In Our Time has come a long way, quite literally. Students at Glasgow University were offered the chance to come and watch a live broadcast of Melvyn Bragg’s programme as it marked the beginning of its twentieth series. This is the first time the show has ventured outside of London, a feat matched by its temporary relocation to the ever-impressive surroundings of Glasgow University’s Memorial Chapel.
Bragg’s guests for the episode were Katherine Forsyth, Alex Woolf and Gordon Noble – a trio of academics from Scottish universities, all specialising in some form on The Picts. Along with the rest of Britain, we listened as the table of four delved into the myths surrounding Pictish culture and recent archaeological discoveries whilst also being able to appreciate some of the Pictish art featured in the Chapel.
As many may already know, In Our Time is a programme on Radio 4 airing weekly which attempts to answer the nation's curiosities by way of a 45-minute conversation with scholars who study in a huge variety of subject matter. Since its conception in 1998, discussants have presented us with the theories behind nuclear fusion to the very notion of consciousness. Its success has swelled over the years, now with a weekly audience of up to 2 million people. Amongst these listeners, exist a large number of young people who have in some ways, created a cult following behind the programme.
When I caught up with Lord Bragg after the recording, I asked him to speculate on what he thought made it so appealing to so many across the generations: “To begin with, this is really just about giving people a particularly brilliant opportunity to learn about something different, something that gives them access to a group of extraordinarily engaging people who are focused entirely on one particular subject.”
Bragg is right, this is a show that has stayed true to the nature of its original purpose. It has remained steadfastly impartial, unearthing topics and considering areas of interest without the faintest desire in stirring up political debate or indeed allowing the show to become a platform for individuals seeking books sales or film sales – as so often is the case with discussion shows of today. In Our Time gives us knowledge in its most concentrated form, a straightforward conversation that rids us off any distraction; it has, as Bragg remarked, “inclined people to look into the vast and unlimited expanse of knowledge that lies out there”.
His start in life was humble, born into a working-class Cumbrian family in 1939 before achieving several scholarships and graduating from Oxford. However, such intellectual triumphs came alongside personal crises. Bragg has been open with the world about his mental health: “I have had two very bad breakdowns; I know what it is like to suffer from clinical depression and find yourself in a very bad state”. After these experiences, Bragg has been resolute in his involvement with mental health organisations. He was president of the charity Mind for fifteen years and just recently, collaborated with Warwick University’s online course, "Literature and Mental Health: Reading for Wellbeing". The project aims to engage participants with poems, novels and plays in the hope that they may alleviate the effects of illnesses such as depression. It is such a superbly simple idea and one perfectly suited to Bragg who has always been a staunch supporter of literature’s place in the world.
What is that he thinks makes reading so healing? “You are presented with an entirely new world, one that may grip you and move you. Literature can also become a collective exercise. We have found that learning a poem together with others provides a sense of triumph and in some ways, a coherency to the recovery process”. Bragg almost personifies this recovery process; a living example of someone who has strived against adversity and found an acute kinship within the pages of poetry.
One may imagine there to be a team of whizz kids, zooming all over the world in the hope of tracking down peculiar new subjects for In Our Time to present us with. But, it would seem that the programme relies on a capsule team of two: “Myself and Simon [IOT’s producer] sit together and we lay out all the areas our topics could fall under, whether that be Science, History, the Far East or South America”. The possibility of transferring such a successful programme to television seems high, a suggestion Bragg agrees: "it’s definitely capable of that." And yet, as he goes on to say, “ there is just something about [IOT] that really works and I would rather stay with something that works, TV can be very distracting”.
For now it seems, we can be assured that Melvyn Bragg will continue his quest in bringing to light the obscure and the mysterious – he has, as one audience member puts it, “become the gateway drug into an intellectual world…”
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09cvx7b - In Our Time - The Picts, available to listen here.
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p05mkjfb - Audience questions.