This Union: A Sea Between Us (BBC Radio 4) | BBC Sounds
This Union: The Ghost Kingdoms of England (BBC Radio 4) | BBC Sounds
This Union: Two Kingdoms (BBC Radio 4) | BBC Radio 4
Neil Oliver’s Love Letter to the British Isles Acast
The Irish Passport
Electric Ride UK (BBC Radio 4) | BBC Sounds
Every so often, TV and radio commissioners feel moved to explore the “state of the union”. They pick up a map, and a newspaper, look at them for a couple of seconds and wonder: “Whither the UK?” And how they unwhither their whithering is by asking someone they like (a comedian or in-favour presenter) to travel around parts of Great Britain in an unusual vehicle, such as a train, or to take a long hike along the coast, or to cycle about having chats with friendly locals. The underlying question is always the same: what exactly is the United Kingdom? What do Scotland, Wales and England have in common other than a shared seaside, some laws and a tendency to binge-drink? And, oh dearie me, what about Ireland?
Such questions are hard to answer because the history is complicated, which is fair enough. But it’s also because the default setting for such shows is English. The norm is England, and the other countries are forced to define themselves in relationship to it. Perhaps this will change now that the BBC is committed to creating programmes outside London; we shall see. There are plenty of similar shows made in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales that are never broadcast in England.
Which brings me to Radio 4’s This Union, a collection of series from each of the four nations that started in July. As ever, it’s a tricky commission. So far, series one, A Sea Between Us, has been the most successful. Andrea Catherwood, who grew up in Belfast, went back there to discuss unionism with a variety of people. She motored through current unionist culture, how it has been affected by the fact that unionists no longer dominate Stormont, and many voters don’t identify as unionist or nationalist. She even found people from a traditionally unionist background who would vote for a united Ireland, rather than stay in the UK. All her interviews were sensitive but to the point; I enjoyed the guy who took her to a unionist shop in episode one. “I love shops like this, they’re fantastic … something for everyone,” he said, as Catherwood browsed UDA flags and baby’s first union jack boots.
The Ghost Kingdoms of England, presented by Ian Hislop, was less effective. Not because of Hislop, who is always fun, but because of the topic. Hislop’s subject was the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms; how the old areas of England were defined. It was an attempt to unpick Englishness, but only emphasised that England, as ever, is only concerned with England.
Allan Little presents This Union: Two Kingdoms. Photograph: BBC Radio 4
Last week, Allan Little, who is Scottish but sounds almost English, was having his go on behalf of Scotland in This Union: Two Kingdoms. We’re back to whithering. Little’s central argument, perhaps made for English ears, is that Scotland was fine about being attached to England for a couple of centuries, but that recently it has become less keen. This doesn’t chime with many of my Scottish friends, who have wanted to be unyoked for decades; you’d hardly blame them, when you hear Little’s interviewees explain the Darien disaster. In the late 1690s, King William II of Scotland and III of England deliberately sabotaged Scotland’s attempt to build a road, a trade route in Panama, because the English government didn’t want Scotland to gain too much power. Scotland’s own king prioritised England and almost bankrupted Scotland. Little, another excellent presenter, is as clear and fair as ever. The concluding series, This Union: Being Welsh, hosted by Jeremy Bowen, begins at the end of October.
If you need some more Scottish/Britishness, then Neil Oliver, the long-haired, mellifluously voiced Scot from BBC Two’s Coast, has his own podcast about the UK, called Neil Oliver’s Love Letter to the British Isles. In it, Oliver hops around Britain and Ireland, using his historical knowledge to tell us stories we might or might not know (do we really need to know any more about Nelson?). Some sharper editing would be good, and I’m not keen on the music, but once he gets going, Oliver tells some interesting tales. The episode on the Highland clearances is great: he makes the neat point that, due to the practices of its ancient clans, kings and queens in Scotland were deemed to be kings and queens of the people (hence “of Scots”), whereas the English monarchy is about ruling the land.
And for ongoing insight into how Ireland works, in relation to Northern Ireland, England or anywhere else, then The Irish Passport, presented by Naomi O’Leary and Tim Mc Inerney, has long been the podcast to consult. As I’ve said before, it should be prescribed listening to any Westminster politician: if it had been, then maybe our post-Brexit, oven-ready Irish Sea trade problems might at least have been foreseen.
Here comes another Northern Irishman with an English conundrum: Peter Curran is driving from Land’s End to John o’Groats. Curran’s problem, though, is not with England itself, but with the amount of charging points for his electric car. That’s the hook for Electric Ride UK.
Though this journey, too, is a little hackneyed (the Guardian’s Sam Wollaston wrote a feature on the same topic in July, followed earlier this month by a Today in Focus podcast), it’s Curran’s presentation we’re here for. He brings the joy, whether he’s describing how other drivers are laughing at him when he pulls up at a charging point that is literally in bits, or talking to electric car experts. Facts and revelations are sneaked in – Toyota led the way with hybrid vehicles but BMW are ahead with fully electric cars; there’s lithium in Cornwall, ready to be mined to make batteries – all cushioned by Curran’s amiable wit. A lot of fun.