Saturday 22 October 2016

Radio review: The delight of going against the grain

Eilis O'Hanlon

Published 26/09/2016 | 02:30

Melvyn Bragg
Melvyn Bragg

Between 1348 and 1349, approximately half the population of England died of the Black Death; but BBC Radio Four's Making History explained how the disaster also opened up "huge opportunities" for survivors to get more land and jobs and earn higher wages.

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Fascinating stuff, and a reminder that radio doesn't always have to be about conflict and confrontation. Sometimes people talking knowledgeably about subjects they care about can work equally well. That's what makes the same station's In Our Time one of the best shows on air.

It returned last Thursday with a panel of academics discussing Greek philosopher Zeno's paradoxes, formulated to test the limits of common sense by asserting, for example, that an arrow in flight can never reach its target. They've proved surprisingly hard to refute. Presenter Melvyn Bragg, who can get amusingly testy with boffins who fail to explain themselves clearly enough, was on his best behaviour, and ended by saying: "I really enjoyed that." He wasn't the only one.

The interview with Marie Heaney on Tuesday's Ryan Tubridy Show was disappointing for the host's determination to keep the focus on his guest's relationship with her late husband, poet Seamus, rather than on the woman herself or her new anthology of poems.

Marie talked fondly about Heaney's "goodness" and sense of humour, but it felt a bit like prying, especially as she made it clear that they were both quite private people, and that she didn't relish the limelight: "The brighter the light, the darker the penumbra, and I was extremely happy to be in that penumbra."

Jonathan Healy made his debut as the new host of Newstalk's Sunday Show, and was as sure-footed as ever; but it's a shame that so many serving politicians are still booked for these shows, despite rarely saying much of interest. Perhaps those sending out the invites hope TDs will be indiscreet, but Mary Lou McDonald of Sinn Fein was too wily for that.

She was resolutely on message, even denying that there was disciplined uniformity in the party: "We are an unruly bunch, let me tell you, republicans are opinionated... the debates are hearty, they're full on." The phrase "she would say that, wouldn't she?" did come to mind.

John Waters was a much better guest on Sarah Carey's Talking Point. He can be tetchy, occasionally petty, even silly at times, but he's always interesting, and hearing him was a reminder of how he's almost entirely ignored in Irish media.

It's good to hear speakers willing to go against the grain. Sarah McInerney, new co-presenter of Newstalk Drive, even dared to criticise Hillary Clinton's response to the recent New York bombings: "Her words were right… but the way she was saying it lacked any emotion, lacked any passion, lacked any sense of authority."

Finding anyone on Irish radio willing to admit that the US Presidential hopeful might be less than perfect is rare indeed.

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