Wire­less won­ders

Melvyn Bragg on putting schol­ars on the ra­dio

THE (Times Higher Education) - - FRONT PAGE -

It is safe to as­sume that only a tiny pro­por­tion of the Bri­tish pub­lic wake up on a Thurs­day morn­ing ea­ger to learn about the Ab­basid caliphs, the cult of Mithras or com­puter science’s P ver­sus NP prob­lem.

Yet 2.5 mil­lion of them tune in ev­ery week to the BBC Ra­dio 4 pro­gramme In Our Time to hear sep­tu­a­ge­nar­ian pre­sen­ter Melvyn Bragg quizzing three aca­demic ex­perts on such top­ics for a dense 45 min­utes that is surely the clos­est the gen­eral pub­lic ever gets to eaves­drop­ping on an aca­demic sem­i­nar.

Those lis­ten­ers, Bragg tells Times Higher Ed­u­ca­tion, are split be­tween the live morn­ing edition and the shorter, late-evening re­peat, and their num­bers have been ris­ing year-onyear for the nearly two decades over which the pro­gramme has been run­ning (with 42 edi­tions a year). Then there are the 3 mil­lion peo­ple a month who down­load the pro­gramme, mak­ing it “the BBC’s big­gest weekly pod­cast”, ac­cord­ing to Bragg.

If some­one wanted to chal­lenge the com­mon no­tion that there is no longer an ap­petite for se­ri­ous in­tel­lec­tual dis­cus­sion in to­day’s sup­pos­edly dumbed-down world, this would be a good case study to cite.

No doubt In Our Time’s pop­u­lar ap­peal is boosted by the fact that Bragg is some­thing of a Bri­tish broad­cast­ing in­sti­tu­tion. Taken on by the BBC as a trainee shortly after com­plet­ing a de­gree in mod­ern his­tory at the Univer­sity of Ox­ford in 1961, Bragg was run­ning his own tele­vi­sion arts pro­grammes while still in his early twen­ties.

He ad­mits that he “re­ally did have an agenda” in those early days. “I came from a very strong work­ing-class cul­ture, which was ex­tremely rich,” he says. “We had re­ally good choirs; we had dances; we had read­ing rooms; we had de­bates; we went to the movies an aw­ful lot. So we were a rich so­ci­ety. But when I went to Ox­ford, that was sort of left be­hind.”

Al­though grate­ful for the op­por­tu­ni­ties that Ox­ford gave him, Bragg had reser­va­tions about an en­vi­ron­ment that was “a lot more hi­er­ar­chic” than he was used to, and that es­poused cul­tural as­sump­tions such as that “any­thing that hap­pens at the Royal Opera House is bet­ter than any mu­si­cal”. He was there­fore com­mit­ted to mak­ing arts broad­cast­ing less elit­ist – but he re­mem­bers be­ing “nearly blown out of the room” when he sug­gested to those run­ning Mon­i­tor, the BBC’s land­mark tele­vi­sion arts show at the time, that they might de­vote an episode to Elvis Pres­ley.

When Bragg got a chance to cre­ate and present his own arts pro­gramme, The South Bank Show (on ITV from 1978 to 2010 and then res­ur­rected on Sky Arts in 2012), he made a point of fea­tur­ing Paul McCart­ney in the first episode. Sub­se­quent pro­grammes show­cased every­one from Dolly Par­ton to Lu­ciano Pavarotti and even the min­i­mal­ist com­poser Steve Re­ich.

In 1988, Bragg also took over as pre­sen­ter of the long-run­ning BBC Ra­dio 4 cul­tural af­fairs pro­gramme Start the Week. There, he was keen to bring in more sci­en­tists as guests, in part be­cause he had given up school science at the age of 14 and sim­ply “wanted to learn more”. In his decade on the pro­gramme, he claims to have in­creased the pro­por­tion of sci­en­tific guests from 1 per cent to 37 per cent.

When Bragg be­came a Labour Party peer in 1998, the BBC de­cided that he could not present a pro­gramme that some­times touched on pol­i­tics. He was, there­fore, of­fered a new show, he re­calls, to fill “what they cheer­fully called ‘the death slot’ on Thurs­day morn­ing”.

