By Ellen Finch
Three academics, Melvyn Bragg and a single idea: Radio 4’s In Our Time has returned to broadcast in time for the start of the academic year. Tackling an impressive variety of subjects ranging from history, science and philosophy to classics, culture and religion, the programme is invaluable to university students of all disciplines. To welcome in the new series, Palatinate speaks to producer Victoria Brignell about the programme’s history, its guests, and the never-ending knowledge of Melvyn Bragg.
In Our Time started out in 1998 as the brainchild of Bragg and the BBC. Following Bragg’s departure from political programme Start the Week, the idea was conceived as an attempt to liven up the Thursday ‘death slot’ he’d been given. The show wasn’t expected to last the year. Seventeen years and over 600 episodes later, however, In Our Time remains an essential and popular programme for listeners interested in lively academic debate. Consequently, although the programme isn’t aimed specifically at students, In Our Time has quickly gained appreciation from universities around the UK. Brignell mentions that the programme’s episodes have often been compared to ‘radio seminars’. Indeed, the show has increasingly expanded its repertoire of subjects, and in 2000 the programme was changed from a half-hour slot to 45 minutes, making it more reflective of a lecture or seminar at most universities. The show also moved from hosting two guest speakers to three around this time, subsequently increasing the range of voices contributing to each week’s discussion.
The programme presents itself as an ideas show, discussing theories, topics and concepts. Guests do not choose to appear on the programme to promote new books to listeners; they are chosen because they bring a distinctive voice to each episode’s topical debate. Brignell is keen to emphasise the diversity of topics chosen as a result of this. “We choose topics we think are interesting,” she says. The programme does not deliberately follow developments in academia, but its topics are often very relevant to university courses across the UK. “The production team doesn’t have time to be across all the current trends in academia, but we do receive many ideas from listeners and guests,” Brignell explains. “A large number of our programmes are based on topics suggested by academics and members of the public.”
The programme is refreshing for the range of guests it hosts, especially when one might be expecting to see it dominated by Oxford and Cambridge academics. Brignell reassures me that In Our Time is “not an Oxbridge programme”. Indeed, a number of Durham’s own academics have appeared on the programme, including Carlos Frenk, Richard Gameson and Mark Woolmer. Guest diversity is a key reason for the show’s success. “For each programme, we aim to book the leading experts in their field. Thanks to the internet, it is possible to find out academics’ research interests and publications relatively easily, and that means we can find guests from a range of institutions.” She stresses, too, that the guests are chosen for their skills in radio as well as their research fields. “We look for experts in their field, but they also need to be engaging communicators. We need them to be able to display passion for the topic.” Guest speakers commit a significant amount of time to the programme. They are involved in the research and planning processes of each episode, as well as travelling to London, for the show’s recording. Academics’ commitment to the programme is important and highly valued by the production team. When asked about the academics’ behaviour, Brignell can’t think of a time where a guest has been uncooperative or difficult. “I’ve never come across any academics who are unhelpful,” says Brignell. “Fortunately, the programme has a strong reputation in the academic world and guests are keen to support it.”
With the vast number of subjects and guests appearing on the show, it is Melvyn Bragg who provides constancy. Bragg is well-known by listeners for being impressively, almost impossibly knowledgeable on each episode’s topic. Brignell explains that there is a long research process before the show airs, aided in part by the guest academics. She and her colleague carry out hour-long telephone conversations with the guests, before they come on the programme, to gain a more in-depth understanding of the topic. Then, each week, they send Bragg about 30 pages of briefing notes. In an interview with The Scotsman in 2009, Bragg reveals the extent of the work he undertakes for each episode. “I enjoy what was called swotting in my day,” he explains to the paper. “I get the notes late Friday afternoon for the following Thursday morning. I find all the spare time I can for reading, get up very early on a Thursday morning, have a final two hours of nervousness, and away we go.”
With more than 600 programmes made so far, and more coming up every week until summer, there is no sign of the programme’s end any time soon. Episodes are often directly related to university courses, and the production team is keen to emphasise the benefits In Our Time offers to students. The show offers in-depth discussions and debates on an extensive variety of topics; each episode is a useful starting point for further exploration into a specific academic talking point. With so much preparation, and the invaluable input of three specialised academics, it’s no surprise that In Our Time is rapidly gaining popularity amongst students.
In Our Time airs at 9am every Thursday on Radio 4. Past programmes can be downloaded from the website at bbc.co.uk/radio4/inourtime.
Photographs: In Our Time, John McCafferty