In Our Time: Culture

In Our Time: Culture

United Kingdom

Popular culture, poetry, music and visual arts and the roles they play in our society.


Tristan and Iseult  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Tristan and Iseult, one of the most popular stories of the Middle Ages. From roots in Celtic myth, it passed into written form in Britain a century after the Norman Conquest and almost immediately spread throughout northern Europe. It tells of a Cornish knight and an Irish queen, Tristan and Iseult, who accidentally drink a love potion, at the same time, on the same boat, travelling to Cornwall. She is due to marry Tristan's king, Mark. Tristan and Iseult seemed ideally matched and their love was heroic, but could that excuse their adultery, in the minds of medieval listeners, particularly when the Church was so clear they were wrong? With Laura Ashe Associate Professor of English at Worcester College, University of Oxford Juliette Wood Associate Lecturer in the School of Welsh at Cardiff University And Mark Chinca Reader in Medieval German Literature at the University of Cambridge Producer: Simon Tillotson.


"Emma Woodhouse, handsome, clever, and rich, with a comfortable home and happy disposition, seemed to unite some of the best blessings of existence; and had lived nearly twenty-one years in the world with very little to distress or vex her." So begins Emma by Jane Austen, describing her leading character who, she said, was "a heroine whom no-one but myself will much like." Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss this, one of Austen's most popular novels and arguably her masterpiece, a brilliantly sparkling comedy of manners published in December 1815 by John Murray, the last to be published in Austen's lifetime. This followed Sense and Sensibility (1811), Pride and Prejudice (1813) and Mansfield Park (1814), with her brother Henry handling publication of Northanger Abbey and Persuasion (1817). With Janet Todd Professor Emerita of Literature, University of Aberdeen and Honorary Fellow of Newnham College, Cambridge John Mullan Professor of English at University College, London And Emma Clery Professor of English at the University of Southampton. Producer: Simon Tillotson.

Holbein at the Tudor Court  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the life and work of Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543) during his two extended stays in England, when he worked at the Tudor Court and became the King's painter. Holbein created some of the most significant portraits of his age, including an image of Henry VIII, looking straight at the viewer, hands on hips, that has dominated perceptions of him since. The original at Whitehall Palace was said to make visitors tremble at its majesty. Holbein was later sent to Europe to paint the women who might be Henry's fourth wife; his depiction of Anne of Cleves was enough to encourage Henry to marry her, a decision Henry quickly regretted and for which Thomas Cromwell, her supporter, was executed. His paintings still shape the way we see those in and around the Tudor Court, including Cromwell, Thomas More, the infant Prince Edward (of which there is a detail, above), The Ambassadors and, of course, Henry the Eighth himself. With Susan Foister Curator of Early Netherlandish, German and British Painting at the National Gallery John Guy A fellow of Clare College, University of Cambridge And Maria Hayward Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Southampton Producer: Simon Tillotson.

Frida Kahlo  

Born near Mexico City in 1907, Frida Kahlo is considered one of Mexico's greatest artists. She took up painting after a bus accident left her severely injured, was a Communist, married Diego Rivera, a celebrated muralist, became friends with Trotsky and developed an iconic series of self-portraits. Her work brings together elements such as surrealism, pop culture, Aztec and Indian mythology and commentary on Mexican culture. In 1938, artist and poet Andre Breton organised an exhibition of her work in New York, writing in the catalogue, "The Art of Frida Kahlo is a ribbon around a bomb." She was not as widely appreciated during her lifetime as she has since become, but is now one of the most recognised artists of the 20th century. With Patience Schell Chair in Hispanic Studies at the University of Aberdeen Valerie Fraser Emeritus Professor of Latin American Art at the University of Essex And Alan Knight Emeritus Professor of the History of Latin America at the University of Oxford Producer: Simon Tillotson.

