Magazine article The Spectator

Radio: The Matter of the North; Raising the Bar

Magazine article The Spectator

Radio: The Matter of the North; Raising the Bar

Article excerpt

The last thing we need right now, in these divisive times, is a series that spends all its time crowing about how special the North is, that continually insists it's the fount of English art, faith and civilisation and also the region where our notions of justice and equality have been forged. The Matter of the North , Melvyn Bragg's new ten-part series for Radio 4 (Monday to Friday mornings), is not simply a history of the region that spreads north from the Humber river and as far as Hadrian's Wall, encompassing the Pennines ('the backbone of England'), Lakeland ('the crucible of the idea of the transforming power of nature'), Manchester ('the first industrial city') and the Yorkshire Dales, but is peppered throughout with remarks that argue for the North's special status in our island story -- in contrast, of course, to the 'softie' South. Dames Judi (Dench) and Joan (Bakewell) are brought in, along with Sir Michael Parkinson and Ian McMillan, to tell us how proud they are to have 'northern' origins, while Bragg, in a breathless monologue, lauds the northern sense of humour, its landscape, Industrial Revolution and economic prowess -- worth 'twice the economy of Scotland' (the Scots might have something to say about that). In fact, says Bragg, the story he is about to tell 'out-histories the history of most countries'.

We expect Bragg, from his superb In Our Time conversation series on Thursday mornings, to educate us wisely and painlessly, with the aid of a shrewdly selected gathering of academics. We trust him not just to give us the facts but to put them in context and help us to see what they mean. The Matter of the North (produced by Faith Lawrence) appears to be driven not by the desire to tell the story but to prove the superiority of Bragg's native region. The tone of the programmes is odd in another way because Bragg keeps breaking out into laughter, as if embarrassed by his own chutzpah in insisting that it's the resilient, radical, romantic North that has shaped England.

It's frustrating because there are within this strangely off-peak series hints of what could have been. The second programme, for instance, on the Northumbrian renaissance, takes us back to the brilliant origins of English art, poetry and identity, via Bede, St Cuthbert, Lindisfarne and Durham. But Bragg begins in Dumfriesshire to view the Ruthwell Cross from the early Middle Ages, covered with carvings of the Tree of Life, in Celtic style, and also verses in old English. …

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