Melvyn Bragg looks back on 20 years of In Our Time on Radio 4

The veteran broadcaster explains how he keeps the academics 'on their toes' on subjects ranging from the Abbasid Caliphs to the Zulu Nation

Melvyn Bragg (RT)

Barbara Graziosi is a rising star of academia. She has just been appointed Professor of Classics at Princeton University in the United States. On the day she was supposed to start teaching she excused herself on the grounds that she had been invited to make her first appearance on Radio 4’s In Our Time.

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Getting the call from In Our Time isn’t quite like being picked to play for your country, but you don’t turn it down. Her bosses understood. Don’t worry about the students, they said. They, too, will understand.

They’ll understand, because some of them will hear the In Our Time podcast, or as host Melvyn Bragg is given to calling it in fogeyish moments, “the iPod”. It’s the podcast of In Our Time that’s turned what was always a respected part of the Radio 4 offering into one of its stars.

This weekly discussion about the history of ideas is now listened to by an average of two million on the radio and it’s reckoned to reach a further million as a podcast. Many of the podcast listeners are younger than the average Radio 4 listener, and many are overseas.

It’s done this without resorting to any of the tricks programmes traditionally employ to get into the good graces of younger audiences. If anything, In Our Time goes the other way. Indeed, when one of Barbara Graziosi’s fellow panellists, who are gathered to talk about The Iliad, compares the politics of ancient Greece with Theresa May’s government, Bragg says, “That won’t do,” with that touch of asperity that  20 years as the host entitles him to. “‘Never knowingly relevant’ is one of our mottoes!”

The guests’ involvement with the programme begins with the usual phone call from producer Victoria Brignell, who grills them each for an hour about what they want to say. Victoria then distils the conversations with the academics into 30 pages of notes that go to Bragg on Friday. He goes through these and sometimes does some further reading round the subject. “Usually I don’t know what the next subject is until the week before,” he says. “I like not knowing. Mind you, when it’s Middlemarch I prefer a bit of warning.”

In the week of the broadcasts he, Brignell and fellow producer Simon Tillotson bat ideas back and forth until a running order is arrived at. His intro to the week’s subject, which can be anything from the Abbasid Caliphs to the Zulu Nation, is scripted, then it’s into the questions, each of which is directed at a guest who has a fair idea it’s coming. They cannot be certain, however. Bragg likes to keep them on their toes. He doesn’t use all the questions and will skip back and forth through the running order.

The programme usually goes out live, therefore he has to have one eye on the clock at all times. His aim is to land safely at 9.45am leaving the listener feeling they know more than they did at 9am and his guests feeling that they didn’t have it all their own way. Although academics are a voluble breed who rarely run out of things to say, Bragg’s ringmastering of this weekly circus is impressive. Then again, it’s his train set and they know it.

At 9.45am, when they are off air, he asks, “Is there anything we missed?” and they weigh in. This conversation, which has a much more relaxed flavour, is recorded and included in the podcast. It was a fellow peer of Baron Bragg’s who first suggested he’d like to hear that. The producer at the time wasn’t sure he’d be able to get such an innovation past the people upstairs. Bragg, who thinks it better to ask forgiveness than permission, suggested just doing it. They just did it. They’ve done it ever since.

Every week Bragg is accosted wherever he goes by fans of the programme. The latest included the Australian bloke who stopped him in Soho to say it was his favourite programme, and the Governor of the Bank of England, whose enthusiasm for it is “almost embarrassing”.

Why is it suddenly so popular? “I think we’re a more serious country,” Bragg says. “I’ve been going to literary festivals since the late 60s. Back then a few hundred people turned up. Now it’s thousands. Also I think listening has caught on again. Now that millions of people have gone to university – but have focused on a couple of subjects – the idea of getting a spread of knowledge is attractive.”

There’s something of the old-fashioned grammar-school teacher about Bragg on In Our Time. He has great respect for the knowledge of the three dons across the table, but he can turn chilly if he feels they’re not pulling their weight. He’s not above encouraging a little mischief, but he can switch in a moment to sounding slightly disappointed that people are not coming up to the standards he expects.

In Our Time has remained largely unchanged since it began in October 1998. Given the programme’s popularity among the chattering classes, he must have been presented with many suggestions about how it might be improved? “Yes, but I didn’t think much of them, so we haven’t introduced them.”

What sort of suggestions?

“I’m not going to tell, because they’re so awful,” he announces. Then he twinkles.


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In Our Time airs on Thursdays at 9am on BBC Radio 4