I had the strangest experience listening to Alexander Armstrong’s new weekday morning programme on Classic FM. Like many parents at the moment I’m now into my fourth month without any childcare, meaning that, very occasionally (all the time), I end up giving in to my toddler's demands to watch Hey Duggee. As any CBeebies devotee will know, the voice of the narrator on Hey Duggee is Alexander Armstrong.
So on Monday morning I had a kind of stereo Alexander Armstrong experience: on the TV, Armstrong was cheerily interacting with a loveable cartoon dog, and in my ears, he was placidly introducing some Schubert. As Armstrong will now be presenting Classic FM’s flagship programme five mornings a week as well as his afternoon show on Saturdays, it sort of feels as if Alexander Armstrong now lives in my house.
We’ll see how we all get on. But as for his new nest on Classic FM, where he’s taking over from John Suchet, who has presented in this slot for nearly 10 years, Armstrong has already settled in very cosily. The mid-morning show is Classic FM’s most popular programme, so this is a big step up. Suchet, meanwhile, has moved to hosting a new format for the station's evening concerts.
So far, Armstrong works very well in the mornings. He has a voice that’s both familiar and piquant, like marmalade on toast. After a round of interviews this week in which Armstrong has expressed his skepticism for modern classical music and "challenging things that hurt the ear”, he's made it clear he's not intending to ruffle too many feathers. The benefit of that is that you can tune in unashamedly in search of something familiar or relaxing, and know you're going to get it.
He's already bringing some of his personal musical tastes to the table, though. He started off with a choral blast by playing Handel's Zadok the Priest, which he described as “a fitting way to get the ship launched”, and definitely blew the cobwebs away. It was a recording made by Armstrong’s own former choir, the choir of Trinity College, Cambridge. An experienced and confident baritone, Armstrong has released several albums, and seemed to be enjoying the chance to pack the playlist with his beloved choral music where he could.
Evidence of his career as a comedian wasn't far away either. His broadcasting style is definitely a little bouncier and quirkier than John Suchet's (though it's all relative - we don't tend to go to Classic FM in search of quirk, after all). On Tuesday morning’s programme, Armstrong played Chopin’s ‘Raindrop’ prelude, and recounted how it was apparently composed while Chopin was on holiday in Mallorca in 1838. Armstrong reflected that a trip to Mallorca has rather different connotations today, and briefly imagined Chopin larging it up on a Club 18-30 holiday.
As Hey Duggee faded away into the background of my house, listening to Armstrong’s new show felt like coming down for breakfast while staying at the home of a country gentleman, who is already sitting at the table when you arrive, and he lowers his paper in delight, and greets you with pleasure, and over coffee says he really must tell you immediately about the most fascinating thing he just read about Brahms. Such a scene has never happened to me in real life, of course, but after listening to Alexander Armstrong, I feel, pleasingly, as if it has.
Anyway, for this week’s dose of real quirkiness, you couldn’t get much odder than Knight Fights Giant Snail (Radio 4, Thursday), a programme all about the weird and wonderful marginalia in medieval manuscripts. Next to psalms and prayers, in beautifully illuminated books ornately decorated with gold leaf and dainty filigree, readers can also find images of figures doing the most crude and extraordinary things: humans being hunted by enormous beasts, naked men baring their behinds, nuns harvesting penises from trees, and so on. The grander the book, it seemed, the more likely it was to have something naughty in the margins.
The programme, presented by Dr Alixe Bovey, included contributions from academics and cartoonists musing on the reasons why these illustrations made their way into sacred and important texts. Nobody really knows for sure, apparently, but it’s all part of challenging the reader not to be distracted from the words. But actually, in this day and age, giggling at medieval silliness was the perfect thing. Bring on the snails and the nudity; we need all the distraction we can get.