It takes a big song to fill an hour's programming dedicated to it but Shipbuilding – written by Elvis Costello and Clive Langer, and sung by Robert Wyatt – easily justified Is It Worth It? (Radio 2). An exemplary music documentary, this explored both the track's social and political context, and the teensiest details of its making.
I loved hearing how Langer played the melody to Costello in his car outside a party at Nick Lowe's house ("I had a Golf, it had a good stereo in it – I was la-la-laing it in a Robert Wyatt style"). After hearing that, Costello penned the lyrics while on tour in Australia and called Langer. "I've written the best lyric I've ever written," Costello told him. "I've written the best tune I've ever written," Langer replied. They were on to something: a song so absolutely of its time, but also timeless and always a directly emotional, powerful listen.
The programme, presented by Annie Nightingale, drew a picture of its time really well, with input from a Falklands widow, men who worked on Tyneside shipyards and a war veteran who served there. Paul Morley and Pat Kane described the political and cultural scene ("the lingering aftershock of punk"), while David Gray analysed the song's meaning ("can't we do something else, something brighter and more beautiful than war-making and bullying?"). Costello spoke about how his family history had been shaped by war and the shipyards, and was as forthright as ever. "In British history," he said, "they nearly always get a working-class boy to do the killing."
Personal history is the structure for Meeting Myself Coming Back (Radio 4), an always interesting listen and sometimes an extraordinary one. This week's, with Clive James listening to his life in archive clips, was the latter: a very moving look back at a life full of spark and brilliance but now in its final stage. "I'm getting near the end," James told John Wilson. "I am a man who is approaching his terminus."
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