Jane Eyre  

The story of Jane Eyre is one of the best-known in English fiction. Jane is the orphan who survives a miserable early life, first with her aunt at Gateshead Hall and then at Lowood School. She leaves the school for Thornfield Hall, to become governess to the French ward of Mr Rochester. She and Rochester fall in love but, at their wedding, it is revealed he is married already and his wife, insane, is kept in Thornfield's attic. When Jane Eyre was published in 1847, it was a great success and brought fame to Charlotte Bronte. Combined with Gothic mystery and horror, the book explores many themes, including the treatment of children, relations between men and women, religious faith and hypocrisy, individuality, morality, equality and the nature of true love. With Dinah Birch Professor of English Literature and Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research at the University of Liverpool Karen O'Brien Vice Principal and Professor of English Literature at King's College London And Sara Lyons Lecturer in Victorian Literature at the University of Kent Producer: Simon Tillotson.


Rabindranath Tagore was the first non-European to win a Nobel Prize for Literature. He has been called one of the outstanding thinkers of the 20th century and the greatest poet India has ever produced. His Nobel followed publication of Gitanjali, his English version of some of his Bengali poems. WB Yeats and Ezra Pound were great supporters. Tagore was born in Calcutta in 1861 and educated partly in Britain; King George V knighted him, but Tagore renounced this in 1919 following the Amritsar Massacre. A key figure in Indian nationalism, Tagore became a friend of Gandhi, offering criticism as well as support. A polymath and progressive, Tagore painted, wrote plays, novels, short stories and many songs. The national anthems of India and Bangladesh are based on his poems. With Chandrika Kaul Lecturer in Modern History at the University of St Andrews Bashabi Fraser Professor of English Literature and Creative Writing at Edinburgh Napier University And John Stevens Leverhulme Postdoctoral Fellow at SOAS, University of London Producer: Simon Tillotson.

Fanny Burney  

Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the life and work of the 18th-century novelist, playwright and diarist Fanny Burney, also known as Madame D'Arblay and Frances Burney. Her first novel, Evelina, was published anonymously and caused a sensation, attracting the admiration of many eminent contemporaries. In an era when very few women published their work she achieved extraordinary success, and her admirers included Dr Johnson and Edmund Burke; later Virginia Woolf called her 'the mother of English fiction'. With Nicole Pohl Reader in English Literature at Oxford Brookes University Judith Hawley Professor of Eighteenth-Century Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London and John Mullan Professor of English at University College London. Producer: Simon Tillotson.


Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the Greek poet Sappho. Born in the late seventh century BC, Sappho spent much of her life on the island of Lesbos. In antiquity she was famed as one of the greatest lyric poets, but owing to a series of accidents the bulk of her work was lost to posterity. The fragments that do survive, however, give a tantalising glimpse of a unique voice of Greek literature. Her work has lived on in other languages, too, translated by such major poets as Ovid, Christina Rossetti and Baudelaire. With Edith Hall Professor of Classics at King's College, London Margaret Reynolds Professor of English at Queen Mary, University of London and Dirk Obbink Professor of Papyrology and Greek Literature at the University of Oxford Fellow and tutor at Christ Church, Oxford Producer: Simon Tillotson.


Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the epic poem Beowulf, one of the masterpieces of Anglo-Saxon literature. Composed in the early Middle Ages by an anonymous poet, the work tells the story of a Scandinavian hero whose feats include battles with the fearsome monster Grendel and a fire-breathing dragon. It survives in a single manuscript dating from around 1000 AD, and was almost completely unknown until its rediscovery in the nineteenth century. Since then it has been translated into modern English by writers including William Morris, JRR Tolkien and Seamus Heaney, and inspired poems, novels and films. With: Laura Ashe Associate Professor in English at the University of Oxford and Fellow of Worcester College Clare Lees Professor of Medieval English Literature and History of the Language at King's College London Andy Orchard Rawlinson and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Oxford Producer: Thomas Morris.

Bruegel's The Fight Between Carnival and Lent  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Pieter Bruegel the Elder's painting of 1559, 'The Fight Between Carnival And Lent'. Created in Antwerp at a time of religious tension between Catholics and Protestants, the painting is rich in detail and seems ripe for interpretation. But Bruegel is notoriously difficult to interpret. His art seems to reject the preoccupations of the Italian Renaissance, drawing instead on techniques associated with the new technology of the 16th century, print. Was Bruegel using his art to comment on the controversies of his day? If so, what comment was he making? CONTRIBUTORS Louise Milne, Lecturer in Visual Culture in the School of Art at the University of Edinburgh and Edinburgh Napier University Jeanne Nuechterlein, Senior Lecturer in the Department of History of Art, University of York Miri Rubin, Professor of Medieval and Early Modern History and Head of the School of History at Queen Mary, University of London Producer: Luke Mulhall.

