The hidden classical gem broadcasting from above a charity shop in South London

Star of the volunteer presenting pool on Classical Wandsworth is 20-something Caitlin Benedict.

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I had lunch in a canteen the other day to the strains of Ode to Joy, followed by Don Giovanni being dragged to hell. Classic FM was having a particularly OMG moment – although the presenter seemed more excited by the prospect of Alexander Armstrong putting in an appearance later in the show than in the music. Contrast that with Classical Wandsworth on community station Wandsworth Radio (Tuesdays, 8-9pm, and Sundays, 1-2pm), which broadcasts from above a charity shop in South London, and is altogether a serious radio operation.

Star of the volunteer presenting pool on the classical slot is 20-something Caitlin Benedict. She’s prone to declaring things like “I’m not giving you guys homework, but...” and then rattling off the top ten female composers in the world. That was the time she opened the show with the 39-year-old British composer Anna Meredith’s “Nautilus”, a stunning bit of avant-synth-pop, but with a massive brass ensemble (think Wagner doing Call of Duty), to which one commentator thrilled: “It makes colours go off until blood fills my lungs and starts pouring out of my eyes!” But Benedict also says “I didn’t know that,” or “I’d never heard that before,” without a whiff of pride, comprehending that it’s not just correct for a radio presenter to be learning new things, but ought to be what attracted them to the job in the first place.

It sounds like a small thing, but you just don’t hear it very often on classical stations or slots – if Radio 3 is looking to attract those vaunted “younger listeners” then Benedict might be the answer. She talks mostly off-script, and can convey a hinterland of research in a single, sly phrase. In a show about film music she said: “Lovely Bernard Herrmann… possibly” – and you understood that he must have been a hard taskmaster.

And when she introduced the score to Vertigo, she knew to tell listeners the one thing that might entirely transform how it sounded to us, the very thing that reflected Hitchcock’s tremendous desire to put the audience through the mill: that the two descending notes were meant to impersonate the foghorns on San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. I didn’t know that; I’d never heard that before. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia