A Dinner Party for Your Ears

A great, downloadable British radio show.

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Fans of podcasting and of the BBC, and I’m certainly both, have been enjoying the slow-but-steady rollout over the last year of great British radio programs available for download. The BBC describes what it’s doing as a “podcasting trial,” but apparently the trial has been successful, because the offerings keep coming.

These are not shows from the venerable World Service, which, while journalistically solid, tend to be just a smidge dry. No, the Beeb saves its best radio offerings for the domestic audience, and my favorites come almost exclusively from Radio 4, the news and information service.

I became a total Radio 4 geek when I lived in London in the 1990s, and I only wish NPR or some other U.S. radio network could hold a candle to it. Radio 4’s shows are smart, provocative, erudite, and often laugh-out-loud funny (anyone who understands what the phrase “Mornington Crescent” refers to will know exactly what I mean). I wish they were all available as podcasts.

The other day I noticed that one of the shows I love has been added to the ranks of the downloadable. It’s called Start the Week (Web page here; iTunes feed here; the BBC’s full iTunes page here), and, despite its title, it is definitely not a prosaic preview of the upcoming debates in Parliament. Rather, it’s a Monday morning tonic, a way to distract you from your descent back into the minutiae of the work week by presenting smart people talking about grand things.

The format of STW is simple: It gathers three or four really interesting people, mostly authors of nonfiction books but also museum curators, artists, and other creative types, in a studio and lets them loose. Each one gets a turn to talk about his or her project, and the terrific host, Andrew Marr, tries (usually successfully) to find ways to tie all the topics together. The guests are encouraged to question each other, and the result is something akin to attending a perfect dinner party.

Last week’s episode (which you can find here) was nominally about conquerors and included biographers of Douglas MacArthur, Edward III, and Isaac Newton (I believe the justification for including him was that he conquered physics or ignorance or some such), plus the curator of a British National Gallery exhibit on Gentile Bellini, a Western painter who went to work for Sultan Mehmed II of Constantinople. This week’s edition about legends (Samuel Beckett, Orson Welles, Maximilien Robespierre) is an equally marvelous 45 minutes.

Now, if the BBC will just make available the similarly eclectic but much funnier show Loose Endsas a podcast, I’ll be a happy Radio4ophile-in-exile.

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