Hospital Watch (the BBC's highly successful turning of a crisis into a drama) meant that Left. Rightand Centre had a later than usual slot in the schedules last Friday. That meant for Kirsty Wark fewer even than usual hours ofsleep before she had to be back at Queen Maragaret Drive preparing her opening script for the next morning‘s Saturday Connection But then one itnagines that the rising star of BBC Scotland‘s current affairs output has had most of her usual routines upset by her current stint on national Breakfast 'l‘elevision. Look what getting up at 3.30am did to Selina Scott — and she never had to commute from Glasgow.
When I caught up with Kirsty Wark at 8.30am she had already been at work at the offices of BBC Radio Scotland‘s Saturday morning phone-in for over an hour. preparing with producer Lynn Chambers how they were to approach today's subject — Marriage. '
Shortly afterwards. on cue and without a hitch. that morning‘s guests. a Church ofScotland minister and a representative ofthe Marriage Guidance Council were being introduced to each other. Suddenly Kirsty takes to her heels. At least at that time in the morning the corridors and stairways ofthe BBC are relatively uncrowded. Only one person (impossible to tell at the speed we were going whether it was the early morning cleaner or a senior producer) had actually to stand aside to let us pass. At stake is the minute to nine cue for the Saturday Connection trailer. (In fact there is time in hand — George Cole is giving what are apparently for him eloquent answers to questions about Peter Pan and the Newsweek Scotland team are more worried about whether the news-reader knows what his cue is.)
Saturday Connection has been presented by Kirsty Wark for the last three years. and despite her increasing commitment to television. which has lead through programmes like Left Right and Centre and Scottish Questions to taking over for six weeks from Sally Magnusson on Breakfast Time. she clearly still enjoys radio. Radio Scotland‘s only genuine phone-in programme. . Saturday Connection is nearer in style to the Radio 4‘s phone-ins than the sort ofopen line programme that at least in England has become a staple diet of local radio.
Each programme is devoted to one topical subject. The most successful
in terms of provoking callers to
Kirsty Wark is in the middle ofa stint of presenting BBCl's Breakfast Time. but Nigel Billen catches up with her at her regular Saturday breakfast appointment.
stagger out ofbed and make for the phone are issues like ‘abortion. capital punishment. or anything to do with animals'. although the last year has turned up another subject that is certain to get the public in Scotland running up its Telecom bills — ‘We could do the poll tax every week‘ says Lynne Chambers.
Not every subject tackled by the programme does get much ofa response. The low point so far has been the Gulf War where only a half dozen or so people apparently had anything to say at all. Whatever happens the programme team can pretty much rely on William calling. and he's one ofthe first callers to get through this morning. No call is taken directly on air — callers' points are summarised by a phone operator. recorded in triplicate and forwarded to the producer who in turn selects the best for Kirsty to chose from. Only then are potential callers phoned back. The bits of paper flying around make the small studio control room resemble. even in on a relatively slow day like today. a slightly more high tech version of the Little Dorrit Circumlocution office.
The producer ensures that the calls that go on the air aren‘t endlessly repetitious ofpoints already made. and in the case of William employs a little judicious rationing; ‘but there can be mornings when we are very grateful for William. lean assure
you!‘. This Saturday. there are already. in addition to the two studio guests. four outside experts on marriage waiting to be called on to make their points. so William. whose point the studio team can predict pretty much to a word. isn't. on this occasion. called back.
Nevertheless. the public response is pretty slow. Down in England The I Marriage Guidance Council (its fiftieth birthday in England and its fortieth in Scotland is the hook that the programme is being hung on) has recently changed its name to Relate. reflecting the fact that these days ‘marriage‘ itselfis only one of the types ofoff the rails relationships with which the counsellors are called on to help out. Before the programme starts there is much hope that. in Scotland where the sister organisation has declined to change its name. this could be a useful topic ofdebate. Sadly. it‘s a non-starter. Heavens. I don‘t think anyone even mentioned the blessing ofgay ‘marriages'. There are more fundamental not to say fundamentalist issues to discuss.
Given the slightest opportunity and the callers (if not the minister who is actually being pretty restrained) will turn the subject back to religion. The study of phone-in programmes bottom lines would be an interesting one. On Radio Forth's problem line. the demon drink in one way or another often seems to feature at the root of things; in London. on the right wing columnist George Gale‘s phone-ins. you couldn‘t get the callers offthe Arab Israeli conflict.
This morning in Scotland. once the opening interviews with the studio guests have finished and the experts on the tax and legal status of marriage have been called on (including a marital studies academic who. straight out ofThatcher‘s Britain. suggests that ‘we’re going through the process of seeing marriage privatised'). religion provides the common denominator amongst the callers. A Mr Buchan. for instance wants to know why ifit‘s ‘till death us do part‘ the Church of Scotland is willing to re-marry divorced couples. while the next caller wants to know the origins of marriage and. as a suplementary. happens to mention that he knows a minister who won't marry anyone unless they have spent the past six consecutive Sundays in the church.
The producer attempts to keep the balance between the callers. but this
morning there aren‘t a lot to choose
from and anyway. you would have to be psychic to predict the callers who will suddenly veer from one subject to another. A woman rings to make the point that both she and her husband were from broken homes. an experience that she believes has actually strengthened her marriage. On air however. she publically thanks The Lord for her good fortune adding with missionary zeal that while she is a Christian. her ‘husband isn‘t - yet‘. Taken aback by this little parable. Kirsty tries to pick out the point about broken homes. but really this caller is lost in the religious pigeonhole.
After the programme. there is disappointment that there wasn‘t a wider discussion. but nevertherlcss the programme has covered a lot of ground. There is a feeling listening to the programme that given a little more time. there would have been more chance for it to open up the debate with the callers — perhaps more conflict in the studio would have helped too. But as usual the programme throws up its precious moments.
A pensioner rang following up the tax expert's remarks. making the sound point that wives are also discriminated against in their state pension where. despite paying a full working person‘s contribution. they receive a smaller married allowance. Kirsty accepts a supplementary question with alacrity from this well informed caller:
‘l‘d like to read you a letter that I saw in the paper the other day. “Please tell me what to do. I‘m so desperately unhappy. I'm a 24 year~old Roman Catholic ofstaunch religious convictions and my boyfriend insists on using condoms when we make love. At every opportunity. however. I destroy them by pricking a hole in them. Isit wrong to do this and should I tell my boyfriend or run the risk ofgetting pregnant? What do you think I should do?" '
‘Not a recipe fora stable relationship‘." Kirsty improvises. fielding the sudden bouncer to the marriage guidance councillor. Only the minister is unfazed. ‘l‘d ask this girl to make this her chance to take a stance on chastity before marriage and fidelity in marriage'.
Saturday Connection is broadcast each Saturday morning on BBC Radio Scotland from 9.30—l().3()pm.
The List 1‘) Feb — 3 Mar 1988 53