The Big Idea isn’t always best

Either because television is moving into a new era and already starting to mourn the old one, or because somebody realised how many new programmes old programmes could furnish, the BBC has been admiring its past a great deal recently. On BBC2, The Hour (Tuesdays) continues with its tale of a newly hatched current affairs programme, while on BBC4 the nostalgia never stops.

This is not a complaint. The makers of Great Thinkers in their Own Words (Mondays) did a fine job of trawling through the BBC archive to show (in episode one) how “a new breed of thinker”, who emerged after the first world war, “used broadcasting to fight for humanity” and (in episode two) how “scholars became national celebrities”, using television to spread their ideas about “running a good society”. Familiar heads included Carl Jung, Bertrand Russell, Isaiah Berlin, Germaine Greer and Richard Dawkins. The programmes – and there’s a third to come, on the idea of culture – hung together nicely, the celebration of intellectual ideas outweighing the celebration of the BBC’s extensive coverage of them.

But having claimed that it would put an emphasis on thinkers and broadcasting, the programmes paid no attention to, say, the intellectual’s changing position in public life, or the logic behind the BBC’s commissioning. The programmes were only as enlightening as their assorted clips; more like an upmarket YouTube channel than a historical documentary about thinkers in the media.

One term never uttered by the narrator was “public service broadcasting” (PSB), but this concept is responsible for the tradition of British educational television. Rupert Murdoch defined a public service as “a service which the public wants at a price it can afford”, though the phrase is more often used to mean a service that the public pays relatively little for and doesn’t know it wants – but may eventually. The internet is not subject to legislation of this kind, but websites such as provide something akin to PSB and show that there is demand for it.

The survival of PSB during the Thatcherite 1980s coincided with the arrival, and swift growth, of a movement with which it is now allied: the Public Understanding of Science (PUS). The Peacock Report on the BBC’s funding, which defended the licence fee as the “least worst” option, was published 25 years ago, shortly after the Royal Society published its paper on PUS. The Bodmer Report, as it is sometimes known, urged Professor Peacock and Co. “to take into account the importance of the BBC science output”, which showed “how effectively distance learning techniques ... can contribute to science education”. The Peacock report, when it arrived, recommended that the BBC should show “programmes about science, nature and other parts of the world” that demand active attention and “may also contribute to responsible citizenship”.

Nowadays we are not short of such programmes, and some of them would work as purely commercial products, but in intellectual terms there has been a decline since the days of the “great thinkers”. Facts are preferred to speculative thinking, information to interpretation, explaining to expounding.

One major product of the PUS movement, and one that demonstrates the alliance of PUS and PSB, is the Charles Simonyi Professorship at Oxford University, established in 1995, and to be held by a scientist able to communicate their ideas to “the largest possible audience” without losing the interest of people with “the power and ability to propagate or oppose the ideas”.

Richard Dawkins, first to hold the post, fulfilled this brief well, but his successor, the mathematician Marcus du Sautoy is in danger of becoming what Simonyi called a “populariser”. His latest series, The Code (BBC2 Wednesdays), represents one strand of PSB: the attempt to explain everything with one Big Idea. When he says “the code”, he means “mathematical formulae”, but with a Big Idea the singular always helps. In this case, it enabled Du Sautoy to talk, in part Malcolm Gladwell, part Dan Brown fashion, as if he holds a key that unlocks everything we don’t realise we understand – the flow of human traffic, the flight of starlings, the outcome of rock-paper-scissors.

In any television week, Du Sautoy on “the code” would seem flimsy as public service or commercial entertainment, but it looks especially so next to Freud on free association or Dawkins on the selfish gene.

Elsewhere on the BBC, Me, My Sex and I (BBC1 Thursday), about anomalies of sexual development, and Horizon: Do You See What I See? (BBC2 Monday), about the perception of colour, taught more science by taking on a smaller subject. Both used a sober and patient narrator rather than an irrepressible and continent-hopping presenter, though a new series on Channel 4 has been proving that the Du Sautoy formula, if more sensibly handled, can be made to work. The architecture critic Tom Dyckhoff was visible throughout The Secret Life of Buildings (Channel 4 Mondays), offered a slightly glib mixture of neuroscience and psychology, and was full of explanations of How Things Really Work. But he also showed that the revelation of “secrets” can expand the viewer’s sense of things and satisfy their thirst for understanding without, like Du Sautoy, attempting to quench it altogether.

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