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The Friend in the Corner (BBC7)

As someone who listens to so much radio one can’t help be tempted by that most inward looking of documentaries, one about BBC Radio.

Billed as 6 selected years in radio history (thanks again BBC7 for the attractive programme description) I naturally expected something like Russell Davies enjoyable series on Radio Comedy. Some choice sound bites from the archive with some informative and lightly sarcastic comments scattered throughout.

Nothing wrong with that. But, as it happens, nothing like this programme.

In one episode (1956 I think) there is reference to the avant garde musique concrete. This series of programmes is perhaps Radio Concrete.

There is no explicit narrative, no mocking of 1940’s bbc voices, no reflections on Great Britain as it was in the years highlighted.

To put it simply; no scripted and presented narrative / commentary.

What we have (using the idea of a radio tuning in for a transition) is a collage of the listening of a year, the news, discussions, music and entertainment.

You will not hear extended clips from ITMA or the Goon show (though they both appear) but rather they are woven into the rhythm of this extraordinary series of shows.

At first the lack of direction (by that I mean the direction in which we are naturally pointed by a narrator or presenter) is somewhat disconcerting, but after 10 minutes listening it was liberating.

There are obviously editorial decisions made, someone chose what and in what order to play the items, this is no random selection of clips – far from it. Listening to these programmes is a much more interactive process. Without the aid of a narrator annotating everything you hear, you have to think a little more about why you are listening to a certain clip, and where it sits in that particular year.

There is commentary (of a sort) in the reading of BBC internal yearbooks and listener’s letters. It is an unobtrusive way of pointing you in the right direction as to what programme you are listening to and what changes were going on in society at the time. But what makes them so much more than merely a comment on that particular year by a presenter is that the words are contemporary to the programmes. We can learn as much from 1947’s comments about 1947 as we can from the programmes themselves.

There are laugh out loud moments, moments of sadness and moments that just confound.

The lady from the 62 show (I think) commenting that at least the Nazi’s didn’t have pop music (this was a positive thing to her) was priceless as was the nationwide like staging of Brain Johnson hiding in a post box to discuss Christmas early posting through the letter box with the general public.

Unfortunately as I listened to the whole series today in between two shoots at different ends of the M1 I cannot accurately annotate or highlight each episode. But what came across most clearly is the painstaking work that went into assembling these programmes which seem pin sharp due to their lack of presenter. You do get a real sense of the UK in the forties, fifties and sixties and the developing tensions between the establishment and the increasingly vocal public.

They could have made the editing obvious and clumsy but it never seemed that. The programme is happy for us to take what we want from the year with just a gentle guiding had to show us where radio was heading.

The contrasting of Eve of Destruction (Barry McGuire?) with the panel discussion on the important issue of the day (keeping Britain’s hedgerows) was more affectionate than cutting and kept the tone just right. The simple highlighting of racism in the early years was short but devastating. Other links between elements were wordplay or more abstract, but carried you along wondering just what you will hear next.

To detail all the gems scattered through these programmes would take forever and probably ruin the fun that you will doubtless get in every episode.

It ends, quite rightly with the development of radio 1, 2, 3 and, and one can’t help a tinge of sadness as the light programme fades away and we are left with Tony Blackburn on Onederful radio One…

This has probably been one of the best programmes I have listened to for a very long time. The bravery of the format should be applauded, the excellence of delivery celebrated.

I think it dates from around 1992, and I could find no real details on it, but I hope the production team got the credit they deserved for this brilliant series.


BBC Iplayer

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