Wednesday 22 January 2020

Brendan’s latest voyage has him back on familiar beat

Brendan Balfe is something of a national treasure. For decades he's been producing radio that's intelligent, thoughtful, well-constructed and quite unlike anything else.

Balfe's genius is for audio montage: he takes dozens of clips - spoken-word and music - and assembles them into a coherent whole.

I guess you could call it "narrative" radio: there's always a story, but more than that, his shows have a thematic flow, a unity, filled with allusions, references, reminders, parts echoing off earlier parts. Balfe's latest is 30 Days (Radio 1, Sat 1pm), which has just begun and is running for nine weeks.

The premise is simple, and appropriately historical, to mark his half-century in radio.

The programme takes one month from down the years, which proved a seminal influence on human affairs. We began with January 1907, in which Jim Larkin arrived in Ireland, Montessori schools opened, women agitated for voting rights, and Shaw and Synge opened controversial, iconic new plays.

As always with Balfe, it was rich, instructive, entertaining radio. What I especially liked was that 30 Days doesn't just predictably focus on politics and economics.

It realises that pop culture, social mores, art, advertising, religion, trends - the full shopping-list of the human experience - is as important to real life, and often more. Upcoming shows include August 1914 (WWI, Shackleton), December 1955 (Rosa Parks, Elvis, Ireland joining the UN) and May 1998 (Good Friday, Monica Lewinsky). Check it out.

Nova (Lyric, Sun 8pm) operates on an altogether stranger frequency, but it's just as good. Bernard Clarke's programme plays new music, but don't worry, this isn't the latest chart-topper: this is instrumental music of an avant-garde stripe.

Indeed, it's so avant-garde to my dumb ears that I don't quite know how to describe it. Strange, discordant, kind of dreamy (or nightmarish) . . . no, that doesn't capture it.

Okay, imagine this: you're watching the weirdest, most hypnotic sci-fi movie ever. One of those bizarro flicks from the seventies, where there's a guy - an alien but he looks human - wandering around a desert for three hours, dressed in a suit and drinking a coke. The kind of thing David Bowie might have appeared in.

Got that in mind? Well, Nova is the soundtrack - and every bit as cool as that suggests.

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