Think before you speak

The BBC struggles to find a balance between clever and dumbed-down

The market research people have their own ways of divvying up BBC Radio's various audiences: by age, by class, by geography. I prefer to see it as a matter of IQ. Radio 1, for instance, prides itself on being a cut above commercial pop music stations in its commitment to live and specialist music as well as speech, but any claim to intelligence was forfeited when it appointed Chris Moyles its breakfast-time presenter. Retune to Radio 2, and the intelligence quotient rises a little: its audience is assumed to read newspapers with headlines composed of more than three words. On his lunchtime current affairs show, I sometimes feel, Jeremy Vine pitches his questions a little too low in pursuit of quality argy-bargy. The phone-ins on 5 Live assume more intelligence in the audience, but both Radios 5 and 2 can be enjoyed by averagely intelligent people who do not want to be intellectually challenged.

So we are left with Radios 3 and 4 to cater for that minority of the population with IQs between, say, 110 and 180. It is, I am beginning to appreciate, a heavily demarcated zone. Anyone with a brain incapable of achieving a degree at doctorate level will find Radio 3 just too hard going. I had been expecting to sit down and enjoy, you see, the satirist Armando Iannucci's Words and Music programme on authority (19 August, 10.15pm). It began promisingly enough. He told us that attitudes to authority are contradictory, poised between our loves of freedom and order. We want more police on the street but not more traffic wardens. Words can glorify and defy authority (a bit obvious, that, I thought) but when they defy it, authority finds them particularly pernicious. "States," he also said, "can stamp on behaviour but they don't quite know how to handle creativity." These days what we do in the bedroom is our own business, but what we say in it can get us sent to prison. Note how the word of God is taken from a book named after a worldly potentate, King James.

And then, just as I was beginning to enjoy myself, Iannucci left us to it, not speaking another word for 100 minutes as his choice of music, prose and poetry was performed. We were expected to make the links between Paradise Lost and Art Tatum's version of "Ain't Misbehavin'". It was good to hear Orwell's "Shooting an Elephant", but what was Maggie Thatcher doing there reading a tribute to Abraham Lincoln against the music of Aaron Copland? The nearest we got to satire was a collage of Donald Rumsfeld's speeches. It was a dead clever tour, and, without a Virgil to hold my hand through the intellectual inferno, too clever for me.

And so, I turned to Radio 4 and tried on a new play by a new writer. Mark Shand won the eighth biennial Alfred Bradley Bursary Award with Abigail Adams, Thursday's Afternoon Play (23 August, 2.15pm). It was about an inner-city child falling from the roof of her tower block and her thoughts on the way down. The idea was crisp and it took Radio 4 out of its Home Counties comfort zone, but it was written as if social realism had never been invented. Twee one-liners about "red retro trainers", flasks of tea and extra strong smokers' toothpaste were tossed about. You didn't believe Abigail's parents had ever lived in a sink estate, or that Abigail could have possibly existed amid it.

A verbal theme hummed its way through the piece about 11-year-old Abbie trying to find a perspective on the world by climbing on to the roof, a metaphor for broadening her mental horizon beyond her parents' narrow one. In the end, because this was a work that could be read safely at a WI coffee morning, no one died and Abigail enjoyed a soft landing in the safety net six feet below where she fell - a metaphor for community values. Jeremy Howe, commissioning editor for drama at Radio 4, called it a "delightful, witty, life-affirming play". And how we must learn to fear such words. He called Shand a writer to watch, which he may be if he can escape the Afternoon Play slot. Radio 4 can flatter you with programmes such as In Our Time; but, as this drama showed, it is depressingly middlebrow. We need Radio 3½.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer for the Times

Pick of the week

1966 and All That
28 August, 6.30pm, Radio 4
Craig Brown on Lady Chatterbox’s Llama, by D H Lawrence of Arabia.

National Treasures
29 August, 9am, Radio 4
Surprise hit of the summer: cultural icons do battle.

Alan Carr and Friends at the Fringe
30 August, 11.30pm, Radio 2
The best of the Ed Fest funnies.

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Bush: Is the president imploding?