I have always loved the radio. Some of my earliest and happiest memories are of listening to the BBC Home Service on a Sunday lunchtime upstairs with my Nana in her little two room flat at the top of our old family home. I would take my Sunday lunch up to eat with her and we sat in religious silence for an hour and a half, both sitting riveted to the old valve wireless set laughing out loud to the Navy Lark, Hancock’s Half Hour and Around the Horne, broadcast one after the other to blast the Sunday lunchtime blues of the recovering post war Nation.
And then came the Goon Show and that changed everything. The surrealistic plots, the crazy characterisations of Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers, Michael Bentine and the unforgettable and extraordinary genius of Spike Milligan. My life was never quite the same again. Sunday lunchtime became a fabulous flowering of virtuosity flowing from that mysterious magic miracle box. If you are too young to remember the Goons, do search them out. All the series are available on Amazon, remastered and with some great ‘bonus features’. I hadn’t listened since the 1950s and I wasn’t sure I wanted to. Maybe they would now be dated and unfunny and I didn’t want that perfect memory of innocence, shared hilarity and wonder spoiled by my 21st century cynicism. But as I had some Audible credits to play with I went for a 26 hour compendium. It was/is as wonderful as I remembered. The dated parts were beautifully nostalgic and the music interludes reminded me of the time when music was such a central and important feature of popular and serious broadcasting. Not just an extract but a full track. The almost total lack of music from stations such as Radio 4 is a huge loss. The sound effects are genius too from the early burgeoning Radiophonics workshop. And the cast all corpse so often in the sheer enjoyable, exuberant eccentricity of it all. Wonderful.
Radio has changed again and I love the revolution. Podcasting is the new radio, and there’s one station I’d like to flag as an example of the very best of the new media. If you thought my title to this blog was my own invention, I wish it had been but no, www.radiotopia.fm is a collection (they call it a collective) of the very best. Mostly American but not exclusively so. Visit their site and click on ‘Listen’ it will scroll you randomly through all the contributors’ episodes, and if you ignore the ads at the top and bottom of each (and even some of these are presented a little differently), you will arrive at the pith of the podcast and you will see, or rather hear what I mean. I have my favourites (The Allusionist, Strangers, Heart and 99% Invisible) but they are all good, and if one episode doesn’t appeal (although there is sometimes a surprise outcome to even the most mundane beginning) you can just skip forward to the next random choice. I love the directness, the honesty and the closeness of the style. I found the background music in some of them annoying at first (Americans seem to have to fill every nanosecond with something) but I think their use of non-verbal sound is work in progress and there are some effects which are stunning in their virtuosity, a little like the Radiophonics Workshop additions, but adapted to the new age. They are mostly serious documentary subjects, but often brimming with ‘comedie humaine’ and heart-warming tales of people, places and things. Above all there is a dedication, a seriousness of purpose and a real love of the audio form.
I heard somewhere that the sense of hearing is the last to fade in a dying person. Certainly the 21st century seems to have annexed hearing in favour of the apparently more immediate senses of sight and touch. For me though my hearing is a direct motorway to my imagination and triggers responses that I find expansive and hugely evocative. As someone said (sorry I couldn’t attribute the quote) ‘The colours are brighter on the radio.’
And so to Ilfracombe… with the Goon Show playing in the lorry cab.
All the best from a road near you,