Melvyn, no need to Bragg
November 29, 2014 12:28 PM   Subscribe

Melvyn Bragg's been digging deep for more than 40 years. You may know In Our Time [previously], The South Bank Show [previouslier] or The Adventure of English. If you don't, you probably should.

In Our Time is a weekly BBC4 radio program on pretty much anything Melvyn Feels Like Talking About as long as it relates to an event or a person or an idea in history (so, basically, anything). He is an exacting host, in each episode there is a kernel to the show, and Melvyn is pretty unrelenting in keeping his guests digging for it. A few gems (there are more than 600 online):

Hildegard of Bingen
The Philosophy of Solitude
The Eye
The Phoenicians
Michel de Montaigne
Gnosticism
Water
Comets
La Morte D'Arthur
The Borgias
Simone Weil


The South Bank Show (1978-2010) may be what he is best remembered for, which doesn't feature Melvyn's personality as centrally. Each episode is like a maniacally curated introspective about an artist, cutting straight through the gloss. A few ecstatic episodes: If you find the Talking Heads one I will marry you:

Werner Hertzog, 1982
The Velvet Underground, 1986
John Zorn and Sonic Youth, 1989
Bjork, 1997
Nick Cave, 2003
Iggy Pop and the Stooges, 2004


The Adventure of English (the book is subtitled "The Biography of a Language") from 2003 is another deep-diving documentary series, probably the most earnest of Bragg's efforts (belied by his awkward, gesturing hands). Fortunately, every episode of this show is available.

Ep. 1 Birth of a Language
Ep. 2 English Goes Underground
Ep. 3 The Battle for the Language of the Bible
Ep. 4 This Earth, This Realm, This England
Ep. 5 English in America
Ep. 6 Speaking Proper
Ep. 7 The Language of Empire
Ep. 8 Many Tongues Called English
posted by stinker (57 comments total) 81 users marked this as a favorite
 
I've been a devoted listener of In Our Time in years, but I can't help but think of him when I watch this sketch.
posted by phrontist at 12:33 PM on November 29, 2014 [7 favorites]


My personal favourite IOT episode is the one on Foxe's Book of Martyrs. Exemplary.

I would avoid two things, though. 1) IOT episodes on sciences are always slightly hampered by Bragg not being a scientist*, 2) Bragg's novels do not live up to his non-fiction efforts.

*) opinion formed through hearing physicist friends discussing IOT.
posted by kariebookish at 12:42 PM on November 29, 2014 [3 favorites]


I'm pretty sure there's another Mitchell & Webb "Big Talk" sketch where one of the characters mumbles something about having to prep for being on "Melvyn Bragg's horrible show" later in the week. I think of it as a tribute.
posted by benito.strauss at 12:45 PM on November 29, 2014 [1 favorite]


A national treasure.
posted by carter at 12:47 PM on November 29, 2014


I love In Our Time, but my mind wanders a lot when I listen because it's effortlessly dense. I think that's a good thing, but it's not the best to rewind a couple times during a road trip.
posted by Turkey Glue at 12:50 PM on November 29, 2014 [1 favorite]


His work on the history and influence of the King James Bible ain't too shabby either: YouTube.
posted by Paul Slade at 12:56 PM on November 29, 2014 [1 favorite]


Don't forget his latest venture The History of Ideas

Props should also go to the programme researchers especially for IOT, who are often responsible for seeking out the academics, and preparing some of the briefing notes that Bragg uses.

