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?

Last year, while researching C.K. Ogden in the BBC Written Archives, he stumbled across some Orwell scripts and letters unknown to the Orwell Archive at University College London, and subsequent assiduous investigations disclosed much additional material that had been curiously filed – under, for instance, the names of the Indian broadcasters who delivered Orwell’s scripts. These finds are being published in two books. To come later is Through Eastern Eyes, the texts of the weekly commentaries on the war that Orwell wrote, but only occasionally gave in his own voice. The present book, somewhat misleadingly called The War Broadcasts, contains a seventy-page introduction by West on Orwell’s life with the Corporation, 104 pages of letters to contributors and internal memoranda, forty pages of appendices documenting aspects of policy and censorship, and at the centre, occupying a hundred pages, exactly a third of the book, the texts of 16 programmes Orwell wrote or took part in.

Like a surprised prospector who has accidentally struck gold on terrain declared worthless by geologists, West exaggerates the size of his claim and the value of his ore. Literary criticism is not his strong suit, and I would not rate him highly as a historian of broadcasting. Few of these pieces are without interest, but none is a major contribution to the canon. By far the best piece of writing in the central section is by E.M. Forster, Orwell’s most dedicated contributor. The homosexual author of A Passage to India (serialised in German radio broadcasts to India in 1940 as anti-British propaganda) and the homophobic author of Burmese Days found common cause in the country’s hour of need. But the thin slice of prime Forster served up here isn’t one of his book reviews or ethical essays. It’s a witty, playful, artfully needling contribution to a literary game of consequences, devised by Orwell in October 1942. This ‘Story by Five Authors’ was started by Orwell with a 15-minute introductory episode that brought together his class hostility and his latent, near-homicidal violence. On a bomb-site one night during the London Blitz a depressed, déraciné intellectual discovers an upper-class enemy of long standing unconscious beneath a pile of debris, and he contemplates murdering him. This tale was ineptly continued over the next three weeks by L.A.G. Strong, Inez Holden and Martin Armstrong, novelists as little remembered as Orwell might have been had he not produced Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Then Forster comes in, not only to complete the story with great ingenuity, but to criticise the other four writers’ literary imaginations. Clearly he had relished the challenge. ‘It represented my first attempt at fiction for many years and I enjoyed doing it,’ he wrote in a letter to Orwell.[*]

In bringing the new material together, placing it alongside familiar letters and memoranda, and documenting the day-to-day life in such detail, West both clarifies the significance of this important period in his subject’s career and throws new light on it.

The first thing that should strike anyone, and indeed the overall impression of this book, is that however much Orwell despaired and bellyached about what he was doing (and his reaction would have been much the same wherever he’d been), he took his BBC work very seriously. He wrote and broadcast scripts, commissioned and produced dozens of individual talks and series, presented five numbers of the literary magazine of the air, Voice. Each of these programmes had to be seen through from conception to transmission: schedules had to be prepared, copyright cleared, contracts sent out, publicity and continuity material written, pamphlets edited for publication in India to accompany education series. And everything had to pass through the hands of BBC or Ministry of Information censors. There were also such time-consuming activities as getting books and background material to speakers, and embarrassing ad hoc tasks like obtaining twelve shillings and sixpence from E.M. Forster to replace a Times Library book he had lost.

Then there is the business of broadcasting itself, a tense nerve-wracking activity. In those days before magnetic-tape most programmes were broadcast live. The rest were recorded on fragile discs that offered limited possibilities for editing. If Orwell had doubts about whether anyone was listening in Asia, he could have had few about the close scrutiny to which every utterance of his section was subjected in London.

As a carry-over from the tightly-edited Reith days, now compounded by wartime security, nearly all programmes were scripted. The rare exceptions were the weekly Brains Trust (though this was pre-recorded) and sports commentaries. Supposedly spontaneous discussions and conversations (like Desert Island Discs) were put together by producers – either from notes they made in preparatory discussions or collated from drafts provided by contributors. One might guess that a scrupulous conscience like Orwell’s would have been troubled by such artifice.

Since no recordings survive of anything Orwell broadcast or produced, we cannot judge how good the results were on the air. We are told that Orwell’s voice was a reedy, unattractive instrument, not improved by the neck wound in the Spanish Civil War or the social contortions to which he subjected it as part of his moral strategy. Certainly he never ceased his hatred of orthodox BBC diction.

