Sunday, 25 August 2013

I love the smell of radio in the morning



If the eyes are the windows of the soul, the nose is the cat flap of the imagination. 

Smell is the most evocative sense. If I could show you a photograph of you, opening a Christmas present when you were five years old, you might say, "I remember that teddy bear. I wonder what happened to it?" But if you suddenly smell the particular fragrance of that new teddy bear as you unwrapped it, mingled with pine scent of the Christmas tree and the Terry's Chocolate Orange you'd been eating since dawn - WHAM. A flood of memory engulfs you. You're there, reliving that moment. Which is not always a good thing, especially if you wanted a puppy, not a teddy bear. The Christmas you recall so vividly may be infused with boiling resentment, simmering Brussels sprouts and hot, salt tears.

Why does an aroma have the power to create an experience so completely? One answer may be neurobiological. The amygdala, a part of the brain involved in processing emotions, is located close to the top of the nose. And it's next to the hippocampus, which plays a big part in the function of memory. You can read a proper scientific article about it here. And it's undeniable that smell stimulates the imagination in a unique way. The stimulus engages us, so that we do much of the work, and that investment makes us participants rather than observers.

Now, I'm not suggesting that we listen to radio through our noses. Although I'm not ruling it out, either. I had a cousin who claimed to get excellent radio reception through the fillings in his teeth. But he also heard other voices in his head which probably weren't being broadcast by the BBC, especially the ones advising him to save the souls of sinners by exposing himself to them on the bus.

But for me, the process of listening to radio has affinities with the sense of smell. A radio drama, for example, can summon up an entire world. You may be hearing nothing more than a voice and a couple of sound effects coming out of a small, tinny speaker, but they can transport you to distant places and times, and conjure landscapes that are real even if they're fantastical. They can take you inside the mind of a character, plunge you into the thick of dramatic action, and engage your most profound feelings. Radio can liberate your imagination more effectively than any other medium.



Here's an example. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams was a cult success that eventually appeared in many formats. But here's the crucial trajectory:

  It was a brilliant radio series
  It was adapted into a mediocre TV series
  It then became a lousy film

The more money they spent, the worse it got. The radio series was a wonderful journey through a sci-fi multiverse that existed entirely inside your mind. But the physical actuality of television curtailed the boundless possibilities of your imagination, and defined every person, place and artefact as this, rather than whatever my mind's eye can see. The film version simply went to more elaborate lengths to disappoint you. The playfulness of the radio series depended in part on the kind of surreal paradox that is killed stone dead if you start taking it literally. The mind can entertain two contradictory ideas at once, but most television can only manage one, and less than one in the case of Top Gear. As for film, most mainstream movies are now pure spectacle: hyperactive kinetic distractions from meaningful experience. Radio stimulates the imagination, spectacle replaces it.

And for a performer radio is a dream. You don't have to wear makeup or a costume, or even any clothes at all. Not many people know that most of the classical music presenters on BBC Radio 3 work in the nude. Very sensitive listeners can detect an erotic charge during programme handovers, when presenters may brush against each other on their way in and out of the studio. Meanwhile, the great advantage of acting on radio is that you can give a misleading impression of your appearance. I've done some radio acting, as well as writing and producing, and when people meet me they're often surprised by how tall they are.

On the subject of the BBC, it's a fact that while there are good independent stations, the UK radio airwaves are dominated by the corporation. I don't know if that dominance is fair, but BBC radio is utterly unique, and to dismantle or diminish it would be an act of national insanity even more deranged than the effort to destroy the NHS, the other shining beacon of British civilisation that's revered, like the BBC, everywhere in the world except for the British right wing press. Everyone else thinks BBC radio is a priceless jewel in world culture. Of course, it's not perfect. Like the rest of the BBC it has a top-heavy management structure that's as obsessed with itself as it is with the quality of programming.

A typical BBC management training exercise


Mao Zedong spoke of Permanent Revolution, and BBC management, fixated on endless assessments, visions, reviews and indicators, is perpetually revolving around itself like a vast troupe of bureaucratic dervishes attempting to whirl themselves into a posture from which they can inspect their own performance in a delirium of auto-proctology. But the BBC is huge, complex organisation and it's probably easier to criticise it from the outside than to improve it from the inside. 

Likewise my personal dissatisfactions. As a listener I don't always like the content, and as a writer I'm sometimes frustrated by the commissioning process. But these are quibbles. For me, radio at its best can be a transcendent experience. If you think about the way that something as simple as a sound coming out of a box can draw you into infinite worlds of endless possibility, what is that if not a kind of miracle? Let's be grateful for it.

NB: I'm running my workshop, 'Writing for Radio: Movies in the Mind' on Saturday & Sunday, 12 & 13 July, in London. Details on the Euroscript web site: CLICK HERE


1 comment:

  1. All very true but you did miss the books out of your trajectory. Has Andy Leighton written the book about the Crystals yet?

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