Black Eye/Boxed Ear: Radio Vs. Television, Round One

Well, I’m working myself up to a season finale of sorts. On 20 May, broadcastellan will turn two. And since the anniversary falls smack into the limbo of my (projected) three-week hiatus—during which time I am once again catching the sights and sounds of New York City, my former home—this week’s journal entries are meant to remind me why I love writing about radio, the medium television bullied into submission. Let’s have a sparring contest between video and the wireless. Do we need images to get the picture? Can radio show television how it’s really done? Or might not sight be a welcome, even necessary, adjunct to sound? That kind of debate.

Though I grew up, like fellow webjournalist Brent McKee, being a “Child of Television,” I don’t sample many contemporary programs these days. I generally snatch from satellite TV whatever old movies I see listed in the Radio Times (yes, Britain’s premier TV guide is still called the Radio Times). Perhaps I shouldn’t be pooping on the dish, given that many of the films I have watched so far this year (and am listing in the column on the right) were recorded from television, British channels FilmFour, the four BBC channels, and TCM UK being the main purveyors.

So, what programs have I been watching lately? I confess to an occasional glance at a few early episodes of Ugly Betty, a serial so uneven in tone and unselfconsciously hokey in its storytelling that it makes me think Postmodernism has finally jumped the shark. I’m still following the exploits of those frenetic Housewives, however much the series and I have suffered since Marcia Gross went on maternity leave. This might have been Nicollette Sheridan’s chance to become more than a supporting player; but Edie’s hardened slut-with-a-soft spot turn is as tedious as it is unconvincing. Besides, I still mourn the exit of Valerie Mahaffey, for whose wicked ditziness I fell big time in the early 1990s, when it was on full display in Norman Lear’s too-smart-for-prime time serial The Powers That Be.

Since the gals I have been cheering for are leading the competition, I keep tuning in to the current season American Idol, even if it means turning down the volume when subjected to the song catalogues of mentors like Jon Bon Jovi. Rather an ordeal is Any Dream Will Do, a British song-and-dance contest in which a group of guys vie for the title role in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. Largely deficient in ability or charisma, the contestants may very well be the death of the musical’s West End revival later this year—a case of pop culture trash canning itself.

What do these illegitimate children of Major Bowes signify, now that Eurovision fever is once again sweeping the nations (forty-two of them, to be exact)? Small fries, I say (if only to account for my choice of illustration, the above being an image from the early US television program Small Fry Club).

But, to get this match started. Last night, 6 May, I watched “How the Edwardians Spoke,” an the unlikely television documentary shown on BBC4, Britain’s “digital channel of the year.” This seemed to me the ideal subject for a radio program: a dialectician (Joan Washington) in search of lost pieces of shellac holding the voices of Britons imprisoned in Germany during the First World War. The men, of whose days in the camps only few pictures survive, were asked (not forced, apparently), to read or sing some lines in English so that their regional accents could be captured and studied by Austrian Anglophile Alois Brandl.

I was doubtful about the prospect of staring at spinning records from a bygone age; but seeing these “voices” come home to their families after ninety years in the can and witnessing their reception made for inspired television. Imagine hearing your ancestors (in one case, a dead brother of a woman yet living) speak or sing from the grave, as it were. Rather than being merely pleasing, the images of Britain’s landscapes, whose variety Ms. Washington linked to the wide range of accents and dialects, assisted me (still foreign to the British isles) in placing those voices, in tracing their origins on the map of the Kingdom.

Radio voices of the past cannot be trusted to tell the story of all these Englishes. On US radio, the British tended to sound like Alan Mowbray, while the dearth of authentic dialects in Britain was mainly due to the generic BBC English now challenged by regionally diverse newscasters. Like BBC2’s Balderdash and Piffle, which begins its second season this week, “How the Edwardians Spoke” proved to be radio worth watching. Seems that, instead of pummeling it, television is making eyes at the wireless, if only to invade the domain of sound that radio has lost sight of …

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