Thursday, 16 October 2008

Life on Air, by David Hendy

I first posted a version of this review elsewhere earlier this year, but the recent paperback publication of David Hendy’s Life on Air seems a good opportunity to revisit it. Life on Air was a deserved winner of the Longman-History Today prize as 2008 Book of the Year.

Life on Air is perhaps best described as an institutional history; but the limits and nature of the institution the reader might be presupposing are immediately called into question. The title and the subject court the reader's experience as listener to a Radio Four whose identity which is validated by continuity in the content and personality of the service. As David Hendy reminds his readers, while Radio Four has always had a controller and its own staff, the character of the station, like other BBC services in what was once called sound, then radio, and now audio (the recent rechristening of BBC Radio 7 notwithstanding), has concurrently been dependent not only on the general direction of BBC radio as set by successive directors or managing directors, but also in part on the ambitions of other departments within BBC radio. Each of these (particularly before the move to corporate centralism in BBC management under John Birt) existed to a large (if variable) extent on its own terms and championed its own interpretation of what public service broadcasting ought to be in Britain, how the BBC should fulfil its role, and fought for its own share of the carefully rationed wavelengths. The evolution of Radio Four took place within this context.

The emergence of Radio Four's present character is almost a story of how people in lower, middle and lower senior management in BBC radio championed 'the rich mix' - a term which Hendy associates with one particular fight in defence of Radio Four, between 1978 and 1982 - against various committees and several managing directors of radio, directors-general, or governors, against expectations that in the near future 'the rich mix' would be redundant and that Radio Four's purpose would be 'informational'. Not only was the cause of rolling immediacy particularly demanded by journalists, it seems also to have been an expectation of Ian Trethowan, managing director of BBC Radio from 1970 to 1976, that Radio Four was to become a news and current affairs network; and many other figures in the BBC took this for granted at various points between 1967 and the early 1990s.

Hendy starts the book with a chapter '30 September 1967', and David Dunhill's elegy for the Home Service as he closed it down for the last time (though missing my favourite part of that announcement, the punning "What is radio for?"). While Dunhill assured listeners that the Home Service was like a bride on the eve of her wedding, which would go on being the same person - "we hope" - the change of name to Radio Four came as part of an ongoing process of rethinking the purpose of the Home Service which had been going on since the arrival of Frank Gillard as director of BBC Radio in 1963. At this point the Home Service was in the middle of a conscious transformation, having over the previous three years been gradually exchanging music programmes with the Light or Third programmes for speech. These included taking over The Archers from the Light, and sending programmes like Record Review to the 'Music Programme' that shared the Third's frequency, though it was the sharpening of the music-led networks that was BBC radio's priority, and thinking about the future of speech was an afterthought. This reshaping did not end in 1967; Woman's Hour, for example, didn't come to Radio Four from Radio Two until 1973. Its most successful controllers seem to have been those who tenaciously defended the character of the network while stressing evolutionary change.

For someone for whom BBC radio has been a recurrent soundtrack to his life, there are smiles of familiarity as various landmarks are passed. In October 1970 new controller Tony Whitby - husband of children's television's Joy Whitby, creator of Play School - merged four consumer programmes into You and Yours, listened to in my lunchtimes at home in the early 1980s, and still thriving in the twenty-first century. Brian Redhead arrived at Today in 1975 as one of many attempts to harden its news content. This drive was frustrated briefly during the 'counter revolution' of 1977 led by controller Ian McIntyre, which saw Today being sliced in two to allow for Up to the Hour, a medley including paper reviews, Thought for the Day, and clips from comedy records, the intention being to make the news more focused; the experiment was ultimately as good as denounced on air by announcer Peter Donaldson when he urged listeners to retune to other BBC networks rather than listen to it.

Many of Radio Four's crises seem to have arisen from anxiety that its plural personality couldn't be maintained, or from the certainty of factions such as the aforementioned news lobby that it could not and should not be sustained. Hendy does not stray too far into the debate on modern Britain's uneasy and uncertain grasp on what 'class' is, which continues to shape current discussion about Radio Four. (I wasn't sure if the recent utterances by Jane Garvey about the ‘middle class’ nature of the station, following her translation from Radio Five Live to Radio Four and Woman's Hour, were self-conscious PR, or an unthinking condemnation of the debate about what constitutes intelligent discussion and what constitutes elitism to another round of dubious class-based rhetoric.)