(It's a bit embarrassing/humblebraggy to admit it but, being asked to do IOT was one of the proudest moments of my life; sadly I really, really, couldn't do a live broadcast with <a week's notice on the topic they wanted, so I said no :/)
posted by AFII at 1:01 PM on November 29, 2014 [11 favorites]


I like the science ones where Melvyn is too far out of his depth to do more than mutter something once in a while to keep the conversation going, without really interfering. IOT also seems like it would benefit from being a proper podcast, where the target length was 40 minutes, but they could go under or over by about 20 minutes.
posted by wotsac at 1:06 PM on November 29, 2014 [5 favorites]


I was somewhat started to discover that Bragg is Baron. This came out in a podcast where one of the guests said "Melvyn, you are a Peer; you've sat in the House of Lords, surely you know something about..." and Bragg cut him off rather curtly, saying "I am not the subject of this episode." I still wonder what was going on there....
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:19 PM on November 29, 2014 [5 favorites]


I just found this interview with Bragg in the Independent from earlier this year. Unfortunately it doesn't really shed any light on his peerage.
posted by stinker at 1:40 PM on November 29, 2014 [1 favorite]


From that interview:

To his undisguised irritation, in the popular mind he’s associated with his photogenic looks and luxuriant hairstyle, or as he dismisses it, “my effing hair”.

I... respect Bragg for his mind, but I admit that I, too, have admired his hair. Is that so wrong of me?
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:44 PM on November 29, 2014 [2 favorites]


IOT episodes on sciences are always slightly hampered by Bragg not being a scientist

That's most of the reason I don't particularly like IOT. In the science episodes I've heard, he's been very obviously out of his depth, directing discussion in odd directions and asking largely meaningless questions. That in itself is fine, but he does it with the same air of knowledgeable authority as in all the rest of his episodes. I'm not complaining about ignorance -- we're all ignorant about most things, after all -- but the practice of trying to cover up one's ignorance with vague but authoritative-sounding pronouncements infuriates me, and when talking about subjects I know about he spends far too much time toeing or across that line. I'm not equipped to evaluate him when he's talking about the humanities, but after hearing him bluff badly through subjects I do understand, I find it hard to take him seriously.
posted by metaBugs at 1:55 PM on November 29, 2014 [1 favorite]


I don't really take it as bluffing. Bragg is very open about the fact that he just swots up the stuff in the week before, in order to try to host people who know far more than he does. The whole point, for me, of the programme is that the questions are those that an intelligent and interested but largely ignorant person would ask. As you point out, metaBugs, people like the majority of the audience for any given episode. It's not always perfect, and sometimes he comes across as a tiny bit of a dick, but I think of that as a feature, not a bug. Being a bit of a dick and getting a bit confused are frequently parts of the process of being introduced to something, and I find it helps me think about new subjects to have someone acting as the proxy for my ignorance.

On philosophy, which was my field once, I find the questions range from relatively illuminating enquiries about things I've taken for granted, through functional and astute, to sometimes missing the point or not grasping the premise of something. I'm fine with that range, because each time of question actually presents the guests with a different kind of opportunity for explanation.

I can see how it could grate, however, so it seems perfectly reasonable not to like the show.
posted by howfar at 2:16 PM on November 29, 2014 [10 favorites]


Bragg's real strength is his broadcaster's sense of the conversation in the piece as a whole, and his shepherding of the guests in In Our Time is quite well-judged if abrupt. I love that he gives women a lot of airtime and rigorously upbraids people for cutting each other off. His manner suits the slightly short-feeling length of the programme because it forces him to mostly stick to structural concerns.

I always secretly cheer inside whenever a professor overrules or dodges one of his commandments, though.
posted by forgetful snow at 2:21 PM on November 29, 2014 [7 favorites]


If truth be told, it's something that I know I'm oversensitive to, so I probably should cut him a little more slack.
posted by metaBugs at 3:07 PM on November 29, 2014 [1 favorite]


When you look back at the range of subjects covered, it would be impossible for him to be expert in all areas, and I don't think that that is what is intended. Basically, I think it's some of the best radio programming to be found anywhere, with lots of good intro level talks, and this is one particular gift horse that I'm not going to examine any further ...
posted by carter at 3:08 PM on November 29, 2014 [1 favorite]


Melvyn Bragg was made a member of the British House of Lords (our revising chamber of government) by the Labour party in 1998. I can't find any confirmation offhand, but I should think it was almost certainly for services to broadcasting.

