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In Our Time: Culture

Popular culture, poetry, music and visual arts and the roles they play in our society.

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Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the life and poetry of WH Auden (1907-1973) up to his departure from Europe for the USA in 1939. As well as his personal life, he addressed suffering and confusion, and the moral issues that affected the wider public in the 1930s and tried to unpick what was going wrong in society and to understand those times. He witnessed the rise of totalitarianism in the austerity of that decade, travelling through Germany to Berlin, seeing Spain in the Civil War and China during its wars with Japan, often collaborating with Christopher Isherwood. In his lifetime his work attracted high praise and intense criticism, and has found new audiences in the fifty years since his death, sometimes taking literally what he meant ironically. With Mark FordPoet and Professor of English at University College LondonJanet MontefioreProfessor Emerita of 20th Century English Literature at the University of KentAnd Jeremy Noel-TodSenior Lecturer in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of East AngliaProducer: Simon Tillotson


19 Dec 2019

Rank #1

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Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies. When three witches prophesy that Macbeth will be king one day, he is not prepared to wait and almost the next day he murders King Duncan as he sleeps, a guest at Macbeth’s castle. From there we explore their brutal world where few boundaries are distinct – between safe and unsafe, friend and foe, real and unreal, man and beast – until Macbeth too is slaughtered.The image above shows Nicol Williamson as Macbeth in a 1983 BBC TV adaptation.With:Emma SmithProfessor of Shakespeare Studies at Hertford College, University of OxfordKiernan RyanEmeritus Professor of English Literature at Royal Holloway, University of LondonAnd David Schalkwyk,Professor of Shakespeare Studies and Director of Global Shakespeare at Queen Mary, University of LondonProducer: Simon Tillotson


1 Oct 2020

Rank #2

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Moses Mendelssohn

Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the work and influence of the eighteenth-century philosopher Moses Mendelssohn. A prominent figure at the court of Frederick the Great, Mendelssohn was one of the most significant thinkers of his age. He came from a humble, but culturally rich background and his obvious intelligence was recognised from a young age and nurtured by the local rabbi where he lived in the town of Dessau in Prussia. Moses's learning earned him the sobriquet of the 'German Socrates' and he is considered to be one of the principal architects of the Haskala, the Jewish Enlightenment, and widely regarded as having helped bring Judaism into the mainstream of European culture. Mendelssohn is perhaps best remembered today for his efforts to bring Jewish and German culture closer together and for his plea for religious toleration.With:Christopher ClarkProfessor of Modern European History at the University of CambridgeAbigail GreenTutor and Fellow in History at the University of OxfordAdam SutcliffeSenior Lecturer in European History at King's College, London Producer: Natalia Fernandez.


22 Mar 2012

Rank #3

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Christine de Pizan

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the life and works of Christine de Pizan, who wrote at the French Court in the late Middle Ages and was celebrated by Simone de Beauvoir as the first woman to 'take up her pen in defence of her sex.' She wrote across a broad range, and was particularly noted for challenging the depiction of women by famous writers such as Jean de Meun, author of the Romance of the Rose. She has been characterised as an early feminist who argued that women could play a much more important role in society than the one they were allotted, reflected in arguably her most important work, The Book of the City of Ladies, a response to the seemingly endless denigration of women in popular texts of the time.The image above, of Christine de Pizan lecturing, is (c)The British Library Board. Harley 4431, f.259v.With Helen SwiftAssociate Professor of Medieval French at the University of Oxford and Fellow of St Hilda's CollegeMiranda GriffinLecturer in French and Fellow of St Catharine's College, Cambridgeand Marilynn DesmondDistinguished Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Binghamton UniversityProducer: Simon Tillotson.


8 Jun 2017

Rank #4

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Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Horace (65-8BC), who flourished under the Emperor Augustus. He was one of the greatest poets of his age and is one of the most quoted of any age. Carpe diem, nil desperandum, nunc est bibendum – that’s Horace. He was the son of a freedman from southern Italy and, thanks to his talent, achieved high status in Rome despite fighting on the losing side in the civil wars. His Odes are widely thought his most enduring works, yet he also wrote his scurrilous Epodes, some philosophical Epistles and broad Satires. He’s influenced poets ever since, including those such as Wilfred Owen who rejected his line: ‘dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’.With Emily GowersProfessor of Latin Literature at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of St John’s CollegeWilliam FitzgeraldProfessor of Latin Language and Literature at King’s College Londonand Ellen O’GormanSenior Lecturer in Classics at the University of BristolProducer: Simon Tillotson