Even as Radio Four 'Basic' took over 1500m/200kHz long wave and became Radio Four UK, complete with Fritz Spiegl's famous theme, on 23 November 1978, it was being undermined from within. The “new national service from the BBC”, as it was hailed by announcer David Symonds, was rapidly being presented at a succession of meetings as an anachronism. The election of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in 1979 encouraged those in the BBC who thought a period of retrenchment, even retreat, from the goals established at the start of the 1970s was inevitable. For a while it seems to have been assumed that the numbered stations of 1967 would be phased out and that most of Radio Four's output would be merged with local radio under the heading 'BBC Town and Country Radio' or possibly 'BBC Radio England', acknowledging that for many the requirement to carry parliamentary coverage on long wave, and the absence of VHF frequencies for Radio Four outside England (not fixed until the 1990s) meant that 'Radio Four UK' had failed at its inception. Later, John Birt, an outsider from ITV parachuted into the BBC as its first director of news and current affairs, for reasons which had a lot to do with politics, was incensed in 1987 when Radio Four allowed Today to end at 9am on the day of the Great Storm; controller Michael Green reasonably said that there was no point keeping news on air as local radio was best placed to provide information to those affected and the storm hadn't made much impact anywhere north of Watford. The incident helped fuel Birt's desire that Radio Four should become news-led or evolve into or spin off a serious news network, something that never happened in the way Birt imagined, except during the 1991 Gulf War and the attempted coup in the USSR later that year.

Hendy celebrates but also criticises the atmosphere described by some as 'creative inactivity' which allowed producers to spend time thinking; against the neo-managerialism of 'Producer Choice', introduced by Birt as director-general, and which was in full flight in 1997 when Hendy ends the main body of his account, he places the introduction of time management, a fuller appreciation of costing and editorial monitoring in the 1960s which decisively ended a culture where many programme-makers spent long lunchbreaks in the pub. Birt's BBC awaits its historian, though Hendy briefly introduces business sociologist Richard Sennett and his conclusions about the conditions which ensure quality of output without ruling whether or not Birt's reforms decisively affected this at Radio Four for better or worse.

By good fortune as much as by design, it seems, Radio Four has moved from its roots in the 'middlebrow' Home Service, born out of the need to comfort and sustain Britain at the dawn of the Second World War, through the incorporation of some of the high cultural aspirations following the dissolution of the old Third Programme during the 1960s (which magnified in importance following the arrival of Melvyn Bragg as presenter of Start the Week in 1987), into an age when we can no longer be certain what low and high culture are. Its role now, Hendy thinks, is "to widen out horizons a little as the world of fragmenting tastes and ideologies pulls us apart". This is a development unforeseen by the "public affairs" lobby who wanted drama and comedy excised from Radio Four in the 1970s, and perhaps also by John Birt, who apparently expressed bafflement at Michael Green's determination to hold on to Today, The World at One and PM, which (in the discussions which eventually led to the creation of Radio Five Live) Birt wanted as the core of his desired 'upmarket' rolling news network. Didn't he want to lose Today, he was asked, so he could run comedy in the mornings? The 'rich mix' is surely richer for being mixed together on one network. The arguments used by European listeners during the 'Save Radio Four Long Wave' campaign of the early 1990s included that Radio Four was a good ambassador for British cultural values. The continued existence of Radio Four argues well for the health of British pluralism, whatever one's opinions of the state.

Monday, 13 October 2008

Brideshead Revisited

If the youth of a large proportion of the audience at Brideshead Revisited at the Odeon Magdalen Street, Oxford, last Thursday night was anything to go by, Brideshead Revisited retains its hold on the imaginations of new Oxford undergraduates. In fact, most of the people on the streets that evening seemed to be freshers, crowding around the entrance to Po Na Na, striding down St Giles with varying levels of conviction and purpose. This, perhaps, was their night; but if they sought the Oxford of today in Brideshead Revisited, they would have been hard pushed to find it.

I mainly know Brideshead Revisited from Granada Television's interpretation nearly thirty years ago. When I went to an open day at the college I eventually attended, I was told by one of the JCR that Brideshead had been a cult in 1980s Oxford, to the extent that 'to Brideshead' was allegedly a verb, referring to people who carried teddy bears around with them and aped the supposed manners of the 1920s. The reality of this exaggeration by the turn of the 1990s, as far as I saw, was a short-lived student society called the Romantics, active about the time of my finals. Nevertheless, there was a moment of personal recognition in this film; there's a moment in the book where Charles Ryder recognises the arrival of Sebastian in his life as the opening of a door in a wall into an enchanted garden, and Sebastian's room in Christ Church seems to have been translated from Meadow Buildings to a familiar staircase in Tom Quad, though I make no claim for that particular student society whose then-president reigned from a set there to have brought me within reach of grace.

The film, from a screenplay by Andrew Davies and Jeremy Brock, inevitably comes across as a précis of the book or (if you are like me) the longer television adaptation. Despite the protests of director Julian Jefford that he has never seen the Granada version, members of his crew probably have. The new film is haunted by the television series, with various performances echoing their television predecessors. Castle Howard is used again for Brideshead (abandoning a plan to use Chatsworth), and some of the scenes seem almost like alternate angle shots, as the same staircases and corridors used by Charles Sturridge are chosen again.

