Rise and Fall of Radio Features

Marilyn Butler

  • Louis MacNeice in the BBC by Barbara Coulton
    Faber, 215 pp, £12.50, May 1980, ISBN 0 571 11537 3
  • Best Radio Plays of 1979
    Eyre Methuen/BBC, 192 pp, £6.95, June 1980, ISBN 0 413 47130 6

Louis MacNeice wrote stylish lyric poems and was at his best when brief and autobiographical. One way or another, he always was autobiographical. But the short poems often succeed because they seem sincere and understated; longer works, like his Autumn Journal and Autumn Sequel and many of his radio plays, run the risk of monotony and a kind of narcissism. And yet MacNeice’s radio plays of the post-war period, which he produced himself, are commonly cited as the best creative work done for the medium in its twenty-year heyday, before television captured the audience. The appearance of Louis MacNeice in the BBC makes one wonder about that judgment. On reflection, it seems hard to tell whether it was MacNeice or radio drama which suffered more from their association.

The sad but compelling tale of MacNeice’s involvement with the Corporation is excellently told by Barbara Coulton. She makes him a hero of tragic stature, intelligent, personable, convivial, saturnine, and disconcertingly hard to know. Her book is a well-composed portrait which itself owes much technically to the radio feature: it is like a patchwork of voices and opinions, free of a single editorial view. True to the best traditions of the genre, she is catholic in her selection, and makes excellent use of MacNeice’s own poetry as well as of the impressions of others. Drinking companions, fellow enthusiasts of Rugby football and BBC technicians found MacNeice considerate and approachable. To most others, he was austere and somewhat intimidating. The composer Antony Hopkins thought him ‘a dark horse’, withdrawn and laconic; the younger poet and apprentice producer, Anthony Thwaite, remembered sharing an office with MacNeice in the late Fifties, when he was drinking heavily, as a far from comfortable experience:

Uncertain of your mood, after an hour
Of a shared office going slowly sour
With cigarettes and hangovers, the shelf
Above your desk capsizing with its load
Of scripts that date back sixteen years or more,
I try the Twickenham ploy ...
And yet I play this game only to thaw
That icy stare, because I’m still in awe
Of your most private self, that self you spill
Into the poems you keep locked away ...

On his way home from India in 1947, MacNeice stopped in Egypt to see the sights and was observed to gaze for a long time at the Sphinx: ‘Francis Worsley commented that she probably couldn’t make head nor tail of him.’

MacNeice’s problem, in the words of his BBC colleague Jack Dillon, was that he was an introvert trying to be an extrovert. He badly needed to feel he belonged to a group, and at the same time he hated institutions. His early experiences of trying to find a niche were mostly failures. Though he distinguished himself academically at Merton College, Oxford, that college’s assessment of him was distinctly wary: ‘unquestionably gifted but unfortunately rather a difficult character and not always a steady worker – he spent too much time writing poetry.’ As an Assistant Lecturer in Classics at Birmingham University he made lifelong friends of E.R. Dodds and Ernest Stahl, but evidently had mixed feelings about teaching and perhaps about provincial living: ‘Qu’allais-je faire dans cette galère?’ He was not the first Protestant Ulsterman to seem frugal of speech and déraciné. Perhaps his difficulties were private, and went back to the severe depression and death of his mother when he was seven. He suffered another grievous blow when his first wife, Mary Ezra, ran away in 1935, leaving him at 28 with their child. Thereafter, even though he remarried during the war, he tended to appear more completely at home in a bar: he was the most compulsively gregarious of loners. Though he knew Auden by the mid-Thirties, and had known Spender since Oxford and Anthony Blunt since school, he felt no need to be a political activist, and so missed out on Spain. But he did feel impelled to come back from America late in 1940 to share in the war effort. Joining the BBC, which was now given over to the upkeep of the national morale, was his way of doing his bit.

Barbara Coulton is deft at conveying what wartime London meant to MacNeice and to his fellow intellectuals who went through the Blitz. The sense of a communal experience was heady for many Londoners, but for artists, in their often alienated sub-group, it was something extraordinary. What the trenches signified for the writers of the First World War, the Blitz became for some of their successors after 1940. As a broadcaster, MacNeice had access in theory to nine out of ten homes, a highly desirable sensation for a man of letters. He was also part of the Corporation, a member of a community within a community. How much this meant to him is indicated by the fierce loyalty he expressed in 1947 to his colleagues in Broadcasting House:

In this age of irreconcilable idioms I have often heard writers hankering for some sort of group life, a desire doomed to disappointment; the modern writer – at any rate the modern poet – is ipso facto a spiritual isolationist ... I for one have found this missing group experience, in a valid form, in radio. Radio writers and producers can talk shop together because their shop is not, as with poets, a complex of spiritual intimacies but a matter of craftsmanship ... we are fully entitled to discuss whether dialogue rings true, whether the dramatic climax is dramatic, how well the whole thing works ... The department to which ... I belong in the BBC would compare very well for intelligence with almost any contemporary salon of literati; my radio colleagues would be found on the whole quicker-witted, more versatile, less egocentric, less conventional, more humane.

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