A gaping hole in the week

14 April 2017

11:00 PM

14 April 2017

11:00 PM

This is a gem of a book for Radio 4 lovers, particularly those of us who work out which day of the week it is by who’s speaking on the station at 9.02 a.m. Published the week that Midweek was abolished for ever, it is Libby Purves’s story of the programme she presented for 33 years. In this brief memoir she has not only immortalised the distinctive flavour of the ‘And now for some lively conversation’ Wednesday-morning 45 minutes. She has also reminded us that Radio 4 is ‘basically, a marvel’: for many people, it is ‘their university and their friend’.

All presenters, Purves writes, are aware that they are obsolescent. ‘One day, you know perfectly well, the management will look at you with the kind of amazed horror that one feels on opening a forgotten kitchen drawer, bin bag in hand.’ But it came as a shock that both she and the programme were to be axed at the same time. Midweek managed to survive the 1990s when radio departments came under the ‘dark wing’ of television executives who didn’t understand radio. ‘Cain has been given the key to his brother Abel’s life-support machine’ was how Purves summed up that dire situation. And the programme survived — until last month — the constant pressure for BBC producers to come up with ‘exciting new formats’.

With its unshowy presentation of four disparate guests sitting round a table chatting live on air, Midweek had ‘a perfectly simple chemistry’. A 9/11 firefighter would find himself beside an inventor of word games; a surgeon next to a cabaret artist, and so on. Lord Denning appeared with the newly crowned Miss UK, who asked him, ‘how long does it take to get your judge kit on?’, which led him to talk about the putting on of tights. Richard Ingrams met Naim Attalah across the Midweek table; that meeting eventually led to the founding of The Oldie.

The main thing that kept the programme on air year after year was that over two million of us tuned in each week and loved its humanity. Purves’s aim, she writes, was ‘not to challenge guests, Today-style, on every point, but to encourage them to be the strongest possible flavour of themselves, so that listeners could make their own judgments’.

I had forgotten that the programme used to be an hour long and have a ‘birthday guest’ each week, interviewed by somebody else. That seems rather quaint now. James Naughtie’s first-ever live broadcast was as interviewer of the Midweek birthday guest. In 1988 James Boyle wanted to cut the programme (and Melvyn Bragg’s Start the Week) down to 28 minutes, but he was persuaded to compromise to 43, and the birthday guest went. In those days Start the Week, famous for having people on to promote their new books and plays, had the nickname ‘Pluggers’; Midweek was known as ‘Nutters’ and Robert Robinson’s Stop the Week, with its argumentatively eloquent guests, was known as ‘Wankers’.

BBC rules and diktats trickled down from on high. During the late 1980s a decree went out that ‘there should be no, repeat no, disobliging references to the prime minister. No Thatcher-bashing’. ‘Ah, how we tried,’ Purves writes. But almost every guest seemed to take some kind of swipe at her. Then there was the rule that you weren’t allowed to say the word ‘bugger’ in a southern accent but you could say ‘booger’ if you were northern. The no-swearing rule was broken when Jeremy Irons said, ‘Like saying fuck on the radio?’ ‘Officially,’ writes Purves, ‘we’re supposed to “apologise to the audience on behalf of the guest”, an instruction which I find downright creepy.’

The trickiest guests were the rare drunk ones, the aloof ones, and the ones who didn’t take their sunglasses off. Christina Foyle, of bookshop fame, ‘answered the questions monosyllabically and with disdain’. Enoch Powell ‘created a vacuum of joviality’. The nicest guests were Judi Dench and Jimmy Osmond. The most nervous guest was Lord Snowdon. The angriest guests were Joan Rivers and Darcus Howe, who had a blazing row about racism, which Libby eventually diffused with the immortal words, ‘OK, let’s turn to talking about plant photography.’

There was a period when every aged thespian who came onto the programme told an unfunny anecdote about their encounter with Noël Coward, usually ending, ‘He was marvellous, Noël. Marvellous.’ Libby had to clamp down on that.

I remember being impressed by the way she came back to work on Midweek so soon after her son died. She writes movingly about that. ‘I firmly told the producer not to have any inhibitions about putting me with people with parallel stories to tell.’ The only time she had to ‘choke back a rising flood of inappropriate personal emotion’ was when David Shepherd talked about his nine grandchildren and the pleasure of watching enthusiasms and talents flowing on down the generations. Libby was suddenly brought up short by the realisation ‘that one branch of our own small family would never
flower now’.

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