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Writing the Radio WarLiterature, Politics and the BBC, 1939-1945$

Ian Whittington

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9781474413596

Published to Edinburgh Scholarship Online: September 2018

DOI: 10.3366/edinburgh/9781474413596.001.0001

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Coda: Coronation

Coda: Coronation

(p.185) Coda: Coronation
Writing the Radio War

Ian Whittington

Edinburgh University Press

Abstract and Keywords

In the years after the war, radio faced a new threat from within Britain, as television rose to become the new dominant channel for the mediation of national culture. This transition is best represented by the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, the first national event to draw more television viewers than radio listeners across the country. This double coronation—of monarch and medium—represents not so much the total eclipse of radio as the recalibration of the media ecology, as technologies continued to jostle for primacy in a crowded sensory landscape. For the writers who helped to write the radio war, however, it nonetheless signalled the passing of a moment of cultural primacy for those whose work encompassed the written and the spoken word.

Keywords:   Queen Elizabeth II, Television, Postwar, Intermediality

Let us pray then that all the media survive.

(Louis MacNeice, ‘A Plea for Sound’ [1953: 135])

In autumn 1953, Louis MacNeice – no longer the rising talent of the BBC Features Department but one of its aging statesmen – published a cri de coeur in which he lamented the passing of a sceptre the previous spring. On 2 June, Elizabeth Windsor had been crowned Queen of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth realms. It was not with the monarch, however, but with the televisual medium of her accession that MacNeice was concerned. ‘It was prophesied by some that sound broadcasting would die on Coronation Day,’ MacNeice observes in ‘A Plea for Sound’, but he cannot help but feel that television had let its public down: ‘to my mind and that of many others the coronation procession became a bore on the television screen and, paradoxically, regained both sweep and colour when one went over to the sound broadcast’ (1953: 129). MacNeice concedes that the ceremony itself, within Westminster Abbey, was well served by television, but the procession outside had ‘clutter[ed] up the poor little screen in [an] unsignificant way’ (129–32). Worse in MacNeice’s view is the possibility that television, more so than sound broadcasting, may ‘shackle’ the imaginations of its audience (134).

The title of MacNeice’s article communicates both his continued interest in the medium of radio and his awareness that, whatever he might wish to be true, television was in the ascendant. Indeed, in conventional accounts of British media history, the installation of Queen Elizabeth II serves as a double coronation in which Britain appointed a successor not only to their wartime monarch but also to the medium of their national self-representation. Television had been around for years; while its early, experimental phase at the interwar BBC had been suspended with the outbreak of hostilities, by 1946 the Corporation was once again in the (p.186) business of vision. Before 1953, however, uptake of the new medium had been slow. It took a ceremony of national importance and visual splendour to prompt a public still emerging from years of austerity to spend £45 for an entry-level television set.1 Coronation afforded that opportunity. For the first time, television cameras were to be allowed within the walls of Westminster Abbey on Coronation Day, having been restricted to the procession outside for the 1937 coronation of George VI and similarly excluded for the wedding of Elizabeth in 1947. Access begat interest: the 1953 coronation marked the first time that more people watched a major national ceremony on television than listened to it on the radio (Hajkowski 2010: 97, 100).

But if television emerged from the coronation as the dominant medium, radio did not go gently into the good night of technological obsolescence. Beginning in 1952 but gathering steam by April 1953, the BBC Home Service, Light Programme and Third Programme – the postwar trifecta of hierarchised cultural output – produced a flood of radio broadcasts in anticipation of the ceremony. Coronation-themed episodes aired on established programmes from The Children’s Hour (which aired a six-part series on the queens regnant in Britain’s past) to Mrs. Dale’s Diary (in which the eponymous doctor’s wife welcomes a Pakistani family in London to witness the coronation), while special programmes aired about municipal planning for the event (London Prepared), details on coronation customs (The Holy Oil, on the ritual anointing of the monarch) and more demotic cultural traditions (such as the brewing of triple-strength Coronation Ales).2 MacNeice produced a feature for the Home Service named after Elizabeth I’s declaration upon her coronation, Time Has Brought Me Hither, and described as a ‘historical panorama showing the continuity in diversity of the British tradition with glimpses of various coronations through the last four hundred years’ (‘Time’ 1953: 12; Hajkowski 2010: 101). That these radio broadcasts were remediated through periodicals including The Listener, Radio Times and London Calling reminds us that while the coronation may have marked a decisive moment in television’s rise, that rise took place in a media system that was, and remains, a contested field of communication and representation. Like radio before it, television would be able to assert its particular function only in relation to the representations offered by print, cinema, phonography and other media.

