I ♥ radio

A History of the world in 100 objects

UPDATE:  I’ve slightly amended this post which originally dates from October 2009 when the BBC programme was first broadcast.

Vera Lynn and Charles Stewart Parnell

TWO historical online radio tips for you — a brilliant series tied in with a book about Irish political trials, and a one-off journey into an icon of popular culture.

The last shall be first because you only have until until Monday October 19 4pm on Monday March 28, 2011 to hear it.

Even though it’s presented by the estimable Ian Hislop, I wasn’t exactly excited at the prospect of BBC Radio 4’s Bluebirds over the white cliffs of Dover which I presumed would be no more than a mildly diverting bit of WWII quaintness.  But it turns out to be a fascinating story of plagiarism, propaganda and politics. And birdwatching. Spoiler alert: Like me, you may find some aspects of the programme pretty startling, and prefer to enjoy discovering them by listening rather than reading on here.


Made famous by Vera Lynn, The White Cliffs of Dover has a strange and interesting history.

Hislop starts the programme atop the cliffs asking an RSPCA ornithologist to point out the bluebirds. The answer — that there aren’t any there, and never have been, that it’s an American species which doesn’t migrate very far — kicks off a search for the real roots of the song. It turns out that it was an American tune (a hit for Glen Miller among others) long before Vera Lynn got her hands on it. Pop culture mavens will certainly enjoy Hislop’s brief interviews with the guitarist on one of those 1930s American recordings, and with Vera Lynn how she came across the tune.

But its parentage is even more interesting than its birth.

Lyricist Nat Burton lifted the title, the aspiration and the Anglophile sentiment from The White Cliffs, the now forgotten but then bestselling verse novel by mathematician and poet Alice Duer Miller.

Burton and co-composer Walter Kent *cough* borrowed from a source even more iconic than their own composition, lifting lyrical keywords, and even the opening few bars (albeit offset a little) from Somewhere Over the Rainbow. You can demonstrate this if you want – get an accomplice to start singing the White Cliffs of Dover song and join in with Somewhere Over The Rainbow on the word ‘blue’ and the two uncannily fit together.  Hislop gamely tries it with a musicologist.  I’d never noticed the connection before – it’s one of the many delights of the programme.

While the TV on BBC iPlayer is restricted to the UK, all its radio channels are available worldwide for a week after broadcast. It’s worth a trawl for all sorts. For me, it’s all about documentaries and other non-fiction, some of the comedy and Craig Charles’ excellent funk and soul show on Radio 6.

Charles Stewart Parnell

Charles Stewart Parnell

THE second programme I’m recommending is even more stuffed with fascinating incident and detail.  Accompanying the book of the same name, Conspiracy: Irish Political Trials under the Union is a four-part RTÉ series dealing with some of the most significant cases in Irish legal history between 1801 and 1922.

The series delves into the trials and tribunals of Robert Emmet, Daniel O’Connell and (from next Sunday) the courts martial after the Easter Rising of 1916. The only one I’ve heard so far is the one where Phoebe and Chandler about Charles Stewart Parnell and the 1889 tribunal investigating the attempt to defame him and other reformers by forged letters in The Times linking them to violence. With no apparent effort, Myles Dungan leads a panel of historians through a thorough explanation of the story and its background. Featuring reenactments from the Times commission hearings, including the dramatic unmasking of the forger Piggott, it’s a great hour’s radio.  I’ve pluck’d them from the very aether downloaded the rest of the series as podcasts and am  looking forward to hearing them.  I won’t bother reposting about them here though, as I think you get the idea.    ♦


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