How to do really great work

The best work takes time, people, skill and experience. No shortcuts.

A BBC Radio 4 show called In Our Time is a case in point. Each week Melvyn Bragg + three academics tackle a different subject. The latest was Hadrian’s Wall; the week before is was scepticism; the week before that it was al-Kindi (a 9th C Arab philosopher). The shows defines eclecticism.

It’s a programme that simplifies complexity, weaving people and events and ideas together to make an esoteric subject accessible to beginners. Bragg is a genius. He is passionate, probing, and an excellent proxy for listeners with little prior knowledge.

I haven’t been able to find a full description of the production process. But I imagine that Bragg and the producers (currently Thomas Morris and Victoria Brignell) choose the future subjects, then the producer for each show sets to work identifying suitable guests, signing them up for the show, and briefing them on making the notes.

The notes are key. Bragg frequently refers to them aloud during the show. They are his guide to the topic. Bragg described his preparations for each show in an interview with The Scotsman in 2009:

It’s not easy, but I like reading. I enjoy what was called swotting in my day. I get the notes late Friday afternoon for the following Thursday morning. I find all the spare time I can for reading, get up very early on a Thursday morning, have a final two hours of nervousness, and away we go.

Bragg and the producer figure out a list of questions that will help unpack the topic. And during the show, Bragg allows little deviation from the way he wants to proceed – as Will Self put it:

His methodology in In Our Time is… not unlike that of a man throwing a stick for a dog: he chucks his questions ahead, and if the chosen academic fails to bring it right back, he chides them.

It lacks depth, inevitably. Programmes covering subjects I know well can make me wince. Bragg simply slices through the knots that entangle former History students, and necessarily so – the pace is relentless, at the expense of uncertainty.

But the result of all this is really great work.

Contrast In Our Time with the frenetic pace of social media, and the speed and carelessness with which commercial culture creators like Demand Media churn out content.

Really great work takes time, it takes people, it takes skill, and it takes experience.

And if you want to hear what really great work sounds like, every episode since launch in 1998 is available online.

 

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