The Week In Radio: Still hungry after truncated Reith Lecture

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The Independent Culture

Tomorrow, the ninth series of Big Brother gets underway; and yesterday saw the opening of the 60th series of Reith Lectures (BBC Radio 4). I'm sure there's some deeper meaning to be plumbed from this conjunction, though precisely what I can't say, unless it's that you shouldn't jump to conclusions about the state of our culture.

It's traditional, as well as fun, to greet each year's Reiths with a moan about dumbing down; but one of the arguments put forward in Professor Laurie Taylor's history of the lectures for Archive Hour (BBC Radio 4, Saturday) was that their continuation shows the opposite: a series that used to be aimed at a tiny educated élite has, in an age when tens of millions have sat through university lectures, a far broader appeal.

I'm not sure that works. Professor Taylor offered the sad tale of Edward Boyle, who was signed up to deliver the 1977 lectures on the theme of education, but threw up his hands at the 11th hour, admitting that he didn't have anything to say. This was taken as evidence of the difficulty of doing a Reith – how do you find enough new and interesting things to fill three hours of airtime? But this year's lecturer, the historian of China Professor Jonathan Spence, has to fill less than half that time. The customary six lectures have been cut to four; and although he has been given a 45-minute slot, once you've subtracted Sue Lawley's fawning introduction and a Q&A session, he has barely 20 minutes of actual talking to do. Our collective brow may be higher these days, but nobody's showing much confidence in our attention span.

It's odd that things have been so truncated, since China's not exactly short of history and everybody wants to know about the place. As it was, yesterday's talk, on the place of Confucian thought in modern Chinese culture, felt like it was just getting warmed up when it came to a halt. We had learnt that Confucius was a liberal, humane and undogmatic thinker, but that over the centuries, his philosophy became encrusted with lots of nasty notions about the place of women, the importance of hierarchy, and the acceptability of savage punishment; and that now, as Mao's "Little Red Book" seems dated and silly, Confucius's Analects have taken on a new life.

All good as far as it went, if a little dry, but I couldn't help thinking of that stupid old cliché about Chinese meals – half an hour later, you're hungry again. Was the time limit imposed on him, or was that really all he had to say? Possibly so. One of the big changes in the Reiths in recent years is that, instead of being delivered from a studio, they've been dragged out into the world, with an audience of the great and good primed to ask intelligent questions afterwards. Sometimes this works brilliantly – in Archive Hour, Lawley recalled how Daniel Barenboim's off-the-cuff opening lecture a couple of years ago was redeemed by the wit and charm with which he took on the audience (and, it should be said, by her own awesome performance, coaxing coherent arguments out of his ramblings). Yesterday's questions went less well.

Professor Spence had said that he was interested in the long view of China, not the topical stuff; but practically all the audience wanted to ask him about was human rights, and he turned all inscrutable ("Such hard questions..." he kept saying). So far, this isn't looking like a vintage year; but then, when does it ever?