Episodes

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Thomas Hardy (1840 -1928) and his commitment to poetry, which he prized far above his novels. In the 1890s, once he had earned enough from his fiction, Hardy stopped writing novels altogether and returned to the poetry he had largely put aside since his twenties. He hoped that he might be ranked one day alongside Shelley and Byron, worthy of inclusion in a collection such as Palgrave's Golden Treasury which had inspired him. Hardy kept writing poems for the rest of his life, in different styles and metres, and he explored genres from nature, to war, to epic. Among his best known are what he called his Poems of 1912 to 13, responding to his grief at the death of his first wife, Emma (1840 -1912), who he credited as the one who had made it possible for him to leave his work as an architect's clerk and to write the novels that made him famous.

    With

    Mark Ford
    Poet, and Professor of English and American Literature, University College London.

    Jane Thomas
    Emeritus Professor of English at the University of Hull and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Leeds

    And

    Tim Armstrong
    Professor of Modern English and American Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the Austrian-born film director Fritz Lang (1890-1976), who was one of the most celebrated film-makers of the 20th century. He worked first in Weimar Germany, creating a range of films including the startling and subversive Mabuse the Gambler and the iconic but ruinously expensive Metropolis before arguably his masterpiece, M, with both the police and the underworld hunting for a child killer in Berlin, his first film with sound. The rise of the Nazis prompted Lang's move to Hollywood where he developed some of his Weimar themes in memorable and disturbing films such as Fury and The Big Heat.


    With

    Stella Bruzzi
    Professor of Film and Dean of Arts and Humanities at University College London


    Joe McElhaney
    Professor of Film Studies at Hunter College, City University of New York

    And

    Iris Luppa
    Senior Lecturer in Film Studies in the Division of Film and Media at London South Bank University

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

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  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the empire that flourished in the Late Bronze Age in what is now Turkey, and which, like others at that time, mysteriously collapsed. For the next three thousand years these people of the Land of Hatti, as they called themselves, were known only by small references to their Iron Age descendants in the Old Testament and by unexplained remains in their former territory. Discoveries in their capital of Hattusa just over a century ago brought them back to prominence, including cuneiform tablets such as one (pictured above) which relates to an agreement with their rivals, the Egyptians. This agreement has since become popularly known as the Treaty of Kadesh and described as the oldest recorded peace treaty that survives to this day, said to have followed a great chariot battle with Egypt in 1274 BC near the Orontes River in northern Syria.

    With

    Claudia Glatz
    Professor of Archaeology at the University of Glasgow

    Ilgi Gercek
    Assistant Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Languages and History at Bilkent University

    And

    Christoph Bachhuber
    Lecturer in Archaeology at St John’s College, University of Oxford


    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Charles Dickens' novella, written in 1843 when he was 31, which has become intertwined with his reputation and with Christmas itself. Ebenezer Scrooge is the miserly everyman figure whose joyless obsession with money severs him from society and his own emotions, and he is only saved after recalling his lonely past, seeing what he is missing now and being warned of his future, all under the guidance of the ghosts of Christmases Past, Present and Yet To Come. Redeemed, Scrooge comes to care in particular about one of the many minor characters in the story who make a great impact, namely Tiny Tim, the disabled child of the poor and warm-hearted Cratchit family, with his cry, "God bless us, every one!"

    With

    Juliet John
    Professor of English Literature and Dean of Arts and Social Sciences at City, University of London

    Jon Mee
    Professor of Eighteenth-Century Studies at the University of York

    And

    Dinah Birch
    Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Cultural Engagement and Professor of English Literature at the University of Liverpool


    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the violent protests in China on 4th May 1919 over the nation's humiliation in the Versailles Treaty after World War One. China had supported the Allies, sending workers to dig trenches, and expected to regain the German colonies on its territory, but the Allies and China's leaders chose to give that land to Japan instead. To protestors, this was a travesty and reflected much that was wrong with China, with its corrupt leaders, division by warlords, weakness before Imperial Europe and outdated ideas and values. The movement around 4th May has since been seen as a watershed in China’s development in the 20th century, not least as some of those connected with the movement went on to found the Communist Party of China a few years later.

    The image above is of students from Peking University marching with banners during the May Fourth demonstrations in 1919.