Two of the things I find particularly endearing about him are: (1) that he gives up booze every January for a month and that his staff know he'll always be in a foul mood for that entire period and; (2) that he admits he learns an enormous amount from each and every episode of In Our Time but (just like the rest of us) finds that much of it fails to stick for as long as he'd like.

On the science point, I dare say that professional scientists occasionally find his layman status irritating, but for the rest of us it's often quite useful to have a chairman asking sometimes naive or uninformed questions on our behalf. In Our Time is aimed at an intelligent general audience, after all, not at scientists alone.

I think it was about 20 years ago that Bragg - who'd been an arts journalist for all his working life - suddenly realised that he knew nothing about science and set out to put that right. He was hosting BBC Radio 4's Start The Week at that time, and ensured many scientists started appearing among the programme's guests. It was also this resolution which led him to produce his excellent science primer On Giant's Shoulder's.

As you may be able to tell, I'm a big fan.

PS) Oh, and the podcast version of the programme has recently taken to adding on a few minutes of bonus material letting us listen on on Bragg's conversations with his guests as they wait for the producer to come in and offer some tea. Generally, they're kicking around all the aspects of the subjects they wished they'd got round to but simply didn't have time.
posted by Paul Slade at 3:14 PM on November 29, 2014 [4 favorites]


I have recently listened to pretty much all of the episodes available via Downcast, and I would warn new listeners that the later (post 2006 or 2007) episodes (45-ish minutes long with three guests) are generally better than the earlier episodes (two guests and a half hour running time). The latter often seemed unbalanced, with Bragg and one guest sometimes kind of ganging up on the other, and a bunch of them were basically book promos. The current system where Bragg is guiding and the three experts are agreeing or disagreeing seems to make for better radio (and leaves a little more room for development of complex topics).
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:21 PM on November 29, 2014 [1 favorite]


This came out in a podcast where one of the guests said "Melvyn, you are a Peer; you've sat in the House of Lords, surely you know something about..." and Bragg cut him off rather curtly, saying "I am not the subject of this episode." I still wonder what was going on there....

Oh, man, this is my number one favorite moment that has ever happened in In Our Time, period, hands down. It has brought up so many questions for me, too, as a non-Brit.

So are Peers just sort of bumbling around in British society holding vaguely normal sorts of jobs like Radio Panel Show Host? Or do they all still kick it Downton Abbey style and behave as if doing anything useful (even nominally useful) is beneath them?

Is Melvyn Bragg coincidentally a Baron, or is that part of the whole IOT thing?

Are there other prominent Brits who happen to be aristocrats?

What is even up with the House Of Lords, anyway?

If you're a member of the peerage, does that mean your family were a bunch of Norman warlords once upon a time? Or at this point can basically anyone be a noble vs. a commoner?

Do people even care about this sort of thing anymore, aside from the privileges that come with nobility adjacent things like owning property, having a lot of money, cultural prestige, etc?

Primogeniture: still a thing or what?

I would actually really love it if Melvyn Bragg sat down and explained all this, IOT style, for the benefit of non-UK folks. Or, really, if anyone did, in any format.

Also, to get somewhat back on topic, anytime I can't fall asleep, I put on an episode of In Our Time. Not in a pejorative "ugh so dull" kind of way, but because at this point it's pavlovian. I listen with rapt interest for about ten minutes, then I'm out like a light with no memory of ever feeling anxious about the fact that I couldn't fall asleep. It's like ambien that doesn't make you do weird shit in your sleep.
posted by Sara C. at 3:33 PM on November 29, 2014 [4 favorites]


In the science episodes I've heard, he's been very obviously out of his depth, directing discussion in odd directions and asking largely meaningless questions.

I actually quite like this (and, yes, as a humanities person, I can vouch that he often does it in humanities episodes, too). He often asks the first questions that are going to come to mind for a lay person, which enables the panelists to quickly set the record straight and get to the interesting stuff.

