You’d have thought the BBC would by now be better, classier, when it comes to losing the services of a much-loved presenter. It has, after all, had ample practice at the matter and the awkward echoes of Ken Bruce’s recent much-lamented departure from Radio 2 are still ringing loudly in corporation ears. But no, here they go again, making a hash of things and losing hard-won audience loyalty, with their botched and belated announcement that tomorrow will be the last time the Rev Richard Coles hosts Radio 4’s flagship weekend magazine programme Saturday Live.
Coles, that intriguing 1980s pop star-turned vicar, has been the classy captain at the helm of the good ship Saturday Live for 12 years now and even the BBC is not so daft as to be unable to spot a good thing when they find it sitting in one of their presenter’s chairs. Yet as part of Director-General Tim Davie’s admirable but ultimately self-defeating crusade to make Auntie less London-centric, the show is being arbitrarily relocated to Cardiff and Coles has chosen not to uproot with it, unlike excitable co-host Nikki Bedi. Although Coles and the BBC came to their mutual decision some weeks ago, no formal announcement was made and the news only trickled out earlier this week as part of a general email to journalists highlighting the contents of tomorrow’s show. That is hardly a fitting farewell to a notably sincere and compassionate broadcaster who has offered such stylish service.
Coles himself, vicarly to the last, remarked ruefully that “a gentler process would have been nice… I’d rather have had a longer goodbye to listeners”. He deserved all this and much more, as what he has achieved on Saturday Live has been a quiet marvel.
The unavoidable staple of every middle-class Saturday morning, the programme is a 90-minute compendium of guest interviews, chat and family stories. The omnipresent danger of such a format is that anodyne wittering can turn into the bland leading the bland, but Coles’s skill has been in the way he ensures that it always stays a cut above, even on the most unpromising of topics. He deploys his Stephen Fry-esque wry humour and lightly worn polymath knowledge to spritely effect to keep each segment focused and the programme overall light and springy. This is considerably harder than it looks, as the BBC is about to find out, if it hadn’t noticed already when Coles has been on holiday and a range of insubstantial stand-ins have sounded worryingly out of their depth.
So why the muddled handling of his departure? It looks very simple to me: the BBC knows that it is losing a gem because of a questionable management policy – just listen in the weeks to come as endless guests dial in from London – and has been loath to flag this up to listeners, who like nothing less than their schedules and presenters mucked about with.
Without Coles, there is a good chance that Saturday Live listener numbers will plummet. As for Coles himself, he can take comfort from the fact that he is bigger than Saturday Live – and no doubt his overall broadcasting career will continue to flourish, as he has all the eloquence and the erudition to be a national treasure in the making. Coles turns 61 on Sunday – let’s hope that the Beeb at least manages a decent glass of bubbly for him tomorrow – which does after all make him a whole 35 years younger than a certain David Attenborough…