In Our Time: Celebrating Twenty Years of Essential Conversation. Simon Schuster. £25.
Twenty years in the “death slot”, that is at 9.05 every Thursday morning on Radio Four. Far from being prime time, it was a programme time was expected to attract few listeners.It was the slot the BBC offered Melvyn Bragg in 1998. He’d been elevated to the Lords by Tony Blair to be a spokesman on cultural matters. It was felt inappropriate for a politically committed presenter to head a programme like Start the Week and so In Our Time began.The “death slot” came to life. After over eight hundred programmes – eight hundred programmes which have ranged remarkably over the breadth of human knowledge – that ‘death slot’ has between two and three million listeners – a lot more than many popular television programmes. And it is also the BBC’s most downloaded podcast.Melvyn Bragg begins to mug up the week’s subject six days before. He uses notes supplied by the academic contributors. He meets them for the first time at 8.55, ten minutes before the programme begins. Ten minutes later they are live on air, three world-class experts talking about a subject they are passionate about, being steered by a layman who is as interested and innocent as any listener. It’s an exciting format for a broadcast and, if it works, it makes brilliant radio. And it does work.And it works because, as Melvyn says, “I like learning”. In Our Time has given him an education he “could not have dreamt of at school or university”.For this enthusiasm, we have to thank Mr James. Melvyn’s history teacher at Nelson Thomlinson in the fifties. He went to see Melvyn’s parents on three separate occasions to persuade them to let him carry on at school into the sixth form.The selection for this book offers an in-depth view of a richly diverse array of subjects. The History enthusiast can take his pick from ten subjects ranging from The Berlin Conference on dividing up Africa to the story of Romulus and Remus and the founding of Rome. If he reads about Hatshepsut, the queen who ruled Egypt more than three millennia ago, he will find Melvyn, having misnamed one speaker after a childhood friend, concluding the programme by saying “All roads lead to Wigton.”Science takes us on a journey from Bird Migration to Absolute Zero. Philosophy travels from Zeno’s Paradoxes – he’s the tortoise and the hare man – to Hannah Arendt, who sought to understand “the banality of evil” in the totalitarian state. In the section on culture, Frieda Kahlo, John Clare, the Icelandic Sagas and Turner’s picture of The Fighting Temeraire lie side by side.Melvyn justifies his section on Religion by claiming, “It’s the hot subject.” He recalls the Wigton of his childhood with its population of 5000 and “ten active churches . . . These churches ran the town.” He went to the Anglican Church and “accepted all of it – the resurrection, the miracles, eternal life.” But, he “can’t forgive the church for the ‘gift’ of sin”. He sees the idea of sin as “a blight. It’s entirely destructive.” The ten programmes on religion stretch from Zoroastrianism to The Putney Debates.In Our Time must rank as one of the significant educational innovations of the last twenty years,. It’s a programme that appreciated that the ordinary listener had an interest, perhaps, even, a hunger, for the exploration of serious ideas.