Sunday 17 December 2017

Quality street recordings

In the olden days people were always being abducted by gypsies or pirates or the little people. If anybody on radio is at risk of such a fate, it's roving reporter Senator Marie-Louise O'Donnell, whose unashamedly verbose turn of phrase makes me think she travels to the Radio Centre on a horse and trap, keeps a goat and votes for Redmond's Irish Parliamentary Party.

On Monday's Today with Pat Kenny, O'Donnell had absconded with a tribe of "big, huge, gorgeous leather-bound bikers". She described pulling leathers "over hips that haven't seen a lot of leathers in recent years" and how she was soon riding pillion, observing hedgerows that were like "rows and rows of tweed . . . the greens and the ochres and merlots in the early morning".


O'Donnell's brand of reportage is joyous stuff. Preferring memory and storytelling to a mini-disc recorder, she marvelled at motorbike physics, gave descriptions of Irish geography and shared many bike-related revelations. "Despite what's happening in the economy, spring has more power than any bike," she said, and as the pack zoomed into Belfast she recalled "the smell of the milk and the smell of the slurry, the smell of the farm, the smell of life and the smell of nature".

Now, her evocative story stopped at the point the Mills and Boon version would have had her gaining the respect of these "men of grace" and becoming their Biker Queen, but O'Donnell had no regrets: "I did get my arms and my torso wrapped about one of their arms and torso for a day!"

Later, there was more storytelling as Pat interviewed Mimi Alford, who was once JFK's teenage lover. The interview was interspersed with extracts from Alford's book, including the pretty stark section in which she lost her virginity to him. It was not a rose-tinted image of the boy president. Kennedy offered her drugs, asked her to "relax" his brother Edward (she refused) and encouraged her to perform oral sex on his aide, Dave Powers ("I did and I was humiliated"). She was only 19 years old.

Sexual power imbalances were also discussed on Tuesday's show, when Paddy O'Gorman played interviews he had recorded with prostitutes operating on Baggot Street. O'Gorman has been doing this sort of thing for many years and people trust him. The interviews were heart-breaking. One of the women was formerly a secretary with a now liquidated company who had first gone on the streets last summer.


"The first night I did the deed as such, I just went home and cried."

Another woman, with a slurred, cracked voice and a tragic knowledge of drug economics, said that she tried heroin before cigarettes at the age of 13 and had become a prostitute at the age of 15.

"Fair play to the man whoever he was," she said of her first ever customer. "When I broke down crying he gave me £50 and brought me home."

With the help of contributors like O'Gorman and O'Donnell, Today with Pat Kenny is a reliably high-quality production.

Where Irish radio has less ambition and imagination is outside the realm of the current-affairs magazine show, ideas which don't involve talking heads, phoning punters or a playlist are typically turned into one-off documentaries and siphoned-off to the fringes of the schedules (like Saturday's Royal Irish, an embedded take on Irish soldiers serving in Afghanistan's Helmand province).

BBC, on the other hand, places concept-driven radio slap-bang in the middle of the day. Take Claire Balding's excellent Sport and the British, a social history series broadcast at lunchtime in 15-minute chunks.

I can't tell football from water-polo and even I enjoy it.

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