a gift to us…
a gift to us and a legacy to living music, radio review
Gillian Reynolds on the Radio 3 tribute to the late broadcaster Charlie Gillett,
plus a review of the pat week’s highlights including Fighting Talk (Radio 5 Live),
Playing with Trains (Radio 4) and Final Demands (Radio 4).
At the end of Saturday’s Fighting Talk on Radio 5 Live, a wonderfully quizzical sports knowledge contest (back on my listening menu as long as Adam and Joe are away from 6 Music), there was a challenge to contestants to name great Finns. Martin Bayfield picked a Finnish strong man, Gideon Coe ingeniously chose Finn McCool, the legendary Irish hero who built the Giant’s Causeway. He also, said Coe, acquired the wisdom of the salmon by sucking a bit of salmon skin from his burnt thumb. At this point they fell to discussing what the wisdom of the salmon might be, exactly the kind of thing that keeps me listening.
It also made me think. Up swam an Afternoon Theatre from a couple of years ago, in which James Ellis starred as Finn McCool with Frances Tomelty as his ingenious wife. This Finn wasn’t a hero but a wily coward who disguised himself as a baby to escape the wrath of a Scots giant. That play clearly stuck with me, like that salmon skin to Finn. It’s what plays do. At least they do if they understand how radio works.
The great whale of Stephen Poliakoff’s Playing with Trains beached itself on Radio 4 on Saturday afternoon and left no space at all for the listener. Catch Part Two next weekend to hear what I mean. It concerns an entrepreneurial inventor (played with vim by Timothy Spall) whose convictions make him fall out of favour with industry, lose his children’s sympathy and probably his fortune. So far, so Shavian, except it lacked even the remotest flash of wit and all too often might have been taken for some personal allegory of career eclipse. This piece was first done on stage. Maybe it came to life there.
On radio it rumbled in vain. I made an appointment to hear it go out. That’s something else radio drama can do, create habits. This past couple of weeks I have found the ironing strangely attractive on Thursday and Friday afternoons because of Frederic Raphael’s Final Demands on Radio 4.
It could have been annoying, all those quips and puns, all those paths leading back to its protagonist Adam Morris being Jewish and what being Jewish means now, when he and his brother eat lobster while his daughter-in-law (who is also probably his brother’s mistress) is converting to Judaism. Yet all Raphael’s shifts of plot and focus work. His characters (and the way this superb cast played them) appear real because he sets them at an intentional distance by language and manner. We, listening, appear to work it out for ourselves because he, nudging, is telling us more than we think we are hearing. Well done, Pete Atkin, the director, for independents Above the Title. It takes a steady hand to make all that glitter turn to gold.
I met Atkin years ago, in his other life as a musician, when he did an album of songs with Clive James. That album was on Oval Records. I got to know the founder of Oval Records, Charlie Gillett, through listening to him, on Capital Radio, Radio London and Radio 3. He died last week. On Friday night Radio 3 broadcast one of his classic World on 3 interviews in tribute. “One of the great movers and shapers of world music,” said Mary Ann Kennedy in her introduction, mentioning Gillett’s passion, his passionate musical study and generosity, how messages had been pouring in from around the world. The programme, an interview and studio session with folk superstar Manu Chao, led into Gillett’s “ping-pong” feature, where a song he chose would suggest another from his guest, thereafter backwards and forwards, to glorious cumulative effect.
Capital Radio employed Gillett three decades ago. No commercial station would dream of employing such an enthusiast nowadays, nor would BBC Radios 1 or 2. That he found a home in the late hours of Radio 3 was a gift to us and a legacy to living music.
Meanwhile, on another minority music front, at the very end of last Saturday’s Fighting Talk when the contestants bade their farewells, Gideon Coe took the opportunity to recite, over suitably funereal music, a heartfelt obituary for 6 Music, the network which burst in on The Archers last Thursday, the one that converted Opposition broadcasting spokesman Ed Vaizey from a sceptic to an enthusiast in a weekend, the one the BBC intends closing down. Never mind Gid, said Fighting Talk chairman Colin Murray, there’ll always be a job for you here. Nice words. Or does that mean 5 Live will soon be playing The John Peel Sessions?- Manu Chao Special