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19 October 2017

Living with the Gods is 15 minutes of belief, ceremony and ritual

Neil MacGregor's new Radio 4 series runs counter to everything that television now does.

By Antonia Quirke

What makes Neil MacGregor the best presenter on BBC radio? His new 30-part series Living With the Gods, about objects connected to belief, ceremony and ritual, begins on 23 October (BBC Radio 4, 9.45am), and listening to the first few episodes it’s clear that it is every bit the equal of Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation or Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man. None of them could hope to find a place on television now.

Like MacGregor’s 2010 A History of the World in 100 Objects, each programme is just 15 minutes long, a form nimble, and yet mysteriously capacious. In the opening episode he examines a 40,000-year-old Lion Man carved from mammoth ivory, fluidly moving between plainly stating (with modesty) that “all human beings seemed to be hardwired for pattern” to noting (with level, but somehow complex, curiosity) the traces of blood found in the small object’s maw, and the intense smoothness of the much-handled ivory.

A lot gets said in 15 minutes. Does one really need longer to communicate anything important? This runs counter to everything that television now does, where 15 minutes of information is stretched to an hour of tedious TV doc etiquette – drone shots, endless recapitulations, empty linking language, experts brought on to deliver half a sentence that is then bizarrely completed by another.

One of the reasons David Attenborough is perhaps so loved is that his programmes have been mostly free from all that. (The great thing about animals is the lack of conversation. Zero interviews with fish and snakes! No shots of Attenborough shaking hands with an octopus and then entering its lair for a nothingy chat.)

And although MacGregor’s antiquated but unposturing voice is extremely particular (it could be nobody else) he tends to take himself, his own personality, out of things. In such a programme the ideal quantity of intrusion of the presenter is as close to zero as possible. Imagine Simon Schama or Waldemar Januszczak or Andrew Graham-Dixon making the series – MacGregor is the least meddlesome. It’s something that would never translate into a contemporary visual medium: this could only ever be radio, made now. And no better has been broadcast this year. 

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This article appears in the 18 Oct 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Russia’s century of revolutions