In Search of the British Work Ethic, Radio 4
The Vox Project, Radio 4

Finally! Shades of grey in the black-and-white world of Mad Mel

The Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips – Mad Mel, as my Independent colleague Matthew Norman refers to her – has gained something of a reputation for her forthright, contrarian views, a sort of Julie Burchill with a brain.

A look at her Spectator blog confirms it: climate-change science is an "hallucinatory propaganda industry", Barack Obama "is attempting to throw Israel under the Islamist bus", Palestinian deprivation is "a boilerplate fantasy" (I've no idea what one of those is, but it sounds good). Melworld is all about certainty, shades of grey banished.

As for the poor, they should do more to help themselves. At least that's what Phillips thought until she went In Search of the British Work Ethic. She went to the North-east – "the former anvil of Britain" – with a big question: do the unemployed not want to work? She called on Wayne, 18, Alexis and their baby, conceived by accident. Wayne does want to work, but only at something he enjoys. "It did rather confirm all my prejudices," she said afterwards. "What came over was a complete absence of any idea of the responsibilities involved in family life."

Then she went to a Prince's Trust meeting in a hut in Blyth and listened to young men who did want to work – "I find it touching to meet lads like this" – and visited Mark, a family man on incapacity benefit. "I feel a bit chastened," she said. "Mark is a seriously sick man. I was so angry at the way he was treated by the health service."

So, shades of grey, finally. "As I've come away from the North-east my head is spinning," she said. "How do you balance compassion with incentives to leave the welfare comfort-blanket behind? What a complicated business this work ethic is. This journey is proving a salutary lesson for journalists like me, who are perhaps too prone to making easy generalisations." Blimey. Soon she'll be trashing the climate-change deniers and declaring that Hamas have had a raw deal. All credit to Phillips, though, for allowing her prejudices to take a bashing.

Clare Balding, not especially known for her forthright, contrarian views, and bearing no resemblance whatsoever to Julie Burchill, began an intriguing three-part exploration of the human voice, The Vox Project, sitting between Sophie Scott, a professor of cognitive science, and an impressionist, Duncan Wisbey, who can reproduce 100 different voices. It was fascinating to hear him explain how he does it while moving seamlessly from Paul McCartney to Michael Caine to Alfred Hitchcock, using every facial muscle available to him.

Scott has spent 20 years working with a family who, owing to a genetic disorder, have three generations with the same speech defect. Remarkably, this has led us back six million years to the point where we split from monkeys and, thanks to a gene mutation, acquired the ability to speak (I suspect I'm oversimplifying here). Speaking, said Professor Scott, is "the most sophisticated thing that any mammal does". Apart from blogging for The Spectator, of course.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Israeli-born actress Gal Gadot has been cast to play Wonder Woman
film
News
Top Gear presenter James May appears to be struggling with his new-found free time
people
Arts and Entertainment
Kendrick Lamar at the Made in America Festival in Los Angeles last summer
music
Arts and Entertainment
'Marley & Me' with Jennifer Aniston and Owen Wilson
film
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Hamm (right) and John Slattery in the final series of Mad Men
tv
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor