|The Mark Damazer Talk
The slightly surreal truth that Mark Damazer, Controller of BBC Radio 4, was coming to Wootton to give a talk generated enormous interest and prompted the largest number oif advance bookings in our series so far of five talks. We had deluged Oxford and surrounding towns and villages with publicity and this had also attracted a large number of people on the night to the village hall, despite the freezing conditions outside.
Marlene Fisher, our chief set designer, had created her usual highly acomplished and witty back-drop to Mark's talk, painting cartoons of some of the great iconic Radio 4 programmes, such as Desert Island Discs, The Archers, Gardeners' Question Time, Just a Minute, Test Match Special, the Shipping Forecast and I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue. She even drew a small black arm-band on a cricketer's arm to represent the passing of Bill Frindall, the legendary TMS statistican, who sadly died recently and left a gaping hole in British broadcasting.
Inevitably, there were questions about the aggressive interviewing style of John Humphrys on the Today programme, with several people concerned at his interruptions of guests. However, Mark - whilst acknowledging some big interviews had not been a success - was stout in his defence of the inquisitor, pointing out the "bottle" it requires to take on the chiefs of multi-national companies and to be able to master a brief quickly enough to put them on the spot within a very short period of time. His explanation for the removal of Edward Stourton as a presenter of the Today programme (although he will still be ubiquitous on Radio 4) was - as Mark admitted - "transparently evasive" and most of us were none the wiser about the dismissal and had to be content with a vague explanation of moving the best talent around. Some of the evening's highlights were undoubtedly memorable clips showing Radio 4 at its best. One featured an edition of The Reunion, in which the IRA Brighton bomber, Patrick Magee, came face to face with the daughter of a man his device had killed during the attack. As Mark pointed out, the power of a man searching to find his words in such a situation was far stronger on radio than on any television programme.
Another poignant clip featured Sharon Shoesmith, the former head of Haringey Social Services, giving her first interview following the murder of Baby P in the borough and her subsequent dismissal. For many, it was the first time we had heard her soft Irish accent as she defended herself under the persistent, but polite, questioning of Jenni Murray. Mark pointed out that Ms Shoesmith had chosen Radio 4 - and Woman's Hour in particular - to state her case because she trusted the station to be fair, although tough.
Gill Carter, Mark's PA at BBC Radio 4, wrote to us after his talk:
"Mark tells me he had a fabulous time in Wootton and he said he couldn't have been more perfectly looked after. Thank you so much for all your help and wonderfully good organising. For us, it's been a total pleasure!"
As a village parson more into nosiness than knowledge, I was reassured by Mark Damazer. During his talk, I found out that listening to Radio 4 didn't mean I was pretending to be "up there" with the great and the good, but "down here" with the rest of the listening mob, looking for good radio, intelligent speech, and more information. Also, I was able to do away with a stereotype. The words "Controller of Radio 4" conjured up the image of an umbrella-swinging, brief-case carrying, pin-striped, mandarin, catching the 7.10 from Purley, putting down minions for eight hours, and returning to his "des res" for a nicely-mixed G&T.
Instead, we found somebody ordinary, down-to-earth, who drops his wife off to work on his way in to work, is passionate about his job but honest enough to admit mistakes, and bold and discerning enough to make necessary changes. That includes a willingness to be shot at dawn for removing the English “folk jingles” from the early morning slot. Also, he shares our unsmiling reaction to rubbish comedy. Anyone who gets the job because he was born on the day of Grace Archer’s death is worth having. At the same time, he is loyal to his colleagues.
Mark also showed an excellent sense of humour, as shown by his reaction to some of the hilarious letters and e-mails he receives. For example, there was one from someone complaining about a show on Channel 4 who wrote "I don't know their address, so I'm telling you!!" We learned that Radio 4 is not exclusively for pensioners from the south, nor is it as costly to run as TV. Unfortunately for me, Mark didn’t promise to rush back to the office and arrange for vintage comedy to be transferred from Radio 7, but at least I know he is a fellow-member of the sadly-not-over-subscribed “Count Arthur Strong is Funny” Club. It all made for a very memorable evening....never mind the credit crunch - now I know that the licence fee is worth paying! - Rev Stephen Jones, Wootton
I remember as a child getting ready for school with the Today programme in the background, but being only an occasional listener these days, I was curious to see whether the talk given by Mark Dazazer could lure me back to Radio 4. I thoroughly enjoyed the talk and its delivery and Mark's enthusiasm for his job was evident. He provided the audience with a good mix of the serious subjects tackled so well by Radio 4, as well as entertaining us with some amusing anecdotes. This was yet another success in the great series of speakers that Wootton has come up with. I will certainly be returning to attend future talks in the series.- Helena Doucas, Stonesfield
Mark Damazer gave a fascinating talk on his role within the BBC. He explained how he has to tread a fine line in keeping the broad-ranging Radio 4 audience happy - showing the importance of appearing to keep the status quo whilst, at the same time, being aware of how the audience is always changing (and catering fo those changes). He came across as being a very human face of the BBC. It was an illuminating and very enjoyable evening - another great success for what is a truly unique series of talks at Wootton -.Charlotte Tomlinson, Oxford
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