One thing I love about IOT is that the host is more like a quite erudite audience stand-in, and less The Foremost Expert. It feels very much like a roundtable of smart people talking about interesting subjects with the guidance of an interested outsider, and much less like a lot of American shows with hosts and guests, where the host has to always come off like the leader who has deigned to invite these lesser beings into the studio. He's like the opposite of Alex Trebek.
posted by Sara C. at 3:40 PM on November 29, 2014 [2 favorites]


There was an excellent Interview with Melvin on Colin Marshall's podcast a while back that talks a bit about how he approaches subjects in IOT and his broadcasting history.
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 3:45 PM on November 29, 2014 [3 favorites]


"I am not the subject of this episode" -- a humble-Bragg moment?

Bragg is a life peer, which means he's a baron because Tony Blair made him one. (Well, strictly the Queen did, but life peerages are granted at the PM's "recommendation".) According to Wiki his parents were "Mary Ethel (née Park), a tailor, and Stanley Bragg, a stock keeper turned mechanic", which of course doesn't exclude the possibility that he's descended from Norman warlords. Primogeniture doesn't come into it in this case because life peerages aren't inherited, but his kids do get to be Honourables.

I've always thought his name sounds like a fictional alter ego of Mervyn Peake.
posted by hoist with his own pet aardvark at 4:20 PM on November 29, 2014 [4 favorites]




Sara C. you have to distinguish between hereditary peers - who, as you'd imagine, inherited their title and might well be aristocrats - from life peers who have been appointed by the government in recognition of their achievements. Melvyn Bragg is of the latter category and wouldn't, I think, be considered an aristocrat.

There are only 92 hereditary peers in the House of Lords at present, while Tony Blair created over 350 life peers while in office, just to give you an idea of the balance of their numbers.

Of course, since it's in the government's purview peers are often created for reasons of political expediency: often to reward an ex-minister who fell on his sword in a scandal, donors to political parties (Bragg was, coincidentally I'm sure, one of the largest private Labour party donors at the time he was ennobled), or as a sop to special interests. See David Cameron's recent ennoblement of the loathsome Andrew Green, head of an anti-immigration thinktank.

Or do they all still kick it Downton Abbey style

Julian Fellowes, the creator of Downton Abbey, was made a peer in 2011 as it happens!
posted by sobarel at 4:31 PM on November 29, 2014 [4 favorites]


Oh, and while we're doing favourite MelvynMoments: his getting drunk with Francis Bacon on the South Bank Show has to be a real highlight.
posted by sobarel at 4:35 PM on November 29, 2014 [3 favorites]


I love IOT. I agree with the others who find that the science episodes tend to be weaker (disclaimer: I am a science-type) although some of them are great. I thought the recent episode on e (the number) was really good. Sometimes it feels like the guests on the science-topic ones are weaker speakers, although I don't know how much of that is a real thing and not just my biases talking.
posted by quaking fajita at 4:58 PM on November 29, 2014 [1 favorite]


So are Peers just sort of bumbling around in British society holding vaguely normal sorts of jobs like Radio Panel Show Host? Or do they all still kick it Downton Abbey style and behave as if doing anything useful (even nominally useful) is beneath them?

I lived next door to The Rt Hon. the Lord Hunt of Kings Heath OBE in Birmingham for a few years including the time while he was deputy leader of the House. His kitchen window looked into my kitchen window except his had cookbooks jammed into it (and mouldering). Borrowed his push mower (he had two - the posh toff!) to try one out when my electric mower broke down ( i returned it in a deplorably unclean state - shame on me!). Saw him and his wife at the market a few times. Pretty much a normal person with a wife and two teenage kids who couldn't keep their sports ball (and on one occasion their footwear) in their own yard.

And that was a career labour politician so I am guessing that non-political career lords are even more normal.
posted by srboisvert at 5:03 PM on November 29, 2014 [3 favorites]


I remember (*) when Bargs got ennobled - it was all a bit embarrassing, because he was such a notable broadcast journalist by then that it was near-universally assumed (**) in the biz he'd have to give up his BBC work.

