Big, as anyone who has tried to get into last year’s bathing suit will know, is not necessarily beautiful. The BBC has gone with gusto, nevertheless, into the business of big. A single series is no longer enough to mark an event, a life, a body of work. Seasons are the thing now, overlapping each other like mighty waves as, watching them, we wonder how best to get into the water.
The Gay Britannia season has already been with us for weeks, harnessing the combined power of BBC radio and television to remind us of the 50 years that have passed since the Sexual Offences Act legalised private acts between consenting men over the age of 21 in England and Wales, bringing us resulting plays, documentaries, discussions, features. Before this season, and still with us, is a four-year commemoration of the Great War. Already overlapping both is a major August season on the 70 years since India’s partition. I have a vivid interest in all these subjects. I have reservations about being successively submerged in them.
Yet Born This Way (Radio 2, Wednesday) was a pleasure, an informal history of how popular music has reflected homosexual culture from the start of the 20th century through, more or less, every decade since. The presenter is Andrew Scott, a fine actor and one of the best Hamlets I have ever seen, although here it sounded as if he had not given the script the benefit of his full attention. When he pronounced the name of one of the proponents of the parliamentary Act as “Leo Abs” I startled. “Abse,” I yelled at the radio, “Ab – se, two syllables. Didn’t you check it?”
Still, the songs and the interviews moved it all along smartly, from music hall star Fred Barnes in 1905 singing Black Sheep of the Family to Boy George and Do You Really Want to Hurt Me in 1982. Listen for the clues, the script said, discover what the songs were saying to their times. Producers Jonathan O’Sullivan and Max O’Brien brought in an impressive range of expert testimony from journalists, producers, historians, activists. Part two tonight covers what happened to the sexual revolution when Aids arrived. As Andrew Scott was sitting in front of me at the National Theatre recently for Angels in America, Tony Kushner’s 1991 drama on that very subject, I can’t accuse him of skipping his homework this time.
Partition Voices (Radio 4, Monday) began a three-part series of first-hand testimony from people who witnessed the creation of Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan in 1947. I lived through this time too, remember the news on the radio, the cartoons in the press. I’ve also read novels about it, seen and heard documentaries and dramas. But here, listening to people who fled to the UK from the wars that broke out, child witnesses to carnage that became a fact of daily life, was revelatory. This is presented with utmost clarity by Kavita Puri, so try to catch this before a great wave of programmes on its theme starts crashing over us two weeks hence.
All this recent history may be the explanation for Sarah Dunant’s new monthly series When Greeks Flew Kites (Radio 4, Sunday). Its aim is to reach back into history, find themes from the past, connect them to how we live today. This opening programme was about parental expectations for the times their children will grow up in. Will things always get better? What can we do when children depart from a parentally preferred path? She started in the dagger-drawing time of the Medicis, crossed the Atlantic to consider the American dream and racial inequality, came back to voice anxiety about social mobility and barriers to expectation. These are, indeed, “ideas that speak to us today” but, as each of the viewpoints seemed muzzy, the voices were muffled.
Love Henry James is another current Radio 4 season, bringing a dull version of The Portrait of a Lady as the Sunday play and a gabbled Daisy Miller as the daily drama. I love him no less despite both. Radio 4 further brought Tuesday The Strange Case of Henry James’ Testicles, a literary enquiry by John Sutherland into whether James’s “horrid if obscure hurt” was an actual bodily injury or a metaphor. Leave it obscure, concluded Sutherland eventually. Yes, I yelled.
For a series with a voice of its own, try Door Stepping (Radio 4, all week at 1.45pm) with Jude Rogers visiting houses, flats and rooms she’s lived in. After the mighty tidal roar and rumble of BBC seasons, here’s blissfully plain sailing.