Going on the air

Philip French

  • Orwell: The War Broadcasts edited by W.J. West
    Duckworth/BBC, 304 pp, £12.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 7156 1916 0

It is unlikely that the governor of Lubianka gaol has ever boasted to visitors that his notorious dungeons were chosen as the setting for Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. But for over thirty years successive generations of BBC producers escorting guests through the labyrinthine corridors of Broadcasting House past doors bearing inscrutably coded designations have cheerfully informed them that they’re in the building that inspired George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The BBC is in fact properly proud of the famous writers who have worked there, and (in the past at least) possibly prouder of the novels, poems and plays they wrote in their spare time than the programmes they produced in working hours. A wag once called this form of employment ‘indoor relief for unemployed intellectuals’, and it was given to Orwell during the early war years when from August 1941 to November 1943 he was paid £650 a year as a talks producer in the Indian Section of the Far Eastern Service. He was hired as Eric Blair, but those who brought him in were clearly signing up George Orwell, author of Burmese Days, a book long banned in India, and likely to appeal to those Indian intellectuals whose hearts and minds the Far Eastern Service was set on capturing. A celebrated exchange of BBC memoranda discusses the value on the airwaves of what Blair called ‘my real name’, George Orwell.

The BBC appointment was Orwell’s first steady job since resigning from the Burmese Police, and it guaranteed not merely a regular salary but the largest annual income he had ever earned. Since the war began he had eked out a living writing film and theatre reviews for Time and Tide (his only regular journalist commitment): now at last he had a period of stability, for his wife, Eileen, was employed by the Government, first as a mail censor, then at the Ministry of Food.

Orwell’s film and theatre criticism is of considerable interest. It is, however, represented in The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters (edited in 1968 by Ian Angus and Sonia Orwell) by a single enticing paragraph from a 1940 review of Max Miller at the Holborn Empire, attached as a footnote to ‘The Art of Donald McGill’. The same four-volume collection contains 20 pieces Orwell contributed to newspapers, anthologies and magazines while on the BBC staff, but includes nothing he wrote as a producer except for a couple of letters and memoranda.

‘I am tendering my resignation because for some time past I have been conscious that I was wasting my own time and the public money on doing work that produces no result,’ he wrote to the head of the Eastern Service in September 1943. In so doing Orwell laid the ground for the widespread, if largely unexamined view that his time at the BBC was mostly unprofitable. As Bernard Crick writes in the briefest chapter of his authorised biography – the chapter entitled ‘Broadcasting Days (1941-43)’: ‘Then for two precious years his talents were mainly wasted, his colleagues later agreed, in producing cultural programmes for intellectuals in India and South-East Asia, heard by few and unlikely to have influenced even them.’ But was his service with the BBC such a waste of time, for him, for the BBC, for Asian listeners? Would Orwell have been better-off in the Army, where he wanted to be, or teaching at Birkbeck College, which Professor Crick would doubtless think time well spent?

W.J. West believes his book gives a clear answer. On its first page he asserts: ‘The accepted verdict that these years were largely wasted is decisively overturned.’ And on the final page of his introductory essay he makes a powerful point about the literary bias of our culture that might also help to explain the neglect of Orwell’s film and theatre criticism:

Despite the prominence of radio at the time, few people knew what a talks producer was or what he did. The magazine editors such as Kingsley Martin and Cyril Connolly, the editors of famous papers such as Michael Foot at the Evening Standard, the great publishers of the day, have all of them left their mark on the cultural history of the time. Their opposite numbers on radio remain to this day largely unknown, or, like Orwell, famous for other reasons. This ignorance has no doubt contributed to the extraordinary neglect by scholars of this important period of Orwell’s life.

What is it that West offers to support such statements?

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[*] Forster evidently enjoyed himself so much that the following year he contributed to a similar exercise devised by André Simon for his magazine Wine and Food (the other contributors were Christopher Dilke, A.E. Coppard and James Laver). It was posthumously collected in Forster’s The Life to Come, and Other Stories (1972).