Stop The Week
1 Jun 2007 18 comments. tbs.pm/3212
Stop The Week had its origins in a decision by BBC Radio’s Current Affairs Department that it wanted a programme which would act as a bookend to Monday morning’s Start The Week with Richard Baker. This had been running for about four years, and seemed to consist largely of notables coming in to talk about their latest book, play or film. The new programme would run on a Saturday evening, and its brief was to be a weekly magazine of satire, topical guests and music.
The Hungarian emigré Michael Ember had been producing the Baker programme for a couple of years, and so was deemed the logical choice to produce the new one as well. The programme would be presented by Robert Robinson, the journalist and writer who had just ended a three-year run as Jack de Manio’s replacement on the Today programme. He, it was felt, would have the force of character and the experience to tie all its intended strands together.
Ember knew, however, that Robinson was such a strong personality that he needed other contributors who could stand up to him. So he chose the lateral-thinking guru Edward de Bono; the broadcaster and former jazz musician Benny Green; and, most significantly at this stage, the journalist Dennis Barker.
Barker had drawn attention to himself on an edition of Start The Week when he had been more than a little unkind to the grande dame of English musical theatre Jessie Matthews and the author John Braine. His combativeness clearly impressed Ember, who duly signed him up for the new venture.
It is difficult for those of us who only heard Stop The Week’s later years to comprehend that the programme’s original raison d’être and tone were very different. From the off, Barker instituted his ‘Man Of The Week’ feature, in which someone who had made him- or herself notable that week would be interviewed, either by Barker himself or, later on, by Dr Anthony Clare (who was to remain a programme regular until he returned to his native Ireland in 1988).
Highly serious matters were discussed. The Tory politician Lord Hailsham was taken to task by Robinson for his view that you must never negotiate with hostage-takers, whatever the consequences might be for the hostages. Hailsham exploded, citing his unfortunate questioner as typical of all that was wrong with Western liberalism: “That is the trouble! You are soft! Hard outside but soft inside!”.
As time went on, however, the nature of the programme shifted gradually but inexorably. The heavyweight guests (of whom Hailsham may well have been the heaviest in all senses) faded from the scene, to be replaced by people who were somewhat more conversational than confrontational. Dennis Barker, disillusioned at what he later called “a clique of ‘in’ media types talking at each other”, left after a couple of years. By the end of the 1970s, de Bono too had gone.
In their places, and marking the completion of this transition, came a number of people who were to be mainstays of the programme for the remainder of its run: Laurie Taylor, the sociologist; Ann Leslie of the Daily Mail; Milton Shulman, long-serving drama critic of the London Evening Standard; Dr Michael O’Donnell, editor of World Medicine; and the psychologist Nicholas Tucker. All these (plus other ‘bit-part’ players such as singer and writer George Melly and author Edward Blishen) joined Robinson, Green and Clare to form the basis of a regular team for the better part of the next decade.
Once the programme’s new style had bedded in, the pattern remained resolutely unchanged. There would be discussion of a particular subject in the first fifteen-or-so minutes, followed by a musical interlude and then talk about another topic for the remainder of the programme (sometimes more than one subject would be covered in each segment).
Whatever the initial intention had been for the programme to be ‘satirical’, this had long since vanished, appearing in later years only tangentially (usually in the tenor of Robert Robinson’s opening remarks). The topical element, however, remained, albeit mutated into slightly less direct forms. Serious subjects were still covered. When Thomas Keneally’s novel Schindler’s Ark was published in 1982, there was a very intense discussion – which took the novel as its starting point – about the acceptability of turning historical events – especially ones within living memory – into fiction, bearing in mind the danger of such a process removing the nerve from – or even trivialising – the experiences of those who were actually caught up in them. This conversation was particularly memorable for its contribution from the author George Clare, whose family had had to flee Vienna after the Anschluss.
Similarly, when the first pictures were brought back from the wreckage of The Titanic, the talk turned upon the issue of whether it was right to be poking about down there in the first place, and about how long people have to be dead before it is right to consider their last resting place as mere archaeology.
When the Gulf War kicked off in 1991, the Stop The Week team spent a whole programme discussing not so much the war itself but their own reactions to it, whether it was right for them even to be talking about the war in their own comfortable circumstances, and doubting whether their opinions actually mattered in the wider context of events.
This programme was particularly interesting in two other respects as well: it was completely devoid of musical content – not even Peter Skellern’s famous theme tune was used; and it (and the subsequent five weeks’ editions) were broadcast on Radio 4’s long-wave frequency only, its FM channels having been taken over by the BBC’s ‘rolling news’ coverage of the war – a service satirically dubbed Scud FM by some (after the name of Saddam Hussein’s missile of choice), and which proved to be the test-bed for the introduction of Five Live three years later.