BBC journalists are not allowed to be public members or supporters of any political party (Paxman only came out as a Tory after he'd left), even if it's often an open secret - especially within the Beeb - where their affiliations lie. Being sent to Brenda by Tony blew the gaff on that one. I seem to remember that there was a period of purdah, but it wasn't that long before everyone agreed to Not Mention That and Melvyn was back in the saddle.

You can see this as an affable bit of British fudge, or an example of how having friends in high places gets you a pass where lesser mortals would be shot.

(*) Only vaguely
(**) I may actually have won a bet involving a useful volume of decent whisky on that with one of my elders and betters, but all evidence and quite a lot of my brain have been destroyed in the intervening.
posted by Devonian at 6:04 PM on November 29, 2014 [3 favorites]


The science eps are weaker, but I feel that's because they tend to lack the narrative thread of history or culture episodes - when the science ep is a basically a bio of a famous scientist, like the recent one on Brunel, it's a lot stronger.
posted by nicolas léonard sadi carnot at 6:19 PM on November 29, 2014 [3 favorites]


Interesting thread. I just the other day had a conversation with a friend about our frustrations with IOT: that Bragg seems, so often, to turn a fascinating subject into a boring show by shaping the conversation in unsatisfying ways. I'm oddly happy to hear that not everyone feels that way, however.
posted by EXISTENZ IS PAUSED at 6:29 PM on November 29, 2014


OK, I have so many followup questions:

1. So who actually sits in the House Of Lords? The lifetime peers, or the hereditary aristrocratic ones? Or only the ones who decide they want to? Are members of the House of Lords career politicians?

2. Are members of the peerage's lives inherently politicized via the mere fact of being peers? Does this change if you're a lifetime vs. hereditary peer?

3. Do people get sent to the House Of Lords? It just occurred to me that there probably aren't elections for that, but surely a person would decide "I would like to be a politician, and since I'm already Baron So And So, I guess that means I'm going to the House Of Lords"? Or is it literally like "Hey you're a big Labour donor, so we're nominating you for this thing that supercedes every other aspect of your career up to this point"?

Off to read the wikipedia article on Parliament I guess...
posted by Sara C. at 6:38 PM on November 29, 2014


Holy shit, people, the House Of Lords is fucked... Why did I read this... Thank god I'm not British...
posted by Sara C. at 6:41 PM on November 29, 2014 [2 favorites]


So who actually sits in the House Of Lords? The lifetime peers, or the hereditary aristrocratic ones?

The vast majority are life peers. 678 life peers to 85 hereditary peers is the latest figure I could fine. Of course this is way more than the House can actually seat, so daily attendance is much lower - usually around 400.

Are members of the peerage's lives inherently politicized via the mere fact of being peers?

An awful lot of peers are politicians. Getting bumped up to the Lords is a traditional end to a lengthy career in the Commons. But, yes, when one becomes a life peer it is normal to associate with a party, although the number of "crossbench" non-aligned members of the Lords has been increasing in recent years.

Do people get sent to the House Of Lords?

Life peers are all eligible to attend the Lords, but there's no obligation to do so or associated salary. The government usually names so-called "working peers" who are the ones expected to turn up daily and do the actual work of the chamber.

Holy shit, people, the House Of Lords is fucked...

Yes indeed. Everyone agrees that reform is desperately needed, but somehow nothing ever happens, and in the meantime our current PM is creating new life peers at a greater rate than ever before.

And the Lords Spiritual? Don't get me started.
posted by sobarel at 7:14 PM on November 29, 2014 [2 favorites]


Yeah, the Lords Spiritual is what inspired that comment.

I mean, I grew up Episcopalian and am not really threatened by the idea of a bunch of CofE bishops, but THEY DO NOT BELONG IN THE GOVERNMENT AT ALL.
posted by Sara C. at 7:18 PM on November 29, 2014


To get back to IOT - As AFII says, the programme researchers should get a lot more kudos. They make or break many a programme, and they are entirely invisible outside (and not so visible inside) the BBC, and to keep on coming up with people with both the intellectual firepower and the presentation skills to hold their own is very, very hard. Academics often make terrible guests on radio - you want them to be enthusiastic, able to react quickly and interestingly, and to get their ideas across concisely and clearly. Many academics are terrified they'll say something that can be picked on by their peers, so retreat into a stream of qualifications and hedging or safe fluffiness. Which is not good to listen to. Phrontist's linked sketch is the other side of that coin.