A lot of effort is put into incorporating details from the book here and there. Sebastian greets Charles on his first visit to Brideshead wearing pillar-box red pyjamas. There's some dialogue reconstruction in the early Oxford scenes, though Lunt the porter is only introduced to make the point that Oxford undergraduates did not 'do for themselves'; and there is nothing of the complaints about the women attending the ball. Cousin Jasper's denunication of Anglo-Catholics as "Sodomites" is however transferred to our first glimpse of Anthony Blanche's set on the river, one of many translations to celluloid (though there were several artefacts on the 'print' I saw which were distinctly electronic) which observes the letter but not the spirit of the book.

Advance publicity drew attention to the replacement of Charles Ryder's fascination with the Flyte family with a more conventional love triangle between Sebastian, Charles and Julia. Ben Whishaw's Sebastian is more fragile than Anthony Andrews's, though one of the failings of this increasingly staccato interpretation is that his decline seems all too rapid, and is sparked by the acceleration of Charles's love affair with Julia. In the book this begins on ship, in mid-Atlantic, a decade after Charles's friendship with Sebastian has ended; here, Julia comes to Venice with Sebastian and Charles, leading to a precipitate first kiss in a contrived carnival scene. The film has a less sophisticated understanding of sexuality than either the book or the Granada adaptation, and Sebastian seems far more motivated by the thwarting of his homosexual desires (here dealt with more explicitly than in the novel, though still tamely) than one feels he should. His final appearance in the narrative sees him in Morocco, a hybrid of ascetic holy man and AIDS patient, attended to by (and, we hear, later attending) bearded monks straight out of Renaissance painting.

Charles Ryder is played competently and often with subtlety by Matthew Goode, though he is working with debased material compared to Jeremy Irons. (Television folklore holds that although the Granada Brideshead was credited to John Mortimer, m'learned scriptwriter's work was abandoned at an early stage and largely used as a guide to scouting locations, with directors and cast improvising dialogue scene by scene based on the text of Waugh's book.) Problematically, Charles's longings here are far more material than they seem in the book; it's much easier to think at an early stage that he consciously longs to possess Brideshead with Julia, as Rex Mottram believes, particularly as here his involvement with Brideshead and the Flyte family is broken into three concentrated periods.

Davies and Brock, director Julian Jarrold, and their colleagues, impose a simplified and misunderstood version of the British class system on the film - and don't seem to realise that mentioning the word 'Catholic' at every opportunity, and as good as crash-zooming on rosary beads as Nanny Hawkins drops them, is no substitute for theology. Lord Brideshead, Sebastian's older brother, is turned into a hunting-shooting-fishing cliché rather than the unworldly and often ineffectual figure he seemed on television, and who apparently once aspired to the priesthood. Charles is a scion of a landed gentry family in the book, but there is no room for subtle gradations of social distinction here. The poor fellow is on an allowance less than a fifth of what he enjoys in the book; the aesthetic and spiritual wholeness he craves from Brideshead and the Flytes is trivialised. The character of Hooper in the book is a fellow-officer of Charles, though from an educational background that (in Charles's view) disregards the heroic and aspiration for something greater than the human world, in favour of a narrative of revolution-from-below. In the film he becomes a corporal, losing Waugh's points that the aristocratic culture of the Flytes had as good as been swept away before the start of the Second World War, and that without the heroic there was no hope of understanding the 'fairy-tale' of religion which revealed the spiritual universe hidden behind the curtain of the material world.

I tend to have a negative reading of the family dynamics within the Flyte family, and had seen their Catholicism as a symbol of their decline, acknowledging that this sat oddly with Waugh's own Catholicism; but it was explained to me after watching the film that I had probably missed Waugh's message that the Flytes can't reconcile being English aristocrats with being Catholic, both being different kinds of 'other' in early twentieth-century Britain. Having since finished the book I see that this is probably the case, but one wouldn't know it from the film. The story goes that Andrew Davies left the project because he wanted to make God the villain of the film, but if so it's still possible to discern his influence. The mania on the faces of the Flytes as the dying Lord Marchmain very determinedly crosses himself could be read by a sceptic as a possession by falsehood, while the conclusion of film doesn't seem very bothered with the state of Charles's faith, instead letting him snuff out his obsession with the Flytes in the chapel as if he was reconciling himself to the impending reign of the working men symbolised by Corporal Hooper.

So, this isn't Waugh, more off-the-shelf modernism; but it looks well enough and there are some striking images. Hayley Attwell as Julia photographs well, is well-draped, and goes nicely mad towards the end; Emma Thompson generally conveys the seriousness of Lady Marchmain's faith and her leadership of her family with attention, though I did wonder whether there were any better takes of her collapse at the Ryders' house, as this seemed overdone. Michael Gambon's Lord Marchmain is a more dangerous and effervescent performance than Laurence Olivier provided for Granada, and captured in more concentrated form the impression of Marchmain that Charles Ryder gradually builds up in the book. Nonetheless, this is a Brideshead made easy. While the new plot elements and the more conventional historical theme work, they flatten the story. Perhaps the affirmation of modernity I see in the final scene is more fitting for the clubbing, street-partying students of last Thursday night; but I'd still direct people to the DVD of the Granada series if they want a screen adaptation which does more justice to the novel.