Episodes
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss "The History of Tom Jones, A Foundling" (1749) by Henry Fielding (1707-1754), one of the most influential of the early English novels and a favourite of Dickens. Coleridge wrote that it had one of the 'three most perfect plots ever planned'. Fielding had made his name in the theatre with satirical plays that were so painful for their targets in government that, from then until the 1960s, plays required approval before being staged; seeking other ways to make a...
Published 07/11/24
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss 'the greatest poet of his age', Thomas Wyatt (1503 -1542), who brought the poetry of the Italian Renaissance into the English Tudor world, especially the sonnet, so preparing the way for Shakespeare and Donne. As an ambassador to Henry VIII and, allegedly, too close to Anne Boleyn, he experienced great privilege under intense scrutiny. Some of Wyatt's poems, such as They Flee From Me That Sometime Did Me Seek, are astonishingly fresh and conversational and...
Published 06/06/24
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss one of the greatest European playwrights of the twentieth century. The aim of Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) was to make the familiar ‘strange’: with plays such as Mother Courage and The Caucasian Chalk Circle he wanted his audience not to sit back but to engage, observe and discover the contradictions in life, and act on what they learnt. He developed this approach in turbulent times, from Weimar Germany to the rise of the Nazis, to exile in Scandinavia and...
Published 05/23/24
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Aristophanes' comedy in which the women of Athens and Sparta, led by Lysistrata, secure peace in the long-running war between them by staging a sex strike. To the men in the audience in 411BC, the idea that peace in the Peloponnesian War could be won so easily was ridiculous and the thought that their wives could have so much power over them was even more so. However Aristophanes' comedy also has the women seizing the treasure in the Acropolis that was meant...
Published 05/09/24
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the Finnish epic poem that first appeared in print in 1835 in what was then the Grand Duchy of Finland, part of the Russian Empire and until recently part of Sweden. The compiler of this epic was a doctor, Elias Lönnrot (1802-1884), who had travelled the land to hear traditional poems about mythical heroes being sung in Finnish, the language of the peasantry, and writing them down in his own order to create this landmark work. In creating The Kalevala, Lönnrot...
Published 04/25/24
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the dance which, from when it reached Britain in the early nineteenth century, revolutionised the relationship between music, literature and people here for the next hundred years. While it may seem formal now, it was the informality and daring that drove its popularity, with couples holding each other as they spun round a room to new lighter music popularised by Johann Strauss, father and son, such as The Blue Danube. Soon the Waltz expanded the creative...
Published 04/11/24
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Lewis Carroll's book which first appeared in print in 1865 with illustrations by John Tenniel. It has since become one of the best known works in English, captivating readers who follow young Alice as she chases a white rabbit, pink eyed, in a waistcoat with pocket watch, down a rabbit hole that becomes a well and into wonderland. There she meets the Cheshire Cat, the Hatter, the March Hare, the Mock Turtle and more, all the while growing smaller and larger,...
Published 03/14/24
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss one of Shakespeare’s great comedies, which plays in the space between marriage, love and desire. By convention a wedding means a happy ending and here there are three, but neither Orsino nor Viola, Olivia nor Sebastian know much of each other’s true character and even the identities of the twins Viola and Sebastian have only just been revealed to their spouses to be. These twins gain some financial security but it is unclear what precisely the older Orsino and...
Published 01/25/24
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the Dutch artist famous for starry nights and sunflowers, self portraits and simple chairs. These are images known the world over, and Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890) painted them and around 900 others in the last decade of his short, brilliant life and, famously, in that lifetime he made only one recorded sale. Yet within a few decades after his death these extraordinary works, with all their colour and life, became the most desirable of all modern art,...
Published 01/18/24
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Poe (1809-1849), the American author who is famous for his Gothic tales of horror, madness and the dark interiors of the mind, such as The Fall of the House of Usher and The Tell-Tale Heart. As well as tapping at our deepest fears in poems such as The Raven, Poe pioneered detective fiction with his character C. Auguste Dupin in The Murders in the Rue Morgue. After his early death, a rival rushed out a biography to try to destroy Poe's reputation but he has only...
Published 12/28/23
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Marguerite, Queen of Navarre (1492 – 1549), author of the Heptaméron, a major literary landmark in the French Renaissance. Published after her death, The Heptaméron features 72 short stories, many of which explore relations between the sexes. However, Marguerite’s life was more eventful than that of many writers. Born into the French nobility, she found herself the sister of the French king when her brother Francis I came to the throne in 1515. At a time of...
Published 12/21/23
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the most influential work of Thorstein Veblen (1857-1929). In 1899, during America’s Gilded Age, Veblen wrote The Theory of the Leisure Class as a reminder that all that glisters is not gold. He picked on traits of the waning landed class of Americans and showed how the new moneyed class was adopting these in ways that led to greater waste throughout society. He called these conspicuous leisure and conspicuous consumption and he developed a critique of a...
Published 12/14/23
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Emile Zola's greatest literary success, his thirteenth novel in a series exploring the extended Rougon-Macquart family. The relative here is Etienne Lantier, already known to Zola’s readers as one of the blighted branch of the family tree and his story is set in Northern France. It opens with Etienne trudging towards a coalmine at night seeking work, and soon he is caught up in a bleak world in which starving families struggle and then strike, as they try to...
