TOM UTLEY: The radio show that drove me potty

TOM UTLEY: The radio show that drove me potty – even though it survived 57 series and 506 episodes

Many years ago, I had a dearly loved colleague on another paper who used to pepper her articles with quotations from philosophers and eminent historical figures.

I hope I don’t wrong her when I say that I reckon she did this to give her readers the impression that she was rather more learned than was actually the case.

Thus, she might write: ‘Was it not Alexander the Great, if memory serves me, who observed in about 323 BC, “I am dying with the help of too many physicians”?’

In fact, she would know perfectly well that the quote was widely attributed to Alexander. But this was not so much because she was a scholar of ancient history as for the reason that she had just come across it in the Penguin Dictionary of Quotations, which she liked to keep open on the desk in front of her as she wrote.

All right, I ought to confess that I myself, in common with more than a few other columnists, have occasionally been guilty of the same sin. Indeed, I’ve just lifted Alexander’s witticism from that very same dictionary. But I like to think I’ve not been quite such a serial offender as my beloved ex-colleague.


Anyway, I used to think of her every time I listened to Radio 4’s long-running show, Quote . . . Unquote. That was before it was finally scrapped last month — after no fewer than 57 series and 506 programmes — for reasons that emerged only this week. I shall come to them in a moment.

Radio 4’s long-running show, Quote . . . Unquote was finally scrapped last month — after no fewer than 57 series and 506 programmes

Now, I know I risk incurring the wrath of legions of devoted fans of the programme when I say that I never enjoyed it much, and I’m certainly not going to miss it now it’s gone.

It seemed to me to represent the old-style, pre-woke BBC at its worst — smug, a tad sneery and appearing to have little other purpose than to give its participants the opportunity to tell the world: ‘Look how clever I am!’

In particular — and here I’m perhaps being terribly unfair — I have long been irritated by the smooth radio voice of its presenter, Nigel Rees, 77, who co-invented the programme 46 years ago with John Lloyd, the producer and writer behind programmes such as Not The Nine O’Clock News, Blackadder, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, QI and Radio 4’s The Museum Of Curiosity.

Nigel Rees (pictured), 77, who co-invented the programme 46 years ago with John Lloyd, the producer and writer behind programmes such as Not The Nine O’Clock News, Blackadder, The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, QI and Radio 4’s The Museum Of Curiosity

I should say at once that I’ve never met Mr Rees, who may be familiar to readers not only from Quote . . . Unquote but as a long-serving regular in Dictionary Corner on Countdown until 2001.

For all I know, he’s a wonderful bloke, the most erudite, civilised, witty and stimulating company imaginable — and kind to children and animals to boot.

All I can say — on no more solid evidence than his lofty drawl — is that he always came across to me as a bit of a patronising bore (look who’s talking!). If you ask me, he tended to sound more than a little pleased with himself, as he chuckled over the bons mots of Samuel Johnson, Oscar Wilde and the like.

Indeed, he struck me as just the sort of fellow guest we might dread to find sitting opposite us at a dinner party.

But leave aside the fact there’s nothing very clever about reciting from dictionaries of quotations — or even compiling them, as Mr Rees has done. From the very first airing of Quote . . . Unquote, way back in January 1976, I felt that the format never really worked.

This is in spite of the fact the programme attracted a galaxy of distinguished guest panellists, from playwrights Alan Bennett and Sir Tom Stoppard to such raconteur luminaries as Sir Peter Ustinov, Dame Judi Dench, Sir David Attenborough and the late novelist Sir Kingsley Amis.

For the benefit of those wise or lucky enough never to have listened to it, I should explain that the main part of the show took the form of a quiz, in which an announcer read out a quote and Mr Rees asked his panellists to identify its origin.

The trouble was that, very often, none of the guests had a clue to the answer, no matter how famous the quote. This made for awkward silences, until Mr Rees was reduced to dropping ever-heavier hints.


To give you the general idea, what follows is a parody I’ve made up — but I reckon it’s not so very far removed from the reality.

Announcer: ‘To be or not to be, that is the question…’

Rees: ‘Who do you think wrote those words?’

Celebrity panellist: ‘Um, it sounds very profound. Could it have been Adele?’

Rees (in his smoothest, most schoolmasterly voice): ‘Noooo, you’ll have to go back further than that. Think of a certain bard from Stratford-upon-Avon — or a scion of the Danish royal family.’

Panellist: ‘Ah! I think I’ve got it! Was it Prince Philip?’

Radio 4 presenter Mr Rees revealed he quit the BBC after 46 years because he felt pressured by the corporation’s focus on diversity

I felt that this problem grew particularly acute during the final couple of series, when the guests’ average knowledge level seemed to plummet.

Which brings me to the explanation Mr Rees has now given for his decision to wind up the show. He has let it be known that he was fed up with the interference of today’s BBC bigwigs, obsessed with ‘diversity’ and wokery, who tried to dictate to him the kind of guests he should invite on to his show and which quotations he should avoid airing.

As he wrote in the January edition of his Quote . . . Unquote newsletter, which he will continue to produce though the show itself is over: ‘I don’t want to sound like an “anti-woke” Tory MP (which I am far from being), but . . . “cultural issues” were among the several factors that contributed to my pulling the plug.’

Offering an insight into the hilarious antics of his bosses in the real-life W1A, he went on to cite how he had to fight to get them to permit his announcer, Charlotte Green, who was privately educated in the Home Counties, to read out a quotation in a Yorkshire accent.


‘I can only assume that anticipating complaints from Yorkshire people that they were being patronised or stereotyped had led to this,’ he said — adding his own observation (which itself smacks to me slightly of a patronising stereotype), ‘if you can imagine Yorkshire people capable of being patronised.’

He also revealed that for the 500th edition of his show he wanted to include the lines from Noel Coward’s Mad Dogs And Englishmen: ‘In Bengal/ To move at all/ Is seldom if ever done.’

‘And yet I was told that it “reflected colonial attitudes”,’ he writes, ‘and so the woke police leant heavily upon me to choose something else.’

As he pointed out, the BBC authorities seemed to have missed the point that Coward was poking fun at the English, not the Bengalis.

Mr Rees said he felt put under pressure by the BBC’s ‘priority’ to invite diverse guests – even if they were not always the most suitable speakers. Pictured, Broadcasting House, in London

They appeared not to have noticed the lines: ‘It seems such a shame/ When the English claim/ The earth/ That they give rise to such hilarity and mirth.’

Warming to his theme, Mr Rees made it clear in an interview this week that he resented being instructed to invite guests for no better reason than that they ticked the BBC’s boxes for diversity.

‘The question must be: Is the panellist suitable for the programme?’ he said. ‘Instead, we had prescriptions to have diverse groups and disabled guests. I didn’t agree with it at all, but I went along with it because I had to.’

Does this, perhaps, explain why Quote . . . Unquote became such particularly painful listening in its dying weeks?

Whatever the truth, I say full marks to Mr Rees for challenging BBC wokery, even at the risk of being ‘cancelled’ by the champions of this dim-witted, intolerant creed. Indeed, I am firmly on his side.

But as for his dire programme, my view is perhaps best summed up in a two-word phrase, which I see from my dictionary of quotations comes from Troilus And Cressida, by a certain bard of Stratford-upon-Avon: ‘Good riddance!’

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