Why wasn’t Poetry Please in the Radio Times’s top 30 greatest radio shows of all time?

23 February 2019

9:00 AM

23 February 2019

9:00 AM

With the upsurge of listeners to Classic FM (now boasted to be 5.6 million listeners each week) and the imminent launch of a new commercial station, Scala Radio, dedicated to classical music and fronted by the former Radio 2 DJ Simon Mayo (who has said about his new home: ‘Some of it will be familiar, some new and exciting but all timeless, beautiful and all absolutely relevant to today’), Radio 3 badly needs to regain our attention. Last weekend’s focus on Berlioz, ‘The Ultimate Romantic’, could have been such an opportunity, but either because of funding cuts or a confusion about its purpose (to find new audiences, to teach or just to entertain) there was little buzz about the weekend.

Wisely, no doubt, a decision was made not to turn over the schedules entirely to the works of the French composer, who died 150 years ago. Non-stop Berlioz for 48 hours might have been hard on the ears and emotions (unlike those magical Bach ten days in 2005, or the Mozart and Beethoven immersions that followed). Berlioz offers us too much feverish excitement and exuberant orchestration. Instead a mixture of recorded and ‘live’ concerts gave us the major works, Symphonie fantastique, Béatrice et Bénédict, Harold in Italy, and some minor songs and choral music.

Tom Service endeavoured to conjure up the spirit of Berlioz in this week’s edition of Music Matters, and to find an explanation for the strange power of his music to heighten the senses, provoking an intense emotional response. We heard, for instance, how as a teenage viola player with the National Youth Orchestra, Nicholas Collon had felt himself floating upwards to meet the mushrooms hanging from the dome of the Albert Hall as he bowed away frantically in the last eight bars of the Symphonie fantastique. It was as if he was hallucinating, he recalled, ‘I felt very unlucid.’

The extraordinarily gifted multi-instrumentalist Jacob Collier found a brief space for Berlioz in his mini-series Jacob Collier’s Music Room on Sunday night. Five minutes from La Damnation de Faust were used by him as an illustration of the power of the right interval to fix a melody in our minds, slipping effortlessly from a clip from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story (which uses the same interval in the song ‘Maria’) to the Berlioz. It was easy to hear what he meant, a brilliant match of statement and example.

Collier, just 24, has a wonderfully rich and warm voice and a broad range of musical references at his fingertips. Sometimes, though, it’s almost as if he’s too much removed from the lesser understanding of his listeners, who may or may not know how to read music. He reminds me of David Munrow, the charismatic host of Pied Piper in the 1970s, with his ability to switch from high classical to pop, from Monteverdi to Lionel Richie, and his single-minded enthusiasm and focus. But he has yet to find that connection with the listener, that ability to take over our thoughts and lead us wherever he chooses.

That’s where Classic FM wins through — its programming is not in the least challenging, but it’s warm and accessible and in these trying times strangely comforting. John Suchet’s series Tchaikovsky: The Man Revealed has barely one-eighth of the content of Collier’s programmes, there are far fewer words, but this gives more space to the music. Suchet also reads his text much as if he were still reading the news, yet all that experience of connecting with his audience means you feel as if he is talking to you personally, individually, almost as a friend.

Strangely, Pied Piper never made it into this week’s Radio Times chart of the ‘30 greatest radio shows of all time’. Given that it revolutionised Radio 3 by providing a programme aimed at younger listeners, that it ran for 655 episodes, all presented by Munrow, and ensured that anyone who tuned into it became a listener to 3 for life, it should have been up there with Private Passions and The Goon Show. I can only assume that the listening panel who came up with the list were all too young. There were so many strange omissions — Something Understood, The Life Scientific, Lives in a Landscape. Radio 4’s Poetry Please was also not charted, yet it’s been going for 40 years, has invested in listener involvement from the beginning, and has the beauty of simplicity, taking sent-in suggestions for poems and then ensuring they are read by those with real skill and empathy. It was back on Sunday, hosted by Roger McGough, and this week curated by the former national poet of Wales Gillian Clarke (and produced by Sally Heaven).

Yeats, R.S. Thomas, Dylan Thomas, Wilfred Owen were all there, but also some surprises, Helen Mort and Paula Meehan, for instance. What motivates you to write, McGough asked. A hare has arrived in my garden, she tells us. ‘It’s like the most alive thing you ever saw in your life. Hot. It’s heart beating…’

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