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TV review: How the BBC Began and James Joyce’s Ulysses

28 October 2022


Broadcasting House, the Art Deco headquarters of the BBC since 1932

Broadcasting House, the Art Deco headquarters of the BBC since 1932

WOULD anyone ever go to church again? No recent despair about lockdowns, nor anxiety about the glossy allure of Sunday evening TV: this was 1922, and bishops were opposing the founding of the British Broadcasting Corporation, and its implicit encouragement to the nation to stay at home and gather round the wireless set.

How the BBC Began (BBC2, Saturday), part of the centenary anniversary commemorations, contained a feast of delicious morsels. For decades, the Corporation was clear that radio ruled; development of the infant TV service (Lord Reith never considered this upstart a serious medium) was put on hold throughout the war. We saw the crucial early broadcast moments: the Abdication, Chamberlain’s announcement of the war.

But personal reminiscence from the great and good recalled other moments, not exactly covered in glory, like the 19 minutes of TV paralysis after the news of Kennedy’s assassination, because there were no plans for responding to international tragedy; paralysis descending into farce by the panicked showing of an episode of, God help us, Harry Worth.

Or the interruption of the epoch-making live broadcast of the first manned orbit of the moon, because it was time for Jackanory, a débâcle put right when the Queen Mother telephoned to complain. It was the radio broadcasting throughout the Second World War that cemented the nation’s relationship with the BBC, almost considered the voice of God: accurate, honest, utterly reliable. Except that it wasn’t, completely.

The most striking sequence was the testimony of Frank Gillard, the only reporter present at the 1942 Dieppe raid. He had relayed the propaganda line fed to him of its being a great success, while all around him the sea was red with blood and full of corpses. His contrition and shame were deeply moving.

Another 1922 centenary celebration, this time of its publication rather than inception, of a subject which no doubt would cause Lord Reith apoplexy. But I doubt whether the BBC’s mandate to inform as well as entertain has been better fulfilled than by BBC4’s magnificent James Joyce’s Ulysses (7 September and iPlayer). The novel’s format was replicated with a rich palimpsest: a gorgeous, complex mosaic of word and image. Contributions from great poets, authors, academics, curators of Joyce museums — all illustrated the narrative.

We saw evocative contemporary footage, early film, cartoons, postcards, the actual locations, high culture, and low life — all scavenged from a century of material. The utterly revolutionary nature of the book was demonstrated with rich clarity: this is no pornographic descent into sexual licence, but a far deeper celebration of the heroic significance of the minutiae of the most mundane daily life.

Nothing is banished, unfit for our gaze; all is proclaimed through the great themes of literature, culture, art. Molly Bloom’s repeated “Yes” is more than sexual ecstasy: it celebrates the corporeal, the flesh made word.

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