Filling the gaps: Outlook on the World Service

No radio interviewer inserts themself quite so barmily into a dialogue like Matthew Bannister.

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A measured, equable week of episodes of Outlook (Sundays to Thursdays, 11.06am) – “the best true-life stories” from the BBC World Service – made me miss its regular presenter, Matthew Bannister. His holiday stand-in, Alan Kasujja, is perfectly decent: articulate, challenging, value for money. But no radio interviewer inserts him- or herself quite so barmily into a dialogue like Bannister. His way of dealing with reticence in an interlocutor – owing, perhaps, to their nervousness, shyness or slow grasp of clarity or just because they’re a bit boring – is shamelessly to fill in the gaps for them. Sometimes this is helpful. When, the other week, he was speaking to a somewhat distracted Italian caver, Francesco Sauro, who muttered in passing that he regularly had to squeeze through narrow fissures “like an Egyptian”, Bannister shot back immediately: “By ‘like an Egyptian’, you mean slightly sideways and completely flat to the wall as if there’s no width to you?” Good.

When Sauro failed adequately to communicate the thrill of the moment he first set eyes on the giant crystals in the caves of Naica in Mexico, Bannister took over entirely. “And you came upon them,” he breathed, serious but with an air of transcendence. “Your light shone upon them and then back at you!” Very Book of Common Prayer. (He did add “presumably”, to be professionally scrupulous.) “Yeees,” tried Sauro. One could imagine Bannister returning the caver’s somewhat puzzled look with a calm one, reassuring him that this was indeed an unusual but rather ingenious British technique of drawing someone out – which, I might add, it is, because the former Radio 1 boss Bannister always gets his man.

“And it must be a wonderful feeling,” continued Bannister (a charge going off in his head now – he was living this dream), “to at last get out of the cave and to step back into the sunlight! To suddenly smell the freshly mown grass and see the green of the trees!” “Yes!’ said Sauro, laughing, finally warming to the air of heightened, rhapsodic complicity. “Yes! The most beautiful sensations!”

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 08 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The end of the red-top era?