There’s something about radio that by its very nature summons up feelings of nostalgia. The fact that as the predecessor of television it was once the equivalent of Sky with beaming wartime families staving off the hunger pangs of rationing by listening to the finest entertainment that a crystal set had to offer. Ah, simpler times when people actually used to listen to such wonders as a ventriloquist’s show without questioning the fact that they couldn’t see a mouth never mind seeing the lips move.
Now we are living in an age where everything is digital, widescreen and on demand it sometimes makes you wonder how a potentially unremarkable medium such as the humble wireless has actually survived the passing of time. Of course the advent of digital radio (DAB) has improved things no end. The days of an iffy signal are now a thing of the past and if you want to switch channels its literally as instant as switching channels on the television.
The modernisation of radio is not just in its technology but also in terms of what is actually on offer in terms of programming. The BBC have been at the forefront of this expansion and while you may be familiar with some of the higher profile channels like 1Xtra and 6Music you might not have come across their sister channel BBC 7.
BBC 7 unlike its brethren is not a music channel, however it does bear a resemblance to 6Music in that it has the historical resources of the Beeb at its disposal. In this instance it has access to the corporation’s accumulated drama and comedy archives dating back to the late fifties.
And that listeners is where the aforementioned sense of nostalgia comes in.
If anything BBC 7 acts very much like a series of reference points for Britain’s entertainment culture dating back to its bygone ages. The golden age of wireless returns for a second outing only this time without the squall of static and the mistuned dials of yesteryear.
Looking at the programming the station has to offer its often surprising to see what has weathered the passing of time and what hasn’t fared so well. Recent reruns have included the oft forgotten classics such as Round The Horn that was responsible for launching the careers of individuals like Kenneth Williams and some of the sketches wear their relationships to modern comedy on their sleeve (Julian and Sandy could be the godfathers of modern camp). Then of course there is the “drama” shows such as Dick Barton: Special Agent. It seems strange to think that anyone ever took gems like this seriously much less found themselves upon the edge of their seats as a result. Nowadays they seem to possess more elements of unintentional humour than anything else. Clich? ridden hard-boiled detective stories that highlight in many ways just how far we’ve come as an audience and thankfully that we’ve become a little more sophisticated as a result.
Of course for every lost classic there is the chance to see just how the relatively short passage of time can dilute the potency of a comedy show, Lee and Herring’s Fist of Fun originated on the radio in the early nineties. Yet these days stands only as a decidedly clumsy series of knob jokes strung together for the benefit of fresher students who have found themselves stranded between drinking sessions and repeats of Kilroy.
Elsewhere you can find some distinctly British slices of science fiction, Doctor Who radio adaptations put in fairly regular appearances and with the original cast(s) they carry significant authenticity with the additional strengths of greater dialogue negating the need for dodgy rubber suits and grown men dressed as salt shakers. Then there is the presence of curious little shorts such as Mortal Engines, a futuristic tale of cities that come to life and move of their own accord (London being a large and particularly vicious predator). Other adaptations include evergreen episodes of The Twilight Zone that translates wonderfully to radio with Stacey Keach taking on the role of the late Rod Serling’s narration with surprising effect. Some of comedies elder statesmen such as Barry Cryer and Roy Hudd have presented edited versions of their biographies that have provided quaint and inoffensive listening.
Most of these programs have been mined from the archives of Radio 2 and Radio 4 that might give you the distinct impression that this is all decidedly easy listening, and that would be a fair point. But sometimes I need an alternative to beats and guitars for my entertainment and where else can I hear a slightly dark reading of The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe complete with David Suchet hamming it up as Aslan, to the point where he sounds dare I say it slightly pissed (visions of a giant lion taking a leak up against a tree in Narnia while growling “You’re my best mate…you are” and waving a tin of Special Brew did spring to mind). And where else would I have discovered that Martin Jarvis and Geoffrey Palmer seem to have been in every radio drama ever made since the dawn of wireless.
Yes folks, BBC Radio 7. It’s cosy, a bit kitsch. Definitely retrospective and allows us all to unleash the secret (or not so secret) old codger within.
Pass the slippers…
BBC7 is available on Digital Radio and online at the BBC website