Having been cooped up in doors for most of the last twelve months due to the need for me to keep out of the sun because of the side effects of my chemo treatment, I have been doing a lot of reading. Usually I have at least three books on the go - a serious fiction book, a lighter bit of fiction (often a crime novel) and some kind of non-fiction book (maybe something to fill in a few holes in my knowledge of science or history). But when my eyes get a bit tired I turn to the radio, especially BBC Radio 4 which has some fantastic programmes on. I shall expand on this in a later blog but for now I want to concentrate on a gem of the network - In Our Time.
These are serious discussion programmes made for grown up listeners. Each programme features a panel of three experts on a topic, usually university Professors or lecturers. The topics of the programmes range across many subjects including science, history, religion and philosophy. The programmes are expertly chaired by Melvyn Bragg. Contributors gradually lay out the key points on a topic, invariably in a clear and articulate manner that can be understood by an intelligent lay person. From time to time Bragg will attempt a summing up of the story so far. Sometimes he gets it wrong - understandably as he is,like the listener, not an expert, although he does appear to have the benefit of notes prepared for him beforehand by contributors, and probably some extra notes given to him by a researcher for the programme. But in general he manages to steer the discussion expertly in the time available bringing it nicely together at the end. This is not an easy thing to do as I know from my own experience of chairing student (and staff) seminars at Portsmouth University. Even when the contributors know what they are talking about it is a skill to know when to curtail one speaker and bring in another.
Now as well as the live programmes that go out every Thursday morning at 9 am there is now an absolute treasure trove of past programmes going back to 2004, available via the programme's website in downloadable podcast form. The topics are listed under five genres - culture, history, philosophy, religion and science.
Now I know a bit about some of the topics covered - for example the programme about random and pseudo-random numbers didn't tell me much that I didn't already know. But it was reassuring to me that I felt that the programme covered the topic in a full and balanced way. This means that I can have confidence in the authority and authenticity of the coverage of other topics where my knowledge is more partial or even non-existent.
Melvyn Bragg has, of course, other claims to fame, namely his novels and the excellent South Bank Show, originally on London Weekend Television (ITV) but recently revived on Sky. He truly is a National Treasure and I hope that he will be around for many more In Our Time programmes.