The one-way Mary Whitehouse radio experience

 by Martin Belam, 20 October 2006

I'm a little stuck for entertainment in the guest house I am staying at in Austria. The television can only receive a couple of fuzzy German language channels, and it is so old that I haven't been able to connect the PS2 to it either. I've been relying on some podcasts and downloading some old comedy shows.

I've just started listening to the original radio series of The Mary Whitehouse Experience from Radio One, first broadcast in 1989. Most people will probably remember the Punt/Dennis/Baddiel/Newman led television series more than the radio show, and forget that originally it also featured contributions from comedians like Mark Thomas with his audience 'debates' on issues, and Jo Brand with her acerbic observations on the people writing into agony aunt columns.

Two things have stood out for me whilst listening to the shows.

Firstly in some ways satirical comedy can turn out to be timeless if things haven't changed much. It was interesting in one show to hear the then Conservative government being castigated for releasing bad economic figures at a time when they would hardly be noticed in the news agenda, when some media commentators would have you believe that the concept of burying bad news was invented on September 11th 2001 by New Labour spin doctors.

Another political sketch described a future scenario in 1996 when in order to get into power the Labour party had shed all of the left-wing stalwarts of the movement, and adopted right-wing policies. I guess they may have just been a little off with the timing of their prediction.

And in episode three there is a long skit about Doctor Who monsters going on strike - the show itself was barely still on air in 1989, but quite obviously is going strong again now.

Then again, some things have changed - Mark Thomas was debating whether blood sports should be banned in one episode

The main thing that struck me as being so different from radio today was the lack of direct interaction and dialogue with the wider audience.

The early episodes of The Mary Whitehouse Experience on radio conclude with the spoof sitcom called something like "All cosy in the family house", which just doesn't sound funny at all anymore. The first episode is left on a cliff-hanger, and the radio audience are invited to write in with their suggestions for how to resolve it. As an idea it clearly didn't catch on, since by episode two the audience contribution idea has been dropped. Writing a letter, stamping it, and posting it was obviously too great a barrier to entry for budding comic writers in 1989.

Likewise at the end of one of the recordings, Jo Brand explains in a trail that you can get tickets to attend future recordings of show by "sending in an SAE" to the BBC's Ticket Unit. I'd actually be hard pressed to think of the last time I heard the phrase SAE on TV or on the radio.

One section of the show used to get the studio audience to fill in the punchline to a joke - but only the ones submitted by the people physically in the building as the show is recorded can be featured. Compare this to today's Fighting Talk where the audience participation question is set near the start of the show, and then via SMS and email Colin is reading the best ones out before the end of the programme.

At the time, as I recall it, having a speech comedy show in the Radio One schedules was a significantly risky commission, and no doubt an attempt to get a little bit of current affairs and politics in front of a young audience. Having the studio audience, and the audience write-in, was clearly an attempt to get interaction into the show.

Listening 17 years later though, the thing that I hear loudest is the lack of the SMS, email and website integration that we just simply take for granted with BBC* radio programming today.

* re-phrased following a rightful telling off from James in the comments about my myopic BBC-centric viewpoint ;-)


"Listening 17 years later though, the thing that I hear loudest is the lack of the SMS, email and website integration that we just simply take for granted with BBC radio programming today."

Shurely you meant to write...

"Listening 17 years later though, the thing that I hear loudest is the lack of the SMS, email and website integration that we just simply take for granted with radio programming today."

Unless you truly believe that it's only the BBC innovating in this area, that is.

I think that's a fair cop, and I've edited the article accordingly :-)

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