Bryan Magee, the man who loved to put big ideas on the small screen


It sounds unlikely, but watching two people talk about philosophy for an hour makes compelling television

You can still watch them on YouTube. Two middle-aged white men (and the occasional woman) spending the best part of an hour discussing Aristotle, medieval philosophy, the nature of language or the Frankfurt School. The cast list was extraordinary – AJ Ayer, Iris Murdoch, WVO Quine, Bernard Williams, Gilbert Ryle, Alasdair MacIntyre, Herbert Marcuse, Hilary Putnam, Isaiah Berlin, Peter Strawson, Karl Popper, John Searle, Noam Chomsky, Martha Nussbaum. They were some of the most significant living philosophers and all they did was talk.

It’s the kind of TV that no longer gets made (the closest equivalent would probably be Radio 4’s In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg). Every programme is transfixing and at their heart was the presenter and interviewer Bryan Magee, who died on Friday. Magee was born to working-class parents in Hoxton, east London. He studied history and PPE at Oxford before embarking on a life of many parts – as broadcaster, lecturer, politician, poet, author and Wagnerian. In February 1974, he was elected Labour MP for Leyton, east London. He never achieved high office, eventually defecting to the newly formed SDP in 1982, before losing his parliamentary seat at the general election the following year.

His political failure may have been traumatic, but it freed him to do what he did best – speaking about ideas to a mass audience. First on radio, with his early 1970s series Modern British Philosophy, and then on TV with Men of Ideas in 1978, and a decade later with The Great Philosophers, he made deep and difficult ideas accessible without ever condescending to his audience.

Do watch the old series. They open up the world in a way that TV rarely does any more.

Kenan Malik is an Observer columnist


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