Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Not just a cabinet of curiosity ... a whole museum

Last night I attended the recording of the sixth and final episode of BBC Radio 4's Museum of Curiosity. I've been lucky enough to be invited along to see all six shows of this second season. If you're not familiar with it, co-hosts John Lloyd and Sean Lock invite three guests every week to place something of interest in the museum. As the museum is entirely hypothetical, this means that the curiosities can be as imaginative or as abstract as you like and we've seen submissions as small as a pineapple or a yeti, as big as the big bang or a live volcano, or as strange as the urge to push red buttons and the notion of privacy. And during the course of the recordings, I've been privileged to meet such people as Brian Eno, Chris Donald, Kate Adie, Rupert Sheldrake, Simon Singh, Dave Gorman and, last night, the brilliant Tim Minchin and the twin intellectual giants of Clive James and Philip Pullman.

But this blogpost is not a hollow boast about the famous people I've met. It's about celebrating the fact that the BBC still makes shows like this. In many ways, the Museum of Curiosity is a sister show to TV's QI. The obvious link here is John Lloyd who created both shows. John has an enviable CV; back in his early days as a radio producer he created the News Quiz - still running to this day - and shows like The News Huddlines and Quote Unquote. He also co-wrote two episodes of the Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy with his best friend Douglas Adams and, later, the two of them collaborated on the book The meaning of Liff. Moving to television in the 1980s, he gave us Not the nine O'Clock News, Spitting Image and produced all four series of Blackadder before creating QI. Most recently, John co-wrote The Book of General Ignorance with John Mitchinson, which has sold over a million copies and is the fourth bestselling book in Amazon's history. Surely, with that kind of history, it's no surprise that when he and producers Dan Schreiber and Richard Turner pitched the idea for the radio series to the BBC, they got the green light? Surprisingly, it's never quite that simple.

Nicholas Lezard in The Independent on Sunday wrote: 'I try to envisage the pitch. Imagine if you or I went up to the Head of What Goes Out at 6.30 on Radio 4 and said: "It's a show where we ask guests to bring along an item of interest for us to put in an imaginary museum. They get to tell us some anecdotes, and we make the odd quip." The Head of What Goes Out at 6.30 on Radio 4 puts the tips of his fingers together and says: "Is that it?" "Well, basically, yes." "And will your guests be famous?" "Well, we thought for the first show we'd have Brian Blessed, who is an enormous pain in the arse but undoubtedly very well known; a comedian not too many people have heard of like, say, Sean Lock, and then we'd have a completely off-beam choice, perhaps Richard Fortey, who is a world expert on trilobites and a member of the Royal Society." This sounds a bit mad, no? As I said, if you or I pitched this idea we'd hardly have time to eat our free BBC biscuit before being shown the door.'

But I'm so glad that it was the BBC who looked at this pitch. I'm not going to rant on about what a brilliant institution the Beeb is as people like Stephen Fry and David Mitchell have done so much mor eeloquently than I ever could. But the point they make is that the licence fee system allows these types of risk to be taken. If the BBC was driven solely by demographics and popular vote it would be nothing but soaps, reality shows and the occasional televised execution of a paedophile. The very fact that it doesn't always have to bow to these pressures means that it can make programmes for 'minority' audiences; people from smaller communities within the UK or people with specialist or unusual interests. As Stephen Fry once wrote. 'You know when you visit another country and you see that it spends more money on flowers for its roundabouts than we do, and you think … coo, why don’t we do that? How pretty. How pleasing. What a difference it makes. To spend money for the public good in a way that enriches, gives pleasure, improves the quality of life, that is something. That is a real achievement. It’s only flowers in a roundabout, but how wonderful. Well, we have the equivalent of flowers in the roundabout times a million: the BBC enriches the country in ways we will only discover when it has gone and it is too late to build it up again. We actually can afford the BBC, because we can’t afford not to.'

Sage words.

The Museum of Curiosity is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Mondays at 6.30pm and is repeated on Sundays at 12pm. Official website is here. Blog is here. And they're on Twitter @curiositwitty.

7 comments:

willow said...

Heh-heh! You look like you've had one too many pints in the rabbit ears pic. ;^)

Sarah said...

I'm glad you didn't say "the intellectual giant Oliver James" . . .

Peter Neville said...

I can only agree with what you ( and S. Fry) say about the BBC but the televised execution idea; that could work.

chris hale said...

I've been decorating all day and intend treating myself to the latest episode on iPlayer this evening.

Re. Philip Pullman, did Mr. Schreiber do as he suggested he might, and ask Mr. P the question I suggested - 'What's it like to have the same name as a luxurious form of rail transport?'

Stevyn Colgan said...

Willow - Lovely to hear from you. But what do you mean? I always look like that!

Sarah - Yeah ... I don't envy the editing job on that episode. But Dan and Rich will sort it out. They're smart chaps.

Peter Neville - 'And tonight's guillotine is Napoleon!' Yeah, that's work just fine.

Chris - Sadly, no. It was all they could do to restrain the force of nature that is the splendid Mr Clive James.

John Soanes said...

Did you know what Mr L was doing when the picture was taken? Be honest now...
J

Stevyn Colgan said...

John - Nope. No idea at all. How extraordinary that the man who gave us Blackadder can still fall back on such a classic gag. Of course the reason I didn't know was that I was so relaxed working with the excellent photographer ... though why did you make me look so squiffy, eh?