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  • Eddie Hewitt

In Our Time

Twenty Years of Cultural, Historical, Scientific, Religious, Philosophical Conversation

I’m in the Purcell room at the Southbank Centre. One of two creative venues that Melvyn Bragg finds himself especially at home in. No room for ITV or Sky Arts tonight though. It’s all about a BBC Radio 4 programme. We’re celebrating what feels like an overnight sensation, due to a recent surge in popularity, even though the show has been going twenty years, with over 800 episodes broadcast to date. The programme, In Our Time, is all about knowledge, and its presenter has an insatiable desire to learn.

Melvyn Bragg: A man for all of our times

There are a few hundred of us in the auditorium. This is a dedicated but ridiculously low turn out for a programme that is enjoyed by millions, home and abroad. Messages of appreciation have been received from Communist China, despite the country’s vexing and often impenetrable socio-political barriers.

In Our Time is arguably the flagship of BBC radio’s cultural output. A classy talk-show personification of the institution’s brief to inform, educate and entertain. Not bad for a programme that started in what was known as the ‘death slot’, 9am on Thursday mornings. Many in the audience at the Southbank are much older than me, but quite a few from my own generation, and even a few youngsters. Given the academic input, the programmes are gold dust for students in a vast range of disciplines. The guests really go at it hammer and tongs, offering far better value than many lectures given at university.

The format of the programme is simple. 43 minutes long. 3 guests (all specialists in their field), often at the peak of their intellectual and educating powers. The subjects fall into five broad categories: Science, History, Culture, Philosophy and Religion. Melvyn is particularly proud that Science has a 38% share of all programmes broadcast over the years. He frequently refers to string theory and free radicals. Cricket, too, but that’s an aside.

Melvyn is modest and does not feel comfortable taking compliments, which must be a regular challenge for him. He seems, to some extent, unaware of his own level of knowledge. Occasionally, discussions go way over his head, he says, but from my listening experiences this is rare.

Every Friday, Melvyn receives a package of notes compiled from material supplied by the guests preparing for the following week. He has some idea of the key themes beforehand, then, and does his own research. But, one of his golden rules is that the guests can only come into the studio five minutes before the show starts. It’s essential not to have them along earlier, so as to keep the content fresh when the live discussion happens.

Telling us how it works: on stage in the Purcell Room

No notes are allowed in the studio. It has to be a conversation between four people sitting around a table, with no external points of reference. Simon the producer, an essential member of a highly valued team, is in the background. He also serves as purveyor of BBC teas and coffees afterwards.

There are some more rules. No plugging of any books by the academics. Everyone is expected to discuss in a constructive and cooperative manner. To challenge and disagree, yes, but respectfully, and in a way that leads to a better understanding of the subject all round. There is a collegiate feel to the process.

The emphasis is on knowledge, not personality. Melvyn mentions knowledge so many times in the course of the evening. He delights in sharing the studio with experts in their field who are happy to recount what they know and to explore with others. I’m with him all the way here. Acquiring knowledge is a wonderful thing.

Most of the subjects are hand-picked by Melvyn and Simon. One week it’s Dark Matter. The next it’s Shakespeare’s Histories. Another time it will be Genghis Khan. Every six weeks, Simon compiles a list of possible subjects, and they discuss it in the Langham Hotel across the road from the BBC. Some subjects come from suggestions sent in by the public. The topics are potentially endless. Recently, it came as a surprise to all involved that The Iliad was finally up for probing after twenty years of talking about other great subjects. They could fill many more hours in the weekly radio schedule, but it’s all about quality and focus, and even suspense, looking forward to next week’s show.

Simon Tillotson (Producer) looking distinctly like W1A's Director of Strategic Governance, and Melvyn Bragg (Presenter)

"Yes, no, that's brilliant!"

There is one more golden rule: “Never knowingly relevant” is the show’s mantra. In other words, not deliberately picking subjects that are currently omnipresent in the media. The subjects and the points raised may have relevance for current events, but listeners are left to themselves to establish any links to the wider world and their own lives.

There is always room for the Classics. Melvyn fondly recounts meeting a listener who told him that she loved the programme, but “if you say one more time ‘this brings us back to the Greeks’, I’ll lose the will to live”. That’s unfortunate. Melvyn is resolute in his passion for returning to our cultural origins. He reflects:

“We always go back to our sources in the Arts”.

Quite so.

On style and direction, Melvyn relates that people sometimes tell him he’s pushy, but if this is the case it comes from good intentions. He wants to move the conversation on to get to a point of learning. To cover everything that needs to be covered, though he notes this is subjective to some degree. Melvyn also comes away from some programmes thinking they could have covered so much more. But ultimately, he has to get the guests to “pour a pint of knowledge into a thimble”.

Always happy to take questions and answer them with gusto

Question time comes and my hand shoots up. I’m keen to hear Melvyn talk us through his reactions to a particularly forceful Marxist academic who starred in a classic episode on the Industrial Revolution, broadcast about ten years ago. I tend to hold onto these special cultural moments a long time. Melvyn recalls it vividly. Heated arguments are rare on the programme. He remembers getting cross since the academic in question insisted on stressing the importance of movements and developments, but failed to acknowledge the role of individuals and people. Melvyn is always eager to establish who the main protagonists were and how they contributed to history. On this occasion, sparks flew.

The session draws to a close. This has been and entertaining and enlightening evening. Dare I say a knowledge gleaning event. One more thing. Melvyn might not approve, but I’m giving him a plug here for his book: In Our Time, Celebrating Twenty Years of Essential Conversation. Co-authored with Simon.

An impressive tome, with transcripts from some of the finest conversations

Looking back over the years, not all the subjects have appealed to me at first mention, but I have often been surprised to find myself drawn in. I suspect I'll enjoy many more. Melvyn is 79, and is still hungry to know more, about many things. Thankfully, there’s no sign of the show stopping any time soon. Simon half-jokingly suggests another twenty years. That sounds good. Long may In Our Time continue.

© Eddie Hewitt 2018


BBC Radio 4: In Our Time – all episodes

In Our Time archive by category

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