The world has shrunk, and continue to shrink. Sometimes that can feel a scary thing. But it’s also a huge opportunity. The internet broadcasts around the world, and one of the great British institutions for readers, Radio 4, is available around the globe.
Now, this isn’t simple. The BBC is funded by a licence fee (about which we could have a long conversation were this the time and place) paid by all TV owners in the UK. That means that BBC television services are restricted, including the online iPlayer. But you can listen to UK radio on a desktop computer outside the UK. If you have trouble, it seems the best bet is to search for the programme’s own page, and there are links to all of those mentioned below if you just hover over any underlined text.
This is great news for readers who like a bit of background to go with their books. BBC Radio 4 really is a wonderful resource for book lovers. It might be stereotyped as middle-class, middle-brow and resolutely low-key, establishment-friendly and proper – some of which is probably fair – but it’s packed with book-friendly programmes from readings to poetry to discussions to author-as-celebrity interviews.
Here’s a quick guide to some of the best.
1 – A Good Read
There are nearly 250 episodes of A Good Read available online, a huge collection of books to get your teeth into.
The show follows a simple format: two guests join the presenter – currently writer Harriet Gilbert, though you’ll also find politician-turned-writer Matthew Parris, broadcaster Sue MacGregor, journalist Tom Sutcliffe, and novelist Louise Doughty among other presenters – and all three each pick a favourite book for the others to read and discuss. The format used to focus on affordable, mass-market paperbacks, but that seems to be less of an up-front concern these days.
The guests are “celebrities”, but very much Radio 4 celebrities, so there are lots of writers, Radio 4-friendly comedians, broadcasters, lawyers… and they’re very British. But it’s still a very diverse selection of people with a correspondingly broad selection of books.
To pick a couple of programmes at random: historian Niall Ferguson picks the First World War classic, All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque; comedy producer and writer, Armando Iannucci chooses Will You Please Be Quiet, Please, a collection of short stories by Raymond Carver; and presenter Tom Sutcliffe inflicts Murphy by Samuel Beckett on his guests. Writer Philip Pullman picks Sculptor’s Daughter: A Childhood Memoir by Tove Jansson, the Moomin creator; feminist journalist Caroline Criado-Perez chooses The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose by Alice Munro, and presented Harriett Gilbert offers Graham Greene’s The Quiet American.
But you’ll find everything in A Good Read: popular crime fiction, literary classics, poetry, science, even self-help books. It’s a good listen.
2 – In Our Time
If A Good Read is a fairly light show, In Our Time, presented by veteran British arts broadcaster (Lord) Melvyn Bragg has academic pretentions.
Again, there’s a simple format. Melvyn welcomes a panel of three academic experts who spend 45 minutes explaining something, with Melvyn butting in when he feels things need explaining. (I’ve heard a couple of episodes get quite lively!)
Online the shows are divided into categories: History, Science, Philosophy, Culture, Religion, and Science. All are interesting, but you’ll need to head to the Culture section for your literary fix.
Lord Bragg and his clever mates aren’t much interested in current, popular fiction, but if you like classics you’ll find plenty to dig in into.
Looking at the current Culture front page, there are shows on Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbevilles, the poetry of Rumi, Jane Austen’s Emma, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, The Trial by Franz Kafka, Rudyard Kipling’s life and works, and Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf.
Elsewhere you’ll find more recognised classics and giant figures – there’s a lot on Shakespeare – of literature, artistic movements and the like. The show tends toward the academic, but not intimidatingly so, I don’t think.
3 – Book Club
A book club is a very Radio 4 sort of thing.
The radio version runs once a month with presenter James Naughtie (most famously a news presenter) meeting an author in front of an audience – who have read the book – for an interview and questions from the audience.
The books chosen tend to be from the world of “literary fiction” – the sort of novels that win awards. Not entirely though. You’ll find crime and historical fiction, poetry, even the odd children’s book. The discussions are always good – well-informed and interested.
Looking, again pretty much at random, down the 234 episodes currently posted, I can see John Le Carre discussing his George Smiley books; Richard Flanagan talking about The Narrow Road to the Deep North; Tessa Hadley discussing her short story collection, Married Love; and Marina Lewycka talking about A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian.
The selections are good and broad, though generally conforming to the Radio 4 stereotypes mentioned above. Of course, in five 15 minute episodes (the series occasionally extend to 10 episodes) there’s a lot of abridging to be done, and if you’re planning to read something it’s probably a good idea to avoid these readings.
Recent titles on Book at Bedtime include Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist; The Bricks That Built the Houses by Kate Tempest; and The Typewriter’s Tale by Michiel Heyn. Brand new books are often featured and readings are sometimes by the authors themselves.
Rather than building a library of these online, the BBC publishes them and takes them down. At the moment there are 53 episodes that you can listen to.
5 – Open Book
Open Book is a magazine show, presented by Mariella Frostrup, that’s more generally about the world of books than any of the other shows in this list.
Author interviews are usually the star feature of each show, and they are generally to promote a recent publication. The three most recent guests have been Icelandic writer Sjon, Colombian novelist Juan Gabriel Vasquez, and Kit de Waal.
The business of books is also discussed – digital publishing, self-publishing, festivals – and recent series have had a “Reading Clinic” with themed reading lists.
This is just the start of Radio 4’s literary listening. Looking through the station’s Culture section there’s a show with writer Jeanette Winterson looking at the history of Manchester, an appraisal of Raymond Chandler, and a programme celebrating Mervyn Peake. And that’s before we start on the poetry, with at least a couple of regular poetic shows, or on what the World Service, Radio 3 and Radio 2 have to offer.