Monday, 26 December 2016

Pantomime season

Russell Brand visits Scrooge

Being rather ill and in some pain this Christmas Day I heard much more of BBC Radio 4 than I intended to, and it wouldn't at all be in the spirit of A Christmas Carol if I didn't acknowledge that I actually very much enjoyed most of what I heard.


As far as Radio 4 is concerned I really do wish it could be Christmas everyday. It was an exceptional day's broadcasting, this Christmas Day.

Over the past year, however, my abiding affection for the station (despite all the bias) has taken a palpable hit. Why? Because I've felt that Radio 4 has changed for the worse and become even more boring, predictable and earnest. Even in 2015 I'd still be able to find a few unexpected gems almost every day in Radio 4 schedule. This year even finding one has frequently proved hard, and it's not just because too many programmes look to have an agenda or find their origins in an agenda and because that worthiness has at times become all-consuming; it's simply that BBC Radio 4 has become much duller in 2016.

Well, that's how I feel anyhow.

Still, I wasn't meant to be moaning here. I come to praise BBC Radio 4 yesterday not to bury it.


My day actually started with BBC One's broadcast of midnight mass from Birmingham's Roman Catholic cathedral, St. Chad's (the first Catholic cathedral in England since the Reformation, completed just 12 years after Catholics were emancipated by the Duke of Wellington's government) - a lovely public service performed by the BBC for those too lazy, not religious enough or too ill to go in person to a nocturnal mass but who'd still like to be there in spirit. Not being a Catholic, it was a new experience for me - albeit, in the end, not that new (having had a high Anglican upbringing). It helped, however, that the choir was topnotch and the music performed (familiar carols, late Renaissance polyphony, a lovely mass by a late 19th Century composer) was absolutely gorgeous too.

The BBC is always good at broadcasting such things, giving us lots of shots from different viewing points of the magnificent Pugin-designed building as well as the priests, choir and congregation, thus allowing us to be awed and to gawp at all manner of people. 

I spent quite some time matching up the members of the clergy and choir to well-known people, for example. I was particularly taken by pre-Raphaelite TV historian Kate Williams, here pictured next to Birds of a Feather star Linda Robson:

Linda Robson and Kate Williams

As I sign that I must be a political nerd one of the male choristers struck me as being a moonlighting Professor Timothy Garton Ash. The presiding bishop was Archbishop Bernard Longley, who - by a happy coincidence - had something of the look of Harold Bishop from Neighbours about him.

I only wish they could have found a way to allow us to smell all the incense too. Will be ever get beyond 'scratch and sniff' cards?


Being a Catholic service there were bells as well as smells, tinkling out (for the second time) as the Eucharist bread and chalice were raised. I have to say though that the bells of Durham Cathedral, ringing out on Radio 4's Bells on Sunday a few hours later. were much more Godly to my (lapsed) Anglican ears. Goodness gracious, Great Bells of Fire! 

They rang out what the programme's website called 'Grandsire Caters' and which the BBC announcer pronounced (assuredly correctly) as 'Grandsir Caters'. These BBC announcers do check up on the pronunciations - unless they are so posh that they already know that such things should be pronounced in such ways. In fact, I bet that BBC presenter pronounces 'garage' to rhyme with 'Nigel Farage' rather than the way I'd pronounce it, to rhyme with 'Fridgemaster MUL49102 Undercounter larder fridge'.


Cardinal Wolsey, from a painting by Hans Holbein

Talking about 'posh', Edward Stourton presented this week's Sunday from Cardinal Wolsey's old haunt Hampton Court Palace to mark the dawn of the Reformation next very year by examining the state of religion in England in the early years of Henry VIII. 

Now that's my kind of Sunday. I loved it from start to finish. (Best episode ever!)

It was Out with the liberal hand-wringing, the social work/socialist worker campaigns, the SJW bishops, the endless parade of offended Muslims, the interfaith bromides, all the interminable stuff about Anglican infighting and the infallible paeans to Pope Francis, etc, etc, and In with Ed Stourton trying Tudor-style Plum Possett (and rather enjoying its unique sweet-and-sour flavours of meat and fruit, despite not at all liking the look of its brown sludge in the bowl) and well-informed, enthusiastic historians talking about the church calendar and why the Reformation in England didn't just start because 'Enery wanted to get his leg-over with saucy Anne! Plus there was Catherine Bott on Christmas carols and some beautiful performances of Christmas carols by St Martin's Voices, ending with a favourite carol of mine, The Coventry Carol. 

