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25 January 2018

After more than a decade, BBC Radio 3’s The Essay still delivers captivating monologues

A week-long series, “Looking Good” (from 29 January), about “viewing a phenomenon closely” might sound late-January vague but is particularly good. 

By Antonia Quirke

I’m rarely unimpressed by The Essay (weekdays, 10.45pm), Radio 3’s 11-year-running, late-night series of themed monologues. Its producers strive to avoid the many pitfalls of BBC programming – cheeseparing budgets, too-stolidly established relationships with relevant bodies and publishing houses, etc. A week-long series, “Looking Good” (from 29 January), about “viewing a phenomenon closely” might sound late-January vague but is particularly good. Wednesday’s essay, on the subject of observing people eating (starting with herself at the fridge, searching for a cold chicken leg) has been written by my colleague, Rachel Cooke, whose speaking voice sounds like the apotheosis of musicality, its notes modulating and shifting song-writerishly into one another.

I loved Monday’s edition – art critic James Fox tumbling on about the sun, to which his eye has always been helplessly drawn. Facts emerged in a purling, fanboy stream. The sun, it seems, is not yellow. It is the definition of white, emitting, in fact, all wavelengths of white, converting 600 million tonnes of hydrogen into helium each second of its 4.6 billion-year existence. Voltaire fell to his knees during one sunrise, crying: “I believe! I believe in you!” Fox quotes the Old Testament God: “Thou canst not see my face, for there shall no man see me and live” and describes Jesus as a “sun-god”, calling to mind his haloed depictions in painted icons, hair like burning embers.

It’s a sentiment picked up by Nicholas Shakespeare in his Thursday edition, which contains a line few might dare to deliver. When recalling a walk around an old Byzantine chapel, on the Peloponnese island of Kythira, Shakespeare claims: “A friend then made this electrifying point…” My spoon paused mid-air.

It seems this perspicacious friend suggested that, whenever we enter such places (dim, cool and hazed with incense, lit by small lamps of gleaming bronze), we instinctively interpret any golden icons that crowd the walls as figurative representations of the saints – receivers of our gazes – when they are actually peepholes. Portals. “Inside that chapel,” Shakespeare concluded, “we were as much the watched as the watcher.” Irresistible! 

The Essay
BBC Radio 3

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This article appears in the 24 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How women took power