Thursday, 31 December 2009

In praise of Melvyn Bragg...

...and the best of radio, which includes Laurie Taylor's Thinking Allowed, Michael Rosen's Word of Mouth, as well as the reports on From Our Own Correspondent, James Naughtie's Book Club, and Matthew Parris's Great Lives, just to mention Radio 4 and not Radio 5 which I also listen to (Matthew Bannister, Last Word, Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode's film reviews...)

The Radio 4 list above ranges from the excellent to the solid, nothing worse. Half the time I don't know when anything is on and just happen to switch on and stay switched on, especially in the sleepless parts of night.

I do however know when In Our Time is on. For the average BBC programmer it must have seemed an improbable proposition. Choose an abstruse subject and let three academics rabbit on about it, firmly under the control of Melvyn, who will hurry them on. Give it a prime slot. G'wan!

I look at the list on that link, from Mary Wollstonecraft today, through The Samurai, Pythagoras, The Silk Road, stretching back right down that road, and marvel at it. The academics assembled are generally articulate and clear, and, if not clear enough, Bragg asks them - sometimes a little testily - to clarify or does the clarifying himself. Today on Wollstonecraft was outstanding: the core ideas, the context, the development, the significance all presented, not so much as education but as conversation. Conversation of a sort. The programme doesn't consist of arguments around an idea, it is concerned with the display of a body of available knowledge. There isn't an argument about the rights or wrongs of Wollstonecraft's ideas, for example. It is a way of laying those ideas out and giving them some kind of context.


The Reithian mission was to educate, inform and entertain.

Education always sounds like hard slog, and, besides, we live in an age that distrusts educators because the term implies asymmetry. One person (the educator / adult) is assumed superior to the other (the ignorant / child). Personally, I don't mind the hierarchy of being student to a teacher, providing I trust the teacher. I firmly believe a good teacher will leave me intact as an independent and equal being, one moreover whose independence is all the firmer and richer for what he has learned, which will not be just facts but ways of knowing. Nevertheless, the terms teacher and taught will still sound undemocratic. And possibly dull. Like schooldays in adolescence. So quiz shows are devised as an alternative form of residual education in facts. Some laughter, some competition helps the medicine go down. But they avoid the word 'education'. The only people who bandy the word about with confidence are those who are convinced they have a firm message to convey, often of a social or moral kind. We don't really like them, or at least I don't. "The public need to be educated about X". Mostly I assume them to be liars or simply stupid.

I am happy to let go of the idea of entertainment generally. 'Entertainment' tries so hard to be entertaining I immediately start feeling sorry for it, or annoyed by it. On the one hand it is like a child who fancies itself to be the perpetual centre of attention. On the other it is a parent always watching my behaviour. It knows what I think before I myself do. Or so it assumes. It puts on funny voices and waits for laughs that it itself provides. It constantly miscalculates what I might find funny. There is a great deal that calls itself entertainment on radio but very little that is. So let it go. I don't protest: I simply turn off.

Information is fine, or should be. We are sceptics in everything now of course, and it is in fact wise to be sceptical, especially about information, but it is very hard to do without it. I want it. I want it cross-checked but I still want it, whatever the field, however pressing or remote the need. I want to know more about the world as and when I can. Information enlarges.


Melvyn Bragg's great gift is that he can hold these three strands together in the right proportion and feed them through his practiced hands. His researchers deserve medals and encomia, no doubt, but he still has to distill and form what they feed him, as he works together with his producer, who needs to be at least as firm and intelligent as he is. Encomia for her too.

I once shared a taxi with Bragg and John Ashbery and Les Murray. I think it was at a Cheltenham Literary Festival many years ago. I think it was the same occasion though one (Bragg) might have been Cheltenham and the other (Ashbery and Murray), the South Bank. I was the lightweight in any case, in fact in both cases. Lord Melvyn was not yet a lord and though he didn't look quite as young as in the photo above, he did not seem as august and patrician as in most recent photos.


Angela France said...

A happy new year to you and yours, George.

mise said...