To be particularly nerdy, I particularly enjoyed hearing about the 1515 Sarum Missal, whose post-Brexit break from Rome saw the name of the Pope (every mention of 'Papa' - of which there were many) scribbled out. The Missal itself, however, continued to be used throughout Henry's 'English Catholic' reign, showing where the red-meat loving monarch's theological inclinations lay (and, no, they didn't just lay next to Miss Boleyn).


Archbishop 'Nosy' Parker (inventor of the Parker pen, the parka coat and the Anglican Church as we know it)

Straying away from yesterday to today, I'd just like to add that anyone who enjoyed being taken back to Tudor England by Ed Stourton would probably have just as equally enjoyed being taken back to Tudor England by this morning's Start the Week where Andrew Marr put politics and left-wing concerns aside and talked about the medieval manuscript collection gathered together by Elizabeth I's first Archbishop of Canterbury and pioneer Brexiteer Matthew Parker, about Elizabethan jigs, and about errors (deliberate or otherwise) in maps throughout history.

Those Elizabethan jigs - about which I'd never heard before - were short plays written to be performed as light relief after the main dramatic event. I'm imaging the groundlings sobbing at Romeo and Juliet before being sent away laughing by Ye Little Britayne ("Verily but nay sir but verily but nay sir but..."). Less than ten survive, as they were largely an oral tradition, but they were apparently very bawdy.

High art they don't seem to have been however. Lucie Skeaping say that one of the libellous ones came about because some man wanted to marry the well-off, pretty daughter of his neighbour but got turned down so a jig was penned and performed around town suggesting that the family of the pretty daughter was a no-good family and the daughter was no better than she ought to be. We only have the play - as you might guess - because the courts recorded it when the offended family took to the law.

Not mentioned was the fact that Archbishop Parker was the man for whose psalter the treasurable Tudor composer Thomas Tallis wrote his nine surpassingly lovely psalm settings - one of which formed the basis for Vaughan Williams's must-loved Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis....which gives me all the excuse I need to post the following video featuring the Tallis Scholars:


Other Christmas Day gem on Radio 4 was With Great Pleasure at Christmas featuring Armstong (Alexander) & Miller (Ben), still friends after they went their separate ways, despite Xander never having been heard of ever again - just as Clare Balding, Toby Jones and Owen Jones appear to have disappeared from the BBC in recent years. (Whatever happened to them?). 

There were rumbustious folk song renditions from the boys, plus poetry and prose of the highest quality - and the lowest quality. 

As for poetry we had Thomas Hardy's ever-haunting The Darkling Thrush and William Topaz McGonagall's slightly-less-haunting A Christmas Carol (though I'm a huge McGonagall fan. His complete collection of poetic gems sits in front of me every day and makes me forever think of the Silvery Tay and the central girders of its ill-fated railway bridge which the Storm Fiend did blow away on the last Sabbath day of 1879. O if only they'd been supported on each side with buttresses!). As everyone loves a Christmas quiz, please try to work out which is which here (and Google them if you're unsure):
(a) I leant upon a coppice gate/When Frost was spectre-grey,/And Winter's dregs made desolate/The weakening eye of day./The tangled bine-stems scored the sky/Like strings of broken lyres,/And all mankind that haunted nigh/Had sought their household fires.  
(b) For each new morn to the Christian is dear,/As well as the morn of the New Year,/And he thanks God for the light of each new morn./Especially the morn that Christ was born.
As for prose, we had Dickens of course and Alan Coren being very funny about men shopping at Christmas and a piece of AA Milne....

More Rabbit than Sainsbury's (rather like this post)

