Wednesday 17 July 2019

Radio: The guilty pleasure of a put-on Seventies' throwback

Melvyn Bragg
Melvyn Bragg

Damian Corless

Why isn't Vincent Browne on the radio? He used to be, albeit beyond many peoples' bedtimes, and he never fell far short of providing first class entertainment, or being delightfully bonkers, depending on your viewpoint. Maybe he's just too busy these days,

Vincent Browne is a classic old curmudgeon. Actually, it occurs that Mr Browne was probably an old curmudgeon while still in short pants at primary school. Who'd want to be a teacher in that place?

But broadcasting is all the better for its curmudgeons. The nearest we have on Irish radio is Ivan Yates on Newstalk's breakfast show, a morning grouch who regularly makes a virtue of embracing Anchorman Ron Burgundy as his apparent role model, while likeable Chris Donoghue plays it up as the eternally dismayed politically correct co-host. Up against RTÉ's dutifully dreary Morning Ireland there's usually no contest. The Yates-Donoghue banter is a wake-up call, while its opposition is too often the stuff of slumber (without any suggestion of party). For those with a blokeish streak, which is just about all Irish males if you scratch the skin, Yates' determined impersonation of a Seventies' throwback is a guilty pleasure. And a chuckle just after waking is not a bad way to start the day.

But for all the dubious delights of Vincent Browne and Ivan Yates, the absolute monarch of loveable razor-sharp crankiness in the weird and wonderful world of radio remains Melvyn Bragg, whose In Our Time show on BBC Radio 4 has for the best parts of two decades been a study in sustained greatness. In our own times, the media has seemed driven - from above or below or both - by an inexplicable urge to dumb down. To its eternal credit, Bragg's inspired programme has flown bravely in the face of that trend. In the process, In Our Time will often take you to places you never thought you'd want to go.

At this point, it's probably worth adding that on the very odd occasion Melvyn Bragg and his distinguished guests can drag you to places where you quickly find you'd rather be somewhere else, like digging the garden, or signing on at the garda station, or having a root canal at the dentist. A 42-minute show devoted to the finer points of The Neutrino or Fermat's Last Theorem can be mind-numbing, and not in the good sense where you emerge feeling you've gained something valuable.

There is the additional quibble that a show called In Our Time arguably has no business exploring the evolutionary beginnings of the whale some 45 million years ago, or the birth of the first cities 5,000 years in the distant past, but that's just petty. This is required radio, and the entire wondrous mother lode, stretching back to 1998, is there to be readily plundered on podcast.

And some of the best bits are where Bragg's crunching crankiness comes into play. He doesn't just tackle a subject, he goes in with studs flying. He invites the best minds on the planet into his studio and doesn't merely interview them on their specialist subject, nor even interrogates them. If he's in that cranky mood, he just goes for them, in the admirable Roy Keane way so often lacking. And tells them "I can't let you away with that", or stuff that every listener might want to tell them, like "I really don't have a clue what you mean by that. Can you try explaining that again, in words I'd understand?"

One time, when a guest remarked that a nonsensical argument was "a bit Irish", Bragg hauled him over the coals. Great radio.

New Orleans is not a place we'd normally associate with us Irish. It was named after the old French city of that name, and was the great prize of the biggest property clinch in history when Napoleon Bonaparte sold the vastness of Louisiana to the United States for a pittance. Thanks to the latest Newstalk documentary from the ever-dependable Francesca Lalor we can revise our view. One contributor to this surprising programme pointed out that the Irish, in fact, were instrumental in building the settlement into the second-largest US city, after New York, in the early 19th Century.

At the onset of our Great Famine in the 1840s, the Irish already made up a quarter of the population, their numbers swelled by the tens of thousands who survived the Atlantic crossing on the notorious Coffin Ships. Documented records of these sorry Irish arrivals show that some possessed maybe one tool of their trade, perhaps a hammer or wrench, but most landed with absolutely nothing but the clothes on their back. And they weren't the worst. As one historian pointed out, the ones who actually got as far as New Orleans were the best-resourced of our refugees, the ones with some funds and the skills to aid them make a new life.

Sobering and absorbing stuff.

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