    With

    Rana Mitter
    Professor of the History and Politics of Modern China and Fellow of St Cross College, University of Oxford

    Elisabeth Forster
    Lecturer in Chinese History at the University of Southampton

    And

    Song-Chuan Chen
    Associate Professor in History at the University of Warwick


    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the events of 21st October 1805, in which the British fleet led by Nelson destroyed a combined Franco-Spanish fleet in the Atlantic off the coast of Spain. Nelson's death that day was deeply mourned in Britain, and his example proved influential, and the battle was to help sever ties between Spain and its American empire. In France meanwhile, even before Nelson's body was interred at St Paul's, the setback at Trafalgar was overshadowed by Napoleon's decisive victory over Russia and Austria at Austerlitz, though Napoleon's search for his lost naval strength was to shape his plans for further conquests.

    The image above is from 'The Battle of Trafalgar' by JMW Turner (1824).

    With

    James Davey
    Lecturer in Naval and Maritime History at the University of Exeter

    Marianne Czisnik
    Independent researcher on Nelson and editor of his letters to Lady Hamilton

    And

    Kenneth Johnson
    Research Professor of National Security at Air University, Alabama


    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss one of Plato's most striking dialogues, in which he addresses the real nature of power and freedom, and the relationship between pleasure and true self-interest. As he tests these ideas, Plato creates powerful speeches, notably from Callicles who claims that laws of nature trump man-made laws, that might is right, and that rules are made by weak people to constrain the strong in defiance of what is natural and proper. Gorgias is arguably the most personal of all of Plato's dialogues, with its hints of a simmering fury at the system in Athens that put his mentor Socrates to death, and where rhetoric held too much sway over people.

    With

    Angie Hobbs
    Professor of the Public Understanding of Philosophy at the University of Sheffield

    Frisbee Sheffield
    University Lecturer in Classics and Fellow of Downing College, University of Cambridge

    And

    Fiona Leigh
    Associate Professor in the Department of Philosophy at University College London


    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the British phase of a movement that spread across Europe in the mid-19th and early 20th centuries. Influenced by Charles Baudelaire and by Walter Pater, these Decadents rejected the mainstream Victorian view that art needed a moral purpose, and valued instead the intense sensations art provoked, celebrating art for art’s sake. Oscar Wilde was at its heart, Aubrey Beardsley adorned it with his illustrations and they, with others, provoked moral panic with their supposed degeneracy. After burning brightly, the movement soon lost its energy in Britain yet it has proved influential.

    The illustration above, by Beardsley, is from the cover of the first edition of The Yellow Book in April 1894.

    With

    Neil Sammells
    Professor of English and Irish Literature and Deputy Vice Chancellor at Bath Spa University

    Kate Hext
    Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Exeter

    And

    Alex Murray
    Senior Lecturer in English at Queen’s University, Belfast


    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss William Herschel (1738 – 1822) and his sister Caroline Herschel (1750 – 1848) who were born in Hanover and made their reputation in Britain. William was one of the most eminent astronomers in British history. Although he started life as a musician, as a young man he became interested in studying the night sky. With an extraordinary talent, he constructed telescopes that were able to see further and more clearly than any others at the time. He is most celebrated today for discovering the planet Uranus and detecting what came to be known as infrared radiation. Caroline also became a distinguished astronomer, discovering several comets and collaborating with her brother.

    With

    Monica Grady
    Professor of Planetary and Space Sciences at the Open University

    Carolin Crawford
    Institute of Astronomy, Cambridge and an Emeritus Fellow of Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge

    And

    Jim Bennett
    Keeper Emeritus at the Science Museum in London.

    Studio producer: John Goudie

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss an early masterpiece of French epic poetry, from the 12th Century. It is a reimagining of Charlemagne’s wars in Spain in the 8th Century in which Roland, his most valiant knight, chooses death before dishonour, guarding the army’s rear from a pagan ambush as it heads back through the Roncesvalles Pass in the Pyrenees. If he wanted to, Roland could blow on his oliphant, his elephant tusk horn, to summon help by calling back Charlemagne's army, but according to his values that would bring shame both on him and on France, and he would rather keep killing pagans until he is the last man standing and the last to die.

    The image above is taken from an illustration of Charlemagne finding Roland after the Battle of Roncevaux/Roncesvalles, from 'Les Grandes Chroniques de France', c.1460 by Jean Fouquet, Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris, Ms Fr 6465 f.113

    With

    Laura Ashe
    Professor of English Literature and Fellow in English at Worcester College, University of Oxford

    Miranda Griffin
    Assistant Professor of Medieval French at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Murray Edwards College

    And

    Luke Sunderland
    Professor in the School of Modern Languages and Cultures at Durham University

    Studio producer: John Goudie

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the simple animals which informed Charles Darwin's first book, The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs, published in 1842. From corals, Darwin concluded that the Earth changed very slowly and was not fashioned by God. Now coral reefs, which some liken to undersea rainforests, are threatened by human activity, including fishing, pollution and climate change.

