In Our Time was never meant to be a success, says its host, Melvyn Bragg, in The New Yorker. The Radio 4 show began in 1998, when he was almost 60. The premise is hardly glamorous. Meandering academics discuss one subject for 50 minutes, while Bragg chivvies them along. Worse still, he was offered a slot on Thursdays, “traditionally known in the BBC as the death slot”. But somehow it worked.
Bragg is now 81, and the show has two million weekly listeners and more than 900 episodes under its belt, covering everything from Shakespeare’s sonnets to astrophysics. “I wanted to do things that I knew nothing about, because I could get an education on the sly.”
His entire life has revolved around education. He grew up in Wigton, Cumbria – “a town of five thousand people, with 12 churches”. His mother cleaned houses and his father did odd jobs: he was a miner, a factory worker, a bookie and eventually landlord of “the worst pub in Wigton”. Bragg, meanwhile, escaped through books. He had a “colossal breakdown” as a teenager and found solace in fiction. When I was reading, I forgot myself, he recalls. “I wasn’t worrying about whether I was going to be worried. I was worried about whether Anna Karenina was going to do this or the other. And I think that changed me.”
A scholarship at Oxford followed, then “another sort of scholarship” into the BBC. “As soon as I got there, I thought, I’m never going. This is all I want to do – make programmes. And I’ve just made programmes ever since. I mean, what a life. What a life!”