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Paul Vallely: Radio 4’s encyclopaedia of the airwaves

19 March 2021

In Our Time is an antidote to the oppressive present, says Paul Vallely


Melvyn Bragg, presenter of In Our Time, which broadcast its 900th episode this month

Melvyn Bragg, presenter of In Our Time, which broadcast its 900th episode this month

SOMETIMES, the news just gets too much. The swirl of pandemic, politics, and prejudice becomes psychologically oppressive. By way of an antidote, I often turn to Melvyn Bragg’s Radio 4 series In Our Time, whose title aptly reminds us that “our time” is not limited to the tawdry present, but encompasses the extraordinary achievements of three millennia of global civilisations.

This month, the programme’s 900th edition was broadcast, an extraordinary achievement in itself since its first episode on 15 October 1998. The formula is a conversation between three academics who engage in a 42-minute unedited seminar, each listened to by two million people on the radio and a million more via its podcast. The exchange is expository, but unashamedly high-brow. Ring-master Bragg keeps the pace lively with his often brusque layman’s interruptions of the scholars’ discourse.

Refreshingly, the contributors are chosen not because they have a new book to plug, but because they are real experts in the fields. It is like eavesdropping on a university tutorial, except that there are three tutors and one student — the northern working-class grammar-school boy who is unafraid to ask the ingénue question (though, in fact, he has been absorbing 30 pages of notes on the academics’ views for a week before). “Usually I don’t know what the next subject is until the week before,” Bragg has said. “I like not knowing. Mind you, when it’s Middlemarch, I prefer a bit of warning.”

The 900th programme was on Coleridge’s poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner which I had studied for A level, and realised, listening nearly half a century later, that I had failed properly to comprehend. One of the great things about the In Our Time masterclass is that it sends you with renewed enthusiasm back to original texts in literature, philosophy, science, history, religion, and art.

Its sheer range is breath-taking. In the past month alone, we have had Marcus Aurelius, medieval pilgrimage, and the Rosetta Stone. But, over the years, I have relished Aristotle’s Poetics, Dante’s Inferno, social Darwinism, Clausewitz on war, the 12th-century Renaissance, the Lancashire cotton famine, Weber and the Protestant ethic, logical positivism, Marjorie Kemp, Fermat’s last theorem, Prester John, the Bhagavad-Gita, Dreyfus, perpetual motion, the Valladolid Debate, and the evolution of teeth. Some ploughed deeper into familiar ground, but others were primers on new territory.

Taken together, the 900 programmes constitute a veritable encyclopaedia of the airwaves, courtesy of the polymath Bragg and his indefatigable producer, Simon Tillotson. The podcast edition has admirably expanded the range of listening opportunities; it is perfect for long car journeys. And it often permits an addendum of “bonus material”, in which the presenter and his guests ruminate over what they omitted or compressed when talking on-air.

Last week, Bragg and co. enlightened us on the Late Devonian Extinction, some 350 million years ago, and revealed that each of the big five extinctions in the history of the planet was down to a dramatic cooling or warming around the globe. But that sounds as if we might be straying back into the territory of the news. The current edition is on The Bacchae by Euripides. Here’s to 900 more.

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