    With

    Steve Jones
    Senior Research Fellow in Genetics at University College London

    Nicola Foster
    Lecturer in Marine Biology at the University of Plymouth

    And

    Gareth Williams
    Associate Professor in Marine Biology at Bangor University School of Ocean Sciences

    Producer Simon Tilllotson.

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the author and philosopher Iris Murdoch (1919 - 1999). In her lifetime she was most celebrated for her novels such as The Bell and The Black Prince, but these are now sharing the spotlight with her philosophy. Responding to the horrors of the Second World War, she argued that morality was not subjective or a matter of taste, as many of her contemporaries held, but was objective, and good was a fact we could recognize. To tell good from bad, though, we would need to see the world as it really is, not as we want to see it, and her novels are full of characters who are not yet enlightened enough to do that.

    With

    Anil Gomes
    Fellow and Tutor in Philosophy at Trinity College, University of Oxford

    Anne Rowe
    Visiting Professor at the University of Chichester and Emeritus Research Fellow with the Iris Murdoch Archive Project at Kingston University

    And

    Miles Leeson
    Director of the Iris Murdoch Research Centre and Reader in English Literature at the University of Chichester

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the republic that emerged from the union of the Kingdom of Poland and Grand Duchy of Lithuania in the 14th Century. At first this was a personal union, similar to that of James I and VI in Britain, but this was formalised in 1569 into a vast republic, stretching from the Baltic to the Black Sea. Kings and princes from across Europe would compete for parliament to elect them King and Grand Duke, and the greatest power lay with the parliaments. When the system worked well, the Commonwealth was a powerhouse, and it was their leader Jan Sobieski who relieved the siege of Vienna in 1683, defeating the Ottomans. Its neighbours exploited its parliament's need for unanimity, though, and this contributed to its downfall. Austria, Russia and Prussia divided its territory between them from 1772, before the new, smaller states only emerged in the 20th Century.

    The image above is Jan III Sobieski (1629-1696), King of Poland and Grand Duke of Lithuania, at the Battle of Vienna 1683, by Marcello Bacciarelli (1731-1818)

    With

    Robert Frost
    The Burnett Fletcher Chair of History at the University of Aberdeen

    Katarzyna Kosior
    Lecturer in Early Modern History at Northumbria University

    And

    Norman Davies
    Professor Emeritus in History and Honorary Fellow of St Antony’s College, University of Oxford

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the race to build an atom bomb in the USA during World War Two. Before the war, scientists in Germany had discovered the potential of nuclear fission and scientists in Britain soon argued that this could be used to make an atom bomb, against which there could be no defence other than to own one. The fear among the Allies was that, with its head start, Germany might develop the bomb first and, unmatched, use it on its enemies. The USA took up the challenge in a huge engineering project led by General Groves and Robert Oppenheimer and, once the first bomb had been exploded at Los Alamos in July 1945, it appeared inevitable that the next ones would be used against Japan with devastating results.

    The image above is of Robert Oppenheimer and General Groves examining the remains of one the bases of the steel test tower, at the atomic bomb Trinity Test site, in September 1945.

    With

    Bruce Cameron Reed
    The Charles A. Dana Professor of Physics Emeritus at Alma College, Michigan

    Cynthia Kelly
    Founder and President of the Atomic Heritage Foundation

    And

    Frank Close
    Emeritus Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Exeter College, Oxford

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Anne Bronte's second novel, published in 1848, which is now celebrated alongside those of her sisters but which Charlotte Bronte tried to suppress as a 'mistake'. It examines the life of Helen, who has escaped her abusive husband Arthur Huntingdon with their son to live at Wildfell Hall as a widow under the alias 'Mrs Graham', and it exposes the men in her husband's circle who gave her no choice but to flee. Early critics attacked the novel as coarse, as misrepresenting male behaviour, and as something no woman or girl should ever read; soon after Anne's death, Charlotte suggested the publisher should lose it for good. In recent decades, though, its reputation has climbed and it now sits with Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights as one of the great novels by the Bronte sisters.

    The image above shows Tara Fitzgerald as Helen Graham in a 1996 BBC adaptation.

