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New radio comedy is often disappointing. So welcome back Down the Line – the phone-in show with a twist

Jeremy Vine must be quaking in his boots to hear of Gary Bellamy's return to radio

David Bellamy (Rhys Thomas) returned to the airwaves in Down the Line
David Bellamy (Rhys Thomas) returned to the airwaves in Down the Line Credit: BBC

Thank goodness for brave and forthright radio broadcasters who tell it like it is, and none are more fearless than the award-winning Gary Bellamy. Bellamy, who has won several awards for his no-nonsense hosting of phone-ins on a range of heritage radio networks from Radio 4 to Radio Wickford, is back, a safe pair of hands to give the nation a voice during the pandemic. 

Bellamy, award-winner, hosted the return of Down the Line (Thursday, Radio 4), the uncompromising Radio 4 phone-in show, and the only one of its kind on the station. His closest rivals in style, James O’Brien on LBC and Jeremy Vine on Radio 2, must have been quaking in their boots to hear that, “like retired doctors and other heroes,” in Bellamy’s words, he is back doing his duty for the country.

Bellamy chaired an inclusive, invigorating and wide-ranging half-hour discussion on the pandemic and trying to see the positives from it, all the more admirable given the fact that Bellamy was presenting the programme from home alone with his two young children, his wife having been unfortunately forced to self-isolate instead somewhere else with a male friend called Kieran.

The guests ranged from Engels-quoting ex-convicts with sudden anger problems to rural dwellers with a distrust of “you Londoners coming down our way, bringing your filthy disease with you”; and smug homeschooling parents who have “never felt closer” to their teenage kids, while the teenage kids in question ring up in desperation asking how to escape their parents’ relentless scheduling of wholesome family bonding activities. 

A lot of the guests sounded vaguely familiar. I don’t know, their voices just had something of the Paul Whitehouse, Charlie Higson or Harry Enfield about them, particularly one caller, a bored supervillain called Professor Dokter, who was self-isolating in a secret underwater lair staffed by beautiful women. Probably just a coincidence. Anyway it was a glorious half-hour of a programme that hasn’t been on air for years, but has lost none of its bite. 

My favourite caller was the out-of-work actor who phoned in bemoaning that times were particularly hard for actors at the moment, with which Bellamy fervently agreed. I wonder if any other actors or comedians, recently at a loose end – someone like Rhys Thomas, just to pluck a name from the air – might have been tempted to take part in the comeback of a magnificent parody of a radio phone-in to help pay the bills. I’m very grateful to them if so.

The new episode of Down the Line was recorded via Zoom Credit: BBC

Speaking of things that’ll make you laugh, Cabin Pressure (Radio 4, Sunday), is being repeated from the beginning. It has been sparkling ever since its first episode was broadcast in 2008, and if you’ve not listened before, now is the time: a grumpy, sharp and deliciously absurd sitcom about a tiny charter airline (so small it only has one plane, so it’s not even a line, but more of a dot), starring Roger Allam, Stephanie Cole, John Finnemore and Benedict Cumberbatch. It was always excellent but somehow this first series seems to have got even better since I last listened to it aeons ago. What is it about some sitcoms that makes them mature over the years since their first broadcast, like a well-ripened cheese?

One attempt to answer that comes in What’s Funny About… (Radio 4 Extra, Wednesday), a new commission for Radio 4 Extra, in which TV comedy executives and producers Peter Fincham and Jon Plowman interview the writers and stars of hit comedy series about how they were made, way back when. The first episode featured Dawn French and Richard Curtis talking about how they developed The Vicar of Dibley

It was an unusual angle, because Fincham and Plowman aren’t interviewers or comedians by trade themselves, so the discussion had more of a professional, nuts-and-bolts quality to it than you might expect. There was focus on how much French worried about her character, Geraldine, not being funny or wicked enough, and how the team worked to build a comedy about nice people that still hit on-the-nose jokes and was, crucially, funny.

EB White famously said that dissecting comedy is like dissecting a frog (“the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind”), but this programme was actually great fun. 

It was affectionate, creative and illuminating, much like, in a similar fashion, Rule of Three, the excellent comedy analysis podcast from writers Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris. When so much new comedy is disappointing, it was a relief this week to find the radio so full of enduring joy and silliness.