Bragg is very good at stepping in to move things on or gently throw a rope to someone who's getting stuck in the mud, but there's only so much he can do - IOT can be very hard to listen to when that goes awry. On the other hand, when you get a seriously A-grade card (the Foxe programme referenced above is indeed an exemplar), it does stuff you will not get anywhere else, in any medium.

It's also notable that IOT is the only non-news BBC programme that covers art, humanities and science. The last one I remember even trying that was Kaleidoscope, which set out to have a similar range but eventually collapsed into an arts+culture show. I think that as with all journalism, the more you know about a particular subject the less satisfying it can be - and the more it can be set around a particular narrative, which is naturally the case with biographic themes, the easier it is to be digestible. That In Our Time gets it so right so often... it's a shame that people don't wear T-shirts with its logo on.

I imagine that Lord Reith is spinning in his grave fast enough to disturb the orbit of the Earth. But I hope that, for the few minutes each week that IOT is on, he gets a little rest.

(and yes, the House of Lords is a seething boil on the face of Parliament. Yet who will be prick enough to lance it?)
posted by Devonian at 7:20 PM on November 29, 2014 [6 favorites]


The live nature of the show is one of the best parts. A guest might show up late. A guest might be a smug gasbag given to making insupportable categorical pronouncements; it warms the heart to hear the other guests join forces to take him down.

You might get the rare Triple Peril, when all three academics agree that the day's topic is not, in the grand scheme of things, particularly important: the battle was a footnote, the thinker was redundant, the trend changed nothing and petered out. And then follows the pleasure of listening to Bragg hustle for committed opinions.

He' s gotten very good over the years at parrying that dismissal and coaxing the jaded, noncommittal Reader in History at ______ College, University of ________, to admit that, er, well, though perhaps it would be a bit much to declare the assassination of Alexander II a turning point, one could surely deem it at least an inflection point? We're not going too far there, are we?
posted by Iridic at 9:25 PM on November 29, 2014 [3 favorites]


I love it when I can hear the water glasses (or is it tea mugs?) clink in the background.

I hate it when one of the academics talks in a way that causes the mic to pick up a bunch of gross mouth/saliva sounds. (It sets off my "loud eater" issues, and sometimes I have to turn the episode off.)

I love it when Mary Beard is a guest.

I like it when an episode is about a religion or specific world culture, and one or more of the panelists is actually from said culture.

I love it when there are non-English panelists.

I hate it when they go on a crazy stupid long hiatus. IF ITS THURSDAY, I NEED MY PAVLOVIAN RESPONSE SLEEPING PROGRAMME
posted by Sara C. at 10:36 PM on November 29, 2014 [1 favorite]


One more love: anytime there is any call for Melvyn Bragg to say the word "medicine", which is of course pronounced "medzyn" in In Our Time language.
posted by Sara C. at 10:40 PM on November 29, 2014 [1 favorite]


The aforementioned "few minutes of bonus material letting us listen [i]n on Bragg's conversations with his guests as they wait for the producer to come in and offer some tea" seem as British to Texan me as do the pips or the Shipping Forecast.

I adore (and fully buy into) the conceit that the way to adapt this very BBC programme into a podcast is to add a few minutes of running length from after the show proper is finished but before the producer slips in and quietly asks the guests "tea or coffee?" just as the show fades.
posted by glhaynes at 11:13 PM on November 29, 2014


It’s certainly true that the House of Lords doesn’t make a lick of sense on paper, and that its hereditary element makes it impossible to defend on any kind of democratic basis. Like a lot of utterly illogical things in the British “constitution” though, the strange thing is that it does seem to work.

