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29 April 2020updated 03 Aug 2021 1:48pm

The dull broadcasting trend of pairing experts with comics

Radio 4 is now completely obsessed with adding comedians to shows from historians, scientists, naturalists or linguists.

By Antonia Quirke

A new teaching-aid podcast for children is presented by “public historian” Greg Jenner of Horrible Histories (“I’ve spent my career making history fun”). Each episode is a chipper, quarter-hour monologue containing such thigh-slapping lines as “to understand the Space Race we have to understand the Cold War. There was no ice-cream involved.” Ha ha. 

Jenner’s other podcast, You’re Dead to Me, is notably successful – a kind of In Our Time, minus Melvyn Bragg descending into irascibility. Instead, Jenner invites a historian and a comedian to discuss the history of chocolate or Joan of Arc, using a format Radio 4 is now completely obsessed with: pairing comedians with scientists, naturalists or linguists. 

“Comedian” is the great modern multi-tasking career choice. Only “comedian” isn’t really the word. They appear in these shows more as an explainer. A cheerleader. Someone to make things digestible. A food chewer, basically. A blender to mulch any information contained. This wildly proliferating broadcasting trope demonstrates a lack of confidence that’s utterly systemic. And it’s impossible not to see it all, somehow, in the context of there being several countries in Europe with a premier who is an ex-comedian. Pre-pre-Covid, Boris Johnson’s political USP was “able to write jokey columns”. And Donald Trump essentially goes on stand-up tours. 

Sometimes I wonder if BBC commissioners have officially concluded that people simply will not listen to amazing stories of planet Earth unless they involve the guy in the pub who keeps interrupting people. The individual who irritates the shit out of everybody has been elevated to a whole new level of insincerity. This truly is the zombie society. Having said that, You’re Dead to Me can now and again be great – specifically when the comedian involved simply forgets to interject and just listens to, say, Dr Mehreen Chida-Razvi talk intriguingly about the Mughals. In these moments, the history is so interesting, you literally hear them forgetting to make jokes. This is when Jenner is at his best too: making history “fun” by affably, tactfully, instinctively allowing others to take the floor. 

Homeschool History/You’re Dead To Me
BBC Radio 4

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This article appears in the 29 Apr 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The second wave