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5 December 2018

The best radio shows to listen to this Christmas

Forest magic, Angelina and the Queen of Scots.

By Antonia Quirke

The prize of the season’s radio comes in an uninterrupted three-hour wodge following the travel writer Horatio Clare roaming the Black Forest. In BBC Radio 3’s Sound Walk: Winter Wanderer (4.30pm, Christmas Eve), he talks to us, himself, the gods, the trees – and there’s some Mahler too. Frequently we hear nothing but the sound of Clare’s brain fizzing and leafy mulch underfoot. Yet it feels like you only have to tug his sleeve for another story about the Brothers Grimm, or Goethe, delivered in a beautifully antiquated voice, studded with words like “befall” and “array”, bits of lost music for the English language.

The other jewel transmits far earlier than it ought, so save it and listen later in the month: Radio 4’s Unmade Movies: Alexander MacKendrick’s Mary Queen Of Scots (2.30pm, 8 December). This rain-drenched spectacular is all French vowels and murder, featuring Glenda Jackson as narrator (“at this point the earl strikes the Italian in the back of the head”). Jackson brings authority and asperity, but so much more. It’s impossible not to think of her as Elizabeth I in the 1971 BBC mini-series, with the aura of revisionist history she brought to that. One look at Jackson’s face then – painted white as a Kabuki maiden – and you suspected she was making some kind of sly political statement. Like it was all, actually, deeply, about Vietnam or something. Her presence belongs, still, to that time.

Not so the star of Yule’s most shrouded transmission, “UN special envoy for refugees”, the actress Angelina Jolie. No idea what to expect during her guest editorship of Today (28 December) – the press office won’t spill – but I recall Jolie’s bootless address at the BBC Radio Theatre in 2016, shimmering in luxy grey, elegant as Indira Gandhi, to banks of rapt grandees: “I know I can’t speak for 60 million displaced people but…” However much Churchill loved Deanna Durbin he would probably have baulked at getting her into the Commons to discuss world peace. Never underestimate the venality and starstruckedness of old, male politicians – only must the BBC trot quite so obediently behind? Awed and acquiescent as Scrooge before the Ghost of Christmas Present. “Look upon me! You have never seen the like of me before!” l

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This article appears in the 08 Dec 2020 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas special