From Joan Bakewell to Top Gear: why everyone on the radio is saying sorry - review

Lad-fuelled shenanigans: Top Gear’s Matt LeBlanc disrupted a wedding at St Paul’s
Lad-fuelled shenanigans: Top Gear’s Matt LeBlanc disrupted a wedding at St Paul’s

The air is alive with the sounds of “sorry” this week. Laurence Fox was on Radio 4’s Today programme last Thursday, apologising for swearing at a man in the front row who was swearing at him. Fox was playing Charles de Gaulle in Jonathan Lynn’s new play, The Patriotic Traitor, at a tiny north London theatre. The man apparently mistook him for the real General and was offering disruptive comment. Today, always readier itself to accuse than apologise, thought this worth an item. Would it, I asked my radio, if the swearing had been at a small theatre in Liverpool, Leeds or Glasgow? Answer came there none.

On Monday, Today was back pursuing the apology trail. The Top Gear team stood accused of disrespecting the Cenotaph by doing crazy stunts in front of it. MPs were among those offended. Chris Evans, executive producer of Top Gear, was close by, doing his other job as Radio 2’s morning show host. Would he come on Today and apologise? He would, he did. Or sort of. I thought I heard something about misleading camera angles before he said sorry, no disrespect had been intended, any offending footage would not be shown.

Once more I addressed my radio. What about that bride and groom whose wedding your Top Gear team disrupted at St Paul’s on Saturday, Chris? Just coming down the steps ready for their pictures to be taken and there were your lads, wheels spinning, brakes screaming. Who wants a snap of the bride when you can get one of Matt LeBlanc at the wheel? Oh dear. This j’accuse habit is catching.

Matt LeBlanc

Joan Bakewell said, at a Saturday book festival, it was possible anorexia might be caused by looking too often in the mirror and had the apology hounds after her in a flash. By Monday she was everywhere, saying how distressed she felt at being so insensitive, her remarks had been off the cuff, not considered. That wasn’t good enough for Radio 5 Live who filled a chunk of their early evening show with witnesses for her persecution. Curiously enough, the more they spoke of their affliction the more I felt there might be just a smidgen, a particle, the merest homoeopathic trace of sense in what she’d originally said. I couldn’t actually utter this aloud, you understand. I’d be hung, drawn and quartered for even thinking it.

Joan Bakewell at Wellcome Collection, London Credit: REX

I have no such punishment in mind for Charles Moore, who in Monday’s Daily Telegraph said “the BBC licence fee costs £12.13 per month, twice the price of Netflix or Amazon Prime”. It probably slipped his mind that the licence fee covers BBC radio too, with 10 networks neither replicated in the market nor funded by subscription. Perhaps he doesn’t know that, in the USA, people pay $15 a month for their local National Public Radio station. Yes, it’s a voluntary contribution but you certainly wouldn’t get a minimum of 10 live classical music concerts and seven new plays a week as part of the bargain. No wonder BBC World Service in English is the world’s favourite radio station, 55 million listeners and counting. Since this year, that’s now paid for by the licence fee too, come to think of it.  

Word was last week that Radio 4 wouldn’t dare transmit Burn Baby Burn, the Friday afternoon play by Sean Grundy. It wasn’t the language, it wasn’t profanity. It was its suggestion, albeit fictional and satirical, that someone may have deliberately caused the real 2004 warehouse fire that consumed a store of work by such Young British Artists as Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and the Chapman Brothers. The play went out. If you didn’t know the story you may have been puzzled by its clusters of characters. If you did you might have enjoyed a small smile at their antics. Not even the licence fee guarantees that every play will be a winner.

The Danny Baker Show (Radio 5 Live, Saturdays) had a brilliant interview with Kenneth Branagh last week and another, with Stephen Mangan, the week before. Both were promoting their new works: Branagh a farce in his current Garrick Theatre residency; Mangan his new ITV show, Houdini & Doyle. Yet each spoke warmly and well about so many other things (including football), that never for a moment was it as dreary as Radio 4’s Midweek most weeks or Front Row on an off night. Charles Moore probably wouldn’t pay £12.13 a month just for Danny Baker, Afternoon Drama, Ken Bruce on Radio 2, The Reith Lectures (especially the online version with the drawings), Composer of the Week on Radio 3 and The Archers. I would.