Tuesday 18 May 2010 | UK News feed

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Meet the disembodied friends of BBC Radio 4

 
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John Humphrys has presented Today since 1987
John Humphrys has presented Today since 1987
Charlotte Green
Charlotte Green's voice was voted the nation's favourite
John Ebdon
John Ebdon: owner of a sooothing deadpan voice

As Radio 4 prepares to celebrate its 40th birthday, Simon Elmes – documentary producer and author of a new history of the network – brings us face to face with the 'disembodied friends' who have made it the BBC's most fiercely guarded station

It was day two of my training as a new BBC recruit and I was standing in the canteen lunch queue, just a tiny bit starstruck. BBC radio, and Radio 4 in particular, had been the companion to my growing up. Now it was summer 1974, and I was part of it all.

Suddenly, I recognised the voice of a good friend, talking loudly somewhere in front of me. I did a double take. It was undoubtedly my friend's voice but he was nowhere to be seen. I looked again. No, no one I knew.

Then the penny dropped. The voice belonged to a distinguished announcer who had, until recently, worked on Radio 4; it was as familiar as if it was an intimate friend's, but the tall, lean man from whom it came was a complete stranger.

This is the sort of confusion that radio listeners are prone to. Radio is the most intimate of broadcast media, the disembodied voice on the shoulder, the calming cadence of sanity that speaks to you – and just you – across the ether.

Charlotte Green, the supreme Radio 4 announcer whose warm yet slightly formal tones were once voted the nation's favourite, told me that when she used to bid her listeners good night from the continuity studio, they wrote to her in droves.

"I always made a point of wishing them a peaceful night and that struck a chord – 'a peaceful night'. It made me realise how many lonely people there are for whom Radio 4 is a lifeline."

Every week, nearly ten million of us tune in to the nation's favourite speech network – not just to John Humphrys and James Naughtie on Today, but to Start the Week, Midweek, The Now Show, Lynda Snell and the denizens of Borsetshire's most incident-filled village, and every quirky, controversial, fascinating bit in between.

Indeed, as the 40 candles are lit tomorrow, Radio 4 remains – and this is a statistic that never fails to amaze – the most popular radio service in London, bar none.

Four decades ago, it was one of Charlotte Green's illustrious predecessors, David Dunhill, who, just before midnight on September 29 1967, bid farewell with a crack in his voice to the Home Service, "two of the best words in the British language". He was closing down the network before its reinvention at 6.35am the next morning as "Radio 4".

The name change had come about because of the Marine Offences Act, with which the Postmaster General, Tony Benn, had driven pirate radio off air. The BBC was answering the demand for pop music with its own new service, Radio 1, opened with a flourish by Tony Blackburn that same morning.

In fact, the name Radio 4 had provoked much astringent discussion, with the controller Gerard Mansell complaining that it sounded like a demotion. He was put in his place, as BBC minutes reveal, but there were concerns: "Every effort must be made to destroy the idea that 'Radio One' was in some way superior to 'Radio Four'. The titles were a means of identification, not a merit rating."

To read the minutes of these meetings from a bygone era, meticulously stored at the BBC Written Archives Centre, isn't just a nostalgia trip. What rings down the ages is the humour and wit, as well as a certain formality, that have always been part of the BBC spirit and that characterise the best of Radio 4.

Not for nothing was a pompous piece of oratory at one high-powered gathering during the height of Torvill and Dean mania greeted by a show of cards from the waggish element at the back of the room, scoring it 5.9, 5.8, 6.0…all duly recorded in the minutes.

On air, Radio 4 rarely lets its formality slip, unless it's for I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, Just a Minute or another of its comedy hits.

But Charlotte Green's nerve was once tested by a newsroom joker who had, she suspected, deliberately included at the end of a long bulletin a story about an American woman who had eloped with an older man. She had extreme difficulty stifling giggles when – sight unseen – she finally came to the sad story of Chastity Bumgardner.

Then there was the wonderful Eugene Fraser, a much-loved announcer of 20 or more years ago who, it is claimed, would set fire to the bottom of the Shipping Forecast script as it was being read.

Pranks like that are strictly off-limits today, as is alcohol. In the early days of Radio 4, post-programme drinking was a requirement. Some drama producers' lunches started shortly after 11am and stretched almost to home-time. Nowadays, programmes never break out the bubbly, as Robert Robinson's Stop the Week ("Stop the Rot" to the crew) and Midweek once did.

