A strange coincidence on Saturday night to come back from the cinema, having seen a film about a woman fighting to save her job while suffering from depression and thoughts of putting an end to it all, only to switch on the radio and hear from people who have had suicidal thoughts themselves or who have suffered the peculiar, awful grief of losing someone to suicide. The film was affecting and sensitively done, but after listening to In Memoriam: Conversations on a Bench (Radio 4) I realised how different the impact of radio can be. It was not that the film had in any way glamorised depression, or turned us as viewers into voyeurs revelling in someone else’s misfortune. But listening to the pain seeping through the ether from those who were dealing with grief and loss or from their own black thoughts was so much more powerful than simply watching as the camera lingered on the ashen face of the woman, on her dull-eyed gaze, on her clumsy, laboured, downtrodden walk.
In Memoriam (produced by Adam Fowler) was based on such a simple idea. Anna Scott-Brown sat on a bench in an Oxford park for a few days and talked to the people who lingered there for a while, asking them how often they came to sit on the bench, why they had come on that day, what the inscription makes them think of. The bench is dedicated to Chris, who took his own life in 2004, leaving a wife and children. But there is nothing on the bench to tell you this. The dedication, from Chris’s wife, says simply, ‘Rest awhile and remember happy times together.’ Scott-Brown discovers, though, that more than half of the people who did stop to take a pause from life, to opt out of being busy for a minute or two, either knew someone who had committed suicide or had suffered from life-threatening depression themselves. ‘And yet it’s not something we talk about,’ said Scott-Brown. Why is this?
The film, which I thought at the time had done a pretty good job of portraying what it’s like to be that ill mentally, began to look rather flat and two-dimensional. It was affecting, but not involving. On the radio, though, what was being said was so potent it was impossible not to stay fully connected, alert to every nuance, every thought.
Threaded through the story of Chris and his wife, of the mother whose 15-year-old daughter had collapsed and died close to the bench after taking a half-pill of ecstasy, and of the painter who, as a teenager, had been so closed up emotionally he had not spoken to anyone for years, was a poem specially written for the programme and read by Michael Symmons Roberts (winner of the Forward Prize). Symmons Roberts translated the action of stopping to sit, to watch over, to remember into words that resonated: ‘But the picture show now skips a gear/ From a wedding bouquet to a coffin wreath./ This is the garland I give my grief.’ I know it all sounds relentlessly, almost comically, grim, but actually the programme was full of life and heartening hope. There’s a cold wind blowing but sometimes just carrying on is good enough.
I’m sure it’s sacrilegious to say this but it’s a bit disappointing to discover that Radio 4’s Tweet of the Day has gone global. The islanders of Papua New Guinea are probably discovering on their iPads and smartphones at this very moment what the sound of their native blue bird of paradise sounds like but do we need to know? Giving us birdsong from around the world completely changes the programme, turning it from a really useful way of learning how to identify the birds we can hear day-by-day in the garden, on a walk, by the sea into yet another of those irritating nature programmes. I doubt whether I will ever go to Papua New Guinea or the Amazon rainforest, and even if I do I will have forgotten what the blue bird of paradise or hoatzin sounds like by the time I get there. But if I keep on hearing the whimbrel, the reed bunting or the red-backed shrike, perhaps when next I chance upon one I will know what it is. It’s a question of intention. What was Tweet of the Day set up to do? I know it claims to have run out of British birds (although the RSPB website says there are 574 species of British bird and Tweet has so far only given us 266). But why not repeat them on a yearly cycle? It’s a way of making us appreciate what’s just beyond the kitchen window. And it takes more than one listen to really learn and memorise the particular song of, say, the wryneck. This is an instance when to repeat a programme would not appear cheapskate but be a vital argument for the retention of the licence fee. Bring back the dotterel, I say, and put flight to the brown noddy.
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