15 Nov 2018

Rank #5

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A Midsummer Night's Dream

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss one of Shakespeare's most popular works, written c1595 in the last years of Elizabeth I. It is a comedy of love and desire and their many complications as well as their simplicity, and a reflection on society's expectations and limits. It is also a quiet critique of Elizabeth and her vulnerability and on the politics of the time, and an exploration of the power of imagination.With Helen HackettProfessor of English Literature and Leverhulme Research Fellow at University College LondonTom HealyProfessor of Renaissance Studies at the University of Sussexand Alison FindlayProfessor of Renaissance Drama at Lancaster University and Chair of the British Shakespeare AssociationProducer: Simon Tillotson


18 Apr 2019

Rank #6

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Moby Dick

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Herman Melville's (1819-1891) epic novel, published in London in 1851, the story of Captain Ahab's pursuit of a great white sperm whale that had bitten off his leg. He risks his own life and that of his crew on the Pequod, single-mindedly seeking his revenge, his story narrated by Ishmael who was taking part in a whaling expedition for the first time. This is one of the c1000 ideas which listeners sent in this autumn for our fourth Listener Week, following Kafka's The Trial in 2014, Captain Cook in 2015 and Garibaldi and the Risorgimento in 2016.With Bridget BennettProfessor of American Literature and Culture at the University of LeedsKatie McGettiganLecturer in American Literature at Royal Holloway, University of LondonAndGraham ThompsonAssociate Professor of American Studies at the University of NottinghamProducer: Simon Tillotson.


7 Dec 2017

Rank #7

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Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the Spanish poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca (1898-1936), author of Blood Wedding, Yerma and The House of Bernarda Alba, who mixed the traditions of Andalusia with the avant-garde. He found his first major success with his Gypsy Ballads, although Dali, once his close friend, mocked him for these, accusing Lorca of being too conservative. He preferred performing his poems to publishing them, and his plays marked a revival in Spanish theatre. He was captured and killed by Nationalist forces at the start of the Civil War, his body never recovered, and it's been suggested this was punishment for his politics and for being openly gay. He has since been seen as the most important Spanish playwright and poet of the last century.WithMaria DelgadoProfessor of Creative Arts at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of LondonFederico BonaddioReader in Modern Spanish at King’s College LondonAndSarah WrightProfessor of Hispanic Studies and Screen Arts at Royal Holloway, University of LondonProducer: Simon Tillotson


4 Jul 2019

Rank #8

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Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the life and work Marcel Proust whose novel À La Recherche du Temps Perdu, or In Search of Lost Time, has been called the definitive modern novel. His stylistic innovation, sensory exploration and fascination with memory were to influence a whole body of thinkers, from the German intellectuals of the 1930s to the Bloomsbury set, chief among them Virginia Woolf, and innumerable critics and novelists since. But how did he succeed in creating a 3000 page novel with such an artistic coherence? To what extent did John Ruskin influence Proust? Is his fascination with memory and recall simply a nostalgia for the past? And what impact did he have on the 20th century novel? With Jacqueline Rose, Professor of English Literature at Queen Mary, University of London and author of Albertine; Malcolm Bowie, Master of Christ’s College, Cambridge and author of Proust among the Stars; Dr Robert Fraser, Senior Research Fellow in the Literature Department at the Open University and author of Proust and the Victorians.


10 Apr 2003

Rank #9

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Rudyard Kipling

Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the life and work of Rudyard Kipling. Born in Bombay in 1865, Kipling has been described as the poet of Empire, celebrated for fictional works including Kim and The Jungle Book. Today his poem 'If--' remains one of the best known in the English language. Kipling was amongst the first writers in English to develop the short story as a literary form in its own right, and was the first British recipient of a Nobel Prize for Literature. A literary celebrity of the Edwardian era, Kipling's work for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission played a major role in Britain's cultural response to the First World War.Contributors:Howard Booth, Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the University of ManchesterDaniel Karlin, Winterstoke Professor of English Literature at the University of BristolJan Montefiore, Professor of Twentieth Century English Literature at the University of KentProducer: Luke Mulhall.


16 Oct 2014

Rank #10

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Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss what Virginia Woolf called 'one of the few English novels written for grown-up people'. It was written by George Eliot, the pen name of Mary Anne Evans (1819-80), published in 8 parts in 1871-72, and was originally two separate stories which became woven together. One, 'Middlemarch', focused on a doctor, Tertius Lydgate and the other, 'Miss Brooke', on Dorothea Brooke who became the central figure in the finished work. The events are set in a small town in the Midlands, surrounded by farmland, leading up to the Reform Act 1832, and the novel explores the potential to change in matters of religion, social status, marriage and politics, and is particularly concerned with the opportunities available to women to lead fulfilling lives. The image above shows Rufus Sewell and Juliet Aubrey in the BBC adaptation, from 1994With Rosemary AshtonEmeritus Quain Professor of English Language and Literature at University College LondonKathryn HughesProfessor of Life Writing at the University of East AngliaAnd John BowenProfessor of Nineteenth-Century Literature at the University of YorkProducer: Simon Tillotson.


