The BBC keeps putting together science and comedy together, with mixed results. When it works well you get something like The Infinite Monkey Cage, when it doesn’t you get people clowning about climate on the Today programme.
Nature Table is Radio 4’s new science/comedy mash-up. It’s in a prominent spot, 1830 on a Monday evening, usually occupied by award-winning comedy shows like Just a Minute or I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue. Despite being a new show, a lot of Nature Table feels familiar. The host is Sue Perkins of, among other things, Earpedia. However, instead of carrying the script on her own, she has a guest comedian to be humorously ignorant (a la Robin Ince from Monkey Cage), Felicity Ward in the opening episode, and two or three experts who bring in something for show and tell – which felt a little like the Museum of Curiosity.
Described like that it sounds like a reheated idea. Instead the better adjective might be polished. What Nature Table gets right is allowing the experts to talk about what they find interesting and allowing the comedians to throw into relief some of the absurdity of the natural world.
With a few exceptions, the first episodes of any comedy series tend to be poor, as the performers find their feet. Bearing that in mind, Nature Table had an impressive start.
Some of the credit has to go to the experts. Helen Scales brought in a fossilised whale eardrum and zoologist Lucy Cooke, the anal gland of a beaver. Between the two of them was botanist James Wong. James Wong could make his shopping list sound interesting (a line I was going to include before I’d heard the show). He proved me right by bringing in some broccoli from Tesco. The point he made was how plants defend themselves from predators when the poisons they produce are toxic even to themselves.
Apart from the passion the experts have for their own items, they also show interest in the others too. The participants building on what each other says, rather than undercutting, tends to make for more satisfying radio.
To be a little bit of a curmudgeon, there is a risk that future programmes could be a little zoocentric. One of the things I liked about the first episode was that James Wong was able to contrast plants with animals. It would be interesting to hear a mycologist or microbiologist do something similar in future episodes. And have more botanists too, obviously. Another possible direction would be episodes looking at specific ecosystems, like a garden pond, or a theme, like motion. This would create fertile ground for the comedians to make unexpected connections, that might in turn spark the experts in a comic/science feedback loop.
If this is as good as the show gets, then it will still be worth half an hour of anyone’s time. However, with the start it has had, the series deserves time to develop its own character. I think having Sue Perkins as the anchor of the programme will help that happen.
While it is a BBC programme, it’s radio, so should be available worldwide. You should be able to find the episode list here.