Friday, June 05, 2009

The basic unsuitability of Orwell’s voice

Just a week after their superb Big Ben celebration, the BBC Archive has published a whole load of documents about George Orwell's employment at the BBC during World War Two. For two years (1941-43) he was Talks Producer for the Eastern Service - writing propaganda for broadcast to India.

There's a full page about the archive collection in today's Times, and John Humphreys spoke to Jean Seaton - the BBC's official historian - about it on this morning's Today. With weird brilliance, you can watch that segment of radio.

Much of the attention is on "the basic unsuitability of Orwell’s voice." I'm sad to learn no recordings of his voice survive, which is why this is such a revelation (and why he's not on the excellent BBC/British Library Spoken Word - British Writers CD). Seaton speculated why his voice was not suitable: Orwell was shot in the throat during the Spanish Civil War (an experience he described as "very interesting" in Homage to Catalonia) and also suffered from TB.

I'm more interested in the internal memo from the splendidly titled "Director of Empire Services" describing Orwell himself and his suitability for a job with the Beeb.
"I was much impressed by him. He is shy in manner but extremely frank and honest in his interview. He has held strong Left Wing opinions and actually fought for the Republican Government in Spain. He is of opinion that that may be held against him, though when I questioned him closely about his loyalties and the danger of finding himself at odds with policy, his answers were impressive. He accepts absolutely the need for propaganda to be directed by the Government and stressed his view that in war-time discipline in the execution of Government policy was essential."

R.A.Rendell, BBC Internal Circulating Memo, 25 June 1941.

There's his reference and appraisal, letters from Orwell setting out his stall, and - two years after getting the job - his resignation. Having thanked the BBC for their "generosity" and allowing him "the greatest latitude", he says
"for some time past I have been conscious that I was wasting my own time and the public money on doing work that produces no result. I believe that in the present political situation the broadcasting of British propaganda to India is an almost hopeless task."

Eric Blair, resignation letter, 24 September 1943.

There's then some correspondence from his time on the remote Isle of Jura - where he was writing 1984. It includes a gem of a pitch for a programme:
"I don't know much about Darwin's later life. What about a defence of Pontius Pilate, or an imaginary conversation between P.P. and, say, Lenin (one could hardly make it J.C.)"

Eric Blair, letter to Rayner Heppenstall, 5 September 1946.

I'm still avidly following the blog of Orwell's diaries, where, three months before the outbreak of war, he's currently busy in the garden. In his Essays, Orwell described
“The outstanding, unmistakable mark of Dickens’s writing is the unnecessary detail."

Orwell, “Charles Dickens”, Essays, pp. 68-9.

And that's what makes the archive and blog so outstanding. These unnecessary details bring the man whose voice is lost to us so vividly to life.

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