Change as good as a rest

The best feature of this year's Proms coverage was the interval-filler

The highlight of this year's Proms has been the clutch of super-varied 20-minute programmes made to fill the intervals (continuous, Radio 3). The picture they paint is of a nation fascinatedly sucking boiled sweets in the study.

On 13 August, Andrew Brown mused on the Viking slave raids, indulging his sweetly antiquated way of structuring sentences: "Here in St Andrews I'm sitting among the peaceful ruins of one of the oldest Christian sites in Scotland with the historian Alex Woolf. On the rocks below, by the playful sea, a heron stalks about its awful business. One thousand two hundred years ago, though, would the predators on the sea have been men, and we, on land, their prey?"

He also spoke to a very lively woman whose area of expertise was ancient sex and murder. Nothing geed her up like a three-way ending in a garrotting. "The top of her skull was completely slashed off!" she said of one skeleton and then detailed with what can only be described as pure happiness how certain female slaves in Vikingland were treated like a queen for two days, then gang-raped and dragged to a spot where an old hag called the Angel of Death would supervise a multiple stabbing, encouraging the drummers to play ever louder to cover the slave's prolonged screams so as not to put people off their pottage.

Although there was then talk of the pirate Barbarossa and mention of infidels and Morocco and distant Tunis, essentially Brown wanted to leave us comforted. "It's highly unlikely that we would have ended up in the markets of Damascus or Baghdad if our stroll at St Andrews landed us in the back of a longship," he reasoned.

Another programme considered the clocks first going forward for the summer in 1916. Although it was war that had finally forced the issue, apparently people had been wanting the change for years, in particular the Gresham Angling Society, the National Federation of Hairdressers and the organisers of a fete in Eccles whose pièce de résistance was a race for a stuffed hat.

But the absolute jewel thus far has been the former Night Waves presenter Richard Coles's meditation on the riff in music. "Before I became an opera reviewer for this network and chaplain to the Royal Academy of Music," said the inimitable Coles, dripping reason and experience, "I was a member of the Eighties pop band the Communards." He then went on to speak to a viola player called Jocelyn Pook, who is obsessed with two particular bars of a Bach prelude and resents how notes in a piece of music have the habit of moving on so quickly - you know? "Yeah, yeah," said Coles, with utter sympathy, before playing the Tristan chord from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde mournfully on a piano, while at the same time talking about the subtle moment a riff turns into a tune.

I am crazy about Richard Coles. You all too rarely see him on the box talking in his fluid, unfurling way above his dog collar, like the ideal of a vicar in an E M Forster novel - the kind who would guide you sans notes around the Uffizi and over a brunch of sherry and kedgeree impart actually useful advice on love.

And I'm certain that when we elect him Archbishop of Canterbury, he will make good on every challenge.

Pick of the week

40 Years from Folsom
26 August, 1.30pm, Radio 4
On Johnny Cash’s seminal 1968 prison concert.

The Essay
26 August, 11pm, Radio 3
Continuing to mark the 50 years since Ralph Vaughan Williams’s death – the second of three talks given by the composer.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How to survive the recession