Reith Lectures 2

June 6 2008

Reith Lectures 1

The second of the BBC Radio 4 Archive Hours on sixty years of the Reith Lectures was broadcast (the phrase “was broadcast” is beginning to sound as old-fashioned as some of the early lectures) last Saturday and goes offline tomorrow, Saturday evening UK time. I’ve kept recordings of both, if anyone is desperate.

The first programme (another obsolescent word?) looked at the series up to 1969. This one looks at them up to the present.

You can hear parts of Halsey’s, Sacks’s and Jones’s lectures from the post-1969 years and all the lectures since 1999 on the BBC Reith site. Here’s an Amazon portal for the books for the lectures given between 1973 and 1998: www.amazon.com/BBC-nbsp-Reith-nbsp-Lectures-nbsp-1973-1998.

Among the important ones in the earlier years were from Russell, Radcliffe, Franks, Pevsner, Lovell, Perham, Galbraith, Darling.

“We present the Reith Lectures, an annual series of broadcasts named in honour of the BBC’s first Director-General and instituted by the BBC as a stimulus to thought and a contribution to knowledge. The theme of this first series of six Reith Lectures is Authority and the Individual and the speaker is the eminent philosopher Bertrand Russell. His opening lecture is entitled Social Cohesion and Human Nature.”

Radcliffe, Franks and Perham offered different perspectives on Empire and Britain’s changing position in the world. Peter Hennessy calls Radcliffe (1951), almost a forgotten figure now, “the last of the Romans”. The clip we were played is charming, and fascinatingly old-fashioned. Franks in 1954 was prescient about the future. Majorie Perham of Nuffield College (1961), another old-fashioned voice, was oddly sympathetic, at the height of decolonisation, to the characters who had made the Empire work, such as the District Commissioners who could find themselves in charge of an area the size of Wales while they were in their twenties. I linked to an obituary of one of them a few weeks ago. She pointed to the close relationship of the Labour left with the Empire and Empire affairs in the years before the war, in the persons of Fenner Brockway and others.

Other lectures highlighted moments of the Cold War. Laurie Taylor is right in not putting Toynbee high on the list. His reason was based on an anti-Toynbee reflex, but lectures were not Toynbee’s medium. His thought sits awkwardly in the lecture format. One misses the allusiveness of the books. He was the opposite of Acton. On the other hand, his published dialogues worked well.

Nothing equalled the dire and dismal dirge of Robert Oppenheim, the scientific director of the Manhattan Project. The extract we heard on Science and the Common Understanding is a parody of seriousness. He did not even refer to his own work on the nuclear bomb.

Taylor is surely right in saying that nothing in the earlier series approached the prescience of Frank Fraser Darling, whose remarks on global warming I summarised in the first post. You have to hear that passage and remember that this was 1969. It may not have been new science, but your hair stands on end if you hear him now. Taylor suggests that nobody took much notice. The sound of street-fighting was louder than that of the incipient cracks in the ice. I’ve checked this by looking at The Times’s archive: his lectures are reported week by week, but there’s nothing on this. (I have to add that I remember clearly stating over lunch, as a teenager in 1970, that environmental stories would be a daily news item by 2000. Everybody looked blank. I hadn’t been listening to Frank Fraser Darling.)

An anthropologist, George Carstairs, caused consternation, at the last minute, when he questioned the idea of teenage chastity in 1962.

The Reith Lectures were informed by a high Reithian seriousness. If I implied in the first post that there was something patronising about that, I shouldn’t have. Those voices are old-fashioned, but the Reithian tone wasn’t patronising, it was patrician. Great minds should and now could share their thoughts with the common man, who could wonder in his own time whether they were great. The culturally-fearful tone that came into some broadcasting in the ’90s was patronising to anyone open-minded and still is.

How was seriousness going to fare in the ’70s? According to Taylor, the lectures were saved, as a Reithian project, by a Hungarian, George Fischer, who took over as the head of radio talks and documentaries in 1972. I am not sure when he left. He is still alive and is interviewed in the programme. He was the latest of several high-minded central Europeans who had been producers or had had other roles in BBC radio since the ’50s, or earlier. These producers were supposed to be able to interact as equals with the “intellectuals” whom they were commissioning. The central Europeans and their British colleagues ensured the continuation of Reithianism and of ambitious, rigorous intellectual programming. Some exchanges of letters are quoted in the first programme in which they agonise about the tone adopted by Pevsner in the last of his series.

The post-1969 series has been:

1970 Donald Schön, Change and Industrial Society

1971 Richard Hoggart, Only Connect

1972 Andrew Schonfield, Europe: Journey to an Unknown Destination

1973 Alistair Buchan, Change without War

1974 Ralf Dahrendorf, The New Liberty

1975 Daniel Boorstin, America and the World Experience

1976 Colin Blakemore, Mechanics of the Mind

1977 AH Halsey, Change in British Society

1978 Edward Norman, Christianity and the World

1979 Ali Mazrui, The African Condition

1980 Sir Ian Kennedy, Unmasking Medicine

1981 Laurence Martin, The Two-Edged Sword

1982 Denis Donoghue, The Arts without Mystery

1983 Douglas Wass, Government and the Governed

1984 John Searle, Minds, Brains and Science

1985 David Henderson, Innocence and Design

1986 Lord McCluskey, Law, Justice and Democracy

1987 Alexander Goehr, The Survival of the Symphony

1988 Geoffrey Hosking, The Rediscovery of Politics

1989 Jacques Darras, Beyond the Tunnel of History

1990 Jonathan Sacks, The Persistence of Faith

1991 Steve Jones, The Language of the Genes

1992 No Reith Lectures

1993 Edward Said, Representation of the Intellectual

1994 Marina Warner, Managing Monsters

1995 Richard Rogers, Sustainable City

1996 Jean Aitchison, The Language Web

1997 Patricia Williams, The Genealogy of Race

1998 John Keegan, War in our World

1999 Anthony Giddens, Runaway World

2000 Chris Patten, Sir John Browne, Thomas Lovejoy, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Vandana Shiva, HRH Prince of Wales, Respect for the Earth

