The BBC fails to give Rev Richard Coles the send-off from Saturday Live he deserves
Very sadly, today’s Saturday Live was the Rev Richard Coles’s swansong. The veteran presenter, who has lent his beguiling mix of curiosity, erudition, empathy and whimsical anecdotage to the magazine programme for 12 years, decided to leave when the BBC informed him they were relocating the show to Cardiff – part of the corporation’s (distinctly flawed) strategy to physically move more production from London to the regions.
That’s all: no scandal, no impartiality row. Yet there’s been a bizarre lack of fanfare. The BBC only announced Coles’s imminent departure on Tuesday evening, offering an opaque statement about him continuing to be “part of the Radio 4 family”. Well, that might be presumptive. A clearly frustrated Coles would have preferred the programme to stay in London, he declared the following day. As for the announcement: “It just feels a little bit rushed. I’d rather have had a longer goodbye to listeners.”
So, surely the final show would give him a well-deserved send-off? Bizarrely, no. It was almost entirely business as usual, with Coles and co-presenter Nikki Bedi interviewing guests such as crime author Harlan Coben and asking for amusing stories on the day’s topic: tour guides.
His departure was not explicitly announced until two thirds of the way through, and even then it felt somewhat in passing - just a mention by Bedi. Before that there was the odd veiled reference from Coles. “Not my problem anymore!” he crowed as Bedi reached the terms and conditions, adding: “I was never allowed to do the Ts and Cs because I always get it wrong.” When another guest, presenter-turned-psychologist Sian Williams, joked: “He’s naughty, he’s going to get naughtier”, Coles admitted he was “demob happy”, but quickly assured listeners (or BBC higher-ups): “No, I’m a good boy, professional always.” These asides would have been mystifying to anyone unaware of his coming exit (as listeners on Twitter were quick to point out).
Coles was indeed professional as always. His profound contributions to this gentlest of formats were invaluable. Few broadcasters are as nimble leaping between such disparate topics – which, in his last show, included the writing process and the importance of prison radio. When discussing DNA profiles, the self-deprecating Coles quipped that his own had come back with the less-than-exotic “89 per cent Kettering”.
Back in the @BBCRadio4 #SaturdayLive studio tomorrow morning with friend, polymath and all-round good egg @RevRichardColes.
Ten years after we anchored the show together.
Am honoured to be a guest on his final SL. Bitter-sweet. pic.twitter.com/5IPM5JtJ67
— Dr Sian Williams (@sianwilliams100) March 24, 2023
Listeners did get a (small) chance to express their love, via a few messages read out by Bedi. But many shared their anger on Twitter. “He’s the best, won’t be listening after this week. Why aren’t they even talking about it?” asked one, while another blasted the “careless shabby treatment”.
It wasn’t until the final moments that Coles was allowed to offer a proper farewell. He thanked colleagues, including the fire officer “for those moments of madness when we tried to use the Woman’s Hour cooker”, and said it was “a bittersweet experience leaving the programme” – though he generously added that management has to “make impossible choices”. Most of all, he was grateful for guests and listeners sharing their stories. “A nosy man could ask for no better job.”
So far, so dignified. But Coles was saving up one bit of rock-star naughtiness after all. Introducing the exit music, Eighties track Promised Land, he cheerfully announced that, back in his nightclubbing days, he used to listen to it while getting “absolutely s--t-faced”. Yikes! But the sweary Rev will be fine. It’s BBC bosses who are surely now cursing the reckless loss of this irreplaceable talent.