In the days when there was a Radio 4 programme called Stop The Week, with Robert Robinson, people who didn't like the programme used to tell me the trouble with it was that as a discussion programme it never got anywhere. I agreed with this, but I alwaysfelt they were judging the programme on entirely the wrong basis.
"Ah, but Stop the Week is not a chat show at all," I would say. "It's a soap opera! It's a mini-Archers!" All those people - Bob Robinson, Ann Leslie, Laurie Taylor, Milton Shulman - form a little family and have developed their own slightly fictional characters within it. They have their spats, they have their foibles, they have family jokes (about Volvo drivers, for instance), and when things are getting a bit heated, maybe because precocious cousin Laurie has been annoyed by something that waspish Bob has said, then Uncle Milt Shulman "steps in" with one of his wise Jewish stories about Goldstein, and everyone calms down waiting for the punchline, or perhaps they all turn on Uncle Milt and say: "Not another of your damned stories ...!" It's a soap. People switch on to hear the characters, not the talk.
I had forgotten about this winning theory until I found myself listening to The Moral Maze the other day and realised suddenly that exactly the same is happening to that programme, and that the reason why people express such differing opinions about it is that they don't realise that it is becoming a soap opera.
Ostensibly The Moral Maze is a discussion chaired by Michael Buerk in which Edward Pearce, David Starkey, Janet Daley and Rabbi Hugo Gryn leap upon a modern Gordian knot and leave it more convoluted than they found it. But really it is a soap opera in which Pearce and Starkey have a go at each other, Janet Daley has a savage go at the witnesses, Michael Buerk has a gentle go at restraining them all and, just like Uncle Milt Shulman, the rabbi - probably Lionel Blue's elder brother - tells a story if there seems no other way of ending the programme. It's the melodrama of character that sells the programme, not the solving of modern problems.
I know this, because yesterday I was listening to the programme when they were discussing male and female gender roles, and, instead of agreeing or disagreeing as I went along, I was actually thinking: "Never mind the agenda, where's David Starkey? Why aren't David and Edward having a go at each other? …