The Organist Entertains

Organists are a gloomy, extemporising bunch.

Death by Wurlitzer

A humid, palm-flapping April night and Nigel Ogden is overseeing a stream of listeners' reminiscences about the organ music played at their weddings (26 April, 9.30pm). "We had a think about what we wanted and bought a cassette because, in those days, you had cassettes, not CDs or whatever," a woman is saying. "And then we played it to my mum and she said, 'I don't believe it.'" There's no sense of urgency here. She's like a cat with its ears flat to the head, preparing to lick itself clean. Her story eventually ends with: "I'd always liked the 'Queen of Sheba' - but my cousin had that."

Others speak fondly of the Te Deum prelude and the Widor toccata but one says that she ecstatically requested Grieg's "Wedding Day at Troldhaugen" because: "I tried to learn to play it on the piano at school and never got it right, so I wanted to hear it played well."

It's a lame excuse for the dirge that follows, played in extenso and so bloody awful that you can just imagine the groom - the flutter inside his chest subduing to a steady thump - turning to the bride and saying, "Who are you, young woman?"

Still, Ogden, I guess, is a nice enough guy.

He and the Blackpool Tower organist, Phil Kelsall, have been presenting the programme since 1980 but it's been around since 1969. The very definition of a niche gig ("A weekly show focusing on the organ in its many guises"), The Organist Entertains always, always, feels as pleasantly depressing as a Cath Kidston pinny. It's a cruise brochure in the morning post. It's grilled cutlets and the sound of teeth scraping the bone. Possibly it's Nigel's small, attentive laugh whenever anyone tries a joke.

No, no - it's the guest organists: deathly to a man. "The bride was half an hour late!" one tuts ("Goodness me," sympathises Nigel, sweetly), "and, well, I suppose I am a classic car enthusiast and they do break down . . . and then the bride starts faffing around . . ."

“Do you waffle?" asks Nigel, narrowing his eyes. "I extemporise, yes. Sometimes, I rummage in my briefcase to see if there's a Bach fugue lying around."

Later on, someone mentions "Dancing Queen" ("I made it as lively as I could") and “A Whiter Shade of Pale" ("I had to branch out"; this guy sounds like someone who was asked to write out Psalm 23 ten times for saying "bugger"). All of which begins to feel increasingly tragic: a nation of brides-to-be getting out their wedding lists and turning to fiancés, begging them to co-operate ("How about that pub with the upstairs bit where James had his 40th?"; "In Christ's name, who's ever heard of such a place?").

And it always seems to end the same way, too: with Reginald Dixon playing "Moonlight and Roses" on a Wurlitzer in Indianapolis. By which point, even the callers sound made up. Susan Spraget and Sara Bacon? And: "Let's have another fabulous story from Sharon Saunders in Orpington"? l

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 02 May 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The Firm