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Tuesday, July 03, 2012

The best thing on Radio Four at the moment

The New Elizabethans is the best thing on Radio Four at the moment. Each fifteen-minute programme (also available as a podcast) is devoted to an individual who shaped British life during the Queen's reign. If you want to argue who's on or off the 60-strong list, it's here. I see Lennon and McCartney are treated as one person, which is about right.

The composition of the list is less interesting than the programmes themselves, which are authored pieces by James Naughtie. They drop in a little archive from time to time but mostly it's just Naughtie describing the things that made these people exceptional.

It's one of those programmes that should be forced on eighteen-year-olds during "reading week". There were just six people at the third performance of Pinter's Birthday Party. Edmund Hillary had to spend the first two hours of the morning of the assault on Everest holding his boots over a fire to thaw them out. When Benjamin Britten died in 1976 the story led the BBC news.

But it goes further than that. Naughtie manages to weave fact and observation together: Pinter's dialogue has a "fugue-like structure", Alfred Hitchcock was never happier than when "managing disturbance and alarm" and Phillip Larkin's poems were imbued with "the lurking fear of inadequacy and discovery".

I've learned to dread that change of gear which announces that somebody who usually presents the news is about to tell us what's in their heart. I can't even get on with From Our Own Correspondent. The "colour" is always laid in great primary slabs and the reporter seems in too much of a hurry to get on side with the good guys.

Naughtie's different. Like the best teachers he's at his most appealing when you get him off the thing he's supposed to be teaching you, in his case the news. Most news presenters sound very shaky once they're off the script. Naughtie on the other hand sounds as if he could keep his end up in a conversation about sport or soap opera or the Booker prize. I'm sure he had to do a lot of mugging up before writing the scripts for this series. But I like to think it was just revision. That's what makes the difference.