Touchline Tales

Gazza, Des and Tony’s train journey take Peter Watts by surprise.

Touchline Tales
Radio 4

Unexpected admissions on Radio 4, with Des Lynam musing bashfully: "Do you know who does it for me? Bobby Charlton." What prompted this sudden confession of Lynam's attraction to the tonsorially challenged inside forward? Who can really say? It came midway through Touchline Tales (9 July, 11am), a show so distractingly meandering that it would have had Garrison Keillor shouting, "A to B, get to the point!"

Touchline Tales followed Lynam and his pal, a sports fan called Christopher Matthew, around Goodwood racecourse while they bantered and reminisced through a seemingly endless succession of whimsical non sequiturs. It was probably meant to be charming, but Des lost his sparkle years ago; he was one of the many sports presenters to discover that the shift from BBC to ITV ends up having a negative effect on your charisma quotient. Adrian Chiles, take note.

But at least it highlighted one of the treats of radio: unlike television, even when you know what the show is supposed to be about, you're never quite sure what you will get. Sure, if it's 6 Music, there is at least a 50 per cent chance you'll get Andrew Collins, who seems to be standing in for everybody as the station's suddenly redeemed DJs take their celebratory summer breaks. If it's Absolute 80s, on the other hand, you can pretty much guarantee you're only three minutes away from a Yamaha DX7.

Yet who would have anticipated that turning on Radio 4 at 10.53am on a Saturday morning in innocent anticipation of the news would bring you the sound of somebody scraping dog poo off their wellies? And it wasn't even The Archers, but a programme about a man attempting to cross Europe in an electric car (Electric Ride, 10 July).

Those listening to Real Radio North-East late that night had an even greater surprise, when a possibly bladdered Paul Gascoigne tried to explain to a bewildered DJ why he had turned up in Rothbury wielding "a fishing rod, a can of lager and some chicken" in support of Raoul Moat. A terrific scoop - the wtf? radio moment of the year - and now, as they say, a YouTube sensation.

You don't get that sort of unpredictability on the 7.53am from Worcester Park. Mind-numbing consistency was a theme of Archive on 4 (10 July, 8pm), as Ian Marchant sifted through the tapes to hear how the BBC has covered commuting in I'm on the Train, part of the station's London season. Reggie Perrin, Linda Smith, John Betjeman, John le Carré and W H Auden were all hauled into the hurly-burly of the cattle run. So were the carriage-full of passengers who practised French on their way up to London from Brighton in the 1980s, the poor woman who found herself sitting next to Tony Blair at ­Waterloo during a photo opportunity, and a couple who met on the 5.30am train from Gillingham and invited the guard who seated them together to their wedding.

Marchant's intention was to explore the gap between the romance of travel and the reality of commuting. But he was quick to note that the worst thing about the commute wasn't the early rising, the overcrowding, the fictitious timetables, the outrageous expense, the body odour and halitosis or the sheer profligacy of our should-be-cherished time - it was that, by submitting to this twice-daily grind, we are ­admitting that we've finally turned into our ­fathers. And there are few things more depressingly predictable than that.

Antonia Quirke is away.

This article first appeared in the 19 July 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Godless Britain