Melvyn Bragg's notebook: I found hell on Regent Street

Plus: John Lloyd's stand-up return, and why a listener sent a photo of gingerbread to In Our Time

14 December 2013

9:00 AM

14 December 2013

9:00 AM

John Lloyd, producer of Blackadder, Spitting Image, QI etc, has boldly picked up where he left off at Cambridge more than 40 years ago. He has gone back to his youthful passion for stand-up. I’m making a South Bank Show about him and last week I went to Ealing Town Hall. He was on the 9.30 slot in ‘Chortle’ week. It was unlike any stand-up I’d ever seen. But then Not the Nine O’Clock News, his first big hit, was like no comedy show I’d ever seen and his originality continues on Radio 4 in The Museum of Curiosities. What makes his act so fresh is the mixture of funny broad jokes, bullet points of esoteric scholarship and entertaining recollections from a career seriously dedicated to making people laugh through other people. Now he does it face to face. And it works — again.

Charles Dickens called it ‘streaky bacon’. Mixing the categories so that for instance tragedy can include comedy. It began with Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales when we have kissing ‘her naked ers’ (or arse) alongside the perfectly high-minded gentil knight. Shakespeare is full of it. John Lloyd is stand-up streaky bacon.

I went to Kenwood House on Hampstead Heath the other day. It has emerged magnificently from a year-long cocoon of restoration. Genius wherever you look. But one painting that intrigued me is by Charles Jervais of the two Finch sisters. Elizabeth was to marry a younger man, a lawyer, who was later to become the first Earl of Mansfield and remodel Kenwood with Robert Adam. The portrait shows a rather truculent woman. Her father was a double earl and London society thought she had married beneath her. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu settled the matter. ‘People are divided in their opinions… I am among those who think, tout bien compté, she has happily disposed of her person.’ Jane Austen was not alone.


Kenwood House

I saw a roped queue in Regent Street a few days ago. I thought such maroon mock-velvet ropes were reserved for pop concerts and discos and the like, but this was a clothes shop. Inside it was Stygian, labyrinthine and so infested with mirrors that you constantly bumped into yourself. But most of all there was loud music. It’s taking over everywhere, in cafés, in restaurants, in bars, wiping out talk, a plague of our times, and yet… the shop was heaving. Gratefully outside, I saw that the queue had lengthened.

In the early winter days, around the edges of the great parks of London, St James’s, Regent’s, Hyde, Primrose Hill, with the yellow lamplight and the fallen leaves crunching underfoot, rus in urbe, London merges into a place of fiction. That’s surely Sherlock Holmes over there, and isn’t that young Oliver Twist? The city becomes a set…

Last month, Professor Sir Colin Humphreys was on In Our Time to talk about the history of the microscope. He brought visual aids: a large packet of lentils, a length of copper tubing and reproductions from Hooke’s Micrographia, the first book published by the Royal Society. When he was talking about this, I asked him to hold the diagrams closer to the microphone to help the listeners. He complied, most merrily, and pointed out the form of atoms within the crystals observed and drawn by Hooke. The first time, he said, an atom had been observed. A friend of mine later said he ‘saw’ the atoms clearly. Who needs television?

Hooke was the first to apply the word "cell" to biological objects

Hooke was the first to apply the word ‘cell’ to biological objects

With the invention of the iPod and the internet, masses of BBC programmes are ringing the globe as niftily as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Tom Morris, the producer of In Our Time and a fine list‑maker, has noted that in the past few months we have had responses from more than 45 countries and reviews in several of them. We also, following a programme on The Tempest, received a photograph of a lump of gingerbread which was being baked while the programme was on air and had come out of the oven looking like the head of Shakespeare.

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  • davidshort10

    Lots of articles by BBC people in the Spectator. Do I detect the influence of the Spectator’s managing director, Andrew ‘Brillo Pad’ Neill, who is a lugubrious presence on daytime and late night BBC? Is he trying to shore up his position? Is he under threat? I hope so. His face frightens children, and The Daily Politics is much better without his presence. Why does the BBC waste its licence fee tax money on paying outsiders when they have plenty of staff who can do the job?

  • Frank

    The number of people who are interested in Melvyn Bragg’s Notebook must be tiny?? It is however a very mild relief that this article was not written by Pippa!

  • Doggie Roussel

    One just has to ask… does Melvyn Bragg take himself seriously enough ?