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In Their Own Words: British Novelists, BBC Four | reviews, news & interviews

In Their Own Words: British Novelists, BBC Four

In Their Own Words: British Novelists, BBC Four

An hour in the company of some literary greats, courtesy of the BBC archives

Once again the BBC (the Big Brother Corporation) wipe the recordings Orwell made while working for them

Every great novel is a world, and every great novelist responds to and recreates their own time in their own image. Therefore how could a three-part documentary series possibly cover that fertile period in British literature that took in both world wars and their aftermath?

Of course it’s an impossible task but it’s one that is neatly circumvented here because these programs are really just an excuse for the BBC to dust off some old tapes of some of our greatest writers speaking about their work.

This first in the series begins with the only known audio recording of Virginia Woolf. Across seven decades she tinnily intones that words have been “out and about, on peoples lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries”. But before we can float away on Woolf’s lyrical musings, we are confronted by the audio and visual spectacle of the Anti-Woolf in the florid shape of Barbara Cartland. She unromantically tells us how she only ended up writing the first of some 700 romances because she didn’t want to get a proper job.

These two women don’t even look like members of the same species, never mind crafters of the same art form. But the period between the First World War and the beginning of the Second World War (which this episode covered) produced many different kinds of novelist. For Woolf and the rest of the Bloomsbury group this was a period of great self-doubt, reflection and reinvention which generated a desire to reshape literature in order to reflect what it meant to be British in a burgeoning post-colonial world. By direct contrast, novelists such as P G Wodehouse seemed to help usher in the Swinging Twenties in their creation of a bygone age that probably never existed in the first place.

But of course this program didn’t have time to provide much psychoanalytical, historical or sociological perspective on a story it only sketched out with the faintest of lines. Essentially In Their Own Words: British Novelists was really just a flimsy armature on which to hang this wealth of archive interview recordings. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. After all, let’s face it, who would you prefer to listen to; some Open University professor forcing the square pegs of our greatest novelists into the round hole of some new Post-Structuralist literary theory, or G K Chesterton, H G Wells, E M Forster, and Evelyn Waugh talking about whatever came into their heads after a couple of stiff whiskeys?

Waugh was on particularly good form, puffing on a cigar, smiling condescendingly, and somehow looking threatening and threatened simultaneously. He responded to a question about critics with the words: “If someone praises me I think, what an arse, and if someone abuses me I think, what an arse.” And there was no stopping him once the subject of the stream-of-consciousness writing of the likes of Woolf and Co came up. “Gibberish!” he proclaimed, before getting into his stride by moving on to that “poor dotty Irishman, James Joyce” who wrote “absolute tosh”.

Such devil-may-care invective made me long for a contemporary literary world in which we would find out what Martin Amis really thinks of Tibor Fischer, or hear Zadie Smith exclaim that she wouldn’t piss on Sebastian Faulks even if he were on fire (now there’s an image to conjure with.) No doubt both Amis and Smith will be covered in Part Three but I doubt that either will come up with anything as wonderfully self-effacing as the quote from E M Forster, below. Despite arguably being the father of the modern British novel, the man thought he was no great shakes. He believed that he’d only managed to create three distinct character-types in his books: “The person I think I am, the people that irritate me, and the people that I’d like to be.”

Over this first engrossing hour we also got Robert Graves on not being a faggot, Christopher Isherwood on Sally Bowles’s nicotine-stained fingers, and Graham Greene on how terrible Bulgarian sausages are. But ironically (and tragically we’ve heard similar stories so many times before) the BBC managed to wipe every word George Orwell recorded despite the fact that he worked for them for two years between 1941 and 1943.

Waugh was on particularly good form, smiling condescendingly, and somehow looking threatening and threatened simultaneously

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