Tony Earnshaw: Radio offers just as many retro gems as TV

Orson Welles's contemporary rendering of The War of the Worlds, which notched up its 80th anniversary in 2018, still packs a punch.
Orson Welles's contemporary rendering of The War of the Worlds, which notched up its 80th anniversary in 2018, still packs a punch.
0
Have your say

Channel-surfing has always been a “thing” for me, and I can say, hand on heart, that I’ve never really moaned about there being “nothing on the TV”.

Call it being obsessional with a small ‘o’, but I relish trawling through the channels seeking out appealing programming.

I did it when I was a lad and TV land offered just four channels. Then there were five, then a few more, and suddenly cable and satellite presented all manner of randomness. After all, they had schedules to fill. Flash forward 30 years and my small-time obsession represents the kind of behaviour that programmers love. And that’s because they want people to explore what they’re putting out there.

Back in the early 1980s I tuned in to a weekly BBC radio show called Earthsearch. Like the person in the Queen song Radio Ga Ga, who sits alone in the darkness and watches the light on the wireless, I connected the little red squares that danced on my radio/cassette with that serial.

Thus I have latterly returned to radio, enjoying the audio in the same way that I might respond to a film: sitting in the semi-darkness, eyes closed, putting pictures to the sounds. There’s something deliciously old school about radio drama. A classic like Orson Welles’s contemporary rendering of The War of the Worlds, which notched up its 80th anniversary in 2018, still packs a punch.

In the intimate isolation of a darkened room it delivers massively; the impact is lessened if heard in the car. And whilst that timelessness is as much the combination of Orson Welles and H G Wells, it also draws on the medium of radio. The retro gems that populate sundry television schedules can now be found on radio, too. Chief among the purveyors of such fare is BBC Radio 4 Extra, and it is to that station that I have gravitated of late.

The line-up has included ghost stories by MR James and Walter de la Mare, naturalists discussing their hobby in Sounds Natural, Ian Carmichael as Lord Peter Wimsey and comedy courtesy of The Navy Lark.

Some of this material has been made available over the years – on LP, cassette and CD. But much of it hasn’t – until someone decided to plunder the Beeb’s archives.

And that’s where I come in. It’s close on 40 years since I lay in my bed listening to Sean Arnold as Commander Telson in Earthsearch. I’ve heard it since, albeit in scattered increments, but nothing has matched the thrill of tuning in over multiple weeks, eager to catch the next instalment.

Radio, more than 120 years old, has become my new thing. I don’t need or want to share my enjoyment with an audience. Instead I can sit quietly, in the shadows, with a glass of something appropriate to hand, and revel in sound and imagination.