When a British Government has a large majority in the House of Commons, it can force through pretty much any legislation it wants there, no matter how badly thought-out or just plain stupid that legislation may be. Ninety percent of the ruling party’s backbench MPs will always toe the Government line in the hope of advancing their own careers, and defend even the most egregious measures in public rather than cede a point to the opposition. It’s often only when that legislation moves to the House of Lords that it receives any proper scrutiny at all.

The Lords are less slavishly bound to party loyalty than MPs are, and the more civilised debating procedures there tend to reverse the usual heat-versus-light dynamic in the Commons. Unlike MPs – many of whom have never had a job outside politics in their lives – members of the Lords will often have a whole career in the real world behind them, and can bring all that experience to the debate. Lord Bragg’s long experience of working in public service broadcasting gives him a very useful role in those discussions, for example.

Legislation which the Lords rejects is thrown back at the Commons for another run-through there, with a strong indication from the Lords that it needs substantial improvement. As the elected chamber, the Commons ultimately has the power to simply overrule the Lords when it feels that’s justified, but exercising this blunderbuss power brings an additional degree of media scrutiny which the Government then has to answer.

All these factors come together to make the Lords a very useful chamber. A few years ago when Tony Blair’s Labour Government was pushing through all sorts of hysterical “homeland security” measures, it was the Lords which often brought the only touch of sanity to the debate. Strange as it sounds, during that period I actually came to feel that my civil liberties as a British citizen were in safer hands with the Lords than with the Commons.

Labour began promising to reform the House of Lords as soon as it took power in 1997, but had achieved no more that a little minor tinkering when it left office 13 years later. The difficulty lies not in saying “let’s the reform the Lords” but in finding an alternative that would actually work better. An entirely elected Lords, for example, would simply reproduce the problems with slavish party loyalty and career advancement concerns I mentioned above. America’s closest equivalent to the Lords is the Senate, after all, and such problems are hardly unknown there.

All that said, someone once remarked that the cure for admiring the House of Lords is to go and look at it. It’s easy to caricature them as a bunch of over-privileged, senile old twats who smell faintly of urine, but I do think the truth is a little more complicated than that.
posted by Paul Slade at 12:59 AM on November 30, 2014 [8 favorites]


Bragg's relationship with class is a complicated one.
posted by fullerine at 1:11 AM on November 30, 2014 [1 favorite]


I think the podcast adding post- (and pre-) show bits is a way that BBC programmes deal with podcasting in general. The Kermode and Mayo film review show has a point where they explicitly go to the live show and where they explicitly slip back into the podcast-only bit. I've also heard it with other podcasts, though I don't listen to all of them. It seems like quite a good way to deal with it.

(K&M also have a webcam, apparently, so they're ridiculously media diverse.)
posted by Grangousier at 4:17 AM on November 30, 2014 [3 favorites]


In Our Time was the first podcast I ever subscribed to, lo so many years ago. It's one my week's highlights when a new ep shows up.

The latest series has been including a bit of after-show banter between Melvin and guests, which in itself has been delightful, in that they will often go deeper on the subject or touch on esoteric points that didn't make it into the show.
posted by Thorzdad at 7:24 AM on November 30, 2014


(K&M also have a webcam, apparently, so they're ridiculously media diverse.)

They are also experimenting with SnapChat, although apparently more as a joke. Not to mention how far ahead of the VR curve they are with the imaginary cruises.
posted by GenjiandProust at 7:32 AM on November 30, 2014 [2 favorites]


So are Peers just sort of bumbling around in British society holding vaguely normal sorts of jobs like Radio Panel Show Host?

The two that I'm personally acquainted with are like that. One was the director of the Family Planning Association, the other was a nurse turned academic.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 8:07 AM on November 30, 2014


I don't know much about this guy or about British politics, but his Wikipedia article mentions that the year he was made a Baron on recommendation of the Labour Party, he was also one of the largest donors to the Labour Party.

