Review: BBC Radio 4's What If?

Updated: May 3

By Matthew Kresal


When he was interviewed on this blog earlier this year, Steven H Silver noted that the alternate history explosion he'd anticipated in the 1990s hadn't come to pass. Yet, in some ways, it did, and not just in literary works or TV series such as Sliders in its early seasons. Take a series hosted by Cambridge academic and media personality Christopher Andrew that ran on mainstream BBC radio that decade. Running from 1991 to 2004, BBC Radio 4's series What If? has, after spending years marked only by an archived page on the BBC website, at last, received an official release on download.


The 34 mostly half-hour divergences from established history collected here make for some intriguing listening. There are obvious ones like JFK not being assassinated or a number of Axis victories in the Second World War scenarios ranging from a more successful invasion of the Soviet Union in the series debut episode to, surprisingly late in the series run, Operation Sea Lion coming to pass with a Nazi occupation of Britain. Other episodes feature discussions and scenarios where then-current events shape the conversation, such as a 1993 episode on Edward VIII avoiding abdication shaped by 1992 being "annus horribilis" for the British royal family.


While much of the series is in the half-hour format, there are also a pair of hour-long special episodes. The first hails from 1992, covering Columbus's voyage to the New World and what turned out to be the final episode of the series from 2004 to mark the 60th anniversary of D-Day. Both benefit from the extended running time and their choice of panelists, who bring forward interesting facets for seemingly well-worn topics.


There are also less obvious ones, at least from an American listener's point of view, making for some of the more intriguing scenarios presented. They include North Sea oil failing to give Britain a much-needed economic lifeline, with the suggestion of a possible "green revolution" resulting from necessity. Likewise fascinating to partake in from the perspective of 2022 is a pair of episodes, from roughly a decade apart, dealing with 1970s referendums regarding Scottish independence in 1979 and the vote for Britain's entering the EEC, the forerunner to the modern European Union, four years earlier. That latter episode, and the discussion of its consequences, such as the UK perhaps leading to a far later effort to enter it, has become more prescient with Brexit.


There's also the proverbial odd duck episode. There's one from 1999 that isn't so much alternate history as an alternate present involving the use of biological weapons against the US that offers insights into pre-9/11 thinking on terrorism (and, in a very dated move, the threat posed by Iraq pre-2003). Also, oddly, given host Christopher Andrew's work in the field of intelligence, only one episode of the series deals with that topic, with a 2003 outing focused on the Enigma code. But whether the topic is the 1947 Agriculture Act failing to pass, tanks not rolling into Tiananmen Square in June 1989, or the Diggers movement of the 1600s gaining traction, there's not a dull episode in the set.


One of the joys of the collection is getting to hear how the series evolved over its 13-year run. What begins as a panel program recorded in a studio, not dissimilar from Radio 4's long-running In Our Time program, becomes something closer to a radio documentary series as time progresses. Take the location recording in the London Science Museum, for example, for the Space Race episode with Andrew talking to experts in front of hardware from the era, while the Nazi invasion of Britain episode has its panel in the underground Cabinet war rooms. There's also stronger use of archival pieces and source music, sometimes for dramatic or ironic effect, as the series goes along, which helps move it from a pure panel discussion to documentary series, adding to the listening experience.


The choice of panelists is universally strong across the run of What If?, as well. Indeed, there's sometimes a surprising range of expertise on display, including in the No North Sea oil episode 1970s Labour Secretary of State for Energy Tony Benn, leading to vigorous debates with Andrew over policy in real-life and the alternate scenario. While Andrew and his panelists sometimes offer overly optimistic scenarios (as in the case of the Martin Luther King Jr episode, which imagines King causing Nixon's defeat in the 1968 presidential election and also playing some role in the Carter administration, two scenarios that seem mutually contradictory), there's no doubt they offer insights along the way.


If there's a frustration this reviewer has, it is that despite the running time and appearances otherwise, this isn't a complete release of the series. Per a quick glance at the series on the BBC's Genome page of listings, there are at least a couple of dozen episodes missing, most hailing from the earlier years of the run. Among those missing the reviewer has heard via another source is a 1996 episode where Andrew and a panel that includes Air Chief Marshall Sir Patrick Hine, the Joint Commander of the British Forces during the 1991 Gulf War present a version of that conflict that overthrew Saddam Hussien that eerily predicts the descent into sectarian violence and insurgency that followed the later invasion in 2003. There's a possibility that, as with several BBC series, there are episodes simply missing from the archive or even being kept for a future second volume. The description doesn't proclaim this to be "complete," in all fairness, but it frustrated this reviewer all the same.


Even so, this release of What If? is both welcomed and worth seeking out. The 34 episodes presented here are, thanks to panelist knowledge and later production values, worth a listen for any history buff or budding alternate history writer. Whether covering well-worn topics from the Second World War or more obscure topics, it's good to hear this underrated series being given a second life at long last.

 

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Matthew Kresal is a fiction writer who has a (Sidewise Winning) story in the Alternate Australias Anthology by Sea Lion Press, and has also written a Sea Lion Press novel about Joe McCarthy.