George Orwell at the BBC: a reflection

On Tuesday 7th November 2017 a statue of George Orwell was unveiled in the piazza of the BBC’s New Broadcasting House by Baroness Whitaker and Orwell’s son, Richard Blair. The statue, which is the work of sculptor Martin Jennings, was commissioned and paid for by the George Orwell Memorial Fund. Director of The Orwell Foundation, Professor Jean Seaton spoke after the unveiling of the statue; you can read the full text of her speech below.

A statue? Of Orwell? Eric Blair trembled on the edge of failure for most of his writing life. He was a socialist who valued many conservative things. However, his lethal criticism of other socialists was not because he rejected their goal but because he identified the vanity and distorted perceptions of many who claimed to be on the side of the left and freedom. Was he a hero? Or a martyr? A cult has developed around him that pigeon holes someone who consciously wriggled away from definitions. He was, I think we can all agree – awkward.

Orwell worked for the BBC in 1941-3.  He would have preferred to be fighting. He said later that it was a waste of time, and that the BBC was ‘something half way between a girl’s school and a lunatic asylum.’

What did he give the BBC, and the nation, at a time of total war? A cunning way into the Indian sub-continent: he provided an international platform for their distinguished (and largely anti-imperialist) writers. Orwell was a journalist – he wrote a 1,000 letters on the way to Wigan Pier, a book in which the horrifying reality of poverty – and the smell of it – is described alongside the dignity of those who live in it– because they are recognised as particular, individual. And there is a challenge to the reader in it as well. When invited to give a BBC broadcast, his reply was careful: ‘I will do the talk if I can be reasonably frank. I am not going to say anything I regard as untruthful.’

I particularly like ‘I regard’: he knows he is telling us that he is fallible and puts this scrupulous hesitation in every sentence. But that is what makes it so overwhelmingly persuasive.

What did he get from the BBC (even though he believed himself to have been wasting his very finite time)? A sense of a big bureaucracy, the ferocious discipline of broadcasting to audiences who were taking risks to listen and who were hearing, not like a reader in their own head, but in the mysterious collective space of the ether. He learnt how to edit and cut: during The Orwell Foundation’s production of 1984 Live we experienced just how perfect his phrasing is. He learnt the innards of propaganda – all of this goes into Nineteen Eighty-four. In many ways, the BBC also found itself in during the Second World War: perhaps these two national institutions Orwell and the BBC come out of that moment.

Orwell has a voice that is peculiarly authoritative, impartial, and aloof. It hovers over everything. But it is also disconcertingly personal: Orwell is present in his own work. Given a sentence of Orwell you know you are in Orwell-land. It is a mental space. The BBC is also a mental space, where the values can be discerned in every word and image. But the peculiarly disconcerting and uncomfortable aspect of Orwell-land is his self-analysis: Orwell invites you into his own failures. And not the nice acceptable ones, but the nasty ones.  He was unflinching in his self-criticism. He opens up his own cowardice and mistakes. It can bring you up sharp.

As only Orwell could, he marked the BBC as he left – almost prissily: ‘I feel that I have been treated with the greatest generosity and allowed very great latitude…on no occasion have I been compelled to say on air anything that I would not say as a private individual.’

Everything Orwell ever wrote is an extended polemic of seeing the truth, however ugly, in ourselves. Perhaps this was a product also of the war – but seems to me a mark of democratic principle. The breaking down of the barriers between people and nations depends for Orwell on a shared reality. Surely that is the object of the BBC.