21 FEBRUARY 1987, Page 19


Kenneth Robinson writes

an open letter to the new

director general of the BBC Dear DG, Like earlier DGs, you must be wondering exactly what it was about your predeces- sor, Lord Reith, that gave him the reputa- tion of being such a giant among men.

Could it, I wonder, have been his weekly letters in the Radio Times, which began shortly after the very first broadcast?

`Please note', said Reith, 'that the word is "broadcast". Hence "I have broadcast", not "I have broadcasted". That is our ruling. And let us not have any references to the "listener-in". Even "in-listener" would be better, and certainly more acceptable than the suggested "broadcas- ter" or "radio fan". One awaits something better — "listener", perhaps.'

That was Reith the pedant. But he was a kindly man and inclined to forgive lapses in pronounciation on the air. 'One cannot blame even an announcer with a university degree', he said, `for falling down on the names of such Hunts as the Pytchley and the Belvoir.' You can't help wondering how often the Pytchley and the Belvoir were featured in the national news bulle- tins.

Reith was always anxious to make allow- ances for people. After the nightingale was broadcast from a wood in Surrey, he wrote with understanding of 'the pure radio enthusiast who would as lief hear a fly crawling up the window-pane as a nighting- ale wooing its mate.'

Reith tried very hard, he told us, 'to imagine what the people at the other end are thinking and feeling about BBC trans- missions. There is the city- man, for inst- ance, home from business, fed and rested. For him there should be a few minutes of chat by an expert on things people discuss in trains — things that are puzzling, life's little problems.'

This city man — Mr Urbanus, as Reith called him — had a wife. 'We see this couple, greyish about the temples, a trifle comfortable about the figure, visibly re- spectable and a little wanting in sensitivity. But try them with the nightingale, or with one of those old pieces like Salut d'Amour or Blue Danube, and it all comes back to them.'

Reith didn't tell us what come back to them, but simply went on describing his typical listeners, including 'the lonely woman, children married and gone, hus- band dead, needing a companion that can play, sing and talk on any topic, and can be quieted immediately. I like to think we can brighten the evening of that woman's life.'

You can see why recent DGs have been missing out. They have never volunteered to expose their sentiments about listeners in this utterly frank and affectionate way.

Reith even divided his listening country- men into frozen northerners and warmer southerners. 'This Christmas', he wrote in 1922, 'northern listeners among you may be lucky enough to skate to wireless music. Others, down south, may delight in hunt- the-thimble or hunt-the-slipper to wireless accompaniment, with no-one needing to be out of the fun playing the piano. And remember that the loudspeaker will never feel hurt if a cracker is pulled while it is in the middle of a song.'

Reith also offered help to listeners who liked dancing to wireless music.

`The hyper-critical and artistic among you', he said, 'must camouflage your loudspeakers behind screens and book- cases, or the music will be marred for you by the obstrusive visibility of the source from which it comes. It is much the same for people listening to, say, The Unfinished Symphony. Their minds can be so obsessed and distracted by the agency that the music has not a fair chance.'

Reith also gave advice to 'those who allow literature to be brought into their drab lives. When a poetry reading is broadcast, the lights should be turned off in your room. But during a dramatised scene from Pride and Prejudice you should turn the lights right up, so that you can watch the delight in each other's eyes. At the theatre we say "Hush" angrily if our neighbours seem restive. At home we must be more tactful about getting an atmos- phere conducive to the exercise of the imaginative faculties.'

Reith showed concern about all kinds of listeners, including burglars. As he put it: `If a man decided to burgle a house in which resided an experimental transmitter, with its mast-stays, earth mats, accumula- tors and door-frame aerials, this would greatly exercise his nimbleness of mind and foot, and would make him want to knit socks, instead, as a means of livelihood.'

Then there were the Martians. 'I am quite aware', said Reith, in a Radio Times letter, 'that with our present limited know- ledge of electricity, it might be considered idle to speculate on communicating with the Martians.

`We could never hope to attract their attention by using giant lights or deafening noises. But with wireless telegraphy it might be possible, one day, to try the effect upon them of different tunes.' It would probably all come back to them, as it did to Mr and Mrs Urbanus. Whatever it was.

Reith, of course, is revered as a moralist, but he very much enjoyed mixing his morality with technology. 'The BBC's broadcasts', he once wrote, 'can edify and enlighten, passing a girdle round the earth, binding nations together and tending to our personal peace.

`But not even personal peace can be found if people continue to oscillate.' That, at least, is something no DG has to bother about today.

Incidentally, there is just one maxim from Reith that should appeal to his successor, 60 years after he delivered it. `Good Resolutions', he wrote, 'are all right in their way. But if they induce a gloomy survey of last time's failures, it is better to avoid Resolutions altogether.'

Finally, let me remind you of Reith's useful statement on BBC policy. 'I am not to be 'taken', he said, 'as formulating an opinion to the effect that the BBC has no policy. One might prefer to hear it sug- gested that it has too many. If, however, I were suddenly assailed by one who said that we did, in fact, have no policy, I should have a very ready reply for him, if rather lengthy. But I know that his state- ment and my reply would be almost equally absurd.'