Pandaemonium

A TRIBUTE TO BRYAN MAGEE

Bryan Magee

I am away for a couple of weeks, so am posting little new material on Pandaemonium. I am taking the opportunity to publish some of those shorter pieces from my Observer column that I don’t normally post on Pandaemonium.  This is a. short tribute to Bryan Magee, published on 28 July 2019 under the headline ‘Bryan Magee, the man who loved to put big ideas on the small screen’.


You can still watch them on YouTube. Two middle-aged white men (and the occasional woman) spending the best part of an hour discussing Aristotle, medieval philosophy, the nature of language or the Frankfurt School. The cast list was extraordinary – AJ Ayer, Iris Murdoch, WVO Quine, Bernard Williams, Gilbert Ryle, Alasdair MacIntyre, Herbert Marcuse, Hilary Putnam, Isaiah Berlin, Peter Strawson, Karl Popper, John Searle, Noam Chomsky, Martha Nussbaum. They were some of the most significant living philosophers and all they did was talk.

It’s the kind of TV that no longer gets made (the closest equivalent would probably be Radio 4’s In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg). Every programme is transfixing and at their heart was the presenter and interviewer Bryan Magee, who died on Friday.

Magee was born to working-class parents in Hoxton, east London. He studied history and PPE at Oxford before embarking on a life of many parts – as broadcaster, lecturer, politician, poet, author and Wagnerian. In February 1974, he was elected Labour MP for Leyton, east London. He never achieved high office, eventually defecting to the newly formed SDP in 1982, before losing his parliamentary seat at the general election the following year.

His political failure may have been traumatic, but it freed him to do what he did best – speaking about ideas to a mass audience. First on radio, with his early 1970s series Modern British Philosophy, and then on TV with Men of Ideas in 1978, and a decade later with The Great Philosophers, he made deep and difficult ideas accessible without ever condescending to his audience.

Do watch the old series. They open up the world in a way that TV rarely does any more.

3 comments

  1. I read Magee’s bio of Popper (Viking/Fontana Modern Masters) series when I was about 19 – I think the first book about any philosopher I had read. While searching for a reference to this slim book, I found Peter Singer’s 1974 lengthy review of three Popper volumes in the New York Review of Books, and find myself lamenting not only the disappearance of long-form intellectual presentation from TV but also from non-academic presses.

    Thank you for the YouTube links!

  2. Thanks for sharing this. I am not much of a TV watcher, but it’s great to know that such programmes even exist, and that too on YouTube. Will certainly check some of them out. I like watching some of the Noam Chomsky videos sometimes on YouTube.

  3. Michael Turley

    I stumbled across Magees Chomsky interview by accident on YouTube and was amazed that it was from standard BBC TV and not some old open university content. Thanks for reminding us that these interviews are available. I’ll look up the Popper one this evening

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