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Magee, Bryan (1930- )

Presenter, Writer, Producer

Main image of Magee, Bryan (1930- )

From a working-class East London background, Bryan Magee had a scholarship, Oxford and Yale education (he was President of the Oxford Union) before going onto a career of such breadth and achievement that it's a pity it isn't better known. This must partly be because of its sheer variety: polymath public intellectuals tend to fare better on the Continent. Magee has been an academic, journalist, novelist, music critic, memoirist and politician (a Labour, then SDP, MP from 1974 to 1983). And along the way, he made several significant contributions to British television.

Magee's face became familiar to television viewers through his stint as one of the regular reporters on Rediffusion's well regarded ITV current affairs series This Week (1956-68). In keeping with his intellectual training, his approach contrasted with the confrontational, populist style of fellow presenter Desmond Wilcox. Magee's editions of the programme were models of clear communication but distinguished also by their sobriety, and their interest in probing beneath the surface of topical controversies to reveal the clashing visions of society underlying them. A common thread is Magee's chronicling of social change. One of his most influential This Weeks was 1964's 'Homosexuals' (tx. 22/10/1964) - together with his spin-off book One in Twenty: A Study of Homosexuality in Men and Women (1966), it contributed to the more liberal climate in which practising homosexuality was finally decriminalised in 1967. Also in 1966, Magee published a (slightly rushed) book about the techniques of his trade: The Television Interviewer.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Magee regularly helmed This Week's arts offshoot, then the LWT books programme Cover to Cover (1972-74). Then for Thames, Magee briefly combined its discussion format with a return to current and political issues. Something to Say (1972-73) was one of the most thoughtful programmes on British television, ranging from a considered debate on Northern Ireland between John Hume and Conor Cruise O'Brien to probing scrutinies of Eric Hobsbawm's views on Marxism and R.D. Laing's controversial psychiatric theories.

However, Magee's most lasting small screen legacy is his two landmark BBC series seeking to bring alive for the general public his own first love - the history of Western Philosophy. Long in gestation, Men of Ideas (1978) consisted of hour-long interviews between Magee and a stellar cast of modern thinkers - including Isiah Berlin, Herbert Marcuse, A.J. Ayer, Noam Chomsky and Iris Murdoch (speaking about the links between philosophy and literature). The combination of Magee's own fluency for on-screen communication with the erudition and charisma of his guests made for surprisingly thrilling and (given the subject) popular television.

Magee perfected the form with 1987's The Great Philosophers. This history of the subject took viewers from Plato to Wittgenstein, again via hour-long interviews between Magee and a different scholarly expert each week. Awakening a latent curiosity in non-specialist viewers, time and again Magee and his guests demonstrated that the subject need be neither obscure nor forbidding nor merely of technical interest. As with the earlier series, the transcripts went on to be published in book form.

The Great Philosophers was screened on BBC2 early on Sunday evenings - a relatively high-profile slot that it is hard to imagine such a subject attaining today. Magee's now rather unsung work in public service television belongs to its era. His programmes were squarely aimed at a wide public but unafraid of applying rigorous logic to the ephemeral issues of the day, or of championing high culture via a popular medium.

Patrick Russell

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Thumbnail image of Great Philosophers, The (1987)Great Philosophers, The (1987)

Bryan Magee's matchless 15-part history of Western philosophy

Thumbnail image of This Week 458: Homosexuals (1964)This Week 458: Homosexuals (1964)

A documentary made at a time when male homosexuality was still illegal

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