Television and the BBC in Fiction: two novels reviewed by Malcolm Baird

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) is an iconic organization with a history that is closely tied to the history of British television.

Surprisingly, the BBC has not been featured very much in works of fiction. George Orwell, who had worked there during World War II, is said to have used it as his model for The Ministry of Truth in 1984. One of the main functions of the Ministry was to alter or delete historical records that were embarrassing to the dictatorship of Big Brother.

Among the novels that explicitly name the BBC I have chosen to review two, which reflect the ways in which television has changed.

Lance Sieveking, The Perfect Witch. Love story of Fabian Cloudesley, Announcer, Cassell, London, 1935

Who is the witch? She is a young actress called Virginia Castleton who enchants a young announcer in the early 1930s. The story is a sort of soap opera, acutely observed with a touch of sly humour. Sadly, it has been out of print for decades but it can still be found in libraries and the occasional copy comes up in second hand bookstores or Amazon or eBay.

Lance Sieveking worked for the BBC as a producer and dramatist, until his retirement in 1956. His book has historical value because of its description of the atmosphere and the people at Broadcasting House. The BBC comes across as a dignified and yet benevolent organization exuding middle class values and an atmosphere of lightly held scholarship. Culturally the BBC had a flavour of one of the less distinguished but more convivial Oxbridge colleges with its population of good chaps. In the background were the white-coated broadcasting engineers, obsessed with their microphones and electronic circuitry.

Sieveking's book contains a vivid description of conditions in an experimental television studio using the Baird flying-spot system an extract appears in the article "What was Early Television Actually Like?" elsewhere in this website. Also of interest is a short passage about the BBC's first director general, John Reith, seen by Fabian as an awe-inspiring, almost godlike figure. The passage is paraphrased below:

Everything was very still, when through a doorway came two figures. One was short and bolt upright, his head tilted back in an effort to talk to his companion, whose gigantic form stooped black above him like some fantastic shadow cast by a candle.

The days when that colossal figure had [made] the first essays at throwing music and words into the air, were in a past that seemed far more remote than the Boer War and yet something of his extremely definite personality was still felt.

The Perfect Witch is strongly recommended for reissue, perhaps in a low-cost electronic edition, to mark the BBC’s forthcoming 90th birthday. It is a light novel with some hilarious and probably true stories of on-air mistakes, and a vivid portrayal of the BBC when television was just a flickery sideshow for a few thousand viewers.

Heather Peace, All to Play For, Legend Press, London, 2011

Fast forward to the 1990s, with television now the dominant medium at the BBC. After the passage of the Television Act of 1990, the BBC underwent drastic changes including the gradual phasing out of its in-house television drama department.

Heather Peace, a dramatist who spent her early career with the BBC, makes full use of her experience in this novel. It was published in November 2011 and got good reviews in influential print media such as The Guardian and Television, the monthly magazine of the Royal Television Society.

By the early nineties, the old Reithian BBC of the radio days is long gone. The mildly academic and paternalist ethos has been replaced by a culture in which management skills carry more weight than knowledge of what is being managed. Everyone is driven and frustrated, good manners are a thing of the past and the language is peppered with words one used to hear only from lower ranks in the armed services. John Reith would not have approved.

For the reader who is unused to modern styles, Ms. Peace's novel is mightily confusing because each chapter is narrated in the first person by a different character. The value of the novel is in its vivid portrayal of people and conflicts in the rat-race of television production. Much of the action takes place in the curved architecture of the Television Centre tense meetings are held in an atmosphere of cigarette smoke amid the noise of pneumatic drills from the building of an extension to the Television Centre. This part of the book has a definite period flavour as the BBC no longer inhabits the Television Centre, moreover smoking in the workplace is no longer permitted.

Back in 1935, television technology imposed severe limits on producers and performers. After 60 years, All to Play For makes no mention of technology. The limitations of television are now imposed by competition, financial factors and infighting between the administrative and creative factions.

If we read the Sieveking and Peace books, we get a picture of what has happened to television over the past 75 years. The challenge now is for someone to write a futuristic novel about television in the 2070s. A job for an H.G. Wells -- or perhaps a George Orwell.