Published 11/23/23
In the 1000th edition of In Our Time, Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss arguably the most celebrated film of the Swedish director Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007). It begins with an image that, once seen, stays with you for the rest of your life: the figure of Death playing chess with a Crusader on the rocky Swedish shore. The release of this film in 1957 brought Bergman fame around the world. We see Antonius Block, the Crusader, realising he can’t beat Death but wanting to prolong this final...
Published 10/19/23
Death in Venice is Thomas Mann’s most famous – and infamous - novella. Published in 1912, it’s about the fall of the repressed writer Gustav von Aschenbach, when his supposedly objective appreciation of a young boy’s beauty becomes sexual obsession. It explores the link between creativity and self-destruction, and by the end Aschenbach’s humiliation is complete, dying on a deckchair in the act of ogling. Aschenbach's stalking of the boy and dreaming of pederasty can appal modern readers, ...
Published 07/13/23
Sophocles’ play Oedipus Rex begins with a warning: the murderer of the old king of Thebes, Laius, has never been identified or caught, and he’s still at large in the city. Oedipus is the current king of Thebes, and he sets out to solve the crime. His investigations lead to a devastating conclusion. Not only is Oedipus himself the killer, but Laius was his father, and Laius’ wife Jocasta, who Oedipus has married, is his mother. Oedipus Rex was composed during the golden age of Athens, in...
Published 07/06/23
In the year 29 BC the great Roman poet Virgil published these lines: Blessed is he who has succeeded in learning the laws of nature’s working, has cast beneath his feet all fear and fate’s implacable decree, and the howl of insatiable Death. But happy too is he who knows the rural gods… They’re from his poem the Georgics, a detailed account of farming life in the Italy of the time. ‘Georgics’ means ‘agricultural things’, and it’s often been read as a farming manual. But it was written at a...
Published 06/15/23
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the highly influential American poet Walt Whitman. In 1855 Whitman was working as a printer, journalist and property developer when he published his first collection of poetry. It began: I celebrate myself, And what I assume you shall assume For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you. The book was called Leaves of Grass. In it, Whitman set out to break away from European literary forms and traditions. Using long lines written in free verse, he...
Published 05/25/23
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Virginia Woolf's highly influential essay on women and literature, which considers both literary history and future opportunity. In 1928 Woolf gave two lectures at Cambridge University about women and fiction. In front of an audience at Newnham College, she delivered the following words: “All I could do was offer you an opinion upon one minor point - a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction; and that, as you will see, leaves...
Published 04/27/23
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the Ramayana, the ancient Hindu epic which is regarded as one of the greatest works of world literature. Its importance in Indian culture has been compared to that of the Iliad and Odyssey in the West, and it’s still seen as a sacred text by Hindus today. Written in Sanskrit, it tells the story of the legendary prince and princess Rama and Sita, and the many challenges, misfortunes and choices that they face. About 24,000 verses long, the Ramayana is also one...
Published 04/06/23
In 1957 Stevie Smith published a poetry collection called Not Waving But Drowning – and its title poem gave us a phrase which has entered the language. Its success has overshadowed her wider work as the author of more than half a dozen collections of poetry and three novels, mostly written while she worked as a secretary. Her poems, printed with her pen and ink sketches, can seem simple and comical, but often beneath the surface lurk themes of melancholy, loneliness, love and death. With...
Published 03/16/23
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Donne (1573-1631), known now as one of England’s finest poets of love and notable in his own time as an astonishing preacher. He was born a Catholic in a Protestant country and, when he married Anne More without her father's knowledge, Donne lost his job in the government circle and fell into a poverty that only ended once he became a priest in the Church of England. As Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral, his sermons were celebrated, perhaps none more than his final...
Published 02/09/23
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Jane Austen’s last complete novel, which was published just before Christmas in 1817, five months after her death. It is the story of Anne Elliot, now 27 and (so we are told), losing her bloom, and of her feelings for Captain Wentworth who she was engaged to, 8 years before – an engagement she broke off under pressure from her father and godmother. When Wentworth, by chance, comes back into Anne Elliot's life, he is still angry with her and neither she nor...
Published 01/19/23
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Orson Welles' film, released in 1941, which is widely acclaimed as one of the greatest, if not the greatest, films yet made. Welles plays the lead role of Charles Foster Kane, a newspaper magnate, and Welles directed, produced and co-wrote this story of loneliness at the heart of a megalomaniac. The plot was partly inspired by the life of William Randolph Hearst, who then used the power of his own newspapers to try to suppress the film’s release. It was to...
Published 01/12/23
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss The Song of the Nibelungs, a twelfth century German epic, full of blood, violence, fantasy and bleakness. It is a foundational work of medieval literature, drawing on the myths of Scandinavia and central Europe. The poem tells of two couples, Siegfried and Kriemhild and Gunther and Brunhilda, whose lives are destroyed by lies and revenge. It was extremely popular in its time, sometimes rewritten with happier endings, and was rediscovered by German Romantics and...
Published 12/29/22