What constitutes true lunacy? Is it those garishly painted specimens baying with ever increasing desperation for your attention on Reality TV? Is it all those people who just try too hard? Look at me man, I’m mad I am.
Is it those people who run for high office while saying things like ‘I could shoot somebody dead in Times Square and still get elected. I so could man.’?
Experience, apparently, has shown us that some of those people weren’t nearly as mad as we thought they were. Many of them now have book deals, modest TV careers or, in at least one notable case, one of the highest offices in the world. Or maybe it’s simply that reality has decided to meet them halfway at least.
It’s my belief that much of what we think of as lunacy is actually a fairly manic and tragic lust for attention, like the former Irish Priest who dresses up as a leprechaun and smashes into runners competing in the Olympic Marathon: he just desperately, passionately wants people to notice him. Is he actually mad, or just starved of what he considers his rightful portion of notice?
For real lunatics, those souls who are quietly and utterly barking, you need to look elsewhere, and I think a good place to start is inside the very correct and buttoned down listenership of BBC Radio 4, the very hallmark of respectable broadcasting in the UK.
Now, aside from the apparently unavoidable checklist of traditional media prejudices, BBC 4 is a fine example of what a radio station should be. It is informative, not too pushy, and occasionally highly entertaining. Much of its programming has actually involved the application of some form of thought.
It generally eschews the tedious disease of the day marathons other stations cynically use to fill up their timeslots. There’s very little of the aimless, time filling wittering you hear from cerebral and charisma bypasses on other stations, whose lavish employers somehow imagine their insights are worth more than those of the average pub bore.
BBC 4’s fan base are a pretty unique bunch. They are almost heroically resistant to change in any form. Presenters often last well into their 90’s (nothing wrong with that, most presenters less than half their age on other stations are considerably less interesting), and the slightest attempt to change the format of the daily schedule has met with outrage.
The station’s schedule is a bit like an aural time capsule. It continues, for example, to have something called a ‘Woman’s Hour,’ when other stations, even in countries like Ireland, have given this up as a bit of an anachronism.
Because BBC 4 still manages to partly reflect the society it lives in in spite of the unchanging schedule, this can lead to some fairly surreal moments, such as an item on knitting circles being followed by a heated discussion on the attitude of feminists towards women who voluntarily make hard core pornography, but hey, it’s all part of the same wacky world.
The nature of the core audience means that response programmes – where they read out letters or emails from listeners – can throw up some pure gold. They once read out a letter which had been sent in response to an audio drama that had gone out on Radio 4.
The fictional drama had been set in the 1970’s, and in a diary entry, one character had mentioned watching an episode of Doctor Who on BBC TV on something like, say, Monday, August 10th 1974.
Not so, screamed the offended listener, there had been no episode of Doctor Who broadcast on August 10th 1974. There had been one broadcast two days later, but this was absolutely not on the date quoted by the programme. Why can’t you people get your facts right etc.
Towards the end of his life, the legendary DJ John Peel presented a show on Radio 4 which was sort of a collection of domestic odds and ends. It wasn’t about anything in particular, beyond the little quirks life could throw up now and again. Listeners were invited to write into John and engage in a sort of discussion about everyday strangeness.
One night, John heard from a man who, many years before, had bought a time punching machine for his toilet, the type of thing people used to clock in and out of factories with. You would have to punch the machine in order to gain entry to the toilet. Upon completing your business, you’d have to exit by punching out, thus ensuring there was a full and accurate record of how long everyone had spent in the toilet, the reels of punched tape stretched back for years and years.
Unfortunately, the listener told John, the time punching machine had recently stopped working, but he and the family still managed to enjoy a nostalgia sodden night poring through its many years of receipts. “Oh look, that must be when Aunt Maisie had that bowel condition years ago. Oh, what fun we had.”
People such as this are the rightful wearers of the laurel of madness. All those people shrieking at you on the telly or street are really nothing more than desperate wannabes.