In Our Time: Tristram Shandy

4 years ago

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Melvyn Bragg and his guests discuss Laurence Sterne's novel Tristram Shandy.


In Our Time: Culture

Related programmes:
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Epistolary Literature


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Tristram Shandy on In Our Time came about through an accident that Laurence Sterne himself might have found entertaining. I was at the BBC beano for arts programmes where Tony Hall spoke inspirationally of what the BBC would do in the future, and in the tea scrum before the speech and the clips I bumped into John Mullan, also known as Professor of English at University College London. He said, after about three seconds, "Have you ever done Tristram Shandy?" I rang up Tom Morris who said "No, but we should and we have a slot quite soon". I transferred this to John Mullan who was well pleased. He was also right to be well pleased with his characteristically energetic contribution on the programme itself. I believe he is even now drifting around Broadcasting House, approaching producers with other terrific ideas. As long as he doesn't leave us out, that's fine.
Michael Winterbottom's film A Cock and Bull Story had an awful lot of Tristram Shandy in it, even though it departed from the text. It is remarkable how this very curious production has caught the fancy of writers and directors and artists over the last two hundred years. I read it (sorry about this, but for the second time; the first time was in another country called my twenties) in the States when I was doing some filming with Daniel Radcliffe last week and was afflicted with a chest infection. Sometimes, with a chest infection, when short breath is accompanied by short temper, the playful prolixity can become a kind of grinding garrulity. I now realise I have offended every literary academic in the country. Although, if they were fair, two, at least, of the three of them owned up to feeling some tiredness, in some states of mind, sometimes when they tackled Tristram Shandy. But of course the three on the programme this morning know it off by heart.
It is a quite wonderful book and I can't see why it doesn't stay as a template for ever and a day.
So after the programme, out into the warm air to see rough cuts on a recast and regenerated David Lean and Ken Loach, then into the office and into a conference call with Paul Nurse and others for an open discussion we're doing at Oxford in October about the origins of modern science, which coincides with the 400th anniversary of Warden Wilkins, Warden of Wadham College, who made a swift transition from being a Cromwellian to a Charles II man without any noticeable sign of embarrassment.
Just heard from Tom Morris that Tristram Shandy has zoomed up to 88th on the bestseller charts of a major online bookseller, from about position number 25,000. Tom has also just told me that we've had an amusing letter from Mexico, which follows a letter from Arizona which included a sketch of Bertrand Russell because the correspondent had heard the programme on which Bertrand Russell was mentioned, and I had a lovely note from Australia from a couple who came together (this is still in the mode of Tristram Shandy after all) through an affection for - yes, In Our Time.
Best wishes
Melvyn Bragg
PS: How Daniel Radcliffe has transformed himself from a boy actor as Harry Potter, making him the best known boy actor in the world over those seven blockbusting films, into the toast of Broadway is, by any standards, remarkable. He stars in The Cripple of Inishmaan by Martin McDonagh. The reviews were extraordinary. I interviewed him the morning after in the famous Sardi's in the theatre district. His first remark was "My mother could have written them". It seems he has galvanised himself, somehow or other, into a parallel career and, by the looks of it, on the way to making a comparable impact.



In Our Time

Melvyn Bragg presents In Our Time, a series where he and his expert guests discuss the history of ideas, and explore subjects in culture and science.
Read more about Melvyn Bragg
Melvyn Bragg on the Radio 4 Blog

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