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Radio review: Screen 6 Special; Motown – Speaking in the Streets; Ayres on the Air

Some film directors are seemingly not happy unless every scene is overlaid with pumping music or sickly sweet anthems – after all, soundtracks can make a lot of money on top of the box-office takings. The Coen Brothers, though, are clearly intent about making sure each note of every song really adds something to the finished movie.

In a Screen 6 Special, Edith Bowman spoke to those critically acclaimed filmmakers, Joel and Ethan, about their musical influences and the songs that have soundtracked their work, the siblings having directed movies such as Fargo, The Big Lebowski and O Brother, Where Art Thou?.

They revealed how critical music was to them as part of the creative process. Contributions came from long-time collaborator T-Bone Burnett and Oscar Isaac, who stars in their latest film, Inside Llewyn Davis, based around the folk scene in 1960s New York.

One track played during this relaxed chat is Dave van Ronk’s Hang Me, Oh Hang Me, a seriously dour ditty that would depress even Morrissey, but which still serves as a useful example of the kind of musical intensity the brothers tap into for creative inspiration.

Among their biggest musical influences is, predictably, one Robert Zimmerman. “Dylan figured it all out when he was about seven, I figured it all out when I was 50,” says one half of the unassuming, talented but clearly still grounded duo.

Berry Gordy, founder of the Motown record label, was probably tuned into the emotive power of music very early in life. BBC Radio 4’s Motown – Speaking in the Streets explained how, not content with recording iconic black artists such as Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, Gordy set up a spoken-word label in 1970 called Black Forum, which published poetry, civil-rights speeches, and even African-American soldiers fighting in Vietnam.

Described as the “sound of the [black] struggle”, it closed in 1973 after just eight releases, but in recent years the records have started to attract renewed interest as a window into one of the most turbulent periods in US society.

Presenter and spoken-word record collector Alvin Hall spoke with some of those involved in their making, including singer-songwriter Elaine Brown, former leader of activist group the Black Panthers. Another release, called Guess Who’s Coming Home, features black troops recorded live in Vietnam. This cites damaging accounts of racism on the battlefront and was probably the hardest-hitting out of Black Forum’s eight recordings.

One contributor suggested the label helped Gordy to walk the ever-tricky commercial tightrope of courting white Motown buyers without alienating his staunchest black fans. For another, the recordings are fascinating but equally depressing – in many respects, he said, black people in the US still have to live with many of the same struggles they put to vinyl back in the 1970s.

Someone else enjoying reminiscing, though of a drastically different ilk, was Pam Ayres, author of the whimsical poem for every occasion. In Ayres on the Air, she was all dewy-eyed over a new grandson, penned an ode to a mangle and reflected on the bittersweet experience of children leaving home.

Ayres’ style of old-fashioned, cosy humour isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it’s refreshing not to have to listen to yet another comedian’s political rant or personal agenda. And plenty of one-liners are equal to those delivered by Ayres’ much younger comic peers. Students, said Geoffrey Whitehead, playing her husband, sleep all day – just think of them as hamsters who text.

Having Ayres as your mother must surely be surreal on occasion. Similarly, having actor and comic Roy Hudd as your father must have its moments. First broadcast in 2006, Radio 4 Extra’s Dad Made Me Laugh was a lovely wallow in nostalgia from start to finish, Hudd’s son Max – named after legendary comic Max Miller – retelling heartwarming anecdotes from the Hudd homefront.

There’s always been more than a whiff of the music hall about the ex-Butlin’s redcoat whose career has encompassed numerous pantomimes, gritty drama roles, The News Huddlines (which ran for a staggering 26 years on Radio 2) and award-winning musical performances. Fatherly advice handed down to Hudd junior included “don’t play with the props” and “be on time”.

That’s the kind of no-frills wisdom that could only come from a seasoned showbiz pro.

Screen 6 Special, 6 Music, Sunday, January 12
Motown – Speaking in the Streets, R4, Thursday, January 9
Ayres on the Air, R4, Friday, January 17
Dad Made Me Laugh – Max Hudd, R4 Extra, Monday, January 13

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