In Our Time is a phenomenon, serious broadcasting, requiring serious attention, still growing as it passes its 750th edition.
The format seems simple: three experts talk to Melvyn Bragg about one subject, everything from alchemy to zoroastrianism. Last week it was the poet John Clare, before him this year were Hannah Arendt, parasites, Mary Queen of Scots and Nietzsche.
“Eclecticism,” says Melvyn Bragg, In Our Time’s first and only chairman. “It only seems to be random.” Two million Radio 4 regulars tune in, three and a half million take the podcast.
“We pioneered the podcast,” Bragg tells me. “When the live programme is over I say, ‘What did we leave out?’ So we leave the mic on and talk a bit more, talk in a different way. It’s caught on.”
It reaches a wider than average audience for the network. Universities in 48 countries across the world take it, one even teaches it. And it all began when Melvyn Bragg was fired.
In 1998, he became a member of the House of Lords. At the time he was presenting Radio 4’s Start the Week. The BBC thought it risky to have a Labour peer host a show that might, however occasionally, reflect politics. He says he left “with no complaints”.
I remember him being distinctly, if privately, cross about it. Whatever volcanic rumbles ensued, the result was an offer to build, from scratch, a new half-hour show for Thursdays at 9am. It would have one subject. It would not plug books. The range would be wide.
The title came from James Boyle, then Controller of Radio 4. Boyle’s successor Helen Boaden later gave it 15 extra minutes, the only change in format since In Our Time began, on 15 October 1998. The first producer was Olivia Seligman who stayed for a decade, the latest is Simon Tillotson, with eight others between. Bragg pays great tribute to them all.
Compared with television this team is tiny: a producer, an assistant producer, an occasional freelance researcher. It runs continuously, September to July, meticulously planned. “Every six weeks Simon and I get together, think about the areas we cover – philosophy, religion, science, history, writers, art – and possible contributors. They’re usually academics who teach, because they’re used to talking to people. And I’m the one who’s listening.”
On Fridays, Tillotson delivers him briefing notes for each programme, five days ahead. Bragg’s broadcast routine is strict. “We don’t have an 8.30am meeting because they’d talk it all away. I meet them at 8.55 am and say, ‘This is how it works. I’ll come to you, then you, then you’. They may be people who’ve never been on radio before but this is a mini-seminar by great experts who may never come together again. And,” he adds, beaming, “I love it.”
What if the subject is one he doesn’t know much about? Black holes, string theory? “When it’s really difficult I do the best I can. I own up. I’ll say, ‘You’re going to have to dig me out of this hole’ and they do.”
Live broadcasting is tricky. He must watch the clock while ensuring the discussion develops, flows, fits the time. “I have to get it going and wrap it up. Sometimes I bugger it up.” He laughs, knowing we’ve heard him get crochety when a guest suddenly freezes, or challenges him.
Has he ever had to fight the BBC for In Our Time? “No. It was a bit of a hit from the start. It sounded fresh. We had top people from the start and we’ve kept it tight.” Why is there no television equivalent? Long silence. “There are many reasons. There’s an unhealthy obsession with ratings. Minorities can be as powerful as majorities but majority audiences are what the BBC wants. I’m a great defender of the BBC but its television rides on the back of its radio.
“Newsnight has an audience of half a million and much bigger resources. In Our Time talks to two million people. I think the public knows what it wants. Nobody in the world does what Radio 3 and Radio 4 do. But people who work in radio don’t feel they are valued enough.”
At 77, Bragg’s appetite for work remains voracious, omnivorous. Through his production company, Directors Cut, he makes dozens of TV programmes a year. He’s just done the fifth draft of a new novel, set in 12th-century Paris. He’s working on a biography of William Tyndale, translator of the first English printed Bible, and executed for it in 1536. He tries to give the House of Lords three days a week.
In Our Time stretches far into the future. “It’s worked out the way it’s worked out. I was one of the first grammar school boys to get a BBC general traineeship. By the time I was a producer, I’d had two novels published and started to get into radio. Then I made the leap to ITV. Everyone said it was for the money. But it wasn’t. It was a feeling they were leaving things out, seeing the arts as a pyramid. I saw them as a rainbow. At the BBC I suggested making a documentary about Elvis and was hooted out of the room.”
On his very first South Bank Show he interviewed Paul McCartney, brilliantly. He keeps in mind Mr James, his teacher at his school in Wigton, persuading his parents to let him stay on for the sixth form. To do it, Mr James went to see Stanley and Ethel Bragg three times to convince them, something he says he only learned about two years ago.
Only one other boy from his year, a scientist, would stay on alongside him. All his pals had left, got jobs, were bringing home wages. His father, realising the difference it would make when Melvyn went out with them, raised his pocket money to 12/6 a week.
But he had to work for it, “sweeping the front, bringing up the bottles, sluicing out the gents” at their pub. He got into Oxford, then had the good fortune to be paid for work he loves. Does he ever feel the years? “In Our Time takes care of all that,” he says, briskly. “I am duly chid.”
In Our Time is on 9am Thursdays