Kafka's The Trial  

Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Franz Kafka's novel of power and alienation 'The Trial', in which readers follow the protagonist Joseph K into a bizarre, nightmarish world in which he stands accused of an unknown crime; courts of interrogation convene in obscure tenement buildings; and there seems to be no escape from a crushing, oppressive bureaucracy. Kafka was a German-speaking Jew who lived in the Czech city of Prague, during the turbulent years which followed the First World War. He spent his days working as a lawyer for an insurance company, but by night he wrote stories and novels considered some of the high points of twentieth century literature. His explorations of power and alienation have chimed with existentialists, Marxists, psychoanalysts, postmodernists - and Radio 4 listeners, who suggested this as our topic for listener week on In Our Time. GUESTS Elizabeth Boa, Professor Emerita of German at the University of Nottingham Steve Connor, Grace 2 Professor of English at the University of Cambridge Ritchie Robertson, Taylor Professor of the German Language and Literature at the University of Oxford Producer: Luke Mulhall.


Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss Aesop. According to some accounts, Aesop was a strikingly ugly slave who was dumb until granted the power of speech by the goddess Isis. In stories of his life he's often found outwitting his masters using clever wordplay, but he's best known today as the supposed author of a series of fables that are some of the most enduringly popular works of Ancient Greek literature. Some modern scholars question whether he existed at all, but the body of work that has come down to us under his name gives us a rare glimpse of the popular culture of the Ancient World. WITH Pavlos Avlamis, Junior Research Fellow in Classics at Trinity College at the University of Oxford Simon Goldhill, Professor of Greek Literature and Culture at the University of Cambridge Lucy Grig, Senior Lecturer in Classics at the University of Edinburgh Producer: Luke Mulhall.

Rudyard Kipling  

Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the life and work of Rudyard Kipling. Born in Bombay in 1865, Kipling has been described as the poet of Empire, celebrated for fictional works including Kim and The Jungle Book. Today his poem 'If--' remains one of the best known in the English language. Kipling was amongst the first writers in English to develop the short story as a literary form in its own right, and was the first British recipient of a Nobel Prize for Literature. A literary celebrity of the Edwardian era, Kipling's work for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission played a major role in Britain's cultural response to the First World War. Contributors: Howard Booth, Senior Lecturer in English Literature at the University of Manchester Daniel Karlin, Winterstoke Professor of English Literature at the University of Bristol Jan Montefiore, Professor of Twentieth Century English Literature at the University of Kent Producer: Luke Mulhall.

Mrs Dalloway  

Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss Virginia Woolf's novel Mrs Dalloway. First published in 1925, it charts a single day in the life of Clarissa Dalloway, a prosperous member of London society, as she prepares to throw a party. Writing in her diary during the writing of the book, Woolf explained what she had set out to do: 'I want to give life and death, sanity and insanity. I want to criticize the social system, and to show it at work at its most intense.' Celebrated for its innovative narrative technique and distillation of many of the preoccupations of 1920s Britain, Mrs Dalloway is now seen as a landmark of twentieth-century fiction, and one of the finest products of literary modernism. With: Professor Dame Hermione Lee President of Wolfson College, Oxford Jane Goldman Reader in English Literature at the University of Glasgow Kathryn Simpson Senior Lecturer in English Literature at Cardiff Metropolitan University.

