Only Artists: the Radio 4 discussion show that cuts out the middle man

The show is strikingly and joyously like something from an earlier time, when less offence was taken and given.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Sounds bleeding obvious, but the extent to which the recurring discussion series Only Artists (9.30pm, Wednesday) succeeds depends entirely on one thing: that both people ask questions. It’s supposed to be a heightened conversation between a couple of mutually curious creatives, and yet it doesn’t always evolve democratically. When Stewart Lee met the 84-year-old artist Rose Wylie last November, he (sportingly) did most of the interviewing, perhaps in deference to her, but perhaps more because she rarely thought to ask him anything back (actually it was him we wanted to learn more about).

Also, the habit of having a voice-over at the beginning of the programme describing both contributors (“Jonathan Yeo meets the musician William Orbit; Jonathan’s political portraits have included Tony Blair and Charles Kennedy!”) can give it the air of a nature doc – two species of distantly related coypu that we settle down, with an enormous bag of Maltesers, to observe.

But last week’s edition was perfect. The cellist Steven Isserlis spoke to novelist and playwright Sebastian Barry. They weren’t previously acquainted, so it wasn’t a jolly. Barry went round to Isserlis’s house (“He has travelled from his home in Ireland,” went the voiceover, as though he were some migratory duck) where the musician didn’t pull any punches. “Your latest book,” he started: “I have to say I don’t care about the American Civil War…” And in this frank way, the conversation unfurled. From Barry’s son coming out as gay while he was writing Days Without End, to Isserlis’s stage fright that can consume him for up to two years (“not a nice feeling”), to the Bach Cello Suites being a favourite of Barry’s depressed father, to Isserlis’s use of gut strings (“They are organic, they are alive”).

It turned out that Isserlis loved Barry’s book, he just has an unsentimental way of speaking, of challenging and almost needling (“How do you make people care about things they don’t care about?”). Barry evidently hadn’t minded one jot. The whole thing felt to me strikingly and joyously something from an earlier time, when people were less touchy, when less offence was taken and given. When people were less proud of the masks they wore. 

Only Artists
Radio 4

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 23 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Age of the strongman