On a mission to ‘inform, educate and entertain’ the nation since 1922, this year marks the centenary of the BBC, a British institution both beloved and beleaguered. In the wonderful 1980 novel, Human Voices by Penelope Fitzgerald, we join the corporation during the intense years of the Second World War, where nightly bombing requires the staff to bed down in the concert hall and the canteen possesses only one communal teaspoon, tied to the till with string. Despite the Blitz-induced discombobulation, when the nation gathers round the radio at 9pm each evening, the Beeb is there for them.
Fitzgerald was herself employed as a BBC features producer in 1940, and it’s fascinating to speculate on the ratio here of lived experience to artistic licence. Wry, funny, and poignant, she centres her story around two frequently opposing departments, the Department of Programme Planning, headed by the wearily detached Jeff Haggard, and the Department of Recorded Programmes, run by the workaholic and often sidelined, Sam Brooks. Their working relationship of many years tends to consist of Sam haranguing Jeff on the corporation’s misguided directives, none more so than its emphasis on ‘truth’.
Live sound must always be preferred to a recording. For example, the chimes of Big Ben must always be relayed live from Westminster.
‘Then, if Big Ben is silent, the public will know that the war has taken a distinctly unpleasant turn.’
Truth over consolation.
For Sam, this feels like an attack on his professional existence, and one that is often disingenuous. In a brilliantly facetious scene that takes place shortly after the fall of Paris in June 1940, the BBC gives live airtime to a French general who wishes to address the British nation. Unfortunately, his words are not quite as galvanising as the Director-General may wish.
‘There is no hope for you…you have lost your war…do not listen to the courageous drunkard whom you have made your Prime Minister.’
The head honchos at Broadcasting House are subsequently relieved to discover that a technical hitch (otherwise known as Jeff pulling the plug) has meant that the speech was totally lost to silence. Fifteen million listeners have heard little of a speech that was frankly unhelpful.
A quick-witted delight, Human Voices contains no grand plot progression. It is concerned instead with the mood and character dynamics contained within the BBC during a time of national emergency.
I loved the depiction of the staff sleeping arrangements in the concert hall, its magnificent acoustics enhancing the snoring no end. Stretched across the middle of the hall, a row of blankets provides a little privacy ‘for the ladies.’ This prompts some alarmed debate amongst the superiors as to whether this whole set-up may lead to a lapse in morality amongst the younger staff and potential ‘goings on.’
‘Surely not while England’s in danger.’
There are, of course, ‘goings on’ and consequences, outmoded social attitudes, and the pathos of living with the fear of ‘the soundless fall of a telegram through the letterbox.’
The perfect novel to both mark this anniversary year, and introduce the uninitiated to the brilliant Penelope Fitzgerald.
Human Voices by Penelope Fitzgerald is published by Fourth Estate, 224 pages.