That's entertainment?

No stranger to broadcasting himself, Christopher Bigsby considers the rise of the public intellectual - halfway up a mountain, on a motorbike, quoting Aeschylus, coming to a telly near you

September 20, 2012

There is a plaque in Norwich Cathedral I have always liked. It praises a clergyman for delivering sermons “entirely without enthusiasm”. I have sat through many a lecture dedicated to the same principle. Once, at the University of Cambridge, I passed through the back of a room in which a man wearing a gown was lecturing, I have to say entirely without enthusiasm, to a single student. Now there’s a staff-student ratio to be envied.

On another occasion, I attended a lecture by an art historian (not at my institution) who made the mistake of lowering the lights in order to show slides, only to be confronted by an empty lecture theatre when the lights went on again. Today though, slides, all too often engagingly projected back to front, upside down and out of order, smack of the spinning jenny: not without their utility in their day but a touch out of date. Now showbiz has entered academe. Human communication, it seems, has to involve electronic mediation. Blackboards are now virtual, while chalk, pens and paper are doubtless in containers ready to be shipped to needy countries alongside stolen cars and Henry Moores melted down for scrap.

I have always believed that nothing intelligent has ever been written on a flip chart, especially by the management consultants that universities are so eager to employ, presumably to increase the circulation of money. All too often this expands to PowerPoint presentations, which can be a kind of show-and-tell for grown-ups, with bullet points for the aurally challenged. More often, words or images fly in, zoom out, perform visual if not intellectual gavottes, before transforming into those same extraneous bullet points again. Of course, it is now possible to jazz things up with film clips, YouTube sequences, dancing dogs and cat rustling. Occasionally (and I confess to a certain Schadenfreude), elaborately devised presentations freeze on the starting blocks as members of the audience gather around to offer conflicting advice on defibrillating the laptop.

Now, however, it is not enough to turn lectures into vaudeville acts. We must reach out and “impact on” the world. We live in the age of the media don - although when I looked up “media dons” on the internet, I was rewarded with an entry headed “Meet the media at MK Dons”, and another proclaiming “Katie Price causes media frenzy when she dons new hairdo”. Plainly, not many people are exploring the forests of the net in search of this subgenus of the human race.

Media dons used to be something of a rarity and a subject of some envy/contempt/suspicion on the part of colleagues for whom communicating with the masses (indeed, in some cases, communicating with anyone) was suspect. It was the equivalent of the verger’s cartwheel down the aisle after the Royal Wedding: not something you wanted to be caught doing. For the most part, they would walk towards the camera and deliver a worthy 50-minute lecture to camera, in black and white, or appear in Open University programmes transmitted in the early hours of the morning while looking as though they had only just got up themselves.

There were, though, exceptions. Jacob Bronowski trained as a mathematician before turning to biology. In 1973, he made the hugely influential television series The Ascent of Man, which itself followed Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, about the history of Western art, one of the first television documentaries made in colour and whose concluding scene was shot at my university, although whether that meant we were the summit or the nadir of civilisation is not clear. The primary difference between yesterday’s media dons and today’s is that the former group wore suits (although David Starkey looks as though he was born in one) and were men. Things have changed. One of Bronowski’s daughters, Lisa Jardine, has herself become a media don.

Today, they are hard to miss, staring into the heavens from mountain tops on to which, unaccountably, they have been dropped by helicopter, explaining time/mathematics/the Romans/evolution/empires/the inner workings of the human body while staring engagingly into the camera and our souls, as they are expensively and sometimes bewilderingly whisked around the world. In the old days, it helped if you were perceived as radically odd with a strange delivery. Magnus Pyke, the food scientist and TV star, used to windmill his arms spasmodically. Simon Schama is perhaps his direct descendant. Starkey has developed a fine line in venom (to which Mary Beard is the antidote) but otherwise presenters are liable to seem normal, although it plainly helps if you don’t look like the Creature from the Black Lagoon.

When Venus transited the sun, BBC’s Horizon featured three female academics described by The Daily Telegraph as “lissom presenters appearing out of a sunset, their tousled manes glowing”. The Sunday Times preferred “flirty, winky, lip-sucking science totty”. The historian Lucy Worsley, according to The Daily Telegraph, was “blonde-bobbed” and looking like “a mischievous flapper”. Plainly, media dons have the power to stir Telegraph readers in their bath chairs. The University of East Anglia’s own blonde, articulate and intelligent Sarah Churchwell would probably cause them a much-deserved myocardial infarction.

