Pevsner : The BBC Years
Listening to the Visual Arts
Farnham: Ashgate, 2015
Hardcover. xii+399 p. ISBN 978-1472407672. £85
Reviewed by Elizabeth Darling
Oxford Brookes University
With this study of the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner's career as a regular speaker for BBC radio, Stephen Games provides the complement to his 2014 compendium of the transcripts of those talks. In that earlier volume, the task facing Games was twofold: to bring together and document the substantial number of talks that Pevsner gave from 1945 until 1977, and to annotate them so that the reader could see, for example, when Pevsner had made alterations or referred to an illustration. As I remarked in my review of that book in an earlier edition of Cercles, this was a major undertaking in and of itself, and one that has provided an invaluable and accessible account of an important contributor to the BBC's cultural programming. With this new book, Games's task is a rather different one, less editorial and more discursive. In it he is able to talk around Pevsner's talks: relating the history of another facet of this prolific historian's output.
The book is divided into three parts. The first, 'Chronology', as its title signals, offers an account of Pevsner's career at the BBC from his first talk until his last. We are reminded of Pevsner's difficulties in finding a permanent and full-time academic position, the peripatetic nature of his career from his arrival in 1933 and, thus, that the BBC's decision to employ Pevsner should be understood as 'an extraordinary validation'  of someone who had struggled to find a niche in his adopted country. Games takes us from his first talks – on Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright in February 1945 – to the Reith Lectures and his final broadcast on Manchester Town Hall, which went out in September 1977. This is no mere narrative, however, and Games takes care to discuss the broader context of the BBC as a broadcaster, the paradoxical notion of broadcasting about the visual and spatial arts through a non-visual medium, as well as offering accounts of the various producers for whom Pevsner worked. He also includes a discussion of the King Penguin series to which he was initially invited to contribute and of which he subsequently became the editor.
'Chronology' is followed by a section, 'Context', in which Games considers the response to Pevsner's talks by a range of constituencies (listeners, the press, architecture critics), as well as a discussion of Pevsner's use of language. As Games notes, lack of data prevents definitive estimations of how many his broadcasts reached however the BBC's audience research department did on two occasions (for which documentation has survived) solicit views on two talks in 1952. Pevsner's accent seems to have caused some disquiet but the fact that he was employed for the next 25 years suggests that the 'erudite and witty'  quality of a talk on Bolsover castle was one to which audiences responded positively.
The final section of Games's book is a series of Appendices, which have much in common with the documentary nature of his 2014 compendium. This includes correspondence from The Listener, which provides further evidence of audience responses to his talks in some rather erudite exchanges about the style of the Brighton Pavilion, for example, and Pevsner's replies to his listener critics. In a second appendix (and a testament to Games's Pevsner-like diligence in this project) the author transcribes the discrepancies between the eleven surviving recordings of Pevsner's talks and the scripts. This section concludes with a list of Pevsner's King Penguins, a bibliography of texts by his producer Basil Taylor, his BBC Audience Appreciation Index, a table that charts the educational background of the BBC Talks Division Staff (predictably Oxbridge-dominated), a list of reviews of Pevsner's books and finally one of his journalism after 1945.
That these sections do not quite flow together in the way that a more conventional biography might is a minor criticism of what is a further significant contribution to Pevsner studies. Games's great skill in accruing and assimilating the many and varied outputs of the polymathic Pevsner into this volume provides historians of twentieth-century British architecture with a valuable resource from which wider studies can be made of how architecture as a subject was communicated through the mass media. One hopes that studies of other broadcasting (architectural) historians might follow.
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