Ultimately, however, the more enduring media of the double coronation might be the material instantiations that mark the ritual transfer of sovereign power. On screen and on the wireless, British and Commonwealth audiences encountered a ceremony resonant with, and through, the tangible past: orb, sceptre, robes, carriage and crown. (p.187) The Abbey itself – described in The Stones Cry Out as ‘a great stone ship becalmed in the night’ – was and is a vehicle for the articulation of national identity, its constitutive role in the fabulation of Britishness reimagined and remediated at regular intervals over centuries (MacNeice 1941c: 4). Churches, as MacNeice well knew, are intermedial spaces. They offer a multisensory experience antecedent to technologies of mass communication: an immersive language of stone that is at once sculpture, gallery and resonant chamber for voice and music. If MacNeice’s wartime broadcast honouring the Abbey and its inhabitants had marked one means of bringing that deep history into the present by suturing scripture and stone to the sounds of bombardment, the televised coronation in 1953 marked only the newest way of realising national identity through the circulation of meaningful forms.

While the death of George VI, whose rule encompassed the war, may have seemed to mark the end of one chapter in the life of the nation, it is equally true that Elizabeth had endured the Blitz along with the rest of Britain. If wartime propaganda, both at home and abroad, had stressed the contributions of average Britons to the war effort, the royal family’s determination to stay in London throughout the conflict had lent credibility to their claims to represent the beleaguered nation, and the Empire, as a whole.3 It is precisely this legacy of shared wartime vulnerability that Elizabeth Bowen draws on in ‘Coronation’, a talk prepared weeks in advance of the event and aired 31 May 1953 on the Third Programme. For Bowen, Elizabeth’s coronation marks a larger celebration of the victories earned through struggles so severe that their scars persist:

This is a nation great in its endurances. We commemorate the wounds which have been survived, the losses outfaced, the sorrows which ran their course. The Queen’s Coronation is taking place in a London of spaces of cleared ruins. The dead who should still be living, the dead of two wars, are among the concourse: the Queen is victorious in their name – she is to reign, also, over a living race of slow but undeterrable rebuilders. (2010: 104–5)

Bowen’s rhetoric of endurance, renewal and rebuilding reflects the emphasis the BBC as a whole put on the coronation event. Like the Festival of Britain that had taken place in summer 1951, the celebration surrounding Elizabeth’s investiture was to mark the continued progress of the nation out of the depths of the war and into a brighter future (Hilmes 2012: 208). The coronation was therefore framed not as a feudal remainder in a modern constitutional monarchy, but as a well-deserved moment of joyous unity in a welfare state and a larger Commonwealth. Programmes in the lead-up included The Queen’s People, featuring portraits of sailors, soldiers and farmers who ‘fought (p.188) and worked to preserve the heritage of Britain’, as well as repeated references to the Commonwealth as a united family and a source of pride; the coronation was, as Charles Max-Mueller of BBC Outside Broadcasts noted, ‘a Commonwealth affair’ (qtd in Hajkowski 2010: 101–2). If radio – as the medium that had tracked the social and political changes thrust upon Britain by the war – was no longer dominant, the reformed structures whose arrival it had chronicled nonetheless conditioned the coverage of this new media event.

