The power of the Word

Jim Naughtie hams it up over the Bible.

"Let's set the scene, Lucy, as the darkness falls over Hampton Court on this rainy evening." It's James Naughtie in the first of his programmes about the King James Bible (3 January, 9am). Lucy, an academic with an attractive speech impediment (her Ys are Ws, like Shirley Temple) raised her hand and pointed to the gates. "There's a blockage," she intoned. "The weoman of the guard would say, 'Nope, you're not coming through.'" A direct quotation? Naughtie was silent for a moment, breathing it all in. "It's impossible to not stand and think of all the things that happened here," he said, as the pair paused in a gallery that he noted was "haunted by the ghost of Katherine Howard".

“Yes," said Lucy, "she ran down here begging Henry for her life." (Tennessee Williams: "Life is all memory except for the one present moment that goes by so quick . . .") How Naughtie was loving this! I've never heard him so furtive. Now, a new sense of urgency. "I can see some of our colleagues waiting for us quietly in their pews," he said suddenly, and advanced down some stairs to join them. There was a lot of Walking Off in this programme. Just as BBC TV is rich with presenters delivering lines, varying from the mildly portentous ("The citizens of Pompeii were never to see the light of day again . . .") to the completely innocuous ("And it all probably happened on a Wednesday"), and then walking inexplicably and immediately out of shot, so it was here.

Downstairs, the pews were rammed with prize guests. Fellows in Renaissance Catholicism, curators of palaces - experts of all kinds huddling into their collars against a netherworld chill, as though at a seance. Naughtie took centre stage. "Here in the Great Watching Chamber, the atmosphere is quite tense." Is, or was? Possibly Naughtie was channelling the original event on our behalf. "Bishops in silks, the Puritans in their plain black gowns - like merchants with nightcaps." And one could sense the multitudes of the long-dead throng, crushed together with the living, tutting as though at Euston during a delay. "The air must have been thick with tension, with anxiety. And the book they produced was to become a literary masterpiece." Sound of Walking Off.

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 10 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Here comes the squeeze