It doesn't draw a relation between these two claims, and I don't mean to imply that there obviously is one, but hey.
posted by Flunkie at 8:58 AM on November 30, 2014


Just to jump in on the derail, I love the fact that Christopher Guest (aka Spinal Tap's Nigel Tufnel) is a hereditary peer, and in fact before the hereditaries were kicked out, actually did take his seat in the House of Lords.

My favorite South Bank Show episode is probably either Norbert Smith -- A Life, an amazing mockumentary episode (a theme is developing in this comment) starring Harry Enfield, or the Douglas Adams episode, which was completely brilliant and contained so much original material that it's easily part of both the Hitchhiker and Dirk Gently canons.
posted by George_Spiggott at 10:46 AM on November 30, 2014 [3 favorites]


Considering that 92 members of the House of Lords are selected by hereditary aristocratic schemes that are still allowed to bar women from inheriting, another 26 members are there on the basis of being Anglican bishops, and the rest of the members are appointed for life by the queen on the advice of the prime minister rather than elected by the people, I think "this dude is a Labor supporter and now he's a lifetime peer in the House Of Lords" is not the worst thing happening, here.
posted by Sara C. at 10:47 AM on November 30, 2014


I never said it was the worst thing about the House of Lords. In fact I explicitly said I wasn't even saying there's obviously a connection between his donations and his appointment. Beyond that, I didn't even obliquely reference anything about your derail on the various ills of the House of Lords, and I'm not really sure why you seem to think I was doing so. I was just responding to the questions about how he got his title.
posted by Flunkie at 10:53 AM on November 30, 2014


From a March 2014 piece in the New Statesman:
He tells me that preparing for each programme is the equivalent of reading one non-fiction book a week. Does he remember what he learns? There have, after all, been more than 630 episodes. “I retain some of the information. With some scientists, I think I know what they’re talking about when they are talking about it. Ask me at lunchtime and I’m less sure. Ask me the following day and, well . . .”
So it's not like he's pretending to know everything.
posted by wenestvedt at 4:56 PM on November 30, 2014 [1 favorite]


I agree that the IOT science shows are often weak, but I think a lot of that is due to the medium. Science education uses a lot of visual aids, that simply aren't an option on the radio. Listening to chemists attempt to describe the structure of the water atom without being able to draw it was a bit of a farce.
posted by kjs4 at 5:37 PM on November 30, 2014


And I love the end bit where they have a post game discussion and get cups of tea.
posted by kjs4 at 5:38 PM on November 30, 2014


Thanks for posting this! IOT is such a great podcast. It's one of the few where the format doesn't feel stale after 10-25 episodes. Glad to learn more about the person behind it.

My favorite moments are when one of the guests tries to "dumb down" an answer to a question (as I assume they are used to doing when making media appearances) and Bragg presses them to actually address the question as asked. Yay! Makes me feel like a smart person.
posted by So You're Saying These Are Pants? at 6:21 PM on November 30, 2014 [1 favorite]


Yes, science doesn't work as well in the podcast format as some other fields. While on my own I'm more likely to read a science text than a history text, with IOT I prefer it the other way around; I find the history segments riveting but the science segments not so worthwhile.

Matters relating to the philosophy or practice of science, technology or engineering are interesting as well, but the actual science itself doesn't lend itself to the form.
posted by George_Spiggott at 9:38 PM on November 30, 2014 [1 favorite]


It's also notable that IOT is the only non-news BBC programme that covers art, humanities and science.

The Forum can be pretty good for this. Typically three guests from very different disciplines, discussing a fairly loosly-defined theme. It can sometimes feel like they're reaching a bit, but it often works very well. Also, because it's made by the World Service its guests are often from an interesting mix of countries. Definitely worth a try if you like IOT.
posted by metaBugs at 6:51 AM on December 1, 2014 [4 favorites]


Damn you Tom Morris. Can't you wait a little longer and give us IOT podcast listeners a little more time to enjoy the after show each week?
posted by mnfn at 7:53 AM on December 5, 2014


One may claim that God is Dead, but one does not interfere with the BBC 4 tea trolley schedule.
posted by benito.strauss at 10:40 AM on December 5, 2014


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