I am sat in the studio between two people declaring love for each other! Sandi Toksvig in a very hip pink smock has just declared undying adoration for Charles Collingwood – Brian Aldridge of The Archers – likewise he declares undying adoration of loving sort to Sandi Toksvig. They then announce that they are both going to South America! Stop the press. This is national news! I’m on BBC Radio Fours Saturday Live. It is now early into its second year. Sandy has just given a live trail for Excess Baggage and leaves the studio in a flurry of wit and warmth.
It’s been around for about a year and a half and to much public consternation replaced Home Truths which was presented by national institution the late John Peel. The
entire BBC radio four Saturday morning audience seemed to seethe with bitter hatred grieving both the death of John Peel and the end of Home Truths, distastefully replaced by some upstart presenter from, wait for it, Radio Five!!
Fi Glover, with sharp eye, took the helm of the ship and steered the show through a storm of hate mail and got the hell on with it. With a forthright and experienced production
team Glover – at least as forthright and experienced as they are – steered good ship BBC Radio 4 through.
Saturday Live has a rotating team of poets of which I’m one. We read two poems, one at the top of the show, the beginning, and one towards the end of the show. The job of the various poets on Saturday Live is to write poems not only of the moment, regarding current news, but of the actual moment regarding the guests and the subject matter of the programme. We get this information a couple of days before which gives us time to think of the poem and build it’s structure.
Unbeknown to me I’d previously written poems for Maria Williamson the executive producer of Saturday Live who was then at radio One. The poems I wrote on the subject of AIDS were read to the nation by Speech of the then famous band Arrested Development. At that time I was writing poems for The Emma Freud Show on Radio One. Match this with the questionable fact that I am the only poet to be commissioned to write and read a poem on Gardeners Question Time . I wasn’t then, but I am now, a fan of GQT.
But for Saturday Live it’s a real skill, finding the poem and editing in double triple time. For a writer, for me, this is a fascinating process. And to fit all this into twenty seconds at
the top of the programme and sixty seconds at the end of the programme it always proves virtually impossible. Brilliant. What a challenge. How to find and cut diamonds in the flick of an eye, so they sparkle. What you get is the essence of what the poet is really about.
So here I am on another week on this programme early into it’s second year and I love it. Todays programme was a blast. I immediately got along with Charles Collingwood, raconteur and household name, of The Archers and Margaret Sandra the woman with no name. There is a very curious recorded interview with a man who was taken to Guantanamo bay, from Pakistan. What nobody knows is that the practice of pretending to throw a prisoner out of an airborne helicopter which I speak about in the second poem is a method of torture which I first heard about from an ex IRA elder in Belfast, when I was writer in residence at the Belfast Literature Festival.
Once the programme finished I hear Saturday Live is the only regular radio four programme to be nominated for a Sony Award this year. Not one but two awards in different categories. How the worm has turned. The nation loves the programme. You can hear the entire programme via the BBCs award winning online service. Just click on listen to latest edition here http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/saturdaylive/ There’s pictures too: you can read todays poems there.
On the way out of the Broadcasting House I watched Lesley Sharp politely signing autographs from the gull like autograph hunters hopping outside. She graciously stood for photographs in a picture of patience, as if she was saying to herself, if you can wait in the cold I can stand for a picture. I then saw and had a nice natter with Aurthur Smith, lovely man, who coincidentally was on Saturday Live a the previous week. It’s a good day to not have a drink. And it’s a nice day to be alive. My poems have just spilled out into the ears of two million people. I’ve done it before and I’ll do it again. But it’s the poems: it’s all about the work.