Like the great white shark in Jaws that bobs up from nowhere, so P D James rose from apparently calm waters to devour an unwitting Mark Thompson. Did the Director General even see what was coming as the baroness sliced lethally through his arguments on the subject of BBC salaries and the need for the head of paperclips to earn £300,000? Either way, James's boat-rocking interview was a signal that this is going to be an important year for the corporation. An election is coming, and there is an Opposition with definite ideas about the BBC's future. So where better to start the debate than with programmes that truly justify the licence fee?
History is an area that BBC radio approaches with a missionary zeal. Recent series have shown a desire for new directions, delving into personal, private and unofficial histories. Neil MacGregor, the director of the British Museum, whose much anticipated 100-part series starts next week, commented that "the history we were taught at school is simply not adequate any more if we are properly to understand the world we live in." That said, Melvyn Bragg's The Royal Society and British Science stuck to a pretty traditional recipe, but it was a story well worth telling.
The society began, conveniently enough, in Bragg's old college, Wadham, Oxford, under the guidance of the man John Evelyn described as "the most obliging and universally curious Dr Wilkins". There 10 men, including Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, concocted such eye-popping inventions as clockwork flying machines, a transparent beehive and a talking statue. The society gained the protection of Charles II, though the king later became disgruntled, complaining that it spent all its time talking about nothing and "the weighing of air". But that was beside the point. Because with the help of machines like telescopes and microscopes, the fellows were able to investigate in a whole new way forces, like light, weight and magnetism, that hold the universe together.
Looking at the way history is made through the collision of people and ideas is Bragg's speciality, and if the intellectual electricity generated by academics on his regular show was absent here, perhaps because the canvas was so broad, there were still some great stories, from Newton attending the dissection of a dolphin found in the Thames, to the mission under Joseph Banks's regime for Captain Bligh to transplant bread fruit from Tahiti to feed slaves in the West Indies – a mission that ended in the famous mutiny when the sailors decided that they rather liked Tahiti and frankly preferred to stay there.
Just because something is old it doesn't make it interesting, as generations of children have complained, and I admit that this was my first reaction to Jane Austen's iPod. Recently discovered manuscripts inherited by one of her descendents, Professor Richard Jenkyns, include a number of songs that Austen collected and a piece she may actually have composed. The songs performed by Gwyneth Herbert were sweet, and lingered wistfully in the mind, but unfortunately the composition itself was clunky, and an expert decided that it was so amateurish it must have been composed by a non-musician, most likely Jane herself. As her descendent loyally remarked, "the argument that this is so poor it must have been Jane Austen is not one you hear frequently."
One type of history that works especially well on radio is oral history, and Mother Was a Blackshirt explored the role that ordinary women played in the English fascist movement before the Second World War. The programme stemmed from a remark made by the mother of the narrator James Maw, that she could have been imprisoned in the war, though in the event this was a little misleading given that the extent of Mrs Maw's fascistic adventures emerged as a cup of tea with a blackshirt girl called Primrose in 1937. Much more interesting was the story of Diana Bailey, whose genteel parents were members of the British Union of Fascists and who at the age of ten was taken on night-time graffiti runs, painting slogans like "Perish the Jews" on the walls of Bognor Regis. Later, at boarding school, she was horrified to read in the newspaper that her mother had been interned and taken to visit her in Holloway, she found a white-haired stranger, weeping and incoherent. It was moving to hear this intelligent woman describe how her childhood actions had haunted her all her life. "I felt the whole guilt of the world on my shoulders. For the rest of my life I've tried to overcome what we were promoting. I felt utterly responsible for what happened in the camps because of what I'd done as a child." A starker illustration of the intersection between individuals and history, you could not hope to find.