It was a programme, Laurie Taylor says, that wasn’t supposed to be – something he succeeded in “sneaking in” because BBC management’s attention was elsewhere. “Entirely bogus” is how he describes the launch of Thinking Allowed in 1998, but, 20 years on, Taylor’s weekly Radio 4 series that looks at research arising from the academic world is long established as the genuine article, and one of the best-loved half-hours on the network.
Perhaps more relevantly, it is Taylor himself whom listeners are according first-class honours. Now 81, his voice still a lovely mellow Liverpudlian, he can look back on a Radio 4 career that began in the 1970s on Stop the Week – the Robert Robinson-chaired round of Saturday-evening dinner-party-style conversation – and continued with a succession of stints on magazine programmes that included The Afternoon Shift before settling down with Thinking Allowed.
In common with Melvyn Bragg, whose In Our Time also celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, Taylor is one of the last remaining embodiments of the old-school Radio 4 values of craft and intelligent enquiry. And, like Bragg, Taylor is someone who retains a curiosity about the world, and a sense of mischief that keeps him fresh.
“Thinking Allowed came about because of a wonderful producer called Joy Hatwood,” Taylor recalls over lunch close to the home he shares with his wife Sally Feldman – one-time producer of Woman’s Hour – in Clerkenwell in central London. “I think I’d just been sacked from something and she probably felt sorry for me and so she asked me to present it.
“Her idea was to get two academics going head to head. But the trouble was, we couldn’t get any academics to agree to do it. They might have been prepared to argue in print, but they weren’t going to do it on the radio.”
A new approach was needed, and the plan was adjusted. Social sciences weren’t being covered on Radio 4, so Taylor – with a background as a sociology professor – suggested bringing in academics to talk about their research.
Thinking Allowed was up and running, but even then academics looked askance. “There was a lot of snootiness,” Taylor says. “They’d ask how could they possibly present three years’ worth of study in ten minutes.”
That attitude changed – and the programme really took off – when competition between universities entered the equation and research began to be rated on its impact on the wider world. “Academics loved it that they could turn round and say their research had reached a million Radio 4 listeners.”
Radio was in Taylor’s blood from an early age. As young as seven, already at boarding school, he thrilled to listening to The Brains Trust on his crystal wireless set. But his real aspiration was to be an actor. He studied drama at the Rose Bruford school in London and joined Joan Littlewood’s pioneering Theatre Workshop based at the Theatre Royal, Stratford, in east London.
Around this time he forged a lifelong friendship with Tom Baker – destined to be Doctor Who – but Taylor’s acting career didn’t quite hit those heights.
“I remember the moment very well,” Taylor recalls. “I’d been in something and a friend of mine came along to see the play and afterwards we met up. We walked along together for about 25 minutes talking about this and that, and finally I said, ‘Well come on, what was I like?’. And he replied, ‘You were absolutely terrible’.”
Taylor’s problem — which he accepted — was that he had too much of an ego. He couldn’t do what all actors must do which is to take flight from themselves and completely inhabit another person.
He needed to do something else and the next stop, after studies as a mature student, was academia. “I guess I quite liked the idea of showing off in front of a load of students.” Taylor became a professor of sociology at York University, and word of his engagingness reached Radio 4 because out of the blue he got a call to go on Stop the Week.
It was an association that lasted some 15 years and was “a complete delight”. The other panellists — the most regular of the regulars were Ann Leslie and Milton Shulman — had a nickname for him. “I was always known as ‘In our society’ because apparently everything I said I began with the words, ‘In our society’…”
Thinking Allowed is more about allowing his guests to utter those words, and for Taylor it’s a special thrill when people he once taught turn up on the programme as professors themselves.
The hundreds of studies the programme has covered range from food banks to smuggling to squatting to palliative care to aspects of Marxism, and the perception among some that Thinking Allowed has a left-wing agenda is one that Taylor – a one-time member of the International Socialists – has frequently been called upon to address.
“I’ve lost count of the number of times the dreaded word ‘balance’ has come up,” he says. “But my argument is this. If someone comes on the programme and they’ve done a three-year study into people on benefits and they’ve discovered that, no, they aren’t so-called scroungers and they would work if they could, then why have a politician come on to rubbish it who knows nothing about the subject?”
The one occasion Taylor did fall foul of the BBC Trust “wasn’t anything to do [with] trying to overthrow capitalism” but involved him reading out a lewd pun in a listener’s email. It had been prompted by an item about coxes and Boat Race crews. (You get the idea.) “I was amused at the thought of Trust members solemnly sitting down to consider whether I might have caused offence.”
“Timorous” is how Taylor describes the new mood of the BBC. “There’s a creeping censorship that would have amazed programme-makers 20 years ago. It’s as if the BBC feels it has to be constantly on its best behaviour to be acceptable to politicians and be worthy of the licence fee.”
There are other things that Taylor finds troubling about the BBC today compared with when he started out: employment practices that keep Thinking Allowed researchers on such short-term contracts that they are constantly changing; open-plan offices that mean there are no natural spaces for people to socialise in and exchange ideas; his feeling that people don’t listen to each other’s programmes.
“In the old days you might have got a note from someone saying, ‘Enjoyed the programme, liked that interview you did’, but it just doesn’t happen any more.”
Above all, it’s the disappearance of what he calls “constructed” radio that Taylor laments, citing series such as Tom Vernon’s Fat Man on a Bicycle. “Too much radio has become like newspapers,” he says. “It’s put together in too much of a hurry, with too many interviews, and no notion that at its best radio is an art form.”
What’s striking about Thinking Allowed is that it manages to be “constructed” radio while at the same time going out live. Does it need to go out live? “No, but I like live,” says Taylor. “It keeps people on their toes.” Which might just be the secret of Taylor’s longevity.
Thinking Allowed is on Wednesdays on Radio 4 at 4pm, with a repeat at quarter past midnight on Sunday evening