Radio 4’s new arts shuffle began last week – shall we call it Culture Come Dancing? No, perhaps not – with the fabulous Tom Sutcliffe alternating with the equally excellent Samira Ahmed to host Front Row. We lose the other two regular hosts, Kirsty Lang and John Wilson (Wilson has been given his own interview show, see below). As Sutcliffe and Ahmed have been Front Row-ing for a while, everything feels pretty familiar, although Lang’s enthusiasm for visual arts and Wilson’s extensive pop knowledge will be missed. Front Row has been given extra time, so the four items covered on each show get deeper analysis and appreciation. Fine.
More excitingly, Add to Playlist began on Friday evening. This is a new music show, hosted by 6 Music’s Cerys Matthews and writer/teacher Jeffrey Boakye, who is less well known to listeners, but a fine choice as co-presenter. The programme’s premise reminds me of Radcliffe and Maconie’s The Chain: each week, the hosts, plus their guest, start off with one music track and then choose others that are tangentially related, forming a playlist that links, track by track, back to the start.
With The Chain, the listeners did the choosing; perhaps, in future episodes, a listener could be allowed to contribute to Add to Playlist. As it stands, the choice of tracks is up to Matthews, Boakye and, last week, music director Kojo Samuel. They started well, with Matthews choosing the none-more-of-the-moment US rapper/singer Lil Nas X and his cross-genre smash hit (with country singer Billy Ray Cyrus) Old Town Road, from 2018. This sparked some interesting, if fairly surface-level chat, until Samuel talked us through exactly how the song was made, from a basic instrumental building block (from Nine Inch Nails! Who knew?) through trap hi-hats to the final track. This was fascinating.
After that, some of the choices were disappointingly mainstream, such as Aerosmith/Run DMC’s Walk This Way and Dionne Warwick’s Walk on By. Surely every Radio 4 listener with even a passing pop knowledge knows these tracks? Still, Matthews, in particular, is so steeped in music and presentation that she can bring a quirky insight to any song. The less radio-experienced Boakye, perhaps keen to make his mark, jumped in a little too often when Matthews made a clever off-the-cuff remark, stomping over her point. But this is just technique and will no doubt change over the next few weeks. I very much enjoyed Boakye’s choice of Aaron Copland’s Hoe-Down, and the discussion about the heroic sound of open fifth chords afterwards, with violinist Tasmin Little, was interesting. The show feels somewhat overproduced at the moment, as though every sentence has to be Reithian and enlightening, but such is the way of Radio 4 and as the hosts become more relaxed, so will Add to…
John Wilson has been given his own interview show, This Cultural Life, which takes over the Archive on 4 slot on Saturday night. (The strand will alternate with a film programme, Screenshot, hosted by Mark Kermode and Ellen E Jones, which replaces The Film Programme.) This Cultural Life is a good idea, as Wilson loves nothing more than interviewing high-wattage artists and is very good at it. In this lovely first episode, he got Kenneth Branagh to talk movingly about his upbringing in Belfast during the Troubles: “I was on high alert. As was everyone. It was exhausting.” I note, with my usual neutral facial expression, that Radio 4’s Culture Come Dancing reshuffle has resulted in three immensely experienced women being elbowed from regular slots, in Lang and The Film Programme’s Francine Stock and Antonia Quirke.
Aside from all this, let’s welcome two more excellent Radio 4 shows that started last week. Ekow Eshun’s brilliant White Mischief explored the elusive and yet fundamental idea of whiteness, and is an absolute must-hear. I’ve listened to all three shows and there is so much in there, from Renaissance paintings to the origin of the term “blue blood” (only upper-class people can be blue bloods, because their veins show in their super-white skin). Grayson Perry, with his curious mind and enormous laugh, added humour to the opening of each programme as he discussed the issues with Eshun. I would have liked, perhaps, a teeny bit more discussion on how whiteness has structured our society, but there was so much to ponder and take on board. In episode three, Eshun’s gentle but pointed interview technique brought an MP who didn’t believe in the existence of white privilege over to his side. Many people object to being told they are benefiting from white privilege when they feel so badly treated by society. Privilege is a loaded word in our class-based country. Eshun did well to get past it to the truth.
Just room for Lynsey Hanley’s series on housing, A Home of Our Own. Every weekday last week and this, she visits a home and talks to its owner to reveal yet another crazy aspect of the UK’s ridiculously overheated, utterly broken property market. First was Phil Salter, who bought his council house in Cornwall in the 1980s, then sold it a few years later and bought a cottage nearby. Now, his tiny St Mawes property is worth well over £1m and he’s surrounded by rich runners-in. Second up was thirtysomething Danielle, who still lives with her mum in Tooting, because she can’t amass enough money to move to a home of her own. It’s all wrong, isn’t it?
This article was amended on 12 October 2021. The council house sold by Phil Salter was in Cornwall, not Balham as originally stated.