Far more often, however, the team’s conversation had its roots in so-called trivial stories, although the discussions themselves frequently used such items merely as a starting point for something far deeper and wider. When, for example, The Sun claimed that 75% of Belgian men preferred Margaret Thatcher to their own mothers, this was used merely as base camp for philosophical speculation about how anyone can ‘see’ his or her own mother in the round, taking up so much of the universe of childhood as she does; and when the first ‘Denver Boot’ wheel clamps made their appearance at London’s kerbsides, it became a peg upon which to hang some animated debate about the ethics of justice and punishment.
Sometimes the trivial remained trivial, though, and although the conversations based around such matters of unimportance as the barmy way football commentators speak and the obsessiveness inherent in books of handy household hints may not have been as thought-provoking as hearing Robinson and his guests dealing with weightier matters, these were perhaps the most entertaining programmes of all. Could you name five famous Belgians, for example, or six famous people called Stan? Why is it so easy to imagine that the pubs of Ilford are the sorts of places where a man might rush in with a shotgun and shoot an old friend? Why is the use of toothpicks the sure mark of a bounder?
There were moments of real hilarity: Milton Shulman remarked that no-one in Israel wore ties, which prompted a cry of “Tieless In Gaza!” from Taylor; and Ann Leslie produced a surreal flight of fancy in which she claimed that the dreaded ‘Sid’ character in the British Gas share sale advertisements of that time was, in fact, Sidney Rothschild, the black sheep of the banking dynasty, who had refused to join the family business and gone off to be a car mechanic instead.
Whether the subject was serious or trivial, the conversation never became rancorous. That’s not to say that it was never passionate: I remember one particular programme in which Benny Green got quite angry with Anthony Clare and Rosalind Miles – academics both – when they persisted in maintaining that interviewing candidates for places at universities and similar institutions was an extremely useful tool for those bodies to use (Green believed that it was merely a mechanism by which academic poseurs could ensure the recruitment of the like-minded). There was a similar intensity to Milton Shulman’s twitting of Stephen Oliver over the composer’s remark that he never read newspapers (“How do you know what’s going on?”, asked Milt incredulously. “I live in the world”, replied Oliver tartly, adding, “Who would hang a dog on the basis of what they read in a newspaper?”). Generally, though, the participants knew and liked each other too well for them to generate more heat than light.
Through the 1980s, the cast of regulars changed. Green, Clare, O’Donnell, Leslie and Shulman began to appear less frequently, and others gradually took their places. Ann Leslie’s position as ‘token woman’ was increasingly occupied by the novelist Sarah Harrison, who went on to make a strong contribution to the programme. Another ‘find’ was the composer Stephen Oliver. He originally appeared on one programme in 1984 to talk about opera, but went on to provide the occasional musical piece until he finally became a regular contributor to the conversation itself, a role which he fulfilled admirably until a few months before his early death in April 1992 (Robert Robinson delivered a fine eulogy to him at the end of that week’s programme).
Later notable additions to the roster included the Oxford professor Jasper Griffin (who became notorious for perpetrating some quite evil puns), the musician and musicologist Christopher Page (who, having been born in 1952, was one of the youngest contributors); and the journalist and ex-MP Matthew Parris, who took on much of Shulman’s old role as the programme’s resident contrarian.
Although all of these people (and quite a few more) were able to hold their own (albeit sometimes after some initial difficulty), there were others who either couldn’t cope with the format or context of the programme, just didn’t understand what they were there for, or simply didn’t seem to care. Of the semi-regulars, I have to admit that my heart sank whenever I heard the Reverend Roger Royle being introduced; Larry Adler seemed, on his only appearance, to be there just to make weak jokes that he’d probably been telling since he’d fled Joe McCarthy; and the historian Arthur Marwick (another one-off appearance) may be the only person in the history of Radio 4 ever to use the word ‘twat’ in a non-fictional setting.
The ‘chairman’, of course, never changed; or, at least, not by much. Robinson was often accused of hogging it, but he countered by claiming that it only sounded that way, and that it was merely a mechanism to stir up the others, who might then be scared that they weren’t going to get their say. “Charging the particles”, he called it.
(That charge was notable by its absence on the occasions – mercifully few – when ‘Sir’ was absent and someone else had to take charge of the class. Taylor and Leslie were the usual deputies, but Clare, O’Donnell and Shulman had their turns too. It made no odds: the solid foundation for the following discussions was not there, and those editions tended to sound unfocused or merely lacklustre by comparison.)
Not that he couldn’t be exasperatingly obtuse, however, even to the point of rudeness when cutting across someone (albeit usually one of the regulars) who was expounding an idea that he (Robinson) thought was nonsense. Nicholas Tucker seemed to be the most frequent victim of this.