2001 Tom Kirkwood, The End of Age

2002 Onora O’Neill, A Question of Trust

2003 Vilayanur S Ramachandran, The Emerging Mind

2004 Wole Soyinka, Climate of Fear

2005 Lord Broers, The Triumph of Technology

2006 Daniel Barenboim, In the Beginning Was Sound

2007 Jeffrey Sachs, Bursting at the Seams

The 2008 series, which started this week, is by Jonathan Spence – on, of course, China. The first was on Confucianism. It’s online and available as a podcast. The second and third will be on China and Britain and China and the US. The last will be on Chinese views of the human body.

How has the format changed? Russell had taken 54 minutes for his first lecture [correction below], but the length settled down to 20-25. Toynbee aimed for 25. I think that’s 10-15 minutes too short. Highlights since 1969 have been Hoggart on culture and the working class (more or less), Blakemore on neuroscience, Patricia Williams on race and Onora O’Neill on trust and the (pernicious in her view) new culture of accountability. Edward Norman on Christianity, in 1978, was controversial, with its reactionary swipe at the invasion of religion by a trendy humanism. Strangely, it had been the first series on religion. It could not be broadcast now. There’s a series to be done defending political correctness, though it is part of a new smugness which makes the Victorians look as self-questioning as many of them were (vide Ekow Eshun and half of the contemporary London arts scene).

Historians have had a poor showing. There was Russell, if you count him as a historian of philosophy, see Comment after a post here called Hellenistic philosophy and saddened Whigs; Toynbee; Pevsner, a historian of art; Darras. But until Spence this year, none of them, apart from Toynbee, have been mainstream historians.

Colin Blakemore on neuroscience told the astonishing story of Phineas Gage.

Ali Mazrui was the first black lecturer, Patricia Williams the second. Darras began to move away from the London lectern by recording part of his series in Paris. He extemporised more. I think (the programme isn’t clear on this, nor is it clear on why there were no lectures in 1992) that the first time the lectures were given in front of a live audience was in 2000. There’s nothing wrong with a live audience, but it moves away from the pure Reithian idea of unmediated radio.

Richard Hoggart in 1971 started using the word “talk” instead of “lecture” in his series, to the consternation of the BBC. Marina Warner in 1994, in her series on mythology, introduced quotations read by actors and a recording of the voice of Sylvia Plath. We no longer had “the singular scripted voice of authority”.

The lectures now give the impression of being besieged by an audience, which interferes with the direct relationship with the listener. The first of Spence’s series, this week, was followed by questions from the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster and others of the good and great. Nothing democratic in that audience. It may have been in 2000 that the insistent Sue Lawley came in – a BBC ex-newsreader who now dominates the questions, even the bishops. When did the habit of having lectures in different places come in? Was it absolutely necessary for Jeffrey Sachs (on whom I posted here and here) to burn fossil fuels by lecturing to a radio audience from London, Beijing and New York, accompanied by Lawley?

I’m glad others had problems with Barenboim. A nice man and a great pianist: but I’d have sent him away and told him to write a lecture; Lawley saw his remarks on the back of an envelope as they were walking in.

Propsect magazine had an article in 2000 by the 1985 lecturer, David Henderson (I don’t subscribe, so this is all I am offering), which began:

“This year’s BBC Reith lectures marked a debasement of the series. One of the corporation’s notable contributions to the world of ideas has been robbed of the features that gave it a claim to distinctiveness.

“When the lectures were instituted, over 50 years ago, they were a new venture in radio. As such they were given a special character and format by the BBC governors, who choose the lecturer.

“First, the lectures were intended to enable well-qualified speakers to make an original contribution to public understanding; a lecturer had to have something new and substantive to say. Second, there was one lecturer only, with six half-hour periods at his or her disposal. This meant that a sustained argument could be developed. Third, the lecturer had to be an independent person, expressing personal views. No one was chosen by virtue of holding a particular office. Finally, the lecturer was alone in the studio. He or she spoke to the microphone, to the individual radio listener, not to an invited audience. The art of addressing an unseen listener is different from that of talking to a particular audience.

“All these features have now been discarded.”

But most are back. Just give them more time and keep the bishops at bay.

6 Responses to “Reith Lectures 2”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    Each lecture nowadays seems like a preamble to a lecture.


  2. […] Lectures 3 June 30, 2008 Glad to see that Mary Beard makes some of the same points as I do about the Reith Lectures […]


  3. […] is still alive. Freeman spoke in an old style, as the educated to the educated. See my posts on the BBC Reith Lectures. But, as I have said, the series straddled the pre-pop world and the world of the ’60s – with […]


  4. […] 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 […]

  5. Paul Caplin Says:

    “How has the format changed? Russell had taken 54 minutes for his first lecture, but the length settled down to 20-25…”

    Actually, the lectures have always been around 25 minutes long, Russell’s included. You may have been misled by the fact that the download of Russell offered by the BBC, at 56 minutes, contains the first two of his lectures.

    But why are so few of the lectures available in audio form from the BBC (or anywhere else)? The BBC offers a fairly random selection (about 50 out of over 300), badly organised, with some links missing. How strange of them not to offer them all to the public. Maybe they think no one’s interested — but then, why make a documentary about them?


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