That was an august assembly in the taxi. And you've reminded me of when there was no greater accolade in the common room than to mention that someone had Reithian delivery. In second place, of course, was the perfect conference chortle, politely and lightly amused.

George S said...

A happy new year to you too, Angela! And, mise.

Yes, mise, it was indeed august! It was so august it was almost September.

I should confess my own Reithian delivery has slight Hungarian tinge..

Robskee said...

BBC Radio 4 and 5 podcasts make up large chunks of my mp3 listening. I'm currently working my way through Simon Mayo and Mark Kermode's film review segments 2005-2009 and am in danger of losing the singular/plural distinction in (accusative case?) reflexive pronouns because of Kermode's use of themself for themselves. I think he does it in the first person too, as I'm sure I heard him say ourself for ourselves recently. Must be a Manx thing?

Lucy said...

I'm afraid I did enjoy a probably unworthy giggle at 'I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue' once, quite a long time ago, when they were suggesting items which might be found languishing in the BBC lost property office. One was 'Melvin Bragg's credibility - still unclaimed...'.

I more often than not forget about 'In Our Time', which is a pity. I think he's hit his stride with it now, he was sometimes rather diffident and apologetic at first,perhaps.

A while ago I was telling one of my young French students, who looks to be heading for a quite promising media career, about Lord Reith and what he stood for - it was a propos of TV advertising; she was very interested, which made me think again about it.

I do like the idea of entertainment being by turns an annoying child and a self-conscious parent.

George S said...

I have never noticed Kermode's themself quirk, but then English is such an unstable, moveable feast from The boy done good through to someone being well trolleyed I have stopped keeping track of odd usage - except in writing, Robskee.

I do think Bragg has made this niche his own, Lucy. I marvel at how much pre-reading has to be done (the burden of it probably by researchers, nevertheless retained by Bragg while talking to the various academics) and I am surprised he can keep the programme on even keel.

The Reith ethos is long gone from the BBC but the responsibility of carrying the educate-inform-entertain agenda remains part of public service broadcasting, albeit more on radio than TV. That responsibility is, of course, power too, so the education element is often - rightly, in my view - argued about.

Robert Hanks said...

Four or five years ago I had a long phone conversation with Melvyn Bragg - I can't remember what article I was writing - and took the opportunity to be a fan-boy about In Our Time: he said that the programme started out as a kind of revenge on Radio 4 - they wanted to move him from Start the Week but offered him another slot as compensation; and he decided to land them with the most intellectually demanding thing he could get away with, to teach them not to go chasing ratings. Something like that, anyway. Whatever spirit he began in, I don't think it was apologetic.

We ran into him a week or two later, on Hampstead Heath, and I said hello. After he moved on, my wife purred about how young he looked for a man in his fifties; I pointed out that he was a good deal nearer 70 than 50. Didn't put her off.

Re: Kermode: I don't think it can be a Manx thing. He was in the year above me at school, in Elstree.

George S said...

...and he decided to land them with the most intellectually demanding thing he could get away with, to teach them not to go chasing ratings...

There's the nub, Robert. Was it Mencken who said something like, 'Nobody ever went broke by underestimating the public's intelligence'? He was talking about the Americans I think, but the idea is pretty universal.

I think the broadsheet (as was) buying public has sufficient intelligence, and so does an unknown, but greater than one might imagine, proportion of the rest. I am sure in my bones that that is the case.

It might be that through the mid-seventies and into the nineties - possibly beyond - suspicion of established canons and the fascination with deconstruction led to the suspicion that high culture v popular culture was primarily a class issue. Popular culture was bound to win in that case.

There was also, as I understand it, the Birtian-Thatcherite structural revolution at the BBC which made it necessary for the Beeb to focus itself more on ratings than ever before.

It might then be that these factors, together, have worked against the best interests of the very people they were supposed to please and promote.

Bragg's 'In Our Time' is a rather wonderful spanner in the works.

There is however good serious broadcasting on Radio 5 Live too, so the balance is somewhat redressed.

In any case, being an anti-conspiracy theorist, I suspect that as Larkin suggested, things just happen, they just go. But unlike Larkin, I don't suppose that it comes down to a choice between that and eternal stasis.