In our time, with Melvyn Bragg is currently my favourite Radio 4 programme.
In brief, Bragg directs a 45-minute live discussion among three or four experts in their field on subjects ranging from the Black Death to Probability and from the Sassanian Empire to the Music of the Spheres. It's always fascinating and frequently entertaining.
Just to give some background, Radio 4 is the home of middle-class, middle England. It is speech radio throughout the day. This being the Beeb, however, there are no adverts. Radio 4 is the home of The Archers and Woman's Hour. It is the English captured forever in a bubble of well-intentioned, unthreatening, middle-brow culture. When anyone says Radio 4 is quite brilliant and fabulous, the endearingly class-conscious Brits will immediately get an impression of the speaker, rather similar to the caricature I have drawn above.
I love Radio 4. I think it is brilliant and fabulous. You are now free to make value judgments about me along the lines mentioned above.
Melvyn Bragg is a lively, intelligent host. He is smooth, professional and competent when his guests are there to discuss philosophy, art or history, but with science and mathematics, the gaps in his knowledge do sometimes reveal themselves. Nevertheless, he struggles bravely on, and still manages to control his guests so that they develop the history of the idea under review in an illuminating and clear manner.
Whenever I listen to it, I think to myself 'that would make a brilliant E2 node' But then I find myself incapable of explaining the subject matter as clearly and as entertainingly as Bragg and his guests, so I thought I'd node the programme instead. Incidentally, looking through the list below, I find that over half of this season's topics already have excellent E2 nodes. But there are still a couple which are not even nodeshells.
As Radio 4 emerges into the 21st century, most of the programmes are available on podcast in the week after they are first broadcast. As I write, the show is broadcast at 0900 (London local time) on Thursday mornings, and appears on the web a few hours later.
In the area of maths, one of Bragg's regular contributors is Marcus du Sautoy who has contributed over the last couple of years to discussions on probability, the Fibonacci Series, Symmetry, the Poincaré conjecture, Mathematics and Music and Prime Numbers. While this is not supposed to be about Prof du Sautoy, those who know the good professor will be aware that he excels at explaining himself clearly. He can help his audience understand what he is trying to say, without sounding condescending.
This is a uniting characteristic of Bragg's guests, most of whom work in the British University sector. Thus the historical and cultural discussions tend to be focussed on British history and culture. Not only do Bragg's guests know their subjects and are enthusiastic about them, but they also can articulate that enthusiasm and transfer it to the listener. Bragg also knows a catchy theme when he sees it. He knows that sex sells, so when one of his subjects, say Avicenna had a strong sexual appetite, that forms a part of the programme. Bragg manages to do it in a subtle, non-voyeuristic way, but he knows which topics will grab his audience, and he uses that skill to keep us entertained and to keep us listening.
You do have to listen. This is not one of those programmes where you can half-listen to it while doing something else. It is concentrated edutainment, and the programme builds on itself, with topics addressed later in the programme referring to discussions held earlier in the same programme.
The programme has been running since 2002, gradually extending the number of shows per year. Currently it runs continuously from the end of September through to the end of July, with over 40 programmes per year, although in 2002 he did only half that number.
Auduster saysI listened to the Lysenko one two weeks back... While I respect Bragg, I find the pseudointellectualism on this program a bit nauseating... If I stand IOT up against America's This American Life I know which one I think gets its data across better.
/Me replies: Yes, there's some of that, but I think that adds to the fun of it. I've never listened to This American Life, but I won't dispute with Auduster on that one. The guests are sometimes a bit pretentious, but Bragg usually manages to defuse that by playing the common man. All I can say is that every week I learn something and feel better for having listened.
Listing of topics discussed in 2007 - 2008 season (so far)
Links, sources, further information
As I write, the show is broadcast at 0900 (London local time) on Thursday mornings, and appears on the web a few hours later.
This being the BBC, there are no adverts. Pure unadulterated middle England.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/history/inourtime/ Website of the show
http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/radio4/iot/rss.xml xml podcast feed
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/In_Our_Time_%28BBC_Radio_4%29 Wikipedia article for listing of shows