‘I was mad with jealousy,’ said Gwyneth Williams, the controller of BBC Radio 4. ‘I am mad with jealousy,’ she corrected herself, and I believed her. We were discussing Tom Stoppard’s Darkside, a radio play written to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Pink Floyd’s album Dark Side of the Moon. The play, which was perhaps the radio event of the summer, aired on Radio 2. ‘Mad with jealousy,’ she repeated, in case I had missed the point.
Williams has spent the year revitalising Radio 4’s arts coverage. Stoppard’s perfidy aside, she has had marked success. Her aims were to ‘give people a break’ from the Great Recession and to see ‘if there were [fresh] ideas on the horizon’ that might shift the prevailing winds in politics and economics, which she regards as flat. To this end, Front Row ran ‘Cultural Exchange’, in which 75 ‘creative minds’ nattered about their favourite cultural work. This simple format was captivating: Richard Rogers on the Piazza del Campo in Siena sticks in my mind; but you can review each entry on the BBC website and contribute to the exchange. Williams also commissioned new music series, a music podcast and an art competition.
The hope that art might shake us from our stasis is a subtext of this year’s Reith Lectures, delivered by Grayson Perry. He is the first visual artist to give the lectures, and Williams (who edited the lectures for ten years from the mid-Nineties) is thrilled to have him: ‘I owe the series to Neil MacGregor, who sat me next to Grayson at a British Museum dinner. He was so inspiring on quality in art and the nature of creativity.’ Perry’s lectures are playful (listen out for the whip in lecture two); but he is playing seriously. His core theme — how to assess quality in an age when anything goes — applies to Williams as controller of Radio 4. Expertise helps; but, in the end, the artist or controller has to trust the judgment of the viewer or listener.
Williams must have inordinate trust in Radio 4’s 11 million listeners: she has commissioned several vast projects to commemorate the first world war in ‘real time’. Two dramas, Home Front and Tommies, will follow the action from the ‘Angels of Mons’ to female emancipation. A recurring series, made in collaboration with the Imperial War Museum, will resurrect lost voices of the period. The Cultural Front will show how the conflict changed high and low culture. Professor Christopher Clark will present a five-part series on the war’s outbreak. The historian Margaret MacMillan will open proceedings next June with daily broadcasts describing the path to war.
The multi-genre approach is typical of Williams. She began life at the BBC in 1976 as a trainee on the World Service, where she learned that cultural programming could illustrate current affairs. This lifelong insight has been refreshed by new technology. Listeners, Williams said, ‘travel in time…and across borders and disciplines’ online, forever stretching their knowledge and understanding of humanity. She simply tries to help them on their way with innovative and varied programming.
Williams has been praised for introducing demanding science shows to Radio 4; but I’m equally struck by the unfairly derided drama output. This year has seen adaptations of The Aeneid, Samuel Pepys’s Diary and Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy. Next year, Alan Bennett will narrate his Denmark Hill (an unperformed play that he recently rediscovered in his archive). Williams also told me, admittedly with an ironic twinkle, that she is thinking of adapting Pliny. Nothing, it seems, is elitist these days.
In contrast to the drama, the tepid comedies on Radio 4 leave me cold. Williams conceded that she has made mistakes (and not only with comedy programming), and then she artfully rebuffed my criticism. ‘Comedy is always the thing that divides people the most. I think there’s some brilliant comedy, and there’s some that I don’t really go for but I can see that it’s of very good quality.’
It can’t be easy to see quality in something you ‘don’t really go for’ (which sounded a little euphemistic). Williams develops an idea for a programme only if it ‘fits’ into at least one of Radio 4’s three ‘hearts’: current affairs, arts and entertainment, and factual reporting. Then she must trust her ‘feel’ for the listeners. She explained, ‘Because radio is so intimate, so much a part of listeners’ lives, they really feel they own the schedule. You feel responsible; it’s a really precious thing. On the other hand, they come along with you if you’re in tune with Radio 4, if the decision feels right.’
Would Stoppard’s Darkside have felt right? ‘Completely, utterly,’ said Williams. ‘I thought it was great…Great for Radio 2, good for them,’ she said. Then she added, ‘Come here, Tom. You’re mine!’
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