“OK, let’s do it here. I’m standing on Hadrian’s Wall, at the top of England . . .” Melvyn Bragg began his ten-part series (weekdays, 9am) on the history and culture of the north, the “let’s do it here” directed at whoever was holding the recording equipment, sounding more like busyness than bossiness.
Peering through the wind-scoured “mist and drizzle”, the proudly Cumbria-born broadcaster, with his 50-year-long career, assured us: “It is the north!” Moments later, lest we were still dreaming of the Aegean, “We are in the north!” And off he went, waving around his fecundity, interviewing queues of academics about the Northumbrian Renaissance and erotic carvings on Roman left-behinds. Any smidgen of defensiveness in the script (“[The north] is as much a country as any other more neatly geographically defined place on the planet!”) has (thus far, episodes one to four) been leavened by Bragg being in a frankly ozone-fresh mood. The kind that sounds like the sun coming out (we know how uncomfortable In Our Time can be, when his tones become those of a choleric housekeeper flushing a bowl of dead sticklebacks down the loo).
Here, Bragg laughs, a lot. He praises tourists for being quiet. He speaks dotingly to a man togged up as King Canute. Where sometimes you wonder if his profligacy as a writer and broadcaster has concealed some interior emptiness, not here. Such thorough and fulsome radio has probably not been heard all year, and the daily programme accumulates to a trove of such marvellous information that I felt like Dustin Hoffman in All the President’s Men, running out of paper and frantically scribbling notes on my arms and the back of Rizla packets.
I learned that the Lindisfarne Gospels are the work of just one man, mixing its 90 colours from six local plants and rocks; that Richard III was wooed by noblemen in York with gifts of gold and pike (how Ted Hughes would have dug that); and that the monks at Rievaulx Abbey invented a proto-blast furnace to make cast iron, 300 years before the Industrial Revolution (MB emotionally recalled considering the ruins an “enchanted realm” on a camping trip in 1962).
Episode five: Wordsworth. Melvyn – lay waste your powers.
This article appears in the 31 Aug 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Syria's world war