A well-known and well respected French television presenter once told me ruefully: "We have nothing like the BBC in France. It is a great pity." I do not know enough about French broadcasting to say if this is true or not; what is true is that I have never found anything like Radio 4 in France or anywhere else. And France most certainly has nobody on the radio like Melvyn Bragg. I am not an authoritarian so I won't say everyone ought to be made to listen to him, but they should. This is a man who can get a group of eggheads together on his Radio 4 programme In Our Time to talk about, let's say Newton's Law of Motion, Plate Tectonics, the Discovery of Oxygen, The Alphabet and Abelard and Heloise - love, sex and theology in 12th century Paris - to name a few recent programmes - and coax them into talking about such highbrow subjects in a way that the rest of us non-eggheads not only listen up but also understand and learn. One recent programme was called: Paganism in the Renaissance - how the classical gods returned to the Christian cities. I heard the title and thought: "Gawd, how interested am I in that?" I listened, and was, though I may have been captivated by the sheer cleverness of it as I can't remember too much about the programme. Lord Bragg, or to give him his full title Baron Bragg of Wigton in the county of Cumbria (though I'd prefer to call him Melvyn) always sounds interested and thankfully chips in with sometimes obvious questions that most of us, were we to find ourselves in that radio studio, would want to ask but would not for fear of looking stupid. He doesn't look stupid because he is clever - as opposed to smarty pants clever-clever - and because we all know he has a brain the size of a planet. I love much of Radio 4, but my listening heart belongs to Melvyn and In Our Time; public broadcasting at its finest or as critic AA Gill said, not what the public wants to hear but what they should hear.
The only man in France who, to my knowledge, has been compared to Melvyn Bragg is the philosopher, writer, broadcaster, journalist and white-shirt-open-to-the-waist wearer Bernard-Henri Lévy. This is not fair. Lévy, known as BHL (which makes him sound like a chain store) has been described as a self-promoting, high-living narcissistic, grandstander to whom the tagline: "God is dead, but my hair is perfect" is attributed. He does not seem to mind this too much. Now Melvyn Bragg whose catchphrase, if he had one, would be something like "Now, moving on to the Renaissance" for his ability to shift an intellectual conversation from one era to another, is not above a spot of self promotion. But if the same epithets were leveled at him, I wager he'd be exploring - on the radio of course - what it meant to be all those things in today's society and if hair was the new religion. My favourite description of BHL was in the Guardian: "He is like an unfathomably French combination of Melvyn Bragg, J.K. Rowling and David Beckham".