Ian Hislop makes a tame exploration of Middle England
Strange how a place that can't be found on any map can so dominate the thoughts of our politicians. I speak, of course, of Middle England. Odd, too, how often I think of it myself. Mostly, my sense of it is as an opposition: it is a place I fear, and one I am relieved not to belong to. Then again, at other times I dreamily conjure it up. Under assault from urban life, I find myself longing for it - although I did not grow up in it. On very rare occasions, I even feel its spirit rising up inside me, a mild-mannered but irresistible burp of disapproval and indignation and old-fogey-ness. But what is it? Where is it? Does it actually exist at all?
These are questions that Ian Hislop sets out to answer in his series Looking for Middle England (Saturdays, 10.30am, Radio 4). I cannot think of a better subject for a Radio 4 documentary; if you can, be sure to let me know. Not only is Middle England's station of choice Radio 4 but, like so many of its beloved institutions, it is one run by a metropolitan elite that insists on changing it so as to be seen to be with the times. Cue gay characters in The Archers, black continuity announcers and risqué comedy late at night. Hislop should tread carefully. His audience consists largely of the population of the elusive land that he wishes to explore. A word out of place, and he'll find himself in Radio 4's answer to the village stocks: on Feedback, with cabbage-throwing Roger Bolton.
Perhaps this is why the series is so gentle. Or perhaps Hislop was just subtly infected with the slow pace of life in the charming towns he visited. Part one (1 July) took him to Ludlow, tootling around with a variety of local types, including James McFarlane of the Ludlow Civic Society. McFarlane is opposed to houses being built beyond the Ludlow bypass - and to the town's new bicycle racks, which are plain "silly", in his view. "Silly," said Hislop. "There's no higher criticism, is there?" A woman showed him a churchyard, recently cleaned up, thus removing what she called its "skulking places". Hislop said: "You were meant to paint the dark side!" When a local lawyer, a lesbian, told him that she would not live in London if he paid her, he yelped: "Even the lesbians have gone native!" It made The Archers seem like something out of Ken Loach.
Let's hope that his investigations will become more fraught as the series progresses. It would be good, for instance, to hear voices from towns that have received immigrants, or are weighed down with second-home owners. It would be good, too, to hear what Middle England thinks of David Cameron. But this is not to say that the first programme did not throw up any juicy facts. Many people attribute the invention of the phrase "Middle England" to Jilly Cooper, who wrote a book about it in 1979; Hislop had Lord Salisbury using it in 1882. He also revealed that, over the past year, there had been 746 references to Middle England in the national press. He seemed to think this an impressively big number, but to me it was amazingly small. As for whether Hislop will be able to pin down this elusive place, who can say? But it's definitely out there somewhere. You may be aware that Ian, one of the two gay characters in The Archers, is considering having a child with his best friend. If he goes ahead, just you watch Middle England rise up. The word "silly" won't be the half of it.
Pick of the week
T in the Park
8-9 July, Radio 1
Featuring the Kaiser Chiefs and Arctic Monkeys – alas, it’s hosted by Vernon Kay and Sara Cox.
Dean Reed: death of a comrade
11 July, 8.30pm, Radio 2
Mark Lamarr looks at the life of the man who was known as Red Elvis. Did the CIA bump him off?
Don't miss . . .
Grayson Perry’s "Charms of Lincolnshire"
Grayson Perry's slyly subversive art continues to develop in surprising directions. "Charms of Lincolnshire" is a macabre paean to sickness, madness, death and National Trust England, including new ceramics, embroidery and photography. But it is Perry's infant-sized cast-iron coffin, Angel of the South, that is bound to provoke the greatest interest. "The biscuit-tin idyll of cosy village Britain is luckily in the past," says Perry, "for it was a candlelit, back-breaking, sexist, tubercular child-death hell."
Runs from 7 July to 12 August at the Victoria Miro Gallery, London N1 (020 7336 8109)