Radio 4 celebrates the NHS at 70

Some of the material dredged up from the archives is glorious.

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Highlights of the NHS70 programmes thus far: Michael Sheen’s narration of a documentary about key proponent Aneurin Bevan’s roots in South Wales (Out of Tredegar, 29 June, 11am). “The town clock sounds like an anvil,” he started, in the tones of Richard Burton poised to reel off pages of Dylan Thomas; a super-shaped and learned Welsh voice that seems somehow always to have been there, like Elvis or the Beatles. The whole thing sounded totemic, as though commissioned by BBC Wales in 1952.

A special episode of The Food Programme was madly entertaining (1 July, 12.30pm). Sheila Dillon looked at the government’s guide for a balanced diet, that doggedly persists in promoting starch as though anything else is… simply not PLU. Not for us a diet for insane Californians, slicing carrots at parties and then driving home to give the family dog a daily dose of Prozac!

The (ongoing) 20-part series National Health Stories had a great episode on the history of the sexual health service (29 June, 1.45pm). I hooted in recognition. Like some of the people interviewed, my mother was an NHS nurse (and my father an NHS psychologist. We were keen on the NHS. To “go private” would be an act of clear treachery. Bupa was spoken of with suspicion – an unregulated racket!). Mum’s special training was family planning: biros confirming “BREAST IS BEST”, and knitted genitalia, littered the house. Constant talk of oxytocin, foreskins and mucus levels. (Naturally, I was quite the prude. Sex was all very well and good in theory but didn’t actually happen. Like God. Or maths.)

Some of the material dredged from the archives here was glorious. Tales of Woolworths selling brass curtain rings as fake wedding bands so women could claim their precious pills. The dreaded public health timbre; the needles, and putting on of gloves. My favourite sexual health story would have fitted right in. As a child in the Eighties, a friend saw a book about how babies were made in which an erection was drawn as a pulsating red heart between the man and the woman. The message: no sex without being deeply in love. He sat back in primal horror, thinking, “My God. You can’t fake it.” And that was him, warned.

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 first appeared in the 06 July 2018 issue of the New Statesman, England in the age of Brexit