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Black Sky Thinking

Radio 4's new direction
Luke Turner , May 9th, 2008 00:00

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Upon his stage-managed release from prison this week, Pete Doherty told the assembled microphone-waving morons of the press that "gangsters and Radio 4" made for the worst part of his stay at her Majesty's pleasure (and ours, come to think of it) in Wormwood Scrubs. A typically daft comment from Doherty, who, one imagines, was the kind of youth who'd fall asleep to the monotonous tones of the shipping forecast.

Yet of late, Radio 4 has bizarrely started to realign itself for a more populist, younger listenership, albeit one defined by those thrusting producers who left Oxbridge and were able to use daddy's money to fund months of unpaid work experience with all the other Nicholases and Emilys.

Now it must be admitted that some good has come of this yoof drive: next week, for example, Asher D will be the deserving and interesting subject of John Humphrys' On The Ropes, which ought introduce the former So Solid Crew rapper to a new audience and, more generally, give the residents of Godalming and Grantham direct insight into an inner-city world they usually encounter only through skewed tabloid reports.

However, Radio 4's new music-specific output is altogether more hit-and-miss. Recently the station has served up a panel discussion on the merits of Pulp's 'Common People'; Mark E Smith on Front Row; Jon Ronson and Robbie Williams on the hunt for UFOs; and Simon Armitage raising his right arm to give the bloated corpse of Ian Curtis a weary flogging. All of these felt entirely out of place, far better suited to 6music or Radios 2 or 3, while Paul Morley's recent programme about John Cooper Clarke (a great opportunity) was marred by the former's wearily familiar reminisces on punk and Manchester. At least on the radio you can't see his jowls.

Similarly, a recent special 50th anniversary edition of Sue McGregor's The Reunion was broadcast from the BFI theatre, the audience laughing uproariously every time one of the cast members, or director Bruce Robinson, hammed a line from his film Withnail & I. It was hard to see the point of the programme - it failed to examine the film as a piece of classic cult cinema and an excoriation of the failed '60s dream, instead relying heavily on the student cliche of it being one long audiovisual drinking game. To any listener unfamiliar with the film, it would have made little or no sense.

After a brief rant about the pernicious affect Hollywood has on the British film industry, Robinson remarked, "They should get me on Question Time" - and the audience guffawed. Like so much of Radio 4's output, the youth programmes fall into the trap of fusty in-jokes and self-referential titters.

Radio 4 ought to stick to what it's good at - hard-hitting news, the shipping forecast, A Book at Bedtime, Just a Minute, the Today programme (itself weakened, post-Hutton and budget cuts), In Our Time, Week in Westminster, Farming Today, I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue, Unreliable Evidence, Sandy Toksvig vehicles, The Archers. I've been a listener for two decades precisely because Radio 4 doesn't trouble itself with music and popular culture; it provides a respite and an education, a reminder that there is a world outside vinyl-mining, gigs and pub pontifications. If it were to change too far the other direction, I might well find myself in that most unusual of places: in accord with Pete Doherty.

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