The Day the Wall Came Down

Life is a constant puzzle to the genial presenter

On Radio 2 Jeremy Vine was in Berlin feeling spooked. "If I just hop like that, my left foot is in the east and . . . my right is in the west!" Behind him, 1989 archive clips of the wall coming down were played in, like a Brian Eno installation ("The digger has munched off the top of it!") only to be concertinaed into long tenor-sax-based musical phrases of the type that emerge from speakers controlled by an actually disconcertingly rigid central database whenever you're having a facial west of Queensway.

But, this being Vine, the overwhelming feel of the doc was super-chatty and defensively genial. Phrases such as "Stalin got jumpy" and "It makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up" seemed to feature quite a lot, along with "In 100 years' time I'm not sure someone would believe the story of the Berlin Wall", which was rather less successful. I mean, why ever not? There wasn't time to go into it - as with many Vine-based docs, ideas were frequently dropped in and then we were quickly swaddled and snatched way, leaving Jeremy to deal with his conflicting emotions and (your reviewer likes to think) attempting to find a Nabokovian pattern in the things that have happened to him; but life being life, and Vine being Vine, minor deficiencies in plot contend with a general lack of symbolic content until it can all feel a bit chaotic. But always genial.

“Someone told me the other day that I was part of 'Generation X'," he said at one point, with tender puzzlement, as though the term were entirely new to him, and doubtless to us, too, and had made him automatically and inexplicably, you know, kind of blue. After a moment he concluded that this strange phrase possibly had something to do with Roger Waters of Pink Floyd and . . . the hairs on the back of his neck stood up all over again.

Over on 4, a series of excellent short programmes on the life of Somerset Maugham had him as a junior doctor at St Thomas's in the late 1890s, his days ordered and quiet - dinner at 6.30 in his lodgings; Shakespeare and Livy's History of Rome; and, once his blood was up, his own work ("I was writing because I could not help it"). Initially lonely and shy, eventually urbane and fantastically well-travelled, SM toured his favourite places: Nice, Constantinople, Athens . . . and the Sunningdale Golf Club, where he wrote Of Human Bondage.

Clips of the writer speaking in his old age show a person who (through hypnosis, we were told) had learned to integrate his once utterly debilitating stammer into the most charming way of speaking. Lightening his voice incrementally as he approached a word that threatened to be problematic, he would suddenly fast-forward, like a DVD subtly skipping over a damaged area, as though giving himself over entirely to a bewitching fancy. The end of his story is always upsetting - with him dying miserable and reviled for being such a bitch - but that stammer called clearly to mind his young face, a type no longer seen. Are there no more of those bruised, proud little mouths and moustaches as seen in the 1920s? Where did they all go? Come back.

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 09 November 2009 issue of the New Statesman, Castro