.....that made me realise (as I've not read AA since I was six) that Mr Milne really was a very clever and funny writer:
So [Pooh] bent down, put his head into the hole, and called out:
"Is anybody at home?"
There was a sudden scuffling noise from inside the hole, and then silence.
"What I said was, 'Is anybody at home?'" called out Pooh very loudly.
"No!" said a voice; and then added, "You needn't shout so loud. I heard you quite well the first time."
"Bother!" said Pooh. "Isn't there anybody here at all?"
Winnie-the-Pooh took his head out of the hole, and thought for a little, and he thought to himself, "There must be somebody there, because somebody must have said 'Nobody.'" So he put his head back in the hole, and said: "Hallo, Rabbit, isn't that you ?"
"No," said Rabbit, in a different sort of voice this time.
"But isn't that Rabbit's voice?"
"I don't think so," said Rabbit. "It isn't meant to be."
"Oh!" said Pooh.
He took his head out of the hole, and had another think, and then he put it back, and said:
"Well, could you very kindly tell me where Rabbit is?"
"He has gone to see his friend Pooh Bear, who is a great friend of his."
"But this is Me!" said Bear, very much surprised.
"What sort of Me?"
"Pooh Bear."
"Are you sure?" said Rabbit, still more surprised.
"Quite, quite sure," said Pooh.
"Oh, well, then, come in."
So Pooh pushed and pushed and pushed his way through the hole, and at last he got in.
"You were quite right," said Rabbit, looking at him all over. "It is you. Glad to see you."
"Who did you think it was?"
"Well, I wasn't sure. You know how it is in the Forest. One can't have anybody coming into one's house. One has to be careful. What about a mouthful of something?"
Pooh always liked a little something at eleven o'clock in the morning, and he was very glad to see Rabbit getting out the plates and mugs; and when Rabbit said, "Honey or condensed milk with your bread?" he was so excited that he said, "Both," and the n, so as not to seem greedy, he added, "But don't bother about the bread, please." And for a long time after that he said nothing . . . until at last, humming to himself in a rather sticky voice, he got up, shook Rabbit lovingly by the paw, and said that he must be going on.
"Must you?" said Rabbit politely
"Well," said Pooh, "I could stay a little longer if it--if you----" and he tried very hard to look in the direction of the larder.
That how the audience laughing, and it had me laughing.


Jokes, whether of the Barry Cryer parrot variety or the AA Milne rabbit and bear variety, were wholly absent from Radio 4's Christmas short story - The Sons of Upland Farm by Orcadian bard George Mackay Brown.

This was a half-timeless parable of considerable depth and beauty, grim but glowing. The ending rather took my breath away - in the sense that I needed to take a sharp intake of breath after it dawned on my what was being alluded to. (No spoilers you'll note!)

It was good to hear some George Mackay Brown. He's been mainly just a name for me, mostly associated with the composer Peter Maxwell Davies. (Their shared three-part names must surely have brought them together. I can think of no other reason.)


Count Arthur Strong's Radio Show!

It followed Count Arthur Strong's Radio Show! and if you thought George's short story was grim, well this had to be heard to be believed....

It was a distressing tale of an alcoholic old man apparently suffering from dementia and other mental health issues (including disillusions of grandeur) who behaved in a terrible way to his friends and , in the course of this episode, exploited and upset a young boy in a desperate attempt to earn some money to feed his alcohol addiction by creating a Japanese-themed reindeer park.

O the humanity!

(I feel that the above was written in the true spirit of Radio 4 and the Guardian. Down with laughter! If it's not about 'Trump 'n' Farage' it's a right-wing ploy!).

((And, for the sake of internet clarity, the above was a Polly Toynbee-style spoof. I do like my Count Arthur. He's the funniest alcoholic, dementia-suffering, mentally-disturbed man on Radio 4.))


HM the Queen did a lovely little programme at 3 o'clock in the afternoon. She spoke so beautifully. (It's a shame we don't hear the Queen's English so much on the BBC these days. The Queen is the nearest thing I've heard to it on Radio 4 for yonks). She said:
Jesus Christ lived obscurely for most of his life, and never travelled far. He was maligned and rejected by many, though he had done no wrong. And yet, billions of people now follow his teaching and find in him the guiding light for their lives. I am one of them because Christ’s example helps me see the value of doing small things with great love, whoever does them and whatever they themselves believe. The message of Christmas reminds us that inspiration is a gift to be given as well as received, and that love begins small but always grows.
That's lovely. I do hope it catches on and that she does another one next year. She's much better than Will Self.


Prince Charles (l) with some woman (c) and Camilla (r)

Her son, HRH the Prince of Wales, had been on Radio 4 less than two hours earlier. He did a comic turn, marking some 50 years of the programme by (and this will have pleased the BBC) fulsomely singing the programme's praises on Just a Minute's Christmas panto special. Nicholas Parsons and Paul Merton played straight men to the prince (Paul being surprisingly forelock-tugging given his years of anti-royal sneers on HIGNFY).


And at this point I'm losing focus and the will to live. So that's enough of that!

No comments:

Post a Comment