A study of evolution that puts Bragg above Yentob
Radio 4’s celebration of Darwin shows Melvyn Bragg is better adapted to his habitat than Alan Yentob, says Antonia Quirke
It's been called the most important idea in human history," said Melvyn Bragg. "Charles Darwin's argument that human life - indeed all life - can be explained in terms of evolution by means of natural selection."
This was Bragg's Radio 4 In Our Time special on Darwin, and he was keen to strike the right note of profundity. He was, he said, standing in the pulpit of St Mary's in Cambridge, a three-tiered affair up which Darwin's teachers would ascend and appear at the top like a Jack in a Box. "Black-gowned men," mused Melvyn. "Different varieties of gowns, but all black-gowned men. God was a father. Men were the authorities." There was the sound of relatively small feet reluctantly coming down some steps.
Moments later, outside, an American academic rustled a map. "This is a highly accurate map," the American pointed out. "Cambridge is immersed in a great fenland. St Mary's Church is ground zero." And over there, Melvyn piped up wistfully, was the Maid's Causeway, where pretty serving girls walked through the fens in the mornings, making sure to never show their ankles.
"The girls on Maids Causeway were stalked by proctors who were the vice squad," said Bragg's companion.
"Or the anti-vice squad," suggested Bragg.
"Um... yes." (shut up Melvyn.)
I have to admit that in this instance Melvyn Bragg came over as pretty much the perfect presenter. By which I mean: an assiduous average person digging the subject. The charge against cultural middlemen like Bragg or Alan Yentob is that they are essentially dilettantes - their minds flit - and yet of the two Bragg seems to be most engaged with his subjects. Yentob just looks like he's picturing the first class upgrade.
"Are we standing here on an historic spot?" queried Bragg ten minutes in, impatient to urge the programme to an ever more David Leanish view of the situation. Yes, they were. This was where Darwin hunted for beetles, and once popped one in his mouth for safekeeping, but it ejected an acrid fluid that burned his tongue and he was forced to spit it out.
"I am dying by inches not having anyone to talk to about insects," he apparently said, although Lord knows why, since at the time the whole of East Anglia was out rummaging through the moss, like Jeremy Irons in The French Lieutenant's Woman, flat on their stomachs stuffing specimens into their satchels.
Really, the programme was perfect. In fact we all learned a great deal (I didn't know that Darwin sometimes ate his specimens and just rearranged the bones on the dinner plate afterwards. Did you know that? It sounds exceedingly unscientific to me.)
Usually In Our Time is crammed with the kind of academic on whom facts appear like stains. Sometimes Melvyn has to move mountains to get them to scrape off the bits we might be able to decipher. He can be quite a bitch. "Stop being quite so immersed in things you must have read 1,000 times already!" he insisted later, as one of his guests in a university library went through some of Darwin's letters.
Mel really did have to keep things on track. And it was a shame, come to think of it, since people kept hinting at all sorts of mysterioso behind-the-scenes-at-the-museum incidents, like the time they lost the miniature version of Paradise Lost that Darwin kept in his pocket, but for the life of them couldn't figure out how ("We have now all agreed where it is and we're not going to touch it"). This, I felt, was a moment for a fascinating cross-examination of all the suspects. But alas, the Beagle called.
PS. The real subject of Yentob's series Imagination is the excitement and busyness - the sheer high tempo - of his own international-culture-pundit lifestyle. Did you see the one he did recently on Jay-Z? Yentob stroking his chin and looking on in New York, while a load of kids rapped the same old crap. He seems to me to have no real artistic intelligence - he is an administrator. Personally, I like to imagine him being driven from one meeting to the next, playing snakes on his phone.
Meanwhile, our Melvyn sits up late with a highlighter pen, doing his homework, small feet inside small slippers, subject upon subject, the decades slowly sliding seaward.