    With

    Alexandra Lewis
    Lecturer in English and Creative Writing at the University of Newcastle (Australia)

    Marianne Thormählen
    Professor Emerita in English Studies, Lund University

    And

    John Bowen
    Professor of Nineteenth Century Literature at the University of York

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the Greek writer known as the father of histories, dubbed by his detractors as the father of lies. Herodotus (c484 to 425 BC or later) was raised in Halicarnassus in modern Turkey when it was part of the Persian empire and, in the years after the Persian Wars, set about an inquiry into the deep background to those wars. He also aimed to preserve what he called the great and marvellous deeds of Greeks and non-Greeks, seeking out the best evidence for past events and presenting the range of evidence for readers to assess. Plutarch was to criticise Herodotus for using this to promote the least flattering accounts of his fellow Greeks, hence the 'father of lies', but the depth and breadth of his Histories have secured his reputation from his lifetime down to the present day.

    With

    Tom Harrison
    Professor of Ancient History at the University of St Andrews

    Esther Eidinow
    Professor of Ancient History at the University of Bristol

    And

    Paul Cartledge
    A. G. Leventis Senior Research Fellow at Clare College, University of Cambridge

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the remarkable diversity of the animals that dominated life on land in the Triassic, before the rise of the dinosaurs in the Jurassic, and whose descendants are often described wrongly as 'living fossils'. For tens of millions of years, the ancestors of alligators and Nile crocodiles included some as large as a bus, some running on two legs like a T Rex and some that lived like whales. They survived and rebounded from a series of extinction events but, while the range of habitats of the dinosaur descendants such as birds covers much of the globe, those of the crocodiles have contracted, even if the animals themselves continue to evolve today as quickly as they ever have.

    With

    Anjali Goswami
    Research Leader in Life Sciences and Dean of Postgraduate Education at the Natural History Museum

    Philip Mannion
    Lecturer in the Department of Earth Sciences at University College London

    And

    Steve Brusatte
    Professor of Palaeontology and Evolution at the University of Edinburgh

    Producer Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the collection of poems published in 1609 by Thomas Thorpe: Shakespeare’s Sonnets, “never before imprinted”. Yet, while some of Shakespeare's other poems and many of his plays were often reprinted in his lifetime, the Sonnets were not a publishing success. They had to make their own way, outside the main canon of Shakespeare’s work: wonderful, troubling, patchy, inspiring and baffling, and they have appealed in different ways to different times. Most are addressed to a man, something often overlooked and occasionally concealed; one early and notorious edition even changed some of the pronouns.

    With:

    Hannah Crawforth
    Senior Lecturer in Early Modern Literature at King’s College London

    Don Paterson
    Poet and Professor of Poetry at the University of St Andrews

    And

    Emma Smith
    Professor of Shakespeare Studies at Hertford College, Oxford

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the life and ideas of one of the great historians, best known for his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (published 1776-89). According to Gibbon (1737-94) , the idea for this work came to him on 15th of October 1764 as he sat musing amidst the ruins of Rome, while barefooted friars were singing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter. Decline and Fall covers thirteen centuries and is an enormous intellectual undertaking and, on publication, it became a phenomenal success across Europe.

    The image above is of Edward Gibbon by Henry Walton, oil on mahogany panel, 1773.

    With

    David Womersley
    The Thomas Wharton Professor of English Literature at St Catherine’s College, University of Oxford

    Charlotte Roberts
    Lecturer in English at University College London

    And

    Karen O’Brien
    Professor of English Literature at the University of Oxford

    Producer: Simon Tillotson

  • Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Charles Booth's survey, The Life and Labour of the People in London, published in 17 volumes from 1889 to 1903. Booth (1840-1916), a Liverpudlian shipping line owner, surveyed every household in London to see if it was true, as claimed, that as many as a quarter lived in poverty. He found that it was closer to a third, and that many of these were either children with no means of support or older people no longer well enough to work. He went on to campaign for an old age pension, and broadened the impact of his findings by publishing enhanced Ordnance Survey maps with the streets coloured according to the wealth of those who lived there.

    The image above is of an organ grinder on a London street, circa 1893, with children dancing to the Pas de Quatre

    With

    Emma Griffin
    Professor of Modern British History at the University of East Anglia

    Sarah Wise
    Adjunct Professor at the University of California

    And

    Lawrence Goldman
    Emeritus Fellow in History at St Peter’s College, University of Oxford

    Producer: Simon Tillotson