There used to be an urban myth that the national grid would experience a power surge during the Coronation Street interval – the legend being that the TV nation, gripped by the latest catastrophe in Vera Duckworth/Ken Barlow/Hilda Ogden’s love life, would run to the kitchen and switch on the kettle to make a cup of tea, the better to deal with the overpowering emotions emerging from Weatherfield that evening. My guess is the opposite also happens - a power glut - today, when after Eddie Mair’s Today and the 6 o’clock news, R4’s “comedy” slot comes on.
Comedy is of course a subjective thrill – not everyone finds the same thing funny. Still, I have never seen my retired, devout R4-listening parents so much as raise a smile at any of the recent so-called comedies on the slot. “Just a Minute” and “I’m Sorry I haven’t A Clue” are the diehard mirthful staples, the latter even managing to remain moderately amusing since the death of the matchless Humphrey Lyttleton, and the former limping on now that Clement Freud has gone to the great open-mic in the sky.
But the others – dramedies like "Clare In the Community", or "Arthur Smith’s Balham Bash" and so on – seem to do the opposite of what comedy intends: rather than distract audiences from the misery and incomprehensibility of modern life by emphasising the joy of silliness, they only confirm its awfulness.
All the reinforcing pessimisms of the British middle classes are there – kids speak a language we don’t understand, politicians/bankers/footballers/the Fun Police/the media are leading the country to ruin, everyone is having better, weirder sex than you are, computer technology is developing so that young people have already forgotten more than you’ll ever know, etc etc
Listening in from Germany as I do, the essential parochialness of R4’s comedy – the thing that once made it great – these days just sounds meek and wet in the hands of R4’s current exponents, squeaky-voiced characters like Jeremy Hardy, David Mitchell and Sandi Toksvig who rejoice in their own smallness. It’s the sound of people wallowing in repression, defeat and self-pity. (By the way, the cliché goes that in Germany, humour is no laughing matter, and one German friend helpfully compiled a long compound noun expressing the feeling of despair occasioned by the arrival of the 6.30 comedy slot: “Frühabendsverzweiflungsfall beim Radio-4-Pseudokomödienanhören.” Try making a gag out of that, Arthur…).
By the time the jaunty intro music to "The Archers" comes on, my guess most people will by then already have switched off for sweet relief, and gone in search of something more entertaining to do, such as watching paint dry, or even more fun, listening to Winifred Robinson on iPlayer repeats of "You & Yours".