Series 10 - The Go-To Destination
BBC Radio 4
The Radio 4 Blog

What do Bertrand Russell, the philosopher; Robert Oppenheimer, the nuclear scientist; Nikolaus Pevsner, the architectural historian; JK Galbraith, the economist; and Grayson Perry, the potter, have in common?

I doubt it is cross-dressing, although you can never be sure.

The answer is, of course, that all have been Reith Lecturers, Russell being the first and Perry the most recent.

The lectures were inaugurated in 1948 by the BBC to mark the historic contribution made to public service broadcasting by Lord Reith, the corporation’s first Director-General.

Given the size of his ego he probably thought he, not Russell, should have delivered the first one. The list of lecturers is undoubtedly impressive, although the experience of listening to them could be less so.

Frankly I used to find most of them deeply boring speakers and preferred to read their scripts when they were printed in the late lamented magazine ‘The Listener’.

There were memorable speakers - Daniel Barenboim, Colin Blakemore and Onora O’Neill - spring to mind, but some listeners thought that the lecture form was now unsuited to radio.

Until Grayson Perry.

I have to admit that I was wary of Grayson Perry to begin with, thinking that he was a self- publicist, out to shock and little more.

How wrong I was.

I went to his recent exhibition at the British Museum and was completely bowled over by his originality, wit, and extraordinary skill. I was soon beaming with pleasure, and when I looked around, I saw that most of those viewing the exhibition were grinning as well.

In a small way he changed the way I looked at the world.

However that does not mean Grayson Perry would inevitably make an outstanding Reith lecturer. Feedback listeners were split on his suitability, though most were in Mr Perry’s camp.

The aim of the lectures is to ‘advance public understanding and debate about significant issues of contemporary interest’. The BBC says: ‘Significant international figures deliver the BBC’s flagship annual lecture series’. Is Mr Perry such a figure and did he deliver on the aims?

I talked to the man who, together with the Controller of Radio 4, chose Grayson Perry to deliver this year’s lectures, the Radio 4 Commissioning Editor, Mohit Bakaya.

By the way, there was no Reith lectures in 1992, and thereby hangs a tale, but it is for another day.

Next week I will be talking to Ric Bailey, the BBC’s Chief Political Adviser, about next year’s Scottish independence referendum. How does the Corporation plan to remain impartial when its own existence as the ‘British’ Broadcasting Corporation is at stake? And how will the rest of the UK be given a voice, although they do not have the vote?

Do let me know what you would like me to ask him.

Roger Bolton

PS Re the lectures – it was great to hear Sue Lawley on air again. Can we have more of her?

Listen to this week's Feedback

More Feedback blog posts

Listen to Grayson's Reith Lectures

Listen to previous Reith Lectures

Watch highlights from Grayson Perry's first Reith Lecture


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  • Comment number 4. Posted by newlach

    on 12 Nov 2013 18:41

    The BBC will be criticized by both sides in its coverage of the Scottish independence referendum. If Friday night's Any Questions is anything to go by, the opposing sides will be going about things like ferrets in a sack and any BBC fingers in the wrong place will be gnawed to the bone.

    What procedures are there in place to deal with complaints of unfair coverage? If a political party complains is there a different procedure? Will potential interviewers be assessed to identify any political leanings? Is there some mechanism in place to allow an equal number of partial interviews of politicians who are for and against independence? Are some programme makers told to steer clear of the subject? What happens if they fail to do so? Who took the decision to return James Naughtie north and why? Will we hear more bagpipes on the BBC?

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  • Comment number 3. Posted by Ron Cotton

    on 10 Nov 2013 20:23

    Oh dear. Grayson Perry? Can't believe this is what Reith intended. How about Lady Gaga next time?

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  • Comment number 2. Posted by newlach

    on 9 Nov 2013 17:29

    That's a very powerful first sentence demonstrating contrast!

    I am not someone who knows a lot about art, but I was greatly impressed by Mr Perry's lectures: a very good combination of wit and knowledge. Mr Bakaya with ease dismissed the criticisms of naysayers. Interestingly, he revealed that the BBC contributed to the final content of the lectures. I cannot imagine that the lectures of luminaries such as Bertrand Russell would have been returned with suggestions for revision! The fact that the BBC helped shape content probably in part explains the increase in praise from listeners for Mr Perry's lectures than for some others.

    It is hard to imagine that the pots he makes sell for up to £100,000 each. I am saying this without having seen them, but with considerable experience of using metal pots and pans.

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  • Comment number 1. Posted by A Peverall

    on 8 Nov 2013 16:58

    Could I add to the comments about the suitability of Grayson Perry for the Reith Lectures. I found him very inspiring and very thought-provoking. I am a 74 year old artist and listening to Grayson Perry WAS TOTALLY REFRESHING, I have sorted out my questions about the meaning of art for the first time in my long life. Well Done to the producer/editor? for choosing him. So great to be able to listen to every word, instead of falling asleep during the lectures. I found him totally brilliant, and exciting. I have copied down all his quotes and epithets.
    My favourite being that one should keep ones 'sense of the ridiculous' while making art! Thank you Grayson.
    And thank You Producer of the Reith lectures for an exciting broadcast. Please ignore those boring stuffed shirts who disapproved of this enlightening and intelligent man, Grayson Perry. More Reith lecturers like this please.
    A Peverall

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