Chat Umpire

Chat Umpire

A conversation about Melvyn Bragg.

Danny: A while back we were talking about Melvyn Bragg, who hosts a BBC radio discussion series called In Our Time that I listen to semi-regularly. I should say that I was lightly complaining about him, rather, which led you to say something insightful, which is how a lot of our conversations begin. It’s a show that assembles a handful of experts to talk about Paleolithic art, or the works of Thomas Browne, or The Bacchae, and then Bragg sort of swats at them with a birch-rod to make them run for a half-hour or so. I somewhat like him and he drives me a little nuts, and you remarked that there’s not quite the same culture of “professional facilitated conversation” in the US as there is in the UK, which I think has a lot to do with it. We have Terry Gross, I mean, but that’s pretty much it; our own talk radio and podcast subcultures are shaped according to totally different interests and priorities than your people’s “hosted chats.”

Jo: Dunno if it’s insight so much as indoctrination. Plus, *bangs clipboard* TEETH, TEETH, TEETH

Danny: Go on, please!

Jo: They did an episode about teeth. It’s one of the best pieces of “media” in years. It makes Radiolab sound like one of those videos of a puppy snoring into a microphone. But you raise an excellent point, which is, roughly: With it being agreed upon that In Our Time is the only good podcast, except for the one about people who narrowly survive animal attacks, how is that so? And the answer is complicated but has to do with the general and the specific.

Let’s start by observing that Bragg has several decades of practice predicting the general thought patterns of a guest appearing on television trying to appear intellectual and expert. Remind me to bring this around to UK terfs later.

Danny: So noted!

Jo: Bragg joined the BBC in the early ‘60s, I think without any special job, as a trainee. Through the decades of well-funded arts broadcasting that followed he built a career on a few channels that have sort of helped to shape what the words “arts programming” mean. On The Lively Arts and The South Bank Show and TV shows like those the BBC/Bragg established a sort of métier of general interest mixed with precision “hooks.” There's a lot of good stuff about this type of show in the A.S. Byatt novel A Whistling Woman. Has Grace ever shown you the Dennis Potter interview?

Danny: She never has! She’s not really a BBC expat. If that’s a type, which I suppose I’ve decided it is.

Jo: See, I hate the BBC too—in general. But in specific, when it’s good, I love it! And the specific is where Bragg shines. He just melts away into the background of that interview. You can see how he smiles really brightly at Potter, when he gives his best lines, about how, once you can really see the present tense, boy can you see it! It's just facilitation at its best. He disappears. Bragg is so good at is having an understanding of where his interviewees or guests might be likely to drift, so that he can keep them on track, so that he can be personally less memorable—but then lets the subject drift here and there where it’s useful to add poetry. Finally, and this is especially impressive on In Our Time which is quite short considering its number of guests, he yanks everybody back just before the finish line and then everybody cheers. I imagine it like Melvyn Bragg has one of those hooked sticks and he’s on the edge of the stage, ready to yoink a megalomaniac tenured professor back into productive conversation with the postdoc he’s snubbing, or similar.

Danny: He does snub! I think this is where some of my Midwestern-ness gets in the way – I like for conversations to be completely smoothed-off at the corners, and he’s always chiding and interrupting his guests in a way that horrifies me. But it is clearly also compelling!

Jo: If there weren’t a logic behind that behavior, it would be horrifying. But there is, so it compels. Would you agree?

Danny: I would! And obviously (fortunately) not everyone shares my sharklike need for constant niceness one-upsmanship. There’s a sort of formula where he’ll ask a question, send a guest off in a particular direction, then yank on their chain to draw them back within a certain circle. Like:

BRAGG: Tim Acuting. Why “despise”? Why “condemn”? Why would Seneca have used these words?
TIM ACUTING: Well, because they would have regarded those pursuits as impure, as less critical to the health of the republic–
BRAGG: We’ll stick to the artists, I think. Selma Healing: What does this tell us about their attitude toward artists?

Jo: And then Selma, a 21 year-old researcher at rural Italian university, will stutter for a few seconds before changing your life.

Before, I meant that the tenured professor was doing the snubbing, not Melvyn. Melvyn is mostly respectful in his rudeness. The Cambridge chair will start going off about the vital conflict between himself and the chief proponents of the Innsbruck School regarding the dental morphology of the Jurassic valley squid, and then Melvyn will humiliate him for violating the pertinence principle.

I know it can sound mean, but in theory it isn’t—it’s the respectfulness of the direct, which signals that you are not lying in order to manipulate, which is how American hospitality culture can come across in other contexts. That’s a huge difference in politeness principles between US and European entertainment. Bragg’s role as a facilitator of conversation on In Our Time requires him to keep the conversation in a neutral, central zone that is free of ad hominem conflict but full of productive conflict.

This is a pretty traditional type of human conducting that functions very similarly to the old concept of manners. That is, we will all hew to the same rules, and stake out a zone outside of time and society and so on, and a person we are all a little bit frightened of will tell us when we go offside and he will make sure everything is fair. He’s the umpire. It’s not him telling you off, it’s the rules he simply channels. Manners and facilitating conversation, equally, are what (in theory) is supposed to keep a professional zone intact.

This sort of semi-Socratic style works well, but it plays into nasty conversation equally well. The insulating quality of manners is what helps the British class system run on interpersonal rails, for example: When strangers maintain respect between them based on an assumption of respect for each other's privacy, rather than the pressure to disclose your feelings, then we end up not hurting each other's feelings but also completing shutting off certain types of communication. It's a management system, at some level, and it works frighteningly well.

