Birthday Speech at the BBC

Thursday, 21st June 1973
1,497 words 6 minute read.

First of all, thank you for this splendid occasion. It’s the best birthday party I’ve ever had – so far! I must confess to having been a bit apprehensive about it. Then I reflected that on these occasions one has nothing to fear but the cold eye of the teetotaller, and I do not feel there are many cold eyes on me tonight.

Something I’d like to get off my chest at once. It’s often put to me. How do you manage to work for the BBC and write books at the same time? Writing, for me is obsessive. I feel slightly ill when I’m not grappling with some extended piece of fiction. Working for the BBC has been not so much obsessive (I don’t feel slightly ill now I’ve stopped doing it, just very uneasy) as something to which I’ve been very committed. Both have been engrossing and time-consuming. They have been made possible by the forbearance and support of one person.

Joan [P.H. Newby’s wife] has put up with a lot. I’m thinking particularly of certain kinds of contemporary music and drama; and there has been this mad practice of shutting myself up to make black marks on white paper.

My broadcasting career might have been brought to an early end but for her intervention. My first broadcast was for the great and good Niouta Kallin who produced people in an unorthodox way. She matched her technique to the person she was dealing with. And in my case she decided that what I basically needed was cheering up. So instead of rehearsing me at any great length she took me to the pictures; and then back to Broadcasting House for the live broadcast.

Later I did four weekly talks at the Home Service. Here I had a producer who decided I needed taking down a peg or two. He went into the studio and imitated me.

“That’s what you sound like,” he said. “Don’t you think it’s awful?”

I was furious. Instead of my manly, unaffected and pleasing voice I heard tones of such priggish sanctimoniousness that I said, “If that’s what I sound like I’m not broadcasting.”

He said, “You’re on the air in ten minutes.”

“That’s your problem,” I said and was about to leave when Joan (who had been listening to all this in the cubicle) said, “Go back into that Studio at once.” It was a near thing, but I did as I was told and that is why I’m here tonight.

Some time later I joined the staff and was trained by the South African poet, Roy Campbell. You’ll remember he was the chap who wrote, of certain contemporary novelists:

You praise the firm restraint with which they write
I’m with you there, of course
They use the curb and the snaffle all right
but where’s the bloody horse?

A robust, rhetoric-loving bull-fighting sort of man who had, no doubt, been carefully chosen to draw me out. You must also remember that these were the high and palmy days of the Third Programme. The broadcasting of The Ring had become an annual event, the plays of Bernard Shaw were at long last being heard. On the air, Mahler & Monteverdi were heard in the land. Great series like ‘The Ideas and Beliefs of the Victorians’ had gone out.

And there was Roy Campbell, wearing a big leather belt and sombrero, producing short stories. The week I arrived he had chosen a short extract of The Forsyte Saga. To be more exact, his secretary had chosen it. She had also chosen the reader, Gladys Young. Roy took me off to the studio for the rehearsal.

“She’s just great,” he said. “With readers of this class you don’t even have to time them.”

This was true. Gladys Young, one of the great radio actresses, did it all.

“The only reason any man,” said Roy Campbell, “would want to work for the BBC is to do his friends a good turn. Don’t forget that.”

So far as I can remember this is all the training I had.

My lack of training did not inhibit me in the appearances I have made before successive government enquiries into broadcasting. First of all the Beveridge Committee. Then Pilkington. Finally Annan.

Lord Beveridge was rather alarming. He asked to see me personally.

“Mr Newby, I know that when the BBC embarks on a science series they take proper advice. In literature and the arts they don’t. The BBC thinks it knows. You, Mr. Newby, were responsible for the broadcasts to mark the Wordsworth centenary. Tell me how you chose your speakers and subjects.”

I told him. It was a matter I knew something about myself and I had been much guided by Herbert Read and Humphry House. I thought the whole series had gone off pretty well. Beveridge said, “Do you not know that I am preaching the Wordsworth centenary sermon in Grasmere church next month? Do you not know I have a certain special authority for speaking on Wordsworth, and am a public figure into the bargain. Why did you not invite me to broadcast?”

I had the feeling that the whole future of the BBC, the level of the licence fee, were at stake. If I made the wrong answer we might end up with a Ministry of Culture. So I threw myself on his mercy.

“Lord Beveridge, I am a young and inexperienced producer with my reputation still to make. I am still on probation. There are times when one avoids the obvious. Had I invited you to speak the Controller of Talks would almost certainly have said I was playing safe.”

He was not deceived and when the Beveridge Report came out one of the first things it said was as follows. “The extent of which, in the framing of programmes, there is consultation by the experts inside the Corporation with experts outside is of great importance. Our impression is that the degree of this Consultation is somewhat uneven.”

The toughest assignment I ever had was Robert Oppenheimer‘s Reith Lectures, Science & The Common Understanding. He wouldn’t let me see them in draft. He and his wife came over on the Queen Mary and I read the first lecture in the car between Southampton and London. I told him I was worried. The argument was difficult, the style was not a spoken one and the language was abstract. We really were going to have to do a lot of work. Oppenheimer, of course, was not prepared to change a word. This was in 1953, before tape recording and easy playback. I found myself having to take his script and read from it as if he was reading from it. I imitated him. I must say that he took it better than an earlier speaker who had been subjected to the same technique, and in the 2½ weeks he was here, Oppenheimer, in all fairness, worked hard to get those six lectures right.

Training and all that – well, I’ve had to learn as I ran. The people who’ve taught me have been those who, nominally, were working for me. The scheduling and costing of a network, chairing a computer systems steering group, the Radio Planning Group – all this, the tougher side of administration, is something, rather unexpectedly, I’ve enjoyed. Orchestral policy, needletime – these words are engraved on whatever part of my anatomy is now thought to be the seat of the emotions. And I’ve been marvellously supported by experts in my own and other Directorates who made up for the deficiencies created by the rather Topsy-like way I grew.

When asked why I joined the BBC I sometimes answer, “To get a mortgage.” There’s a bit of truth in that, but much more of the truth in my wish to get near the centre of a truly national conversation – a conversation made up not only of talk, but the arts and entertainment as well. This is something the BBC uniquely makes possible. This is the point where I become a bit confused about motives. Many of the reasons why I’ve so enormously enjoyed working for the BBC, and why I feel so indebted to the BBC, are literary reasons. My vocabulary, my range of experience, have been extended to the point where, in retrospect, and at the end of this splendid dinner and after three glasses of wine, everything seems a bit dreamlike.

Today is the summer solstice and tonight one of the nights of midsummer. I wouldn’t like to push the comparison too far but I do feel a bit like Bottom the weaver who, on awakening, said, “I have had a dream — past the wit of man to say what dream it was.”

I think it is not illusion that, thanks to the BBC, I have heard something of our national story over the past thirty years, and even played some modest part in telling it. But I might be wrong.

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P.H. Newby: later years

P.H. Newby, CBE: novelist, historian, and managing director of BBC Radio. First winner of the Booker Prize in 1969.

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