Words and Music (Radio 3)

Antonia Quirke enjoys a mysterious merging of things literary and musical.

Words and Music
Radio 3

Radio 3's late-afternoon programme Words and Music (Sundays, 6.30pm) is a phenomenon. "A sequence of music, mixed with well-loved and less familiar poems and prose", goes the official online pitch for the show - modestly omitting to mention the hefty 75-minute running time (some episodes are even longer, at 90 minutes). Devoting over an hour, with such elegant lines of movement, to any one particular theme - recently, "constraint" and "empire" - is no small feat for the lone producers who construct each programme in less than six days.

As there is no presenter - the readings by actors merely break up the music - you are never told what you are listening to, which turns the experience into a guessing game, as though you have just come across a coverless mix-tape in a drawer, once made by a lover with a comfortable Upper Second in books and a nice record collection, but which somehow never builds into a careful pyramid of one's own ignorance, even when you fail to guess a single extract or piece of music correctly or suspect that you are wrong to the tune of 180 years and three continents, which, for the competitive, is the equivalent of buying a loaf of white and finding a dead mouse inside.

Or you can just let the show wash over you dreamily. Yes, best just do that. A few weeks ago, the theme was the life of the parish priest and the episode included Dickens, Nina Simone, Malcolm Arnold, Wynton Marsalis and an extract from a diary entry written by a priest who recalled going to sit in sympathy with a family whose daughter had died in a freak accident - a car had rolled backwards over the child in a driveway. The priest did not say whether he had been asked to visit or even if he was welcome when he got there but said that he had merely gone to represent, if only momentarily, "another broken life" - that of Christ.

I have never heard that particular sentiment so modestly and sorrowfully expressed. I would not have heard it at all, had the producer not been married to a vicar and had that kind of literature at her fingertips. But if that edition was exceptionally deep and felt, it was not unusual. Five years old next February, Words and Music remains the best recurring series on the wire.

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 07 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The triumph of the Taliban