Reith Lectures 1

May 24 2008

BBC Radio 4’s The Archive Hour, this week and next, is about the Reith Lectures. The first programme, covering the years 1948 to ’69, will be online until May 31. You can hear an excerpt in it from Toynbee’s set, The World and the West.

The Lectures are commissioned each year by the BBC for radio broadcasting and are in honour of the BBC’s first and notably high-minded Director-General John Reith. They were launched in the heyday of the Talks Department of the Home Service, the old name of Radio 4, and were supposed to present new thinking or research. The early ones were like deliveries from Olympus, authoritarian pronouncements to the educated or “thoughtful” public or self-improving masses.

The lectures were printed in the BBC’s weekly review The Listener. Many of the series became books, of which Pevsner’s The Englishness of English Art had the greatest longevity. Here’s an Amazon portal for the books up to 1972: www.amazon.com/BBC-Reith-Lectures-1948-1972/lm/1BQUMA7MFO115

The first lecturers were Bertrand Russell, a headmaster of Eton, a fellow of the Royal Society, the fellow of All Souls who drew up the boundaries between India and Pakistan, Toynbee at the height of his fame, and the sonorous and ponderous scientific director of the Manhattan Project. Parts of Russell’s, Lovell’s and Galbraith’s series from the earlier years are permanently online at www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/reith/historic_audio/reith_historic.shtml

The series to 1969:

1948 Bertrand Russell, Authority and the Individual

1949 Robert Birley, Britain in Europe

1950 John Zachary Young, Doubt and Certainty in Science

1951 Lord Radcliffe, Power and the State

1952 Arnold J Toynbee, The World and the West

1953 Robert Oppenheimer, Science and the Common Understanding

1954 Oliver Franks, Britain and the Tide of World Affairs

1955 Nikolaus Pevsner, The Englishness of English Art

1956 Edward Appleton, Science and the Nation

1957 George F Kennan, Russia, the Atom and the West

1958 Bernard Lovell, The Individual and the Universe

1959 Peter Medawar, The Future of Man

1960 Edgar Wind, Art and Anarchy

1961 Margery Perham, The Colonial Reckoning

1962 George Carstairs, This Island Now

1963 Albert Sloman, A University in the Making

1964 Leon Bagrit, The Age of Automation

1965 Robert Gardiner, World of Peoples

1966 JK Galbraith, The New Industrial State

1967 Edmund Leach, A Runaway World

1968 Lester Pearson, Peace in the Family of Man

1969 Frank Fraser Darling, Wilderness and Plenty

Laurie Taylor’s programme traces the controversies which some of the lectures provoked, including reactions from Russia. Toynbee’s series set out some ideas which would be developed in the eighth volume of A Study of History. Bagrit’s was notable for popularising the idea of the coming age of Leisure – which Toynbee fell for, and worried about, as did so many others. The programme ends with a passage from Fraser Darling about the effects of increasing amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from the burning of “fossil fuels”. The phrase is used. So is the phrase “greenhouse effect”. He talks about the weakening of the buffer of vegetation as we cut down forests and the weakening of the oceans’ ability to absorb CO2 as the temperature of the water rises. He foresees the melting of the polar ice-caps. Not new ideas, perhaps, but radically new to most people in 1969.

Taylor (born 1936), of course, is apologetic about Toynbee and wonders whether his own generation’s scepticism about grand theories of history had had something to do with the evident failure, when they were students, of the working class to fulfill the destiny which had been assigned to it by Marx.

2 Responses to “Reith Lectures 1”


  1. […] Reith Lectures 2 June 6, 2008 Reith Lectures 1 […]


  2. […] July 12, 2009 For some reason, I wrote about all the BBC Reith Lectures last year (here and here; postscript here). The last two years have […]


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