The Trial of Qwerty; Les Paul: The Final Words of a Pioneer and Guitar Legend; Archive Hour; Farming Today | Radio review

Stephen Fry comes dangerously close to self-parody in his trial of Naughty Mr Qwerty

The Trial of Qwerty was the latest in Stephen Fry's English Delights on Radio 4. It should have been a delight, but turned out to be oddly annoying. The format – a mock trial – didn't help. It meant that Fry could show off his linguistic cleverness for all he was worth in a voice that moved from faux-stentorian to high camp and back again. After a while, it was hard to know when the real Stephen Fry – if he actually exists any more – was speaking.

The subject was the qwerty keyboard, which has survived several technological shifts since its invention in the 1870s – from manual to electronic typewriter, word processor to laptop – but remains an innately flawed system of transcribing thoughts into words. As one contributor put it, it takes 60 to 80 hours to learn to touch-type at 80 words a minute, and there's an 80% failure rate, whereas you can acquire a pilot's licence in 45 hours and there's an 80% success rate. Which, come to think of it, is kind of scary.

By the time another contributor started on about "the ergonomics and reduced key travel" of the alternative Dvorak keyboard, I had lost the will to concentrate. Something about the way Fry enunciated the word "permutation", part-public school headmaster, part-Frankie Howerd, had me almost reaching for the off switch. I persevered only to hear him repeat the phrase "Naughty Mister Qwerty", which wasn't even that funny first time around. I'm still a fan of QI – just – but, on this evidence, Wry Mister Fry is sailing perilously close to self-parody.

Narrated by Duane Eddy, Radio 2's music documentary about Les Paul, inventor of the revolutionary electric guitar of the same name, was straightforward to the point of old-fashioned and utterly reverential. Paul was a boffin, whose early experiments with solid body guitars and pick-ups were derided by music business big shots. "I told them, 'This is tomorrow,' and they just laughed," he recalled without rancour in the last interview he gave before his death last year.

Jimmy Page, Jeff Beck and BB King paid homage to the man who made the guitar that made them. "Like many kids today, I thought Les Paul was a guitar, not a man," quipped the cult blues-rock guitarist Joe Bonamassa. As branding goes, that's as successful as it gets. Luckily, Les changed his name early on from Lester William Polsfuss, which doesn't quite have the same twang about it.

In the Archive Hour on Radio 4, the Observer film critic Mark Kermode revisited Hulme in Manchester, where, in his lefty days in the mid-80s, he had squatted in one of the area's Soviet-style tower blocks. Close to the city centre, Hulme is now transformed from the drab, dangerous and vibrantly down-at-hell place it was back then. The music scene – Joy Division, Factory Records, The Hacienda – and the grassroots radical activism of the times were recalled in telling detail. The word "bleak" was used more than once, but somehow fondly. Three decades on, the Hulme that Kermode evoked seemed suddenly as distant as the 1930s.

Finally, insomniacs like myself may have been cheered by the end credits of Farming Today, broadcast on Radio 4 in the early hours of Thursday morning. An item on the sale of meat from a cloned cow was produced, the announcer intoned, by Anne-Marie Bullock. At 6am, you take your laughs where you can find them.


Sean O'Hagan

The GuardianTramp

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