In this country, we have historically been suspicious of intellectuals, of course. The Marquess of Salisbury severely damaged the career of the Conservative minister Iain Macleod when he described him as “too clever by half”, which was thought to be a supremely witty put-down. Now, however, we have something called a public intellectual, an odd phrase that suggests that he or she has come out of the closet, suddenly confessing to being a practising intellectual, liable to go on Intellectual Pride demonstrations, wearing T-shirts emblazoned with prime numbers or quotations from Aeschylus while attending regular sessions of Intellectuals Anonymous. We also prefer our intellectuals to be jokesters, explaining the Second Law of Thermodynamics while juggling or bungee jumping, preferably delivering each sentence from a different continent. The old days of “if the Earth were a grape, the Sun would be an orange” are long gone.

As it happens, I am not a stranger to this world, although far from lissom and, unlike Brian Cox, not a former member of a pop band, unless a school skiffle group counts. My media adventures began when I was a student, although I was behind the camera rather than in front of it or, rather, in front of it by proxy. I wrote scripts for Granada Television, the proceeds of which enabled me to give the woman who later became my wife a good time at the Berni Inn, which was then my idea of culinary sophistication. I was writing satirical scripts for a puppet that I also had to activate, a puppet that looked like the head of a potato and whose sole moving part was its mouth, which would open and close randomly and never in sync with the words.

I crouched beneath the camera and tried to stop the top-heavy puppet from swaying out of vision while doing the voice, a kind of strangulated cross between Eartha Kitt and Bernard Manning. Whenever I wrote something incisive, it was banned. My producer was an Australian whose experience had been honed on the more brutal of Australian sports. He had two principles, which he explained to me on my first day: one) softly, softly, catchee fucking monkey; two) you can’t get on with someone by calling them a shit. I like to feel that I have lived by those principles ever since.

Decades later, I had a theatre spot on the local BBC news programme in Norwich, Look East. I would be introduced to the tune of That’s Entertainment while a woman in fishnet stockings, wearing a top hat, pulled a theatrical curtain aside to reveal me, Mr Magoo-like, trying to read the autocue at 20ft and looking much as a cow must do a second after a humane killer has been discharged into its brain. The embarrassment was so great that my wife and I never told our children, for fear it would damage them for life.

A year or so passed, and I was to be found doing a piece to camera about Mark Twain on the banks of the Mississippi River for the BBC, trying to understand why the camera was panning downwards. The answer was that, much to the amusement of the crew, I had been steadily sinking into the mud. If the piece had been any longer, the mire would have been up to my knees. In another programme I interviewed the novelist John Cheever’s wife, Mary, on the occasion of her daughter’s memoir in which she had revealed that her father was bisexual. So nervous was I at broaching this topic that my first question began, “John Cheever was not a man to expose himself.” I stopped dead and was back in the world of primordial silence until someone began to laugh. Eventually everyone was laughing, including, thank heavens, Mary.

I fared better on radio, where you are not required to be lissom, presenting Radio 4’s Kaleidoscope for more than eight years before the programme was closed down by one of my former students who had risen to a position of power. Delayed revenge, like delayed pleasure, evidently has its attractions.

More recently, I presented Radio 4’s Off the Page. After three series, I received a call from the editor thanking me for my contribution but informing me that they had decided that the series should now be “personality-led”. I assumed that somewhere along the line I had mislaid my personality. In fact they meant Matthew Parris, a gay former Conservative MP - and who can compete with that?

Where once university lecturers regarded working in the media as vaguely illegitimate, part of a black economy, today they are seen as bridging the gap between academe and the public, something, in truth, ever more vital. When Ben Goldacre, himself a media don, draws attention to Daily Mail headlines reading “Housework prevents breast cancer” and “Shopping makes men impotent”, there is plainly a need for academics to venture into the public arena. When, in 1989, John Durant was appointed the first professor for the public understanding of science at Imperial College London, it was an acknowledgement of the necessity for the public to be aware of developments of immediate moral, political and philosophical relevance to us all.

With demands for outreach, universities, once embarrassed by what were scathingly described as media tarts, now boast of their media dons, relieve them of other duties so that they can offer their insights while swimming the Hellespont, climbing trees in a rainforest, wandering across deserts, so many Michael Palins of the mind. Some of them branch out into comedy shows, pop up on Question Time, free at last to cartwheel down the aisle with impunity. In the poker game that is academe, one university may boast of its members of the Royal Society, but another can raise them with an appearance on Newsnight or a Channel 5 series on Sex in the Pacific Islands (now on HD) presented by their newly appointed blonde-haired, motorcycle-riding biologist whose website offers the contact details of her agent.

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