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The BBC by David Hendy & This Is The BBC by Simon Potter

December 2022, no. 449

This year, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) celebrates its centenary as the world’s largest and oldest broadcasting institution (the US company NBC was founded four years later, in 1926). Whether it will reach its bicentenary, or even have another ten years of life in anything like its current form is a question facing other British institutions such as the Conservative Party, the monarchy, and indeed the Union of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland itself. Placing the BBC among this group signals its estimable role in defining an imagined community but also the possibility that the existence of these other entities and their function in this process might be finite, subject to challenges from their own internal contradictions as much as from hostile external forces without.

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Reviewing is normally a pleasurable activity, but it’s not often so absurdly enjoyable as listening to the three CDs at issue here. These are a treasure house of British writers whose lives span 150 years. Authors from Arthur Conan Doyle to Muriel Spark, to name the first and last interviewees (1930 and 1989), can be heard talking about the art and craft of their profession. Perhaps because we now live in such a celebrity-conscious age, I kept marvelling to myself: that’s G.K. Chesterton’s or Graham Greene’s actual voice I’m hearing.

Noël Coward is caught for a few questions on the run at Heathrow; Virginia Woolf reads from a prepared script. The approach for most of the rest lies somewhere in between, as the big names are encouraged by interviewers of varying degrees of intrusiveness and deference. So Kenneth Tynan fields Harold Pinter almost as a mate, the somewhat hectoring Walter Allen addresses C.P. Snow as ‘Charles’, while Frank Kermode calls the author of Lord of the Flies ‘Golding’. Some just introduce their subjects and leave it up to them; others, most notably George MacBeth when interviewing J.G. Ballard, see themselves as co-stars.

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