Did Radio 2 really need to give us four days of the Beatles to celebrate Abbey Road?

5 October 2019

9:00 AM

5 October 2019

9:00 AM

This Changeling Self, Radio 4’s lead drama this week, clearly ought to have gone out in August. It’s set — and was recorded — at the Edinburgh Festival and would have been a gift to marketing. ‘I love the festival!’ coos She. ‘All these millions of conversations, listen, listen, oh and stories, lots of stories, the different ways of telling…!’

No one in the real world speaks like this. But it’s just about OK, because she isn’t quite real either. She is a Fairy Queen, come to Edinburgh to spirit away a young pianist named Tam, as in Tamlin, who is a bit wet but really rather nice. The story is a modern retelling by Linda Marshall Griffiths of an old Scottish ballad that couldn’t be better suited to radio.

The Fairy Queen, breathy yet exuberant, steals the heart of the gentlemanly Tam (Sacha Dhawan) when she picks out the notes of his song on her violin. She warns him not to look into her eyes or he’ll forget how to think. Too late. He is carried off. She is Siren-like, but mesmerised by his music in turn. She wants to keep him. But she is a changeling, belongs to another world, another time. Two Edinburgh festivals for him mean seven years in her world. They have a baby. In what realm and in what form can it exist?

As each narrates their story, their voices are out of sync yet frequently collide, layered so you feel the sad impossibility of their relationship. They meet in (occasionally strained) dialogue and in music, their chemistry audible. It’s all very ethereal and otherworldly, but then, isn’t Edinburgh in August?

If anyone could see off the fiddling Fairy Queen it’s Nicola Benedetti. The Scottish violinist was a guest last week on The Open Ears Project, a new podcast hosted by Clemency Burton-Hill that describes itself as ‘part mixtape, part sonic love letter’. Every day a different guest introduces a piece of classical music that means something to them. I worried it would be gushy and faux, but it isn’t.

Benedetti made the case that the second movement of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto can inspire empathy. In the violin line of the piece she detected ‘heart-breaking opposites’ — a simultaneous mixing of sadness and hope. She likened it to witnessing a person who never smiles suddenly caught in a moment of vulnerability or softness, which I thought was wonderful.

The next guest, nature writer Robert Macfarlane, spoke movingly of Edward Thomas hearing Chopin’s Berceuse ringing out from a gramophone during the first world war shortly before he died in the Battle of Arras. And jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis described the play of time to Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 16, Op. 135. Even when tinged with sadness, the episodes on this podcast are deeply fortifying. It was beautiful, calming listening.

It also offered a break from the Beatles, who dominated Radio 2 on DAB last weekend for the 50th anniversary of Abbey Road. I like the Beatles and dipped in — Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters was great on some of their less familiar tracks — but four days of coverage?

I found myself slipping into The Political Party, Matt Forde’s podcast, and an old favourite, No Such Thing As a Fish. The two this week proved unexpectedly good bedfellows. While the QI team juggled facts about fish eggs — caviar was so abundant in 19th-century America that it was served as a free, thirst-inducing bar snack — and elephant urine — distinct enough in each animal for one to identify another by its scent — Forde anticipated the necessity of drinking our own urine and producing our own sperm instead of relying on the Danes in no-deal Brexit Britain. The future, as he did not quite say, looks filthy.

His latest podcast, part stand-up routine, part interview, is slightly too long for the commute at 1 hour 40 minutes. But with Ken Clarke in the hot seat you can’t complain. What did he think of Geoffrey Cox’s performance last week? ‘I enjoyed it enormously, it was great. Some people were enraged by it but it’s amazing — it’s pre-Rumpole.’

Forde reminded Clarke of what he once said to Malcolm Rifkind about Boris Johnson as a potential PM: ludicrous. ‘I haven’t changed my mind’, said Clarke, with perfect comic timing, adding, ‘He’s good fun as company.’

Laughing off the suggestion that he might yet be his successor, Clarke ultimately lived up to Forde’s assessment of him as ‘a really likeable bloke’.

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