Television might traffic in representations of the same decolonising welfare state that radio had augured, but subtle differences in the embodied experience of each medium provided Britons with a shifting and multiform perspective on this collective turning point. Bowen, ever attuned to the different ways in which media spoke to Britons of themselves, saw the coronation as an instance of multiple mediation for both the figure of the monarch and the nation itself:

The actuality of her movements is being photographed, not only on the consciousness of the bystanders – it is recorded on films as history – and cast from moment to moment, fugitive as real life, on to television screens. Listeners more closely watch with the mind’s eye: voice after voice takes up every golden turning flash of her coach-wheels, each inclination of her head. These hours – day here, night elsewhere, focus the world. The size, the intensity, the silence of the global attention can be felt – or, can it? Does the Queen feel it? Is it too vast to feel? (2010: 103–4)

Photography, film, television, radio: each affords an impression, a way of participating in the event by perceiving it, which together add up to a monumental interpellation into a new, postwar nation. By projecting herself into the moment of the mass-mediated coronation that had yet to happen, Bowen entertains the idea that the Queen might just register the immensity of the popular enthusiasm for the event: ‘[D]o they, do the Royal, record vibrations?’, she wonders (2010: 106).

Writers who broadcast over the wireless during the war did not entirely turn their backs on television, but it might be said that the transition suited few of them. Following his wartime stint as a correspondent, Denis Johnston had returned to BBC Television as Director of Programmes in 1946, although he found the work less creative in an austerity Britain where radio still reigned; he resigned in 1947 to pursue freelance television work in New York, but found his BBC reputation did not carry him very far there, and eventually moved into academia (Adams 2002: 284–302). In April 1953, BBC Director of Television (and former Third Programme Controller) George Barnes reached out to Johnston about returning to the now-vigorous television department, (p.189) but Johnston was busy with his academic career and in the thick of preparations for the publication of Nine Rivers from Jordan later that year, and so demurred (Adams 2002: 386).

In an echo of the initial mistrust that some felt towards radio, many other writers found it even more difficult than Johnston did to embrace television with any fervour. Though he was enthusiastic about radio, T. S. Eliot resisted the new audio-visual medium because he thought it further distanced the public from what he considered appropriately elevating and challenging forms of art (Coyle 2009: 192). W. H. Auden was outright dismissive; in a 1972 interview with the Paris Review, he declaimed, ‘I don’t see how any civilised person can watch TV, far less own a set’ (qtd in Carey 1992: 214). For some writers, television simply represented another imperfect medium that, while it had its drawbacks, offered certain advantages. MacNeice may have grudgingly acknowledged that television captured the spectacle of the coronation ceremony, but he worried that, as television and other media continued to grow in popularity, the audience might forget the ability of radio to offer an imaginative experience free of visual determinants:

Let us pray then that all the media survive. Radio and the films have not yet killed books and there are many words including many poems which it is best to read on the page. Above all do not let us, with 3D and such impinging on us, think that a multiple technique is necessarily ‘better’ than a simple technique. Many music lovers prefer to hear music with their eyes shut and who wants to live all the time in the world of Mr. Disney’s Fantasia? (1953: 135)

MacNeice never tried his hand at 3-D filmmaking. He would go on to direct two August Strindberg plays for television in 1958, but he never felt at home in the medium (Stallworthy 1995: 429). Although theoretically open to the possibilities of television, it may simply have been too late in his career for him to take the same kinds of risk with television as he had with radio less than twenty years earlier.

Writing in 1957, Priestley gave voice to a similarly resigned acceptance of new media. He could not hide his disappointment that the public enthusiasm that had animated British writers’ success in radio broadcasting in earlier decades was passing. No matter how resistant he may have been to the seductions of the postwar consumer society he dubbed ‘Admass’ (Priestley and Hawkes 1955: 50), Priestley saw adaptation to new media as the only choice open to the midcentury intellectual, who must ‘go after his audience wherever that audience may be’:

You may wish, as I have often wished, that the media of mass communications had never been invented; but they have been invented, they are with us (p.190) … Therefore, if we think of ourselves not simply as exponents of the printed word, but as creators, as makers, as inventors; as belonging to one of those eternal types I mentioned earlier, we should go for the audience wherever it may be found and try to learn those new techniques demanded by the new media … I feel very strongly that, certainly in this country, we would have had better films, we would have had better radio and we would be having better television if more writers had thought it their duty to learn how to use these media and so found new audiences; in the hope, of course, of bringing those audiences to the older arts of the printed word and the theatre.

