Book Review | Writing the Radio War
Reviewed by Guy Woodward, Durham University
Writing the Radio War opens on the morning of 3 September 1939, as J.B. Priestley drives from his home on the Isle of Wight into London for the BBC broadcast of his “novel for radio” Let the People Sing, missing Neville Chamberlain’s declaration of war on Germany in the process: a moment Ian Whittington reads as “a symbolic transfer of power enacted over the air” (1). Chamberlain’s pursuit of appeasement had failed, but Priestley’s work was becoming “newly resonant”: the plot of Let the People Sing, in which the residents of an English Midlands town struggle together in an attempt to save their market hall (a venue for music-making) from the hostile predations of the local aristocracy and an American corporation, is clearly indicative of wartime debates to come, in which Priestley’s self-coined “broadbrow” radicalism would play a central role. Radio broadcasting, writes Whittington “became a means through which...intellectuals could structure public understanding of the terms and consequences of the war” (20).
An engrossing contribution to an expanding intermedial field, Writing the Radio War is structured around the work of five writers at the BBC during the Second World War—Priestley, James Hanley, Louis MacNeice, Denis Johnston, and Una Marson—as fruitful exercises in close reading (and close listening) are underpinned by a keen attentiveness to the politically ambiguous institutional environment of the national broadcaster. The author draws extensively and judiciously on archival materials, exploring not only scripts, drafts, and unpublished texts, but also BBC internal memos and correspondence. This strategy adds to our understanding of the management structures under which contributors worked, uncovering pre-war hostility to Priestley’s work (40), and hesitancy on the part of administrators regarding the 1941 appointment of Marson as a person of color to a full-time staff position (164). Accordingly Whittington observes that wartime cultural production at the BBC was defined not by autonomy “but rather its heteronomy—the subjection, willing or otherwise, of writers to pressures outside themselves” (14). Whittington argues that these heteronomous conditions were at least as productive as they were restrictive, however, as “writers fused the language of literary aesthetics with the affordances of radio to negotiate emergent forms of national identity and political futurity” (23).
The five case studies yield productive insights. Far from the “folksy propagandist” of popular memory, Priestley emerges from the first chapter as a writer “in command of his position in the public eye” and whose “relentless intermediality” enabled him “to capitalise on the reach and affective potential of radio” (31). Re-reading the famous “Postscripts” series, cancelled in Spring 1941 under pressure from Conservative Minister of Information Duff Cooper, Whittington finds diverse expressions of collectivism and sentimentality, but also, in one broadcast from September 1940, an extraordinary moment of “bleak intimacy” in Priestley’s address to “that other homeless heart we all possess, which even when there’s no war, is never at peace, but dimly recognises that long ago it was conscripted for a bitter campaign and nameless battles in the snow” (52). The bleaker dimensions of the work of proletarian novelist James Hanley, meanwhile, proved incompatible with BBC demands for “tales of triumph and survival” (75); a telling contrast is drawn between his sublime and impressionistic shipwreck novel The Ocean (1941) and a contemporaneous script produced for the overtly propagandist Freedom Ferry series of broadcasts on the contribution of the Merchant Navy to the war effort. Both texts focus on the survival at sea of the crew of a torpedoed ship, but the arc of the former “is at once more disheartening and more movingly humanist than the radio broadcast” (74). Such explorations of the limitations and opportunities presented by radio are particularly thought-provoking: having examined the news reports of Anglo-Irish dramatist Denis Johnston alongside a “textual thicket” (118) of notebooks and Johnston’s dazzlingly cross-generic memoir of his wartime experiences Nine Rivers From Jordan (1953), Whittington concludes that the latter “shows up its radiogenic subject matter—the facts, objectively told—as incapable of the kinds of branching, self-contradictory, multiple truths of which print is capable, however tenuously” (147). The chapter addressing the wartime radio features of Louis MacNeice similarly abounds in sensitive and multi-layered close readings: here Whittington identifies a paradoxical solidity to immaterial radio broadcasts so often structured around buildings, and in which “architectural metaphors thematise the struggle to impose order on an unwieldy medium” (84).
Turning finally to the Jamaican activist and poet Una Marson’s transformative role as host of the BBC Overseas Service program Calling the West Indies (1941–45), Whittington shows how an imperial network was reconfigured through her promotion of previously unrepresented black poetry and music. The wartime context prevented the broadcast of overtly liberationist material, but the program’s inclusion of folk literature and poetry highlighted linguistic and cultural differences between colony and metropole, a bilateral relationship which was further challenged by connections forged by Marson with activists and intellectuals from the United States and Africa. Drawing on Paul Gilroy’s landmark 1993 history, Whittington here describes the generation of a “wireless Black Atlantic” (25) and a “global network of cultural production and activism” (154). With particular reference to Marson and Priestley, Whittington also highlights the significance of the entry onto the airwaves during the war years of hitherto marginalized non-standard accents, suggesting that this development “expanded the horizon of national possibility” (182).
Writing the Radio War is overtly author-focused, but maintains an engaging concern with the business of listening throughout. In wartime this was frequently of urgent necessity: Whittington detects a pressing sensory didacticism in James Hanley’s 1941 dramatization of sailors on watch on an Atlantic convoy ship, listening intently for sounds “that no sea has ever made” (72). The book concludes on a somewhat deflationary note, as Priestley, writing in 1958, contemplates the eclipse of radio and cinema by television, and laments the ebbing of collective, participatory, and revolutionary energies felt during the People’s War in favor of drab post-war technocracy. The period when the voice of the writer heard over the airwaves could help to shape national debates was brief, and the conditions which enabled this power and status quickly dissipated. Whittington’s examination of the roles of five writers at the BBC, however, establishes the Second World War as a critical moment in British mid-century intermediality, when artist and audience were dynamically engaged in national self-creation.