A Good Gift

A break with tradition this year, as I abandon my usual vaguely chronological approach to the seasonal wireless highlights to bring you news of what promises to be a fascinating programme slap bang in the interregnum between Christmas and New Year.

Moreover, it’s on the World Service, so tune your shortwave receivers accordingly (or listen online) at noon on Saturday 29 December for Music Extra: It Jus’ Keeps Rolling: The Story of Ol’ Man River. Presenter Mark Burman (who also produces) tracks the history of the song from its emergence in 1927, through its association with Paul Robeson and growing politicisation.

Spooling back to earlier on, The Haunting of MR James by that awfully clever Neil Brand looks well worth a go. Dramatisations of five of James’s ghost stories run through the week from Monday 17 to Friday 21 December on Radio 4 at 10.45am, with an hour-long play about James on Saturday 22 at 2.30pm.

On Saturday 22 December at 9am on Radio 4 Extra, there’s a real treat in Rik Mayall On Radio, with John Lloyd presenting three hours of the late, much-missed young one’s wireless work and interviews with Mayall’s friends. Then, on Radio 4 at 8pm, Christopher Frayling looks at the effect of hollywood and americanisation on the season in How Santa Stole Christmas.

On Christmas Eve, I suspect I’m leaning on an open door when I tell you about Conversations From A Long Marriage At Christmas, written by Jan Etherington and starring Joanna Lumley and Roger Allam (Radio 4, 11.30am) as a couple of free spirits together since the 1960s, preparing for the festivities.

Looking to Christmas Day itself, I recommend leading up to HM The Queen’s address with The Hartlepool Spy (Radio 4, 2.15pm), written by Ian Martin (The Thick of it, The Death of Stalin, and a thoroughly lovely geyser of educated profanity), with Michael Palin, Jim Moir (to use Vic Reeves’s real name, as he does for his serious acting), Toby Jones and the fragrant Gina Mckee heading up the cast.

Then, after The Queen’s speech, switch to Classic FM (have you seen the TV schedules? Blimey) for Christmas at Buckingham Palace with Nicholas Owen (3.05pm).

All week from New Year’s Eve, George Gershwin is Radio 3’s Composer Of The Week (weekdays, 12 noon), tracing his career from Tin Pan Alley to opera. Meanwhile, on New Year’s Day at 11.30am on Radio 4, I'll be lending an ear to Remembering Lolaire. In this documentary, Anna Murray looks at the worst peacetime disaster in UK waters, when a naval yacht ran aground near Stornoway on 1 January 1919, resulting in the deaths of 201 servicemen returning home to Lewis from the First World War.

New Year’s Day also sees the start of Making History (Radio 4, 3.30pm), an eight-part series with Tom Holland and Iszi Lawrence, following the lines of history. In part one, they find a line between Stonehenge and the National Jazz archive in Essex, and I'll be interested to hear how they get there.

Finally, on Thursday 3 and Friday 4 January at 8pm on Classic FM, Catherine Bott presents a two-part Full Works special subtitled Composers In The Shadows. At first, I was disappointed to see no pieces by Hank Marvin or Brian Bennett, but the focus is on lesser-known composers, including Ottorino Respighi, Giacomo Meyerbeer and the Czech composer Bedřich Smetana. The prelude to Respighi’s The Birds is a Classic FM favourite, but here, at last, you’ll get the whole thing.