John Phipps

Why In Our Time remains the best thing on radio

The Radio 4 classic shows that making intelligent radio is as simple as letting intelligent people say intelligent things

Along with Melvyn Bragg’s not-quite-gruff, economical style, the key ingredient of In Our Time is the extent to which he and his producers trust their audience. Image: Abigail Zoe Martin / BBC

In Our Time is the best thing on Radio 4, possibly the best thing on the radio full stop. It is broadcast regularly from a parallel universe where everyone is interesting, everything is worth knowing and anyone can know it if they want to. It gets the best out of its medium by being somewhat contemptuous of it. It understands that the overproduced trimmings of modern radio are entirely extraneous. There will be no sound effects, no music and no catchphrases. All that we need by way of introduction is the word ‘hello’.

After that, there’s no telling what will follow. ‘Hello. In 541 AD, in the realm of Justinian, there was a plague in which the whole human race came near to being destroyed.’ ‘Hello. In 1638 a gathering of Presbyterians signed a solemn covenant in Edinburgh.’ ‘Hello. The experience of a complete solar eclipse is one of life’s most extraordinary, intense and fleeting moments.’

In Our Time is a parallel universe where everyone is interesting and everything is worth knowing

Of the academics in the studio with Melvyn Bragg, one will always be extremely nervous and talk too quickly and one will conduct themselves with the laconic self-confidence of someone certain they’re going to be invited back. They will all be experts in their field, and will likely have written some of the works on the thoughtfully compiled reading list that accompanies each episode.

It is a jewel, one that takes seriously the BBC’s founding mission ‘to inform, educate and entertain’, while simultaneously giving lie to the idea that this is at all difficult. Making intelligent radio is as simple as letting people say intelligent things. Along with Bragg’s not-quite-gruff, economical style, the key ingredient is the extent to which he and his producers trust their audience.

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