If Lord Reith were still about, he’d probably be so enamoured of In Our Time he’d probably be running around making the teas and making sure host Melvyn Bragg’s cushions were suitably plumped before recording started. If ever a radio show informed, educated and entertained, it’s In Our Time.
The format is simple. Each week a topic from culture, science, history or religion – the evolution of teeth, the Chinese philosophy of Daoism, Thucydides – is explained by three academics, wrangled by Bragg. No idea is too big, and no pocket of time too small.
At the centre of it all is Bragg, cutting through any over-ornate explanations with an ever so slightly terse tone and chivvying his charges along towards clarity and specificity. His tight handle on the tempo of proceedings is part of what makes In Our Time work so fluently.
With nearly 1000 episodes of Radio 4’s flagship intellectual roundtable broadcast since its debut in 1998 – a half-hour discussion of war in the 20th century – there’s a lot to rifle through. You could, in all honesty, pick one out at random and find yourself feeling immeasurably enlightened 45 minutes later. But here are three to get you going.
This is one of those In Our Time episodes which makes you stare into space for a couple of seconds in slack-jawed incomprehension even before you’ve started listening. Obviously, when you think about it, the idea of a graphical representation of nothing had to be invented at some point. But as with the best In Our Time episodes, this is probably the first time you’ve spent much time thinking about it. We go back to Ancient Egypt and Greece to hear about how the idea of nothingness was tussled over before Islamic mathematicians popularised the zero. Listen now >>
The Evolution of Teeth
Another one from the ‘wow, never even considered that’ stable, it turns out that half a billion years ago we were all just armoured fish, scuttling around in the seas and rivers, sucking up bits of food in our jawless, toothless mouths. Then at some point the scales started shifting around, and we could get to nibbling something more substantial. There are clues to the past in the fossil record of sharks, and sharks also point to a possible future where humans might manage to replace their own teeth. Madness. Listen now >>
The Gin Craze
Back in the late 17th century, as William of Orange took up the English throne, the country got a taste for a novel new Dutch import. A slightly mysterious new spirit flavoured with juniper became a national passion which curdled into a full-blown public health crisis, and was considered such a threat to the social fabric of the nation that Parliament legislated five times to bring its sale and consumption under control. The wild details about what life was like in a perma-sozzled England are great. Listen now >>