(Priestley 1957: 27–8)

Priestley’s shift in tense when referring to the media of mass communication, from the film and radio the public ‘would have had’ to the television they ‘would be having’, is telling. In consigning film and radio, rather prematurely, to the dustbin of media past, he indicates a belief that their eclipse by television is all but complete. Reports of the death of cinema and of radio remain greatly exaggerated. Priestley’s nostalgic tone nonetheless reflects a sense that the moment of primacy for both media, as well as for himself, had passed.

The loss of this historically contingent confluence of mass-mediated public cultural authority, directed towards progressive goals, was perhaps especially crushing for Priestley because it had once seemed so full of potential. Following the war, the spirit of participatory democracy and common endeavour that had animated the early years of the People’s War seemed to fade in favour of a government run by faceless technocrats: ‘One day in the late summer of ’45,’ Priestley wrote in 1958, ‘Revolutionary Young England was invited to 10 Downing Street, to be thanked for its election services, and was shot as it went upstairs. Who pulled the trigger, I don’t know’ (1958: 15). Against the sense of possibility that his ‘Postscripts’ had at once captured and engendered, an exhausted resignation to officialdom seemed to set in amongst the public. Instead of inheriting a culture of creation and community, the nation had been taken over by something he dubbed ‘Topside’, a new form of Establishment England (and he was back to calling it ‘England’) that blended tradition, bureaucracy and the love of power. ‘Topside’, Priestley states, is ‘the reaction against a revolution that never happened’ (1958: 14; emphasis in original).

With public attention fixated on the future of the nation during the war, radio had opened up a vast field of engagement for writers interested in framing the character of British cultural and political life, a field characterised by feedback and iteration, and by a process of constant negotiation between dictating and reflecting public expectations and tastes. But the same forces of public opinion that had forced the BBC (p.191) to appeal more directly to listeners’ tastes from the late 1930s onwards effected a postwar diffusion of the power held by the Home Service on the domestic front and the Overseas Service on the international front. While the launch of the Third Programme in 1946 would ensure a forum for highbrow content for decades to come, the tripartite division of broadcasting services served to institutionalise cultural hierarchies while splitting the attention of the national radio public. The resumption of BBC television broadcasting in 1946 only added to a media landscape already populated by radio, cinema and print.

The pre-eminence of radio as a site for discourses of politics, culture and identity did not last long. As a medium for propagating stories of national and transnational belonging, radio reached its apogee during the Second World War and would sustain it for some years afterwards before beginning a slow fade-out that continues to this day. But, for that brief historical period, the sound of an individual’s voice and the weight of that individual’s words could affect the shape of debate on a national scale. The same crisis that cemented writers’ resolve to participate in the public sphere brought that public sphere to new life, as listeners tuned in to hear representations of the events and ideas that shaped both the immediate and the more distant future. Writing the radio war demanded an attention to the tenor of public discussion and a willingness to step in and influence that same discussion. In bringing a diversity of opinions, accents and aesthetics to the radio, British writers moved beyond entertainment and information to open up new possibilities for belonging to Britain and to the nations of the Commonwealth to come.


(1.) In terms of commodity purchasing power, £45 in 1953 was equivalent to approximately £1,100 in 2016. As a comparison, the brand-new Olivetti Lettera 22 typewriter was advertised at £28.15s in the 11 June 1953 issue of The Listener (‘Olivetti’ 1953: 936). A 1951 Pye P43 table-top Superhet radio receiver retailed for £12.5s.2d when first introduced (‘Pye P43’ 1952).

(2.) On these and other programmes, see the Radio Times schedules for the months of April, May and June 1953. The Listener reprinted portions of Douglas Willis’s report on Coronation Ales on 5 March 1953 (‘Did You Hear That?’ 1953: 377) and C. H. Williams’s ‘The Legend of the Holy Oil’ on 28 May 1953 (C. H. Williams 1953: 875).

(3.) On the relation of the royal family to broadcasting during the war, see Hajkowski, The BBC and National Identity (2010: 93–7).