A second producer’s eye and ear were mandatory in BBC Radio in Orwell’s day, and for the following quarter of a century, to review a programme before or after recording. The texts here do not all appear to have been subjected to searching scrutiny. There are many stilted passages in the Voice series (e.g. when Orwell turns to Herbert Read and asks, ‘Read, will you read us a bit of your autobiography’) and – a black-mark for a talks producer – he allows L.A.G. Strong to use ‘infer’ when he means ‘imply’.

Above all else, broadcasting brought Orwell into contact with a much wider range of people than he might have met elsewhere. His colleagues and BBC contemporaries included Alan Bullock (recipient of a self-righteous Orwell memo), William Empson and John Morris (both of whom wrote elegant memoirs of Orwell at the BBC); he employed Nye Bevan, Richard Acland, J.B.S. Haldane, T.S. Eliot, Quintin Hogg, Bernard Shaw; he led a BBC party, that included Guy Burgess, to a special de-briefing by Stafford Cripps on his abortive mission to India. Working for the BBC gave Orwell the experience, however unwelcome, of functioning as an individual within a large bureaucracy. He learnt about the intricacies of office-politics, of how to survive in a vast institution, upon which as a creative writer with a somewhat limited imagination he drew for Nineteen Eighty-Four. Exhausting and exasperating this may have been, but it wasn’t, as West concludes, ‘soul-destroying work’.

We can set aside the excessive claims West makes for individual pieces, as well as the illfounded suggestion that Orwell was a major innovator in arts broadcasting, anticipating the Third Programme. Nor need we bother with West’s unsupported assertion that these years were ‘the key to Orwell’s evolution from the slightly pedantic and unpolished author of pre-war years’. What we must address ourselves to is the central thrust of his argument, a matter already touched on – that this period at the BBC, the third and fourth years since the appearance of the last novel, Coming up for air, was the essential preparation for the postwar fictions on which Orwell’s reputation rests.

Certainly he wrote Animal Farm and ‘The Last Man in Europe’ (the outline for Nineteen Eighty-Four) within six months of leaving the BBC. Whatever it sprang from (anger, frustration, the sense of a new vision), there was an uncontrollable access of creative energy, and we can see in West’s book that Orwell was deliberately producing a confrontation that would compel him to resign.

First, while standing in for a regular Chinese broadcaster, he took advantage of a new, inexperienced censor to deliver a provocative talk to Singapore. The censor apparently believed that the opinions of a writer of Orwell’s eminence were not to be interfered with, and the Controller of Overseas Services was called on to offer a full explanation of the circumstances to the Director-General.

Next Orwell engaged Kingsley Martin to give a series of talks, knowing him to be on an informal black-list, and aware that sooner rather than later Martin would overstep the mark in his criticism of government policy. This must have been especially piquant for Orwell. Six years before, in 1937, Martin had refused, on grounds of political expediency, to publish Orwell’s review of a book on the Spanish Civil War in the New Statesman.

Finally, and quite as provocatively, Orwell wrote a long, tendentious piece on Lionel Fielden’s book about India, Beggar my neighbour, in Horizon (it appeared a few weeks before he put in his resignation). The tone of this review is as significant as the content – the repetition of ‘nagging’, ‘hysterical’, ‘shrill’, a pattern of words that can be read as another instance of Orwell’s homophobia, for Fielden, former head of All India Radio and a major BBC figure, was well-known to be homosexual. Moreover, Orwell also makes a point of referring to a hypothetical Indian intellectual Fielden sets up as a critic of the West as talking with ‘the shrillness of a spinster of 39 denouncing the male sex’. This could, West reasonably suggests, be seen as a dig at the head of the BBC’s Indian Section, Z.A. Bokhari, who throughout the war shared a Park Lane flat with Fielden.

Of the two prongs to West’s argument, the vaguer, more generalised one to do with ambience is the stronger. Undoubtedly Orwell, the notorious malcontent and masochist, could easily have thought of himself on dark wartime nights as Winston Smith. The BBC provided the framework of a large bureaucracy, and the technical knowledge about mass communication, while the Ministry of Information, the chief focus of Orwell’s hatred, provided the model for the Ministry of Truth. As West points out, the MOI’s telegraphic address was ‘MINIFORM’, and its headquarters the Senate House of London University, then the highest building in North London and visible from Orwell’s flat in St John’s Wood. More fancifully, he links its boss, Brendan Bracken, known as ‘B.B.’, to Big Brother. Added to this was Mrs Orwell’s concurrent experience writing radio propaganda at the Ministry of Food. West sensibly stops short of linking Winston Churchill and his protégé (and rumoured illegitimate son), Bracken, to Winston Smith and Big Brother.

