The Wombles (Radio 4) | BBC Sounds
A Single Act (Radio 4) | BBC Sounds
’Twas the Nighy Before Christmas (6 Music) | BBC Sounds
Hanif Kureishi Guest Edits Today (Radio 4) | BBC Sounds
Dom Joly LBC
I didn’t have an easy time explaining to my tweenage children who (what?) the Wombles were. “They are kind of the British version of the Moomins,” I started. The younger one replied: “Are they real?” I hesitated: as a child, in the early 1980s, I made my parents traipse around Wimbledon Common in search of them. “They live in Wimbledon,” I replied, a bit stumped. Blank faces: “Like the tennis players?” the older one asked. We really weren’t getting anywhere.
All of which suggests that Wimbledon’s original Crazy Gang (the one led by Great Uncle Bulgaria, not Vinnie Jones) are perfect candidates for a comeback. The comedian Johnny Vegas certainly thought so and, 50 years after the pointy-nosed proto-environmentalists first appeared on the BBC, the Wombles returned to Radio 4 with six, 14-minute vignettes that played nightly over the week between Christmas and new year, with a final episode on New Year’s Day.
Vegas is directing rather than performing, and his biggest call was picking a voice for the series. He chose well: Richard E Grant plays each of the characters, from a rumbling Bulgaria and mad inventor Tobermory to Madame Cholet, now sans French accent, and young tyke Bungo (Wombles get their names from a battered old atlas in the burrow). Much has been made of the Wombles’ eco-credentials for their 2023 revival: they spend most of their days, after all, litter-picking and recycling. But the real joy of the series is the timeless, low-jeopardy storytelling. There’s nostalgia for sure, but even my hard-to-please tweens were swept along.
There was another anniversary on Radio 4 last week: 100 years of radio drama. The station tipped its hat to the milestone with A Single Act, a new play by novelist and occasional standup comedian AL Kennedy. It was introduced by and starred Bill Nighy, who revealed that one of his first jobs, a half-century ago, was as an apprentice in the BBC radio drama department. He said he loved audio dramas because they require “from the audience a degree of imagination that is exhilarating and satisfying”.
A Single Act bore this out, in somewhat surreal style. It’s impossible to daydream or second-screen when you are listening to a radio play if you want to remotely follow what’s going on. I had to even stop peeling and chopping carrots for Boxing Day lunch. But A Single Act, which followed a melancholic man (Nighy) searching for his grandson, who might have taken a drug overdose in the woods – except with jokes! – rewarded careful attention. Kennedy’s writing was deft and economical, creating a sense of emotional investment in the characters that defied the play’s 45-minute running time.
If you do want background sounds to prep vegetables to, might I direct you to another Nighy production. The actor has been sitting in for Iggy Pop on his Sunday 6 Music show in December and his programmes – the last of which is today at 4pm – have been a joy. The Christmas Eve episode, ’Twas the Nighy Before Christmas, achieved the seemingly impossible: two hours of festive songs that didn’t make you want to plug your ears with brussels sprouts.
The Christmas guest editors on Radio 4’s Today remain reliably agenda-setting. But this year one name stood out: the 69-year-old novelist Hanif Kureishi, whose show was broadcast on Boxing Day, exactly a year on from the day he had a fall in Rome, which left him unable to move his legs, arms and hands. The three hours were full of gripping revelations. Kureishi noted how he lost his sense of humour for months and still can’t bring himself to listen to music. Alan Yentob, a friend, told of how Kureishi once said to him: “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.”
And yet, it became clear that family has saved Kureishi. In one section, he discussed his new circumstances with his son Sachin, Sachin’s mother, Tracey, and Kureishi’s current partner, Isabella. Punches were not pulled: “In life, I always felt you were a bit cowardly,” said Tracey. Sachin noted that “absurdly” the injury had given Kureishi’s writing (which he now dictates to Sachin and his twin brother, Carlo) a new spark that he had been looking for. Life with Kureishi certainly didn’t sound easy, but anyone who can bring together partners present and past for such an affectionate exchange is doing something right.
Finally, someone else you might need to explain to a younger generation is Dom Joly: “Erm, he used to shout into an oversized mobile phone…” Joly made his debut last week on the talk-radio station LBC in the evening slot. Before the first show on Wednesday, there was speculation on social media about how long it would take for a caller to scream, “HELLO! I’M IN A LIBRARY!” But, as it played out, listeners – and Joly himself – were on their best behaviour. Topics ranged from James Cleverly to how Joly had briefly been at school with Osama bin Laden and there were many callers phoning in for the first time, which suggests that Joly might be a smart hire.
Towards the end of the show, an assured, likable Joly said that his wife had instructed him not to be “too rude to people”. It will be intriguing to see how long that resolution lasts.