A different kind of organ

Radio 2, beset by scandal, is still the home of gloriously odd programming

Radio 2 has been through the wringer of late. But in the fallout of the Brand'n'Ross H-bomb it is important to remember the station's more interesting late-night gambles. Every Tuesday evening for half an hour, just after Radcliffe and Maconie (Monday-Thursday, 8pm-10pm) have warmed our ears with their records and brew-like northern baritones, we get a show that pays homage to the organ; not the sort that Brand is obsessed with, but rather the organs that were played in early 20th-century cinema theatres. In 2008, this could surely be considered programming madness.

And yet for 39 years, The Organist Entertains (Tuesdays, 10pm-10.30pm) has persevered, and even found its way into contemporary popular culture. I first chanced upon it a year ago in the comfort of my kitchen, finding my dishwashing oddly energised by the whoop and whirl of a Wurlitzer from Edmonton. Soon afterwards the cult Nottingham band Tindersticks named a new track after the show, and I asked their singer, Stuart Staples, to explain its appeal. It was, he said mistily, "like a peculiar musical message from the past".

There will be many naysayers, but I maintain that the show is divine. Its presenter, Nigel Ogden, is a life-long organist and enthusiast. He is that rare and precious thing, a keen chronicler of a remote corner of our pop culture. He speaks with authority, possessing a voice that is firm, fair and fine, almost like an old-fashioned take on the much-missed John Peel.

Ogden did a particularly good job on one recent show (4 November), a tribute to organist, conductor and orchestra arranger, Sidney Torch. Few of us would know Sidney from Adam, but Ogden took us into his head, telling us his story simply and grippingly. He drew attention to Torch's personality through some quirky performances, the best being a take on The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down. Not only did Torch twist the old Looney Tunes theme into the can-can, the William Tell Overture and a selection of carousel waltzes - playing three beats to the bar with his right hand and four with his right - but he added the illusion of train toots and clattering feet. Best of all, he turned off the organ's air supply at its climax, letting the merry-go-round sink into glorious repose.

The Mighty Wurlitzer Mixture (11 November) was even more exuberant. When John Seng played The Nutcracker Suite in an Illinois seminary, my heart popped with happiness. And "Lullaby of Broadway", played by two different organists, was impressively dreamy.

This dreaminess is what captivates me, and why, in the age of the iPlayer, the show works best of all in its late-evening slot. At a time when the evening moves into the night, it metamorphoses into a strange kind of melancholic poetry. The names of the cinemas, with their stately syllables, roll off the tongue - the Marble Arch Regal, the Gaumont State, Kilburn - but it is the sound of the Wurlitzers, each with its own light-headed character, that you can't shrug away. Wheezing and stuttering softly as the moon lights the sky, they help give the show, and the station that hosts it, its magical personality.

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Lights, Camera, Landmark
From 17 November, 3.45pm, Radio 4
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Mike Harding
19 November, 7pm, Radio 2
Nominations are unveiled for the 2009 BBC Folk Awards.

This article first appeared in the 17 November 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Obamania