MP, presented philosophy programme on Television and Wagner authority.

Born: April 12 1930;

Died: 26 July, 2019

Bryan Magee, who has died aged 89, came into prominence in 1987 when he hosted the BBC series The Great Philosophers. It was not expected to be a hit but Magee brought to the programmes a refined intelligence and never patronised his viewers. He interviewed leading philosophers — notably Isaiah Berlin and Iris Murdoch — to talk about their work and discuss the history of philosophy and its leading figures.

Magee served as a backbench Labour MP before defecting to the SDP. Although he made important contributions to the debates in the Commons he was never a natural politician nor ambitious for high office. In truth, Magee was an academic with a powerful intellect and his broadcasting and writing brought him much greater attention and marked him out as a major figure in broadening the understanding of philosophy.

His television programmes – Men of Ideas (1978) and The Great Philosophers (1987) – gained huge audiences. That success was, in large measure, due to Magee’s intellectual curiosity, and his ability to translate a complex subject into understandable prose.

Bryan Magee was brought up on the fringes of London’s East End. His childhood was not a happy one (he described his mother as a “very damaged individual”) but his father was a lover of the arts and introduced his son to the classics. On the outbreak of war he was evacuated out of London and in 1941 won a scholarship to Christ’s Hospital school in Sussex. There he developed his life-long interests in music and politics. While at school his father died which further distanced him from his family. He did his national service in the Intelligence Corps and saw service on the Yugoslav-Austrian border interviewing spies.

He was awarded a scholarship to read history at Keble College, Oxford and became a noted undergraduate – along with such future luminaries as William Rees-Mogg, Jeremy Thorpe and Michael Heseltine - and was president of the Oxford Union. He published a volume of verse on Wagner – a composer on whom he was to become an authority. His academic renown was further enhanced when he read Politics, Philosophy and Economics and gained a degree in one year.

On graduating Magee taught in Sweden for a year and had a brief marriage to Ingrid Söderlund, with whom he had a daughter Gunnela. After his divorce he had several relationships but never remarried. He spent a year at Yale and from 1984-94 held a visiting appointment at King’s College London with whom he retained an association as Visiting Professor until 2000.

He was keen to enter politics and in the late 1950s he twice unsuccessfully stood as a Labour candidate. Magee failed immediately to find another seat and concentrated on a career in the media. He provided incisive reports for ITVs current affairs flagship programme This Week, chaired arts programmes on Radio Three and fronted a series of documentaries about sex in Britain. One episode dealt with homosexuality (then still illegal), and Magee followed it up with a book, One in Twenty (1966), which called for homosexual law reform.

His political ambitions were realised when he won the seat at Leyton in 1974. The Commons was not his style and he was never given any front bench position. Somewhat disillusioned with the Labour Party under Michael Foot Magee joined the SDP in 1982. But he lost his seat in the 1983 general election and he returned to academic life at Oxford.

Magee also worked as a music and theatre critic and published two books on Wagner that were widely praised for their insight and balanced account of the composer’s controversial life. In Magee’s Wagner and Philosophy he writes with much authority about the first chord of Tristan und Isolde, known simply as "the Tristan Chord". Magee describes it as, “the most famous single chord in the history of music.” The conductor John Mauceri, former music director of Scottish Opera tweeted yesterday, “Still the best – and shortest – books on Wagner.”

Similarly, his television programmes attracted wide audiences – some rather grandly dismissed them as “two boffins on a sofa” but Magee was able to explore, explain and develop theories about philosophy in a format that introduced the subject to students – young and old – with a beguiling enthusiasm.

Bryan Magee, with his large rimmed black glasses and charming and avuncular manner, was an admired figure in both academic circles and on television. He knew his subject and spoke with much clarity, calmly and in English that the layman could follow. Magee made popular a somewhat remote subject and concentrated on real everyday matters not abstract notions.

His daughter, Gunnela Mateluna, survives him, along with three grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Alasdair Steven