From Victoria Wood to Prince: how radio handles celebrity deaths in 2016

You have to listen to Front Row, and then Today, and see how they are covering it, what’s left to do, a ­different angle...”

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“So I got a call at 6pm saying, ‘You’ll never guess who now . . .’” Fiona Couper, editor of the obituary programme Last Word (Fridays, 4pm), tells me about what happened just as she got home on Thursday, having left the show ready for the following afternoon’s broadcast. Naturally, they’d gone big on Victoria Wood, but the sudden news of Prince’s demise sent her scurrying back in to work. “Then you have to listen to Front Row, and then Today, and see how they are covering it, what’s left to do, a ­different angle...”

Fortuitously, Last Word’s presenter, Matthew Bannister, had been among a small audience invited to see Prince at the BBC Radio Theatre in 1993.

We heard archive of the singer walking on to the stage that night and saying tenderly to the crowd: “Don’t worry, I won’t hurt you,” and then playing so rambunctiously, while doubtless wearing a cheerful little hat (he did often make everybody else look like the Traveling Wilburys), that the whole event “interrupted Radio 3’s broadcast next door”. News hadn’t yet filtered through of the reality of his life aged 57: that his hips were killing him, that he was frequently vomitous with stage fright (I also have it on good authority, btw, that he loved Coronation Street). Instead, mention was made of how prolific he was: all the rumoured ­unperformed songs, thousands of them falling off him like seeds, like Schubert, a whole ocean of stuff.

A little later in the same programme, the item on Victoria Wood was as memorable, simply offering close analysis of the various key changes in her song “Let’s Do It” and pointing out the ways in which Wood’s influences as a songwriter were as much jazz as music hall. Both obits – by accident as much as design – underlined forcefully just how awed and attracted we are as human beings to those who can put lyrics and a tune together and play. The ne plus ultra of art.

It’s quite a programme to be working on right now, I suggest to Couper: that strange sensation of watching an odometer moving jerkily. She sighs. “We’re just about holding on,” she nods. “That’s how we feel most weeks at the moment.” 

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 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism