Radio Therapy 5

Letter from America

I planned to write about a loved radio programme for each of twenty treatments for prostrate cancer. I managed just four before other demands and maybe some side-effect fatigue crowded in. The treatment is finished now but I wanted to record some precious radio memories jogged by an American friend who spent part of her childhood in 1970’s England.

For my friend’s family, I can only imagine the importance of tuning in to hear from home; there was no CNN or internet for most of the programme’s run. For its own part, my small English family listened rapt each Sunday morning to Letter from America by Englishman Alistair Cooke. Post-war Britain was in awe of its affluent ally over the pond; land of skyscrapers, ostentatious, winged automobiles, colour TV and refrigerators. We wanted to know what might be coming our way as well as try to understand how the final of the National Baseball competition came to be The World Series.

Letter from America was first broadcast in 1946 and Cooke broadcast his weekly, 15 minute, letters until shortly before his death in 2004 aged 95. His voice had acquired a soft, mid-Atlantic twang but remained recognisably English. His subjects ranged across topical, mundane, obscure and quirky. The Presidential Election campaign sat comfortably alongside the evident relief the broadcaster felt as September arrived in New York City and cooler, fresher air replaced the stifling humidity of summer. There was always an undertone of dry humour. His love of golf also came to the fore in quite a few of his letters.

The concept of a trans-atlantic broadcast correspondence pre-dated the Second World War, when Cooke was NBC’s correspondent in London. London Letter became Letter from America.

Cooke was able to provide a unique perspective on important parts of the history of the 20th Century. He was yards from Bobby Kennedy when he was assassinated. He narrated the progress of the awful Vietnam war to a British audience that was happy, for once, to be mere onlookers.

Alistair Cooke was a prolific journalist and broadcaster. Letter from America represents a mighty legacy but just the tip of his output iceberg. Americans enjoyed his role as the host of Masterpiece Theatre, a Public Broadcasting showcase for British television which continues today. His character and this series were parodied in Sesame Street.

Cooke loved America but he never lost his English perspective and the ability to take a wry look at the culture of his adopted country. The admiration we felt for our cousins across the pond was nicely balanced by his reassurance that we still had the edge in the important areas of life; politics, sport, weather and our ability to laugh at ourselves.

Radio Therapy 4

I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue

I am writing daily, during my cancer treatment, about a radio show that has brightened up my life.

A Canadian colleague, when asked how he had enjoyed his first vacation to the UK, responded in mild outrage that he had been shocked by the state control of the media here and the dirth of anything other than BBC radio and television. Meanwhile, the ruling party is often complaining of the BBC’s left-wing bias. Perhaps that suggests they have it about right so I will not apologise for picking another BBC Radio 4 show for my fourth treatment.

I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue, the antidote to panel games, was first broadcast in 1972, when I was well into my teenage years. The format consists of a series of absurd parlour games and the panellists must have lightening wit to survive. Like all the best panel games, the winning is of absolutely no importance. In this case, no points are actually awarded. The repartee that accompanies the games is all important. The audience is often reduced to stitches.

The programme was chaired by jazz musician, Humphrey Littleton, until his death in 2008. He loved a good, old-fashioned innuendo. The current chair is the Sahara dry Jack Dee. Panelists have included Tim Brook-Taylor, Willie Rushton and Sandi Toksvig. The scorer is the mysterious and “lovely Samantha” .

Of the several games played during each episode, Mornington Crescent is one of my favourites and perhaps the most absurd since it is entirely meaningless. The game involves a tour of London streets and its Underground system in which a logical response to the street or station suggested by the previous panelist is proffered after a, sometimes long, pause for faux strategic thought. The logic can be challenged at any point and the objective of the game is to avoid giving the game to the next panelist with an answer that can be unfathomably followed by “Mornington Crescent”. Sometimes the game is played to special rules which, of course, are doubly opaque and totally flexible at the chair’s discretion.

If you can listen to I’m Sorry I haven’t a Clue and keep a straight face, you are already dead.

Radio Therapy 3

Cricket commentator and author Leslie Thomas John Arlott OBE (25 February 1914 – 14 December 1991) sitting in the commentary box during his final Test Match commentary on the second Centenary Test between England and Australia to commemorate their first Test match in England in 1880 on 29 August 1980 at the Lord’s Cricket Ground, St John’s Wood, London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Adrian Murrell/Allsport/Getty Images)

Test Match Special

I am writing about my favourite radio programmes from a lifetime of avid listening. One show each day of my cancer treatment.

Test Match Special, from the BBC, covers international cricket matches. Ball by ball. For up to five days, depending on the format. The programme comes live from the ground wherever the game is taking place in the test cricket playing world; that can mean any of eleven countries from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe.

I first listened to TMS in the 1960s. In those days the game was shown free and live on (black and white) terrestrial television and, like other cricket lovers, I would listen to the TMS commentary with the TV sound muted. This is not so successful in the days of live streaming as the streams are usually slightly out of synchronisation. Sound wins over picture for me.

The games in these early days were graced with the likes of batsmen Ted Dexter, Colin Cowdrey and the young Geoff Boycott (now a grumpy, opinionated commentator himself). Bowlers included John Snow and Derek Underwood. The commentary team was headed up by the great John Arlott with his gravelly Hampshire accented voice and poetic descriptions of the game. A notable sidebar (find it on Youtube) was his description of a streaker who ran onto the pitch at Lords (HQ of the game in London) in 1975.

TMS typically has a team of rotating commentators who do a thirty minute stint in pairs. The ball by ball detail is handled by one of the core team members while a retired player usually provides some insights or banter between overs (six balls are bowled at the receiving batsmen to complete an over in typically three to five minutes). The core team is a mix of ex-professionals and sports journalists. The most important qualification is a deep knowledge of the game. The ability to entertain the audience through prolonged rain stoppages or periods of bad light is crucial. Humour and old rivalries provide an engaging backdrop to the game itself. The team is completed by a mostly silent scorer/statistician who is ever ready to answer deliberately obscure questions and announce records as they fall. Cricket was a game of statistics long before baseball.

Test Match Cricket, the best kind, is played over five days. The match situation develops slowly. There can be long spells of quiet, attritional cricket. The TMS team fill in the gaps with detailed descriptions of the pigeons, buses, trains and planes passing close by or over the ground. When commentating from oversees venues, there may be a little local colour provided, for example, by the grazing hadida ibis at the Wanderers in Johannesburg and their remarkable sangfroid when the ball is hit hard in their direction.

Another feature of the broadcasts are the luxuriant chocolate cakes sent in by listeners for the sustenance of the TMS team on languid summer afternoons when the players are beginning to tire and the action has fallen into a period of somnolence.

Recent years have seen the welcome addition of women to the TMS commentary team, reflecting the increasing importance of the women’s game. The likes of ex-players, Ebony Rainford-Brent and Alison Mitchell have eased seamlessly into the commentators seat.

Test Match cricket gets underway, without the crowds, on the 8th July when England meet the West Indies. Whatever your level of interest in cricket, give TMS a try.