The other prong digs into the broadcast scripts, both those Orwell gave and those he commissioned. Some odd things attach to it. The least persuasive concern Animal Farm. West’s book includes four ‘featurised’ (i.e. semi-dramatised) short stories, none of any distinction. But one of them is Ignazio Silone’s ‘The Fox’, an anti-fascist parable drawing parallels between an Italian spy hovering around some left-wing émigrés and a fox preying on the animals on a Swiss farm. A left-wing activist helping to deliver a litter of pigs at the beginning jokily christens the runt ‘Benito’, a jest that Orwell underlines for his Eastern listeners by making the piglet ‘Benito Mussolini’. Not too much there, yet clearly an identification between dictators and pigs launches a story to an audience likely to recoil from pork with horror. More interesting perhaps is something West doesn’t go into – a recurrent interest in satire and nagging doubts about its ephemeral nature. We come across this in an imaginary conversation between Orwell and Jonathan Swift, an introductory talk to Arms and the Man largely concerned with Shaw the satirist and with whether his plays survive when the political battles are won, a piece on Wilde as social critic, and a ‘featurised’ version of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, evincing a concern with the fabulous.

The stuff relating to Nineteen Eighty-Four is mixed, too. We know of Orwell’s interest in dystopian Science Fiction, of his acquaintance with, and reviews of, books by Wells, Huxley and Zamyatin. West adds nothing to that except some very dubious adumbrations of Nineteen Eighty-Four in the introductory episode to ‘Story by Five Authors’. But he does point to a pair of wartime intellectual concerns that Orwell had the chance to pursue at the BBC. The first is with the ideas of the left-wing cartoonist and geo-political mapmaker, J.F. Horrabin, a celebrity in liberal circles in his day, now forgotten, but worthy of serious study. The influence of this quirky figure, both as comic artist and as political thinker, on the schema of Nineteen Eighty-Four must now be recognised. Orwell arranged for Horrabin’s maps to be published in an Indian newspaper so that sub-continental listeners could follow the arguments of talks Horrabin gave with such suggestive titles as ‘The World of Three Oceans’.

The second concern is a signpost on the road to Newspeak. It is difficult to read of the interest taken by Orwell, Empson, the BBC, Churchill and Bracken in C.K. Ogden’s Basic English (a reductive lingua franca of 850 words), and not see clinching evidence for its seminal influence on the central linguistic preoccupations of Nineteen Eighty-Four. A bonus in West’s book, to stand beside Forster’s contribution to ‘Story by Five Authors’, is a wonderful letter William Empson wrote from the BBC to Ogden (then living in Buxton) describing how the different Chinese translators working for him in the Eastern Service had rendered Churchill’s pungent statement: ‘Italy will be left to stew in her own juice.’ How, the world’s leading authority on ambiguity asked, would the creator of Basic have handled Churchill’s unstatesmanlike descent into the demotic?

Something West does not seize on is an odd line in a famous letter he quotes, written in 1943 by Orwell to his friend Rayner Heppenstall. Its significance only struck me when rereading it in the context of this book. In a splendid 1942 talk dug up by West, Orwell expatiates on austerity, sport and the British spirit, remarking: ‘For nearly two years no one has seen a banana, for example, sugar is not too plentiful, oranges are only seen from time to time.’ The following year, a month before his resignation, Orwell concluded a letter, inviting Heppenstall to ‘featurise’ a story along the lines of his version of ‘The Fox’, thus:

Re cynicism, you’d be cynical yourself if you were in this job. However, I am definitely leaving in about three months. Then by some time in 1944 I might be near human again and able to write something serious. At present I am just an orange that’s been trodden on by a very dirty boot.

One’s first reaction is to think of that orange and what it meant in wartime England – so rare, so exotic, a left-over from a more colourful era, possibly suggesting the robe of an ascetic, mendicant priest in India. The second is to recognise the stirring of a key phrase in O’Brien’s freezing speech to Winston Smith: ‘If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever.’

[*] 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).