A musical interlude was essential, either to provide some light relief after a heavy subject or simply to break up the chat. Here too there were stalwarts, particularly Instant Sunshine, whose Peter Christie wrote nearly all the songs they performed on the show. Jeremy Nicholas also provided sterling service, as did Fascinating Aïda (and Dillie Keane in her own right when that group was in abeyance). Most of what they provided was topical, that is to say that it linked in with one of the subjects being discussed that week. Writing topical songs at short notice is extremely difficult, and the standard inevitably varied, but the achievements of these performers over a period of many years was quite remarkable.
It must be admitted, however, that for every one of us who lapped this all up, there were many listeners who found the whole thing a turn-off, although some of them did express their disapproval with some style. A man from Willesden wrote, “I have listened to your programme for the last five years. It’s crap. All best wishes”. And a woman in Harwich slid the dagger in beautifully when she wrote, “You compete in an ill-mannered way, and make a dreadful noise. I could switch you off but inexplicably your contentious programme has a soporific effect on my dogs, and I am loath to deny them this small pleasure.”
It’s true to say that there were elements of the incestuous about it, and a slight air of complacency resulting from the participants being too much at ease with each other. There were also the ‘in’-jokes: Robinson’s ‘friend from East Molesey’ (a barely-masked reference to Michael Ember, who produced the programme right up to about three months before the end of its run); Ann Leslie’s plastic lilies, and her husband who habitually cut his toenails in the bath; and, of course, Milton Shulman’s Goldberg variations. These all could, I’m sure, be tiresome to casual listeners, but those of us who were in the ‘avid listener’ category just recognised them as familiar landmarks.
All things run their course, however, and early in 1992 it was announced that the series of Stop The Week then running would be the last. The decision was made by Department head Caroline Millington who, ironically, had edited and produced an end-of-year compilation of the programme just a few years previously. In some ways, the writing on the wall had been there to be read for some time: the late-Saturday-night Radio 4 repeat and the World Service transmission had been axed some years before, and its Radio 4 time-slot had gradually been carved down from 40 minutes to 35 and then down to 30 minutes by the time of the last series (although this did have the positive benefit of giving a little more pace to the programme). Moreover, its spin-off Ad Lib (in which Robinson went around talking to groups of ‘ordinary’ people, such as monks or members of the Kennel Club) had by then been running for three years, and would outlive its parent by half a decade.
The reaction of the show’s detractors was one of scarcely-concealed glee. Former editor of The Listener Russell Twisk, in what was ostensibly an interview with Robert Robinson for The Observer, dubbed the programme ‘Meet The Chums’, and said that listening to it felt like being trapped in the bar of The Garrick Club. Dennis Barker also weighed in with an extended peeve in The Guardian in which he sneered at the “eggheads’…chat show” and “the coach trade’s idea of a metropolitan dinner party”, and implied very strongly that the programme had gone downhill from the very moment he stopped appearing on it – sixteen years before.
So it was that, at 6:50 on the evening of Saturday 25 July 1992, the final edition of Stop The Week was aired. Listening to my recording of it now, an air of finality can be detected, although it wasn’t expressed explicitly. There was a kind of unspoken acknowledgement that it was all coming to an end.
The very end of that last show forces me into a moment of autobiography. I had started listening to Stop The Week in 1980 (aged 17), and I had missed no more than a dozen or so editions in over twelve years (usually in situations when it was unavoidable, like being in a village on the west coast of Ireland beyond the reach even of mighty Droitwich). It had provided me with a sort of fourth-stage education, and had amused, provoked and exasperated me in turns right the way through from pre-A-level teenagerhood, via University days to the time of holding down a lowly job in the Civil Service. Had I never listened, I would probably never heard of the humourist Beachcomber and would have been deprived of many an insight (and many an old joke). I had played the off-air recordings I had made many times over with pleasure. I thought it only proper, then, that I should write to Robert Robinson to thank him.
A couple of weeks before the last programme was due to air, I had a rare inspiration whilst coming home from work on the bus. There is a famous poem by Francis Thompson called At Lords, which is, at least on the surface, a reminiscence about a cricket match. Suddenly, almost fully formed, a parody of that verse came into my head. I polished it as best I could, and then included it in my letter.
I listened as the last minute or so of the programme (in which, in typical fashion, they had talked of small creatures, walking and – fittingly – last words) arrived. Then, to my immense and genuine surprise, Robinson began to read my letter. Surprise was followed by astonishment as he then read my parody, which went as follows:
“It is little I repair to the chatter of the radio folk,
Though Robinson and Taylor there may blow.
It is little I repair to the chatter of the radio folk,
Though Blishen is the best of chaps, I know.
For the air is full of shades, who speak of Marmite toast,
And a ghostly sociologist plays games of ‘Hump The Host’,
And I listen through my tears to each barb and jest and boast,
As the conversation flickers to and fro, to and fro:
Oh my Shulman and my Goldberg long ago!”
The drum brushes of the theme tune faded in, and I found myself a small footnote in the history of BBC Radio.
- Facebook group: Stop the Week Appreciation Group (STWAG)