It feels safe, however, where genuine trust exists. I think people genuinely trust Bragg to at least try very hard to be fair, and even if he doesn't do it perfectly all the time—secretly I love when he hurries guests up through millennia-long timelines—it shows that he's trying. Everybody loves a good faith effort. Nor does it hurt that having Selma be victorious and Tim left face down in the mud has certain appealing narrative qualities. If Bragg were consistently unfair that part wouldn't work at all.

Danny: I think that’s right! And he’s also in the middle of a genre that sort of doesn’t exist here – which is why Terry Gross isn’t necessarily the best comparison, so much as the closest American equivalent. It seems to me, at least, like the British cultural landscape is littered with “facilitated chat” shows (distinct from talk or chat shows), and they’re all called things like Stop the Week or Look at the Week We Had or This Week, We Week, and an entire system of comedians and personalities and talking heads are kept employed in this fashion. Does this strike you as roughly accurate?

Jo: Yeah. My last answer was a bit confusing but your question is helpful….I guess what I think is that there is a cultural tendency in the UK to worship the middle ground, and we are relieved when the middle ground is policed, and we are okay with it, because it helps us to communicate. The comedy shows are mediocre tussles over where the middle is.

The BBC is a symbol for the idea of a neutral middle ground that doubles ingeniously as a tool for consensus at home and for standardization and control in the empire. In the 20th century all my relatives, all over the world, listened to the BBC World Service say the same words in the same accent at the same time, and they grew up being told that it was all in the service of equality—anybody could speak BBC English, so anybody could theoretically go to England and become a judge or a bestselling Romantic poet or whatever. It's not true, or rather it's not the main truth, but it's something that people believe in at a deep level. So, this tendency for facilitated chat has become a bit, shall we say, over-enshrined. It’s not fun or funny when it’s the local government or the shit TV show or everybody believing the police implicitly. In contexts like, say, courts of law, I don’t think it is good that a man can through the pure jocular authority of his tone of voice assert control of a room. But on the radio? Yes.

Danny: Yes, and I think our cultural landscape is more like a series of little fiefdoms, both in talk radio and in podcasts, where everyone is setting up a series of independent petty kingdoms. Which has its own problems!

Jo: When I was on Brian Lehrer earlier this year, for example, I felt very keenly that he was not Melvyn Bragg, because he seemed to be asking his own questions, rather than presenting the obvious key questions as defined by the universe’s atmospheres of justice.

Danny: “I feel keenly that this man is not Melvyn Bragg” is such a wonderful type of presentiment, I think.

Jo: This is good for Brian as an individual who doesn’t want to be intellectually dishonest (just a guess) but I also think that it is ultimately more generous to your guests, as a host, to be really, really clear. When you’re really clear that can come off as pompous or reductive—but it’s a seeming lack of generosity at the personal level that ultimately is generous to the conversation’s participants.

It’s funny. I love argument boundaries but am quite lax about them in my life and I think you’re the reverse—very charming and kind in dialogue but when it comes down to it you’re very sure about where the lines are. I don’t know if that’s true of the Melvyns of this world. But we can fake it in conversation very well. That’s the other thing—faux-reasonableness is the great danger of the Bragg style. He does pretty well with it, I think.

Ultimately, I think, whether or not you love In Our Time might depend on whether you a) believe in your own ability to tell whether or not Melvyn Bragg is faking his whole thing and then b) conclude that he isn’t.

Danny: It’s true that I do rejoice in a clear line. I think you’ve won me back around to the pro-Melvyn camp – not that I disliked him in my complaining. I do like complaining about things I think are pretty good (like Only Murders in the Building, which should be much better than it is, but makes me feel like one of those teachers who says things like “I’m only hard on you because I know you’re capable of more,” which is such a cop-out.)

Jo: That’s exactly what a stouthearted critic does, though. You only give attention to the thing that deserves it because attention has been poured into its creation. And Melvyn offers his guests his full attention. Even when it’s a sleepy attention, they have it.

Danny: Like King Arthur – Britain’s soft power is perhaps best enjoyed when it’s sleepy.

Jo: Yeah. I wouldn’t want a guy like Melvyn Bragg to have weapons or to be exhorting young soldiers to their deaths, because I think he’d be really good at that too. Shit, we forgot to come back around to the terfs. Part 2 next week?

The Stopgap's Top 10 Episodes of In Our Time (since we started listening it)

1. The Evolution of Teeth.
"Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss ideas about the origins of teeth, their link to hard scales on fish such as sharks and why some species regenerate theirs but humans do not."

2. Battle of the Teutoburg Forest.
"Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the Germanic tribes' destruction of three legions of the Roman general Varus in 9 AD, so limiting the expansion of the Roman Empire across the Rhine."

3. Doggerland.
"Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the growing understanding of the humans, plants and animals once living on land now under the North Sea, submerged in the Stone Age."

4. The Mamluks.
"Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the Mamluks, medieval rulers of Egypt and Syria from 1250 to 1517."

5. 1816, The Year Without A Summer.
"Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the link between the eruption of Mt Tambora in 1815, the largest and most lethal in recorded history, with famines in Europe and America in 1816."

6. The Mytilenaean Debate.
"Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the Athenians' vote to kill all the men of Mytilene, then their change of mind next day and their race to stop the first vote being implemented."

7. e.
"Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss Euler's number, also known as e, one of the most important and interesting numbers in mathematics."

8. The Russo-Japanese War.
"Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Japan's unexpected victory over Russia in 1904-5 which gave Japan a new status in the world and pushed Russia into revolution."

9. Indian Mathematics.
"Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the 5000 year long contribution Indian mathematicians have made to our understanding of the subject."

10. The Fisher King.
"Melvyn Bragg and guests will be delving into the world of medieval myth and legend in pursuit of the powerful and enigmatic Fisher King."