By this stage, he was fed up with the fact that al­most all the guests on Start the Week were plug­ging a film, a book or an ex­hi­bi­tion. So he de­cided that he “just wanted to talk to aca­demics on one sub­ject and see what hap­pens”. Bragg is firmly of the opin­ion that tele­vi­sion has “lost its nerve” in re­treat­ing from se­ri­ous dis­cus­sion pro­grammes, be­cause “talk­ing heads can be the most in­ter­est­ing thing in the world”. So, just as The South Bank Show proved in­no­va­tive in tak­ing pop­u­lar cul­ture se­ri­ously, In Our Time broke new ground by mak­ing pub­lic and ac­ces­si­ble vast tracts of aca­demic re­search that had pre­vi­ously been con­fined to the sem­i­nar room and spe­cial­ist jour­nals.

Ini­tially, the pro­gramme was given only half an hour, but Bragg found that it often ran out of time just as the con­ver­sa­tion was “get­ting there”. He there­fore asked for an ex­tra 15 min­utes and “sug­gested they should do it as a three-ac­ter”. This al­lows him to start by ask­ing the aca­demic con­trib­u­tors for the ba­sic in­for­ma­tion needed by “peo­ple who know very little in­deed”, then to move into a gen­eral dis­cus­sion and fi­nally to con­sider: “What have we learned and what’s the legacy?”

A few other prin­ci­ples were soon es­tab­lished. In Bragg’s view, live record­ing cre­ates more “zest”, de­spite the mis­takes and fum­bles, and dis­cour­ages peo­ple from “ram­bling on”. He also makes a point of meet­ing his guests only a few min­utes be­fore they go on air, to en­sure that the pro­gramme is not “talked away” in ad­vance.

Another golden rule for In Our Time is

that, de­spite the ti­tle, the dis­cus­sion should be “never know­ingly rel­e­vant”. If an episode is de­voted to the an­cient civil­i­sa­tions of Iraq, for ex­am­ple, it is em­phat­i­cally not an op­por­tu­nity to de­nounce Tony Blair. And, un­like Bragg’s ear­lier arts broad­cast­ing, there has been a no­table avoid­ance of pop­u­lar cul­ture, with episodes al­ready de­voted to Hadrian’s Wall, the Haitian Rev­o­lu­tion and Han­nah Arendt but not, for ex­am­ple, the Hol­ly­wood mu­si­cal or hip hop – de­spite the range of aca­demic ex­per­tise on such themes.

In terms of sub­jects, Bragg is “up for do­ing any­thing”. Even if, in some spe­cial­ist fields, his “start­ing point is know­ing noth­ing, by the time I get there on Thurs­day morn­ing I know enough to ask de­cent ques­tions”. Al­though his pro­duc­ers also brief him, Bragg re­lies largely on the notes that he asks his guests to sub­mit ahead of record­ing, flag­ging up “the im­por­tant things to dwell on”.

Those guests who come over well on air are often in­vited back. They are also asked to sug­gest up-and-com­ing stars in their aca­demic fields who might also make good con­trib­u­tors. If this all sounds a bit hap­haz­ard, Bragg is de­lighted that, “with­out try­ing”, the pro­gramme has re­cently achieved “a ridicu­lously per­fect 50 per cent bal­ance be­tween men and women”, with 39 per cent of guests dur­ing the past year com­ing from “uni­ver­si­ties we had never been to be­fore”.

Al­though many of Bragg’s con­trib­u­tors had never pre­vi­ously ap­peared even on lo­cal ra­dio, they “soon got the hang of it” be­cause “they knew it was their pro­gramme”.

“There are no sur­prise ques­tions,” he points out. “What’s to worry about? No one’s try­ing to trip them up or test them. It’s well within their com­pe­tence. Teach­ing aca­demics are used to talk­ing to peo­ple like me, who don’t know much. Their only job is to get the in­for­ma­tion over at as good a level as they can, as suc­cinctly as they can man­age. Some­times I say, ‘There’s no rush.’” He also specif­i­cally tells them not to “dumb down”.

In the early years of In Our Time, Bragg re­calls, “Aca­demics would say, ‘I can’t pos­si­bly come on; I’m in my lab­o­ra­tory at 9 o’clock in the morn­ing.’” Now very few turn him down, and many are “re­ally sur­prised when they get back to their base and emails come in from all over the place, some­times from all over the world, from friends and col­leagues and so on. They like that feed­back – and the fact that their stu­dents are lis­ten­ing.”

