I hereby revoke all scornful thoughts and previous unkind mutterings about Kirsty Young and Desert Island Discs. I saw her in action when this week’s programme (Radio 4, Sunday) was recorded the previous weekend at the More Than Words Festival of listening in Bristol. She was superb, with both the large, ardent, effusive audience and her guest, jazz pianist Jamie Cullum who broke the programme’s long-established conventions by performing three of his chosen songs on the programme and, on the night, by doing an amazing all-action encore just for the people in the hall at St George’s.
I was pretty sceptical in advance about the whole thing. What was the point of doing this show with an audience? Why were two contenders for the BBC director-generalship out there shaking hands? Why was this a Radio 4 festival, with Broadcasting House, Loose Ends, Great Lives, Poetry Please all doing road shows? Isn’t there always a dangerous gap between the show the people in the hall hear and the one the audience at home will listen to? Who thinks Jamie Cullum plays real jazz anyway?
Thus inwardly murmuring I sat in the audience that night. As Young smiled, quipped, ad-libbed, asked good questions, fielded a few unexpected answers, as Cullum’s warmth, sense, wit and astonishing showmanship crumbled most of the grumbles I fought hard to hang on to due distance. (Remember that Comedy Prom last summer? A big hit in the hall, a right mess on the air.) At home on Sunday I duly listened to the actual programme. It was good. In fact, Cullum’s choice of records (especially the rap, drum ’n’ bass and misty new age) worked better nipped and tucked on the air than they did in the hall. All credit to producer Leanne Buckle. Top marks, though, to Kirsty Young. She’s a very good interviewer (if you heard the recent edition with former England rugby international Brian Moore you’ll know that already). She is also that rarer thing, someone whose intelligent presence lights up a real stage as well as the imaginary one of the airwaves. She connects. BBC radio should make sure it hangs onto her. I still don’t think Cullum plays jazz but I now know he’s a brilliant performer when he dares to show his real voice.
Broadcasting House, Radio 4’s regular Sunday morning show, did less well with its live edition from the same Bristol hall. We learned a few of the reasons why in this week’s Feedback (Radio 4, Friday) among them that BH’s prior workshop session was torpedoed by loss of audience to the rival recording of Great Lives. But, on the actual transmission (I am a faithful BH fan), it sounded jerky, less assured than usual, not quite an audience show (maybe they lacked a proper stage manager), not at all its polished studio self. Feedback had both producer Ryan Dilley and presenter Paddy O’Connell reflecting shrewdly on the importance of remembering the 2 million listeners at home rather than the 400 people in the hall. But Feedback also reported a generally high level of appreciation from listeners for BH (for being quirky about the news) and for O’Connell (for ease and intelligence) as its presenter.
O’Connell was absent from BH this week, presumably getting ready for his debut as commentator on the Eurovision Song Contest. His place was taken by Paul Mason who kept going on about his own Northern accent. Not that he needs to nowadays. It’s seven decades since Wilfred Pickles shocked the BBC, if not Home Service listeners, by signing off the 9 o’clock news with a Yorkshire “Good neet”. Mason is a Mancunian who now lives in London but still goes on about his voice being different. In Sunday’s programme he attempted to teach Today’s Sarah Montague how to speak with a North Western accent like his. No “rain in Spain” for Professor Mason, however. It was how to order that Mancunian delicacy, a bag of chips with gravy.
Such items of local culinary delight, I can reveal, do not abound at the BBC’s new enclave in Salford’s Media City, 20 minutes by tram from central Manchester. Indeed, they may now only exist in Mason’s fond memories of his Gran. But why did Mason not call upon the vocal expertise of Baroness Bakewell, one of his newspaper reviewers? After all, she admits to moderating her Stockport vowels when she, like others of our grammar school generation, got into Cambridge. Joan, indeed, is such a star the BBC should drop Engelbert Humperdinck as our Eurovision contestant forthwith and bring in singing grannies to rival Russia’s. How about Joan, Katharine Whitehorn. Anne Robinson, June Whitfield and me? Paddy O’Connell would love it.