Alistair Wyper

This New Noise: The Extraordinary Birth and Troubled Life of the BBC by Charlotte Higgins (Guardian-Faber) was published on June 18, 2015.

This book is an expansion of nine essays which Higgins was asked by the Guardian’s editor to write, between 2013 and 2014. The book focuses on successive Directors-General of the BBC.

‘Reith still stalks the corridors.’ This quotation from a journalist is how Higgins refers to her central view that the BBC today still bears the imprint of Lord Reith.

Perhaps I am the wrong sort of reader, analogous to those with criticisms of BBC radio having been described as being the wrong sort of listener, since the book mostly deals with the BBC’s television output.

I began by searching the index for references to BBC radio drama but found no such entry! I then searched for leading BBC figures. I found a quotation from Dennis Potter about his early experiences of listening to the spoken word on the wireless. ‘... at a crucial period of my life it threw open the “magic case- ment” on great sources of mind-scape at a time when books were hard to come by, and when I had never stepped into a theatre or a concert hall, and would have been scared to do so even if given the chance.’ His words will resonate with many of us. A similar memory was evoked by a listener to a reading of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. A young mechanic, having heard the reading of Woolf’s description of the frozen Elizabethan Thames, was moved to walk out into the night. This reading of Orlando was commissioned by Hilda Matheson in 1929. Hilda Matheson was the BBC’s first director of talks. One of her productions, The Week in Westminster is the longest surviving BBC programme.

On radio drama’s early days Higgins writes ‘ Val Gielgud ( the BBC's head of plays) is reinventing drama for the wireless…’ and ‘Under Val Gielgud, brother of John, radio drama was developing as a form. It was ‘...finding wings; like the cinema before it, it was on its way to escaping from the limitations of theatre’. The first play was set in the darkness  of a coal mine, deliberately so as to counter concerns that the new form of drama on the wireless would be too visually limited.  How wrong we know now that fear was. Higgins notes that with the advent of wireless broadcasts: this was " ...the first time of collective experience, nine million sets.... ".

In 1926, the General Strike provoked a battle between Lord Reith and Churchill. Reith:  "Churchill wants to commandeer the BBC." A battle which was addressed in the recent Drama on 3 « Churchill versus Reith ».  Churchill was then Chancellor of the Exchequer under Stanley Baldwin. Later, in 1931, talk in the Athenaeum Club is that Reith is being "...run by a gang of Reds...".

Back to Matheson:  "There is constant pull between the claims of administration and creation.". Later she was the radio critic of the Observer.  She was also offered the post of radio critic of the Listener, a publication whose passing, in 1991, I still lament. Since the Broadcasting Act 1990, 25% of programmes have to be made by the independent sector.  Higgins points out that this changed BBC culture irreversibly. It also prompts her to ask the question : what does the BBC mean to us now? The author concludes that for all its faults, the British public still regard the BBC as a great institution and that we would be poorer in spirit without it.

Whilst researching for this piece I found another book on the BBC Pinkoes and Traitors by Jean Seaton, February 2015, which divided opinion, not surprisingly; the title is rather a giveaway.

AW / December 2022

© Alistair Wyper, 15 Jan 2023.

(...-Thanks, Alistair - Ed.)


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