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Writing the Radio War

Literature, Politics and the BBC, 1939-1945


Ian Whittington


Edinburgh Critical Studies in War and Culture

Edinburgh: University Press, 2018

Hardcover. ix+220 p. ISBN 978-1474413596. £75


Reviewed by Linsey Robb

Northumbria University






During the Second World War, radio was important. Very important. It reached a phenomenally large audience (often estimated at over 80% of the British populace). It was, as Siân Nicholas states, ‘a ubiquitous presence in ordinary life’.(1) The BBC often soundtracked both work and domestic life, giving the radio an incredible amount of power in shaping the average British citizen’s knowledge and understanding of the war. However, radio broadcasts are under-researched, especially when compared to wartime filmic outputs. As such, Ian Whittington’s Writing the Radio War is a welcome addition to the historiography of wartime radio.

Occupying a middle ground between literary analysis and cultural history the book uses five case studies to explore the interplay between literature and radio broadcast in wartime Britain. These are: iconic wartime broadcaster J.B. Priestley, novelist James Hanley, poet and playwright Louis MacNeice, Irish writer Denis Johnston and Jamaican writer Una Marson. These case studies examine the broad spectrum of voices presented on the wartime BBC as well as exploring the intricacies behind the creation of programming across the BBC’s production departments.

The book examines how the chosen literary figures used the particular medium of radio to comment on both the war and the anticipated peace. This is all especially interesting within the context of the BBC as a public service broadcaster. Indeed, the selected case studies expose the political and artistic tensions behind the broadcasts. One concept that permeates the book is the notion of ‘collaboration’, used to connote both working together and working with an opponent. Whittington intricately explores the way his key figures negotiate their own political beliefs within the wartime exigencies of the BBC. Similarly, he unpicks, using archival material and memoirs, the way these artists mediated their literary style for the aural medium. As well as being a fascinating study in the processes behind artistic endeavour these tensions also expose wider discomfort with certain parts of the war, and its meanings, for the British establishment.

The book opens with a chapter on infamous wartime broadcaster J.B. Priestley. While in a book on literary radio broadcasters Priestley would have been a glaring omission, it is the later chapters that feel most fresh and illuminating. For example, Chapter 4 is an analysis of Irish writer, and later academic, Denis Johnston’s BBC career as a front line war correspondent. As an Irishman, and firm supporter of Irish neutrality, who supported the British war effort he himself symbolised key tensions at play in the British Empire. Moreover, Whittington’s analysis of his reporting highlights the central conflicts in broadcasting from a war zone. Johnston was keen to broadcast truthfully from the front lines, yet was hampered (initially) by technological constraints. Moreover, his unwillingness to demonise the German people also led to tensions with the BBC. However, unsurprisingly, it is Johnston’s experiences at, and reactions to, Buchenwald concentration camp that are the most fascinating. Although moved by what he saw at Buchenwald, Johnston had a conflicted relationship with the Holocaust and Judaism in general. In a particularly engaging section, Whittington uses Johnston’s reactions to explore the BBC’s, and indeed Britain’s, difficulty in portraying these wartime atrocities, a situation complicated by continuing anti-Semitism throughout Britain.

The final substantive chapter regarding Jamaican Una Marson is also similarly enlightening. Marson had a complex relationship with the ‘mother country’ yet became the voice, and later producer, of the programme Calling the West Indies. The programme later became the seminal West Indian literary programme Caribbean Voices which ran until 1958. During the war, for the first time, the British establishment had to appeal en masse to the colonised peoples within the Empire to ensure their continued support for the war effort. Indeed, Calling the West Indies was the first empire broadcast to be specifically directed at the West Indies. As such Marson, like the other figures in the book, had to mediate various tensions to create her broadcasts. Before the war Marson had been a progressive writer. Yet during the war she had to negotiate her message to fit within BBC sensibilities. As Whittington notes, even the notion of the ‘West Indies’ is a colonial construction and the islands often had greater connections to Britain than to each other. Whittington intricately shows the alterations to surviving scripts to highlight the limits of acceptability and the subtlety Marson used in framing her ideas. Yet, Whittington argues, this was a mutually beneficial relationship. The BBC wanted a greater number of colonial voices on the airwaves while Marson believed that recognition as equal would be possible through intellectual and artistic endeavours. In this way Whittington’s work chimes with much recent scholarship on wartime Britain in which it becomes clear that despite the uniformity of representation Britain was a complex hive of contradictions and tensions.(2)

In summation, this book is a beautifully written exploration of the wartime BBC. With its literary analysis firmly situated in archival research this book will be of great use to literary scholars and cultural historians alike.


(1) S. Nicholas, The Echo of War : Home Front Propaganda and the Wartime BBC, 1939-45. Manchester: University Press, 1996, p. 1.

(2) See, for example, Wendy Webster, Mixing It :  Diversity in World War Two Britain. Oxford: University Press, 2018.



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