The BBC Radio 4 programme lasted only fifteen minutes. Part of a series, it was a self-contained narrative. No introduction to the characters or plot was offered and no conclusion was reached, but the brief quarter hour made compelling listening. What was it that made such storytelling so attractive that a national radio station would broadcast it in the middle of a Sunday evening?
Stories have a capacity to capture the imagination in ways no other writing can.
The best times at primary school were those when the teacher would tell us to put away our books and to sit quiet and listen. In infant days at Long Sutton Primary School, there would be a rest time after the daily school dinner. Individual jute mats were handed out and the class was expected to lie quietly and listen to the radio. Perhaps it was the BBC Home Service’s “Listen with Mother” programme that provided the daily fare for the silent five and six year olds, perhaps it was one of the BBC schools programmes. Storytelling became associated with quiet attentiveness.
Throughout the primary school years, listening to stories was part of the educational experience. The final term at High Ham Primary School was spent with a new teacher, Mr Britten, the long-serving Miss Rabbage having retired at Easter. Perhaps it was the novelty of a new teacher with his new car and new ways that made the moments memorable, but forty-five years later it is still possible to remember the book he would read to the class at the end of each school day, a tale of a sheepdog on Dartmoor, “Bran of the Moor.” The final days of hearing a story read came in the first year at secondary school, Miss Stanley would read pages from “Dr Syn,” Russell Thorndike’s tale of smuggling on Romney Marsh.
In the years that followed, BBC Radio was the only place to which one might turn if one enjoyed stories being read. At least twice a day, there would be a chance to hear someone reading from a book. The BBC managers responsible for programme schedules knew that the spoken story still had a power to hold a listener in the way that no other programme might.
What is it about stories that makes them compelling, even stories with neither introduction nor conclusion? Perhaps the person telling the story is important, but perhaps more important is the story itself. Perhaps stories hold us because we can stand inside them, we can identify with the experience being described; perhaps stories hold us because something of them is inside of us, the feelings felt by the characters are the feelings we would feel ourselves.