

Don't miss . . .
Angus McBean: portraits

McBean, one of Britain's most influential photographers, was a fully paid-up bohemian. At 25, he grew a lavish beard symbolising, he said, both his commitment to his art and "the fact that I no longer wish to be a wage earner". Despite this ambition, he worked steadily for the next 40 years, photographing everyone from Audrey Hepburn to the Beatles and "Spike Milligan's head in a glass jar". Among the highlights are his surreal "self-portrait" Christmas cards, featuring a range of increasingly bizarre props.

"Angus McBean: portraits" is at the National Portrait Gallery, London WC2, until 22 October (020 7306 0055; www.npg.org.uk)