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Radio. By Valerie grove

Arts | By Valerie Grove

Sian Williams in May 2010

Radio. By Valerie grove

‘I’m a person who [ego alert] has always been interested in people and their stories.’

Of course! That’s why you became a novelist, journalist, comedian, psychotherapist, podcaster etc. And yet what comes across is that the speaker is totally self-referential. Those emphatic pronouns –‘I’ll be telling you what I have discovered about this incredible story’ – are a giveaway. The worst trend in 21st-century radio is the encouragement of hyperbolic self-plugging.

But Sian Williams really is interested in people. She took over Jane Garvey’s Radio 4 series Life Changing, in which guests relate life-transforming incidents and misfortunes. It’s edge-of-seat stuff (first tested in the 1980s by Jenni Murray’s Never the Same Again).

Nobody could forget Jane Garvey, in an early episode, meeting Grace Spence Green, junior doctor and mountain-climber. At 25, she was walking through a Westfield shopping mall, when a large suicidal male, throwing himself off an upper floor, crash-landed on top of her and instantly rendered her paraplegic. (He survived.) What was almost beyond comprehension was her angelic forgiveness and beatific acceptance of her new, wheelchair-bound life.

More recent episodes prompt mixed feelings. One was about the woman who looked back on the night, 16 years ago, when she drove five friends home in a people-carrier, after a concert. Ecstasy had been taken and all were sleepy. The driver began to feel drowsy. Moments later, as they left the motorway, there was a crash and the car flipped over. Three passengers were dead. The other two, and the driver, were badly injured.

I switched off, finding it unbearable, but later found myself agreeing with a Feedback-listener who pointed out that it was the grieving parents who deserved pity, not the driver, who recovered, did four years in prison for dangerous driving, has since spent her days volunteering – and has never driven again.

My sister, Alison – more forthright and more thoughtful than I – took issue with my harsh judgement. ‘They were all young, foolish and fatally unlucky. They did something stupid, and paid for it. The driver has been tormented by guilt and regret, and is still atoning for it.’ She added, ‘I have got away scot-free in my life with many foolish acts, and so have you.’ (One can always depend on one’s sister for candour.)

Other oldies too may recall those years when, as newly qualified drivers, we merrily drove schoolfriends home from parties in the parents’ car. There were no drugs, of course. Nor were there breathalysers, speed cameras or seatbelt laws. I was still teetotal and there were far fewer cars on the roads. But it made us reckless, and my sister is right: we were lucky.

In the new year’s audio awards, the Dimbleby brothers’ The Bright Side of Life could be a contender: Jonathan talking to his sculptor brother Nicholas, stricken with motor neurone disease, as his life recedes into helplessness. Would he approach Dignitas when unable to speak or swallow?

And here’s another essential subject that’s almost never discussed: prisons. This talk reached the tiniest audience on National Prison Radio. Former prisons minister Rory Stewart, delivering the 2023 Longford Lecture, spoke with intensity about why governments are helpless to improve prisons: because, in an age of populism, the political system is ‘sclerotic’, MPs don’t know how things work and the public are indifferent, even hostile. (Available via Longford Trust website.)

I skate over the millions of podcasts for Oldie-friendly ones, including Gyles Brandreth’s Rosebud, Rachel Johnson’s Difficult Women – Nadine Dorries jolly difficult – and Dan Snow’s History Hit. The episode where Andrew Roberts, who scorned the Ridley Scott movie, discussed Napoleon, ignoring the fact that Snow’s podcast is sponsored by Scott’s film, was exhilarating.

But no podcast can compete with a rich, revelatory, well-choreographed Archive on 4 like The Art of Silence, on the life of Marcel Marceau. Peerless mime – and Resistance hero: who knew?

This story was from January 2024 issue. Subscribe Now