Perhaps the abstemiousness stems from the point in the 1980s when a memo went round teeling staff to make themselves available to an American documentary crew. The resulting film was far from a respectful portrait of a great British institution.

It was a hoot – shots of trolleys full of bottles being shunted down lonely corridors, fizz being uncorked to mark birthdays on air, even a hip-flask at the ready on a "radio nature trail" for The Living World.

"We were all suckered into letting them film," remembers Sue MacGregor, then the presenter of Woman's Hour. "And you can imagine what American producers made of a programme called Woman's Hour, for starters, and one that was quite cosy. And of course they edited it so that it sent up the whole of Radio 4."

Fair enough: it's easy to do. But radio can also take us so close to people that we feel we're living alongside them. I was privileged to work with The World at One's presenter Nick Clarke on his intimate account of his experience of cancer, which proved to be his last programme.

The recordings by Nick and his wife Barbara were among the most searing I have ever heard, and they chose to confide these most intimate moments to the Radio 4 audience. Listeners – including the BBC chairman – were caught speechless, tears running down cheeks.

The names that carry that charge of intense intimacy down the years are also part of what makes Radio 4 so beloved: William Hardcastle, the breathy Fleet Streeter-turned-radio-star who was The World at One's first presenter; John Ebdon, he of the "How-do-you-do?" welcome to the Sound Archives; Brian Redhead – not only of Today but of the great precursor of In Our Time, called A Word in Edgeways.

And Margaret Howard and Derek Jones and Gordon Clough and Franklin Engelmann and Robert Robinson… the names that resonate down four decades are legion. They are the voices we use to mark up our daily schedule: "If the Today sport's on, I'm late leaving the house!"

Why else was fury unleashed on the unfortunate controller who, in the early 1990s, altered so many routines by shifting Woman's Hour to the morning? Or The Archers by a quarter of an hour?

Among broadcasters, only Radio 4 could provoke a (very polite) march through London; it was in 1993, in protest at the removal of the network's long-wave frequency, and it changed the minds of BBC bosses. Truly, Radio 4 is deeply embedded in the British psyche.

Given a clean slate, you couldn't invent Radio 4, because it is so much greater than the sum of its parts – in its history, and its ability to infuriate and frustrate as well as delight.

Perhaps Libby Purves best captured the heart of what makes Radio 4 special: "You'll just switch on the radio and there will be somebody just telling you something in a humble, you-might-be-interested-in-this way.

"Like how there are these sea-plants up near Birmingham in the middle of the motorway because they think they're on the coast because of the salt spray thrown up by the lorries. I heard about that on some slightly anorakish nature programme on Radio 4 and it kept me very happy all day…"

  • 'And Now on Radio 4' by Simon Elmes (Arrow) is available for £11.99 + £1.25 p&p. To order call Telegraph Books on 0870 428 4112 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk.
 
 
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Comments: 4

  • Listening to The News Quiz makes me proud to live in a union that can satire both sides of the political divide without shock.

    r.e.k
    on July 29, 2008
    at 03:48 PM
  • I wonder if other countries have such an intimate relationship with their radio stations. I live in France and don't have the impression that France Inter or Europe 1 or even France Musique inspire the fierce devotion that Radio 4 does. Since Radio 4 became available on the internet, I have renewed my acquaintance with it, to my eternal relief and delight. It was on throughout my childhood - silence had to be observed during The Archers - and listening to it today is similar to the feeling you get when meeting up with your oldest friend: affectionate nostalgia and modern up-to-the-minute interest in the present.

    Sarah Hague
    on September 29, 2007
    at 08:33 AM
  • Yes we do love you Radio 4. But unfortunately its pro-EU bias and general inability to portray a libertarian right-of-centre viewpoint - for example its removal of Freddy Forsyth's spot has made the whole network extremely suspect. I have stopped listening, or drop in occasionally as to an old friend who I suspect of not going out enough and who has become slightly senile. Comforting and cosy - yes. Truthful about Britain's problems - no. It lives in a once-was dream world and the bubble viewed from outside looking in is extremely fragile. Radio 4 - turn to the libertarian right - because the country will eventually.

    John Franks
    on September 29, 2007
    at 07:09 AM
  • Please, please give the long-wave frequency back to Radio 4 completely. Pity the poor person who can't get VHF and the only thing she has to listen to all day is cricket. There is even cricket at night when the World Service takes over and Australia is playing England! What is Radio 5 for if it isn't sport?

    Jan
    on September 29, 2007
    at 02:23 AM

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