The Bluestockings  

Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the Bluestockings. Around the middle of the eighteenth century a small group of intellectual women began to meet regularly to discuss literature and other matters, inviting some of the leading thinkers of the day to take part in informal salons. In an age when women were not expected to be highly educated, the Bluestockings were sometimes regarded with suspicion or even hostility. But prominent members such as Elizabeth Montagu - known as 'the Queen of the Bluestockings', and author of an influential essay about Shakespeare - and the classicist Elizabeth Carter were highly regarded for their scholarship. Their accomplishments led to far greater acceptance of women as the intellectual equal of men, and furthered the cause of female education. With: Karen O'Brien Vice-Principal and Professor of English at King's College London Elizabeth Eger Reader in English Literature at King's College London Nicole Pohl Reader in English Literature at Oxford Brookes University Producer: Thomas Morris.

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam  

Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. In 1859 the poet Edward FitzGerald published a long poem based on the verses of the 11th-century Persian scholar Omar Khayyam. Not a single copy was sold in the first few months after the work's publication, but after it came to the notice of members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood it became enormously influential. Although only loosely based on the original, the Rubaiyat made Khayyam the best-known Eastern poet in the English-speaking world. FitzGerald's version is itself one of the most admired works of Victorian literature, praised and imitated by many later writers. With: Charles Melville Professor of Persian History at the University of Cambridge Daniel Karlin Winterstoke Professor of English Literature at the University of Bristol Kirstie Blair Professor of English Studies at the University of Stirling Producer: Thomas Morris.

The Tale of Sinuhe  

Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss The Tale of Sinuhe, one of the most celebrated works of ancient Egyptian literature. Written around four thousand years ago, the poem narrates the story of an Egyptian official who is exiled to Syria before returning to his homeland some years later. The number of versions of the poem, which is known from several surviving papyri and inscriptions, suggests that it was seen as an important literary work; although the story is set against a backdrop of real historical events, most scholars believe that the poem is a work of fiction. With: Richard Parkinson Professor of Egyptology and Fellow of Queen's College at the University of Oxford Roland Enmarch Senior Lecturer in Egyptology at the University of Liverpool. Aidan Dodson Senior Research Fellow in the Department of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Bristol Producer: Thomas Morris.

Tristram Shandy  

Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss Laurence Sterne's novel Tristram Shandy. Sterne's comic masterpiece is an extravagantly inventive work which was hugely popular when first published in 1759. Its often bawdy humour, and numerous digressions, are combined with bold literary experiment, such as a page printed entirely black to mark the death of one of the novel's characters. Dr Johnson wrote that "Nothing odd will do long. Tristram Shandy did not last" - but two hundred and fifty years after the book's publication, Tristram Shandy remains one of the most influential and widely admired books of the eighteenth century. With: Judith Hawley Professor of Eighteenth-Century Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London John Mullan Professor of English at University College London Mary Newbould Bowman Supervisor in English at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge. Producer: Thomas Morris.

The Tempest  

Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss Shakespeare's play The Tempest. Written in around 1610, it is thought to be one of the playwright's final works and contains some of the most poetic and memorable passages in all his output. It was influenced by accounts of distant lands written by contemporary explorers, and by the complex international politics of the early Jacobean age. The Tempest is set entirely on an unnamed island inhabited by the magician Prospero, his daughter Miranda and the monstrous Caliban, one of the most intriguing characters in Shakespeare's output. Its themes include magic and the nature of theatre itself - and some modern critics have seen it as an early meditation on the ethics of colonialism. With: Jonathan Bate Provost of Worcester College, Oxford Erin Sullivan Lecturer and Fellow at the Shakespeare Institute, University of Birmingham Katherine Duncan-Jones Emeritus Fellow of Somerville College, Oxford Producer: Thomas Morris.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms  

Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, widely regarded as one of the greatest works of Chinese literature. Written 600 years ago, it is an historical novel that tells the story of a tumultuous period in Chinese history, the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. Partly historical and partly legend, it recounts the fighting and scheming of the feudal lords and the three states which came to power as the Han Dynasty collapsed. The influence of Romance of the Three Kingdoms in East Asia has been likened to that of Homer in the West, and this warfare epic remains popular in China today. With: Frances Wood Former Lead Curator of Chinese Collections at the British Library Craig Clunas Professor of the History of Art at the University of Oxford Margaret Hillenbrand University Lecturer in Modern Chinese Literature at the University of Oxford and Fellow of Wadham College Producer: Victoria Brignell.

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