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.