The best radio shows of Christmas 2019

From Ambridge to the Arctic.

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There’s a chill and melancholy running through the best of the seasonal radio. Horatio Clare’s exceptional three-part piece of “slow radio”, Arctic Sound Walk (BBC Radio 3, Christmas Eve, 4.30pm) comprises more than three hours of the writer walking east across Greenland along the Arctic Circle Trail, the air just half a degree above freezing. “I can smell the ice in it,” he croons, the sound of huskies panting closer, while Clare does a little mad growl, addressing each dog. His laugh is a roll-up smoker’s rasp. There’s something deeply antic about Clare. He has a complete alertness for minutiae, presenting in a unique manner somewhere between intense audio-diary and… something far more beautiful. Less self-indulgent.

No details are yet forthcoming about Greta Thunberg’s guest editorship of Today (BBC Radio 4, 30 December, 6am) but this edition will certainly have producers on their mettle, ensuring there’s nuance – not just three hours of the (divisive) casting of climate activism as a generational struggle. On the radio, will Thunberg appear a less lonely-seeming figure? Her frown, sometimes, I think, contains a flicker of the sad, profound suspicion that it is in fact our DNA-deep destiny to destroy the planet.

Singing For The Pope (BBC World Service, New Year’s Eve, 11:30am) follows the 1,700-year-old Sistine Chapel Choir preparing for Midnight Mass. The endless angelic perfection of their music is almost drugging. But here’s a nice story: one day the doorbell of the Sistine Chapel rang (who knew!) just as the choir was about to record another interminable Palestrina disc. It was Pope Francis, on his own, asking to be let in. He slipped into a back pew, like someone who only pops in once a year, for a sentimental glance at the crib, before once more hitting the pub.

Ghost Stories from Ambridge (BBC Radio 4, from 30 December, 6.15pm) is way meta. Jim Lloyd makes a run from The Archers to read for us – in a completely separate programme – WW Jacobs’s gloriously eerie-ghastly 1902 tale “The Monkey’s Paw”. Perhaps we should expect Jill Archer on Woman’s Hour talking about late-onset sex with Leonard? Roll on 2020! 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 20 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Days of reckoning