Magazine article The Spectator

Radio: Start the Week from Paris

Magazine article The Spectator

Radio: Start the Week from Paris

Article excerpt

It was as if Andrew Marr and his guests on Start the Week on Monday morning were standing on the edge of a precipice with no idea how far they would fall if they strayed too near the edge. Their conversation this week, Marr told us, would not, as usual, be a live discussion but had actually been recorded in Paris on Friday, just hours before the terrible events of later that evening. Their discussion, quite coincidentally, was focused on French history, society and identity as part of a new Radio 4 season inspired by the great 20-volume series of novels by Émile Zola, which create a fictionalised record of life in France at the turn of the last century. (Later on Monday, Glenda Jackson, the former actress and MP, introduced a feature programme about Zola as a backdrop to the forthcoming three-part dramatisation of the novels, in which she is going to play a leading part, her first acting role for decades.) But Marr and his guests -- two novelists, a historian and a journalist, of French, British and Arab-French extraction -- would make no mention of what had just happened because they had no clue of what Paris was about to witness. Should we still hear it?

Marr said Radio 4 had decided to go ahead, and wisely too. The conversation was not in the least redundant or anachronistic. On the contrary, it was unexpectedly gripping precisely because his guests were attempting to give us their understanding of where France stood at that time and how it had got there without any agenda. Mention was made of a society divided between Catholic right and secular left, between those of generational French descent and those whose parents and grandparents were immigrants, of the war in Algeria and the chaotic way in which France had got rid of its colonies. We also heard about the legacy of the French Resistance, which was in large part organised from outside the country rather than from within. But all this was said in the context of trying to understand what it means to be French now, without knowing that the country was on the edge of a precipice. Their discussion was not affected by trauma but was rather intent on meaning, on rational inquiry. This made it all much more meaningful. As Agnès Desarthe said, quoting Racine, 'My ills began much earlier,' before warning us, presciently, that in France everybody 'is shutting down instead of shouting up'.

Another conversation of a different dimension but no less gripping was to be heard on Friday afternoon in Nalini Chetty's smart two-hander Puellae -- Or the TruthAbout Chips and Other Things (directed by Bruce Young). …

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