19 Apr 2018

Rank #11

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Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Aesop. According to some accounts, Aesop was a strikingly ugly slave who was dumb until granted the power of speech by the goddess Isis. In stories of his life he's often found outwitting his masters using clever wordplay, but he's best known today as the supposed author of a series of fables that are some of the most enduringly popular works of Ancient Greek literature. Some modern scholars question whether he existed at all, but the body of work that has come down to us under his name gives us a rare glimpse of the popular culture of the Ancient World.WITHPavlos Avlamis, Junior Research Fellow in Classics at Trinity College at the University of OxfordSimon Goldhill, Professor of Greek Literature and Culture at the University of CambridgeLucy Grig, Senior Lecturer in Classics at the University of EdinburghProducer: Luke Mulhall.


20 Nov 2014

Rank #12

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The Odyssey

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss The Odyssey by Homer, often claimed as the great founding work of Western Literature. It's an epic that has entertained its audience for nearly three thousand years: It has shipwrecks, Cyclops, brave heroes and seductive sex goddesses. But it’s also got revenge, true love and existential angst. The story follows on from Homer's Iliad, and tells of the Greek hero Odysseus and his long attempt to get home to Ithaca after the Trojan War. Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss what has given the Odyssey such a fundamental position in the history of western ideas, what are the meanings behind the trials and tribulations that befall Odysseus and how the Odyssey was composed and by whom. With Simon Goldhill, Professor of Greek at King's College, Cambridge; Edith Hall, Leverhulme Professor of Greek Cultural History at Durham University; Oliver Taplin, Classics Scholar and Translator at Oxford University.


9 Sep 2004

Rank #13

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Shakespeare and Literary Criticism

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the enduring popular and academic appeal of Shakespeare. Did he invent the human personality as we inhabit it now? Professor Harold Bloom claims:“Shakespeare is universal. Shakespeare is the true multicultural author. One has to ask the biblical question “Where shall wisdom be found? And I suppose for me the answer is: wisdom is to be found in Shakespeare provided you get at it in the right way.”But why does Shakespeare still hold the popular and indeed academic imagination in the twentieth century? Should we read him above all others as Harold Bloom suggests in the way he suggests? And what does this say about the state of literary criticism today? With Harold Bloom, literary critic, Professor of Humanities, Yale University and Berg Professor of English, New York University; Jacqueline Rose, literary critic and Professor of English, University of London.


4 Mar 1999

Rank #14

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Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the life and work of the 19th century Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy.The Russian novel has been acclaimed as one of the outstanding genres of literature alongside Greek Tragedy, Shakespeare’s Plays and Romantic Poetry. Its heyday was the mid-19th century, and its practitioners gave expression to the compelling moral and social questions of their day - and arguably of the modern era. These men of genius included Dostoevsky, Gogol and Turgenev, but perhaps the greatest of them all was Tolstoy, author of the novels War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Tolstoy took massive subjects and presented them in loving and intricate detail. As Matthew Arnold said, "a work by Tolstoy is not a piece of art but a piece of life". Possessed by an urgent desire to represent real life in his work, and to reject artifice, Tolstoy declared that "The one thing necessary in life as in art is to tell the truth." What did Tolstoy mean by telling the truth? How did he convey these truths to the reader? And why did he, ultimately, give up on literature and concentrate instead on religious and political philosophy? With A N Wilson, Novelist, journalist and biographer of Tolstoy; Catriona Kelly, Reader in Russian, Oxford University; Sarah Hudspith, Lecturer in Russian, University of Leeds.


25 Apr 2002

Rank #15

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Don Quixote

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Miguel de Cervantes’ 17th century novel, Don Quixote. Published four hundred years ago in Madrid, the book was an immediate success and recognised as one of the classic texts of Western Literature, revered by writers such as Sterne, Goethe, Flaubert, Dostoevsky, Kafka and Melville. Don Quixote tells the story of an unlikely hero - an impoverished country gentleman who goes mad from reading too much and decides to put the world to rights by becoming a knight errant. And so the Knight of La Mancha tilting at windmills with his portly squire astride a donkey is one of the most enduring images in the popular imagination but the simple comedy of the affair belies the fantastically complex, beguiling and sophisticated story on which it is based. As Don Quixote's delusional chivalric ideals bump up against the humdrum of reality and the views of his more earth-bound companion, Sancho Panza.So how has the book endured over the centuries? What was the relationship between Cervantes' work and the world of 17th century Spain in which he lived? In what ways was Don Quixote an interpretation of the age which hitherto had not been articulated? And can it live up to the claim that it was the first European novel?With Barry Ife, Cervantes Professor Emeritus at King's College London; Edwin Williamson, Professor of Spanish Studies at the University of Oxford; Jane Whetnall, Senior Lecturer in Hispanic Studies at Queen Mary, University of London.


