Radio 4’s The Art of Innovation is a series that — for once — deserves the label ‘landmark’

28 September 2019

9:00 AM

28 September 2019

9:00 AM

Radio 4, how do I love thee? Rather as one loves the flocked wallpaper that came with the house. It isn’t what one would have chosen — but it is home. Yes, even when plangent piano music indicates a meaningful drama is about to begin. Yes, even when said drama is a woefully wooden effort about Amy ‘a typical modern 18-year-old — who happens to be trans’. Sample quote: ‘You’ve had me for 18 years, now I want me for me!’ Sound effect: peevishly slammed door (mine). New trans dramas are, of course, welcome, but Woman’s Hour drama is often a bit miss and miss.

But then, on Monday, came a real treat: the start of a new 20-part series, The Art of Innovation, in which each short episode looks closely at a work of art, using it as a jumping-off point for a debate about how art interprets, promotes and critiques scientific progress. It’s a series that (for once) deserves the term ‘landmark’, and there is a tie-in exhibition at the Science Museum, London. It opens with the Caravaggio of our Midlands Enlightenment, Joseph Wright of Derby, and will go on to the goddess of the stringed ‘Winged Figure’ on Oxford Street, Dame Barbara Hepworth — and beyond. I hear there is even an episode on dark matter, but it has yet to transmigrate to BBC previews.

Initially I was sceptical, because radio is not a great place to discuss specific artworks. It always strikes me as putting the casual listener at a huge disadvantage, and why waste airtime describing something that simply needs to be seen? But here co-presenters and Science Museum luminaries Sir Ian Blatchford and Dr Tilly Blyth adeptly charge their descriptions with interpretation, from the philosopher demonstrating the orrery in Joseph Wright’s painting who is ‘draped in cloth like an Old Testament figure’ to the rain spots just visible on cloudspotter Constable’s ‘skying’ sketchbooks.

These are dense, satisfying programmes, packed with half-forgotten concepts from old A-level papers such as the Burkean sublime — evoked when considering de Loutherbourg’s 1801 view of the belching fires of ‘Coalbookdale by Night’ — and terms such as ‘Eidophusikon’, which was David Garrick’s miniature theatre of natural effects, once resplendent in Leicester Square. The word trips off the tongue of Dr Blyth, who is clearly in her element. As presenters, she and Blatchford are both pleasantly green, racing each other for the enthusiasm cup. But their sincerity and expertise more than compensate for any bumps in texture or the hewing of phrases such as ‘clouds remained the last bastions of unaccountability’. Episodes are served daily in an intoxicating 13-minute post-prandial shot at 1.45 p.m., or five at once on a Friday, for those who can hold their omnibuses.

The series is much enhanced if encountered on iPlayer, or on its more fully loaded new incarnation, BBC Sounds, because both of these display an image of the artwork under discussion — photographs by Muybridge or a Gillray cartoon, for example. This is a great help — particularly in episodes where the artwork is less well known. Listening alongside an icon is clearly the future, but this needs to be managed with care. Time was when you would never see the face that goes with the voice. Nowadays most programmes are lazily represented online with an image of the host. So whereas a disembodied voice once had a weird purity, we now see the mug of the ambitious-looking presenter, the strange Tudorbethan hat worn by the folk music DJ.

These days everyone and their poodle has a podcast, and many seem to be lacking in contextualising editorial judgment and professionalism. But Giles Fraser’s Confessions on UnHerd provides a space for in-depth conversation that is refreshingly non-combative (although he did ask Julia Hartley-Brewer if she ever stopped talking; she didn’t draw breath). It’s a good source of unhurried profile interviews with right-leaning figures such as Simon Heffer, Jesse Norman and the satirist Andrew Doyle, best known for creating the monstrous Titania McGrath. UnHerd has also recruited Ayesha Hazarika, who hosts a gently sideways look at the news ‘for those who don’t follow the herd’.

Oddly enough, my other favourite podcast of the week is the Beef and Dairy Network (BBC Sounds), an unsettlingly surreal comedy show that could have been written by a juvenile Chris Morris. It was turbo-boosted this week by the contribution of Christine Nangle, one of Amy Schumer’s writers. Recommended for all those with a suspicion of weapons-grade sausages.

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