1990s >> 1999 >> no-1137-may-1999

Theatre Review: Broadcasting: A Counterfeit Reality

Talk of the City by Stephen Poliakoff. Royal Shakespeare Company at the Young Vic.

I find myself writing this review of Stephen Poliakoff’s rich and revealing play about censorship in the BBC in the years before World War II, the day after the NATO announcement that it viewed the content of Serbian television as so much propaganda. It is also only two days since a correspondent to the Guardian noted that whilst letters to the paper have been full of various opinions about the bombing of Serbia, no such differences of opinion have been evident in radio and television broadcasts. And, coincidentally, it’s a couple of months since an invitation to appear on the Kilroy programme was withdrawn because I wouldn’t express opinions in line with the wishes of the production team. All of which remind me of a couple of quotations which I noted when I was reading the Open University unit, “Science, Technology and Everyday Life, 1870-1950”, a couple of years ago:

“The so-called ‘mass media’ serve to generate consent in their audiences by representing the real world in ways which confer legitimacy on the social order in which they subsist.” “Communication is not only about who is talking to whom, and how; it is also about who is not talking to whom and why.”

Talk of the City is a zippy, immediately accessible show which is played with great exuberance and panache by a talented cast. It offers us review host, Robbie, inclined like most comedians to embroider his material in the light of his feelings and creative impulses at the time of delivery, and who is forever in trouble with those who produce his show and would have him never depart from the script; ideas man, Clive, anxious to offer listeners an account of what is happening to the Jews in Germany in 1938, contrary to the covertly anti-semitic line of many BBC managers; and a retinue of BBC officials sensitive to government policy, anxious to tow the party line, who insist on approving every last word before it is voiced over the airways.

The programme contains the complete text of the play and foreword, “Some Background Material—BBC in the Thirties”, which offers about a dozen quotations from internal memos, the BBC house magazine, ex-employees, etc. a real snip at £2.50. Two quotations give the flavour of the culture of the Corporation in the mid- to late- 1930s:

“I really believe that they (BBC managers) really thought that everybody who was doing a productive job was necessarily childish and irresponsible and needed controlling” (Maurice Chapman). “I received a letter from the Northern Regional Studio, asking me if I would talk on Repertory Theatre while I was up North. I said I would. I was then informed that a copy of my talk must be in the hands of the BBC at least a fortnight before the date of broadcasting, and that I must go to the studio to rehearse. ‘Otherwise,’ I was told, ‘the project must be abandoned.’ ‘The Project,’ I replied at once, ‘is abandoned'” (JB Priestley).

Nowadays, however, censorship is managed more subtly. Recording programmes in advance and enquiring of those who plan to take part what they might wish to say, can be used to avoid “unsuitable material” being transmitted over the airways. [My own recent personal experience is instructive, and is reported elsewhere in this issue.]

Talk of the City is a splendidly lucid piece of adult theatre, but it is also arguably historically and culturally adrift. By failing to connect with today’s media and avoiding a more substantial critique of broadcasting, Poliakoff seems to be inviting audiences to see the events of the late 1930s as an unique series of events. Socialists, however, would see them as representative of the continuing control of the cultural and political agenda by agents of the capitalist class who wish, as the Open University quotation has it, “to confer legitimacy on the social order in which they exist”.


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