A detailed description of what happens when a man minding his own business collides with an Israeli air-strike in Gaza can paint remarkable pictures in the mind of the listener. I was exposed to just such a description when tuned-into ‘From Our Own Correspondent’ on Radio 4 a few months ago and the extent of the damage done by the weapons of war on one individual was vividly brought home to me in ways that a television news bulletin wouldn’t have been able to do so. Hearing the description of how a man was rendered disabled by being in the wrong place at the wrong time made the horror of his experience a profoundly intimate one, allowing the listener a greater insight into the effects of conflict rather than having the less digestible wider picture served-up in a stylised MTV manner.
‘From Our Own Correspondent’ is a marvellous little programme, utilising the BBC’s worldwide reach by giving voice to its various correspondents around the globe as they dispatch an essay in the manner of an old-school newspaper journalist, a purely subjective point of view without inserts from anyone else to maintain editorial balance. It isn’t promoted on primetime BBC1 with Kate Adie (the presenter) singing a tone-deaf version of some old REM song with mascara running down her face, nor is it given blanket coverage via endless plugs in other, utterly unconnected programmes. It’s just there – always has been, and always should be; if you want it, come and get it. Were I appointed DG in some parallel universe, this is the kind of thing I’d be pointing to as an example of why the BBC is so unique, not another ITV-esque beauty contest between crawlers in suits or dancing/baking Z-list celebs; and this is one of many ways in which the numbskulls parachuted into the BBC from the private sector to run it shoot themselves and the corporation in the foot. They’re utterly oblivious as to the modest, unassuming slivers of broadcasting magic under their noses, so here’s a small guide to some it’s hard to imagine any other broadcaster commissioning, and ones I’m happy to cough-up my licence-fee for – in no particular order.
BELLS ON SUNDAY If you’re in bed before 12.45am on a Monday morning, chances are you’ve no idea what ‘Bells on Sunday’ is. Well, it runs for approximately a minute on Radio 4 and airs before the shipping forecast. Basically, church bells from up and down the country feature each week, with a brief description of their location and how long they’ve been there, followed by the sound of them ringing. That’s it. What other broadcaster would even countenance such a concept? It’s bonkers, but it’s beautiful.
THE SKY AT NIGHT A programme forever associated with the late Sir Patrick Moore, who hosted it for a remarkable fifty-five years, ‘The Sky at Night’ has charted the progress of the planets and mankind’s attempts to reach them since the dawn of the Space Race in 1957. When he passed away a couple of years ago, many feared the show would disappear too, but it has recently resurfaced on BBC4 after over half-a-century occupying a twilight slot on BBC1. Few watch it, but most are glad it’s still there as one of many BBC beacons of unsung continuity that act as a reassuring thread connecting viewers to a simpler, analogue age.
THE FOOTBALL RESULTS Even if one doesn’t follow football – and yes, I know from past experience that very few of you actually do – the roll-call of strange names and obscure corners of the country that rent the airwaves for barely ten minutes on Saturday teatime has a kind of poetry that can be as nonsensical as a Lewis Carroll limerick, never bettered than when the late James Alexander-Gordon’s voice would rise and fall depending on which team had won and which team had lost. When Neil Gaiman named his characters in ‘Neverwhere’ after the bizarre monikers of London Tube stations, he could just have easily chosen some of the more memorable football clubs. ‘Allow me to introduce myself – I am Accrington Stanley.’
TEST MATCH SPECIAL Probably best heard on Long Wave, not with regards to sonic excellence, but with regards to evoking the fuzzy sound of bygone summers in which jolly old men with the kind of diction unheard since Ealing comedies described the sedate events taking place before them as though they were a couple of Chelsea Pensioners who had just met on a park bench. As with the names of clubs on the football results, the mysterious lexicon of cricketing terms lends itself to all kinds of fantastical interpretations. Most of them retain their mystery to me, and that’s how I’d like them to stay.
GARDENERS’ WORLD Monty Don potters about his garden while his dog watches; this resolutely tranquil premise is interspersed with reports from other gardens great and small, but the general shape of the show is much the same now as back in the day when original presenter Percy Thrower regenerated into Peter Seabrook. The only things that change in the gardeners’ world are the seasons; and like an old man attending to his allotment, this show doesn’t make a fuss; it just gets on with it.
THE PROMS Yes, the Last Night is essentially a platform for the oddest-looking Tories in the Home Counties to get their inbred mugs on camera; but it’s a shame that nauseating jingoism is misconstrued by many as all there is to the Proms. Even without the BBC’s patronage, the two months in which some of the finest orchestral music ever written can be accessed in person for as little as a fiver (take that, Glastonbury!) would still be pretty special. For the annual season to be transmitted across both radio and television is a public service commitment one cannot but admire.
TOP OF THE POPS It would have been unsurprising had BBC4’s inspired idea to rerun chronological editions of TOTP been utterly derailed by events 35 years on. True, these events have impacted on shows hosted by a certain ‘child-sacrificing necrophiliac’ ( Mark Williams-Thomas) as well as an alleged serial groper; but the reruns haven’t been abandoned altogether. And while it may seem ridiculous to praise a broadcaster for daring to repeat a programme with the 1979 incarnation of Cliff Richard at the top of the bill, such are the surreal times in which we live that an apparently innocuous act can appear to be a gesture of risk-taking bravery on a par with screening ‘Brimstone and Treacle’ on CBBC.
THE SHIPPING FORECAST Before I’d ever heard that immortal litany of maritime locations with my own ears, I already knew there was something so British about the shipping forecast that I feared it would have been swept away in a tsunami of satellite-tracking modernisation. I needn’t have worried. It’s still stubbornly sailing by, just like the other little gems that don’t grab the headlines but, against all the odds, make the BBC matter.
Many of the institutions that once embodied the BBC’s distinct identity have either disappeared from our screens or have been pruned to the point whereby they’re practically invisible; but the fact that the small number of stalwarts I’ve listed are still with us, not to mention numerous others that defiantly ignore whatever trend dictates the ‘market’, demonstrates that the BBC retains its distinctive eccentricities despite the best efforts of whichever double-glazing salesman is installed as Director General to turn it into just another broadcaster. If someone was to sit down and plan the BBC today, nobody would give it the go-ahead. It simply doesn’t adhere to the 21st century Murdoch model – thank God; and that’s why we love it, even if it sometimes strains our loyalties to the limit.