Why do intelligent people sometimes go gaga on radio? And what happened to Melvyn Bragg on the morning he picked up the wrong piece of paper?
One of my pet irritations is turning on the radio to hear someone declaiming the word ‘Absolutely’. I find myself thinking a lot less of the speaker – often an allegedly expert ‘guest’ who appears to have come on air with nothing but their enthusiasm for being there. Why not try ‘Exactly’, I feel inclined to mutter, or ‘I agree’ or just plain ‘Yes’, and then moving on to say something worthwhile?
Last Sunday, however, I was persuaded to think again. We were having lunch with the art historian Robin Cormack, who offered a suggestive, and also kinder, explanation of this media phenomenom. Far from merely condemning ‘Absolutely’ as the ‘innit’ of the lumpenintelligentsia, he suggested an institutional context for the usage. As the curator of the Royal Academy’s ongoing exhibition about Byzantium, Robin has been on the radio quite a lot recently. Indeed, he has become used to a routine that goes something like this.
The phone rings, and a BBC researcher, or perhaps sometimes a producer, asks for a few minutes of your time in which to ‘pick your brains’. The outcome is that, before being invited to participate in a programme, you have described more or less exactly what you might bring to the conversation. Sometimes you are not called back. If things look promising, however, you will be told the time of the forthcoming recording and perhaps also assured that a taxi will come to your door to convey you to Broadcasting House. The researcher will then go on to brief the programme’s presenter, telling him precisely what you, the guest, think about the topic in question.
When the day comes, you walk into the studio, sit down and the programme begins. The presenter turns to you and, in the course of asking a question, repeats more or less exactly what you told the researcher you intended to say. This puts you in an uncomfortable position. You have yet to utter a word but your point has already been made. More disconcertingly, it may well have been spoken as the wisdom of the presenter, and you are left with nothing to do but to nod in apparent approval of his or her omniscience. ‘Absolutely’, you say, frantically trying to think of something else to go on with. ‘Absolutely’.
After laughing at this, our assembled company started to wonder how much presenters can really be expected to know about the issues covered in their programmes. We took the case of Melvyn Bragg. Generally everyone present felt that his lordship makes a pretty good job of covering a vast range of topics that no mere mortal could be expected really to command. However, we also noted Bragg’s tendency to police his guests, to scold them and, indeed, to cut them short quite fiercely whenever they stray from the agenda. To some of us, this suggested that even an intellectually able presenter may have precious little to go on beyond the list of questions that have been put into his hand the evening before.
At this point, I found myself remembering something I heard a few years ago. It was quite early in the morning and I was still half asleep to the drone of Radio 4’s Today programme. At some point Melvyn Bragg entered the studio to trail what he had coming up on ‘In Our Time’ later that morning. Having told us far more than was strictly necessary about the topic, he started reciting the achievements of his panel of illustrious guests. As he went on it was like being trapped in one of those apparently endless sentences in Roberto Bolaňo’s new novel – pages and pages and pages over which one becomes increasingly desperate for a full stop.
During the course of this epic recital it became clear that Bragg himself realized that something had gone very wrong and that he was out there on his own. Finally, he cut himself off in mid-flight, crashed to the ground, and said, crossly and perhaps also just a little gracelessly, ‘they’ve given me the wrong piece of paper’ or words to that effect. Instead of reading a trail two or three sentences long, he had accidentally launched into the programme itself.
The ‘Today’ presenters recovered the situation sympathetically enough. But it was a revealing moment all the same. Just as celebrity authors, including some popular historians, may not write their own books, there are busy, top-flight radio presenters who are not expected to write their own scripts. ‘Absolutely’, as we might all have said to that.
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