Will Self’s Great British Bus Journey – six words which are likely to either pique your curiosity or have you reaching urgently for the off button.
I’m in the former camp and so spent a couple of hours in the novelist’s company on Radio 4 over the past two weeks, while he crossed the UK on bus, boat and foot, from Plymouth to Londonderry. The series’ title gave a wistful impression – as if Self’s acerbic shtick would be sweetened by a touch of Fred Dibnah.
This was misleading. There were no winding country lanes or gleaming British Leyland machines on this tour. Instead, there was an unglamorous procession of A-roads and motorways, service stations, B&Bs, high-street restaurants, pubs, coach terminuses, shopping malls and community centres. Large cities were passed over in favour of smaller, less fashionable ones: Wolverhampton, Middlesbrough, Preston, East Kilbride.
Self was in a more sensitive and ingratiating mode than the one he often trundles out on TV. Freed from the need to argue or hector, he flashed his descriptive abilities: a parish church became “a gaunt-looking people-barn”; the night-time sea, approaching Belfast, seemed “like a kind of outer space”; a ferry port was dismissed, brilliantly, as “junk space”. And he showed that he can listen too, interviewing dozens of people along the way about their lives, their sense of identity, whether or not they voted for Brexit.
The result, spread across 10 short episodes – all of which are now available as a podcast – was a miniature documentary masterpiece. It brought places to life, confounded stereotyping, drew out stories that news reporters would rarely see. Self’s way with words and his disarming, curiosity only deepened the picture, while his producer, Laurence Grissell, did wonders bringing the sounds of the trip – from rain on a windscreen to the sizzle of a tandoori dish – into evocative focus. “Modern Britain doesn’t seem that apprehensible to me at all,” Self said. A thousand miles in, it felt like a profound observation rather than an admission of defeat.
The National Theatre of Brent’s Illustrated Guide to Sex and How It Was Done (Radio 4, Saturday) promised controversy, eroticism, and audio portraits of the world’s most infamous lovers, from Henry VIII to Rasputin. “It’s not going to be fun, or particularly enjoyable,” warned its host and author Desmond Olivier Dingle (Patrick Barlow). Of course, he was wrong on both counts. The National Theatre of Brent, who have been providing gloriously inept guides to history and culture since 1980, are as reliable a source of mirth as you’ll find on the radio. As the mistakes and inaccuracies piled up – saying “haemorrhoids” instead of “hominids”, the “Alcopopolis” in Greece, a reference to Radio 4’s “Start the Week with Malcolm Bragg” – my sides started to ache, and I found myself wishing the BBC would play host to The National Theatre of Brent more often.
Convention-defying Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse’s The Name (Radio 3, Sunday) had precisely the opposite effect. Fosse is unusual because he paints his characters in a sort of blank space: names, places, personal details are rarely alluded to. On the stage, this has its own power, but on the radio, it falls flat. Written in 1995, this bleak, minimalist drama sounded promising – a pregnant young woman returns to the claustrophobia of her estranged family’s home with the reluctant father-to-be in tow. But, in the absence of anything to look at or any details to spark the imagination, listeners were left with something that was sterile and uninspiring.
As this week is half term for many schools, Radio 2 offered us the chance to imagine what its schedules could sound like if Chris Evans and Jeremy Vine had pursued different careers. And they don’t sound bad. Sara Cox, standing in for Evans, has been spreading sweetness and light, which was a delightful reminder of the days when she presented Breakfast on Radio 1. She still has that rare gift of sounding like your best friend, but with better jokes. Vanessa Feltz, covering for Vine, is perceptive and funny. If BBC director-general Tony Hall is serious about creating gender parity on air by 2020, here are two ideal candidates for promotion to the prime time.