16 Mar 2006

Rank #16

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Aldous Huxley's Brave New World

Melvyn Bragg and guests David Bradshaw, Daniel Pick and Michele Barrett discuss Aldous Huxley's dystopian 1932 novel, Brave New World. In Act V Scene I of Shakespeare's The Tempest, the character Miranda declares 'O wonder! How many Godly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is! O Brave new world! That has such people in it!'. It is perhaps the only line of Shakespeare to be made famous by someone else, for Brave New World is not associated with Prospero's Island of sprites, magic and wondrous noises, but with Aldous Huxley's dystopia of eugenics, soma and zero gravity tennis. A world, incidentally, upon which literary references to Shakespeare would be entirely lost. Brave New World is a lurid, satirical dystopia in which the hopes and fears of the 1930s are writ large and yet the book seems uncannily prescient about our own time. But why did Huxley feel the need to write it and is Brave New World really as dystopian as we are led to believe?


9 Apr 2009

Rank #17

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In Our Time - Animal Farm

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Animal Farm, which Eric Blair published under his pen name George Orwell in 1945. A biting critique of totalitarianism, particularly Stalinism, the essay sprung from Orwell's experiences fighting Fascists in Spain: he thought that all on the left were on the same side, until the dominant Communists violently suppressed the Anarchists and Trotskyists, and Orwell had to escape to France to avoid arrest. Setting his satire in an English farm, Orwell drew on the Russian Revolution of 1917, on Stalin's cult of personality and the purges. The leaders on Animal Farm are pigs, the secret police are attack dogs, the supporters who drown out debate with "four legs good, two legs bad" are sheep.At first, London publishers did not want to touch Orwell's work out of sympathy for the USSR, an ally of Britain in the Second World War, but the Cold War gave it a new audience and Animal Farm became a commercial as well as a critical success.Featuring: Steven Connor - Grace 2 Professor of English at the University of CambridgeMary Vincent - Professor of Modern European History at the University of SheffieldRobert Colls - Professor of Cultural History at De Montfort UniversityProducer: Simon TillotsonFirst broadcast on BBC Radio 4 in September 2016.


29 Sep 2016

Rank #18

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Language and the Mind

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the history of our ideas about the formation of language. The psychologist George Miller worked out that in English there are potentially a hundred million trillion sentences of twenty words in length - that’s a hundred times the number of seconds since the birth of the universe. “Language”, as Chomsky put it, “makes infinite use of finite media”. “Language”, as Steven Pinker puts it, “comes so naturally to us that it’s easy to forget what a strange and miraculous gift it is”. “All over the world”, he writes, “members of our species spend a good part of their lives fashioning their breath into hisses and hums and squeaks and pops and are listening to others do the same”. Jean Jacques Rousseau once said that we differ from the animal kingdom in two main ways - the use of language and the prohibition of incest. Language and our ability to learn it has been held up traditionally as our species’ most remarkable achievement, marking us apart from the animals. But in the 20th century, our ideas about how language is formed are being radically challenged and altered. With Dr Jonathan Miller, medical doctor, performer, broadcaster, author and film and opera director; Steven Pinker, cognitive scientist, Professor of Psychology and Director of the Centre for Neuroscience, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, California.


11 Feb 1999

Rank #19

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Jorge Luis Borges

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the life and work of the Argentinian master of the short story, Jorge Luis Borges. Borges is one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century, best known for his intriguing short stories that play with philosophical ideas, such as identity, reality and language. His work, which includes poetry, essays, and reviews of imaginary books, has had great influence on magical realism and literary theory. He viewed the realist novel as over-rated and deluded, revelling instead in fable and imaginary worlds. He declared "people think life is the thing but I prefer reading".Translation formed an important part of his work, writing a Spanish language version of an Oscar Wilde story when aged around 9. He went on to introduce other key writers such as Faulkner and Kafka to Latin America, liberally making changes to the original work which went far beyond what was, strictly speaking, translation.He lived most of his life in obscurity, finding recognition only in his sixties when he was awarded the International Publishers' Prize which he shared with Samuel Beckett. By this point he was blind but continued to write, composing poetry in his head and reciting from memory.So how has Borges' work informed ideas about our experience of the world through language? How much was his writing shaped by his travel abroad and an unrequited love? And how has his legacy inspired the next generation of great Latin American authors such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa?With Edwin Williamson, Professor of Spanish Studies at Oxford University; Efraín Kristal, Professor of Comparative Literature at University of California, Los Angeles; Evelyn Fishburn, Professor Emeritus at London Metropolitan University and Honorary Senior Research Fellow at University College London.


4 Jan 2007

Rank #20