Since the In Our Time ar­chive now in­cludes a back cat­a­logue of nearly 800 episodes, Bragg sees it as “a sort of en­cy­clo­pe­dia – often used by [stu­dents] writ­ing es­says, along­side the proper books [on their read­ing lists]”. But as well as the feed­back he gets from aca­demics and stu­dents when he vis­its uni­ver­si­ties, he is equally pleased to be stopped in the street or to re­ceive let­ters say­ing: “You are giv­ing me an ed­u­ca­tion – I left school at 15.” Even when a pro­gramme is de­voted to an­ti­mat­ter or the an­cient In­dian em­peror Ashoka the Great, “peo­ple think: ‘I’ve stuck with this pro­gramme on and off, so I’ll give it a go. I wouldn’t give it a go if I hadn’t en­joyed the past three pro­grammes.’ And some­times they will say: ‘I didn’t un­der­stand a word, but it was in­ter­est­ing.’”

Bragg’s com­mit­ment to the in­her­ent value of knowl­edge and en­quiry clearly runs deep. He is a mem­ber for the Coun­cil for the Defence of Bri­tish Uni­ver­si­ties, which cam­paigns against what it calls the “in­stru­men­tal­i­sa­tion of knowl­edge and its pro­duc­tion” and “the pri­vati­sa­tion of pub­lic ed­u­ca­tional as­sets”. And, in Jan­uary, he spoke out in the House of Lords against the gov­ern­ment’s higher ed­u­ca­tion re­forms, sug­gest­ing that the new Of­fice for Stu­dents would amount to a “cen­tral con­trol unit” that would be “anath­ema to free­dom, of which [schol­ars] need more, not less” to “pur­sue knowl­edge for the sake of more knowl­edge”.

While some po­lit­i­cal fig­ures might rely on anec­dotes from their own long-dis­tant univer­sity ex­pe­ri­ence when it comes to form­ing higher ed­u­ca­tion pol­icy, Bragg’s views are in­formed not only by his reg­u­lar con­tact with prac­tis­ing aca­demics but also by his 17 years as chan­cel­lor of the Univer­sity of Leeds. In that role – from which he is soon to re­tire

– he has done “what­ever the vice-chan­cel­lor asks me to do, dish­ing out de­grees, cul­ti­vat­ing alumni, in­clud­ing events in the Lords, chair­ing court [the board of gov­er­nors], open­ing a new li­brary if I’m avail­able. It’s largely cer­e­mo­nial, but I can some­times be a di­rect help.”

Such var­ied ex­pe­ri­ence of the academy has led Bragg to a num­ber of con­clu­sions. One of those is the high qual­ity of Bri­tish schol­ars. When he has chaired events fea­tur­ing pan­els of aca­demics in Ger­many and the US, he has found “they are not as fast and will­ing to give stuff over, in­clud­ing their lat­est find­ings”. In­deed, he sus­pects that the UK sec­tor is “prob­a­bly the best in the world per capita. Europe com­pared to us is nowhere. The [UK] level is very high, and it’s de­pen­dent to a great ex­tent on peo­ple com­ing in from over­seas.”

All this has left Bragg fu­ri­ous about both Brexit and the gov­ern­ment’s re­fusal to take stu­dents out of im­mi­gra­tion statistics. He has spo­ken out sev­eral times on such themes in the Lords, and cheer­fully re­ports on a re­cent panel he took part in along­side Jo John­son, when the uni­ver­si­ties and science min­is­ter was “good enough to be silent and em­bar­rassed”.

“Uni­ver­si­ties in this coun­try haven’t be­come very good overnight or with­out a lot of ef­fort, a lot of care­ful bricks be­ing put on top of oth­ers,” Bragg re­flects. “And some­body has just gone with a bull­dozer and said: ‘We’re go­ing to knock this lot down.’ I’m ex­ag­ger­at­ing, but that’s what it feels like.”

Tell me about your work Bragg in­ter­view­ing screen­writer and di­rec­tor Amma Asante forThe South Bank Show; in the In Our Time stu­dio with the clas­si­cists Catharine Ed­wards (of Birk­beck, Univer­sity of Lon­don), Alice König (Univer­sity of St An­drews) and Matthew Ni­cholls (Univer­sity of Read­ing) for a dis­cus­sion of the Ro­man em­press Agrip­pina the Younger; and out and about with Jarvis Cocker and Sir Peter Blake

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