England's dreaming

Looking for the perfect drug? Give the BBC's archive channel a try

Old Radio 4 programmes never die. They just retire to a sleepy digital backwater known as BBC7. Its mainstays are washed-up soaps, well-thumbed Books of the Week and, best of all, Kenneths Williams and Horne, the long-since departed duo at the centre of the Fifties and Sixties sketch shows Beyond Our Ken and Round the Horne (the former has just finished for the time being; one or the other will be back again soon).

As there is no end of nostalgic Radio 4 documentaries to laud the subversive humour of these shows - centred as they were around warped spoofs of popular films and television programmes, played out in drab London suburbs - I won't dwell on it. Suffice to say that, in the digital age, the Kens are denied even the promise of rest offered by decaying tape, their voices destined to pun, make innuendos and bicker - "Get a hold of yourself! I can't, I'm ticklish" - crystal clear into the decades ahead. Now, the programmes come with a patronising health warning. Before the last episode of Beyond Our Ken, for example: "Eyebrows will be raised, these days, at some of the humour you're about to hear, but it was recorded way back in 1964."

The channel's other highlight of the moment is This Sceptred Isle (weekdays, 1.30pm). Originally broadcast in the Nineties, the series has been (re)telling the past thousand years of British history in 15-minute episodes since April. The narrator, Anna Massey, lectures listeners in a schoolmarm voice while a gruff actor reads from Winston Churchill's History of the English-Speaking Peoples in his best Rada drawl: "Dark was the scene which spread around the ambitious island and its stubborn king . . . Such was the plight to which the obstinacy of George III had reduced the empire." Strangely enough, no announcer ever pops up to warn of potentially offensive imperialist content.

Isle has all the hallmarks of a sensible history programme, being packed with dates, names, detailed descriptions of how farming output developed during the Wars of the Roses, and the like. But, from the moment the weeping strings of its theme tune - a prelude by the early 20th-century English pastoralist composer Frank Bridge - swirl into earshot, it's clear something else is afoot. At heart, the programme is a prime cut of BBC psychedelia, a variation on the state-sponsored hallucinogen that is pumped nightly into British bedrooms through The Shipping Forecast. Now, set alongside a never-ending loop of programmes drawn from the past half-century, its weird power is only increased.

This past week, we had reached the 18th century and the American War of Independence. Massey took charge. "Lord Sandwich is remembered for two things." Got that down? OK. "As First Lord of the Admiralty, he it was who was responsible for the fact that the navy was not ready for this war, with dis-ahs-trous results." Right we are, then. "And second, Sandwich spent much of his time at the gaming tables. To keep himself going, he invented the idea of putting titbits between two slices of bread." Somewhere at the back of the class, Kenneth Williams lets forth a cackle.

Listen to any of this on iPlayer when you're on the cusp of sleep, and your dreams will be a treat: Churchill dribbling in his basket-chair, clouds drawing in over Albion, and Williams locked in a fumble with Sandwich outside the horse-meat shop on the Balls Pond Road. What more could you wish for?

Antonia Quirke is away

Pick of the week

From Fact to Fiction
Starts 18 October, 7pm, Radio 4
Weekly drama based on news events. Will Self and Rebecca Lenkiewicz are among the writers.

Daniel Trilling is the Editor of New Humanist magazine. He was formerly an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2008 issue of the New Statesman, My year with Obama