Britishness and Internationalism in Experimental BBC Radio Features

– from Lance Sieveking‘s Kaleidoscope (1928) to The Kamikaze Ground Staff Reunion Dinner (1980)

David Hendy, University of Sussex

This talk was about two classic BBC radio programmes broadcast half a century apart. Their interest lies in how they each reveal (in very different ways) a complex tension between trans-European influence and insular British cultural identity in the creation, aesthetic identity, and critical reception of radio programming.

The first, Kaleidoscope (1928), was a long, complex ‘Modernist’ montage, and – as the archival records and private papers of its producer Lance Sieveking reveal – it was clearly influenced by aesthetic developments in German, French, and Russian cinema, as well as (to a lesser degree), surrealism, Weimar cabaret and older ‘Gesamtkunstwerk’ ideas. The programme highlights how transnational encounters shaping radio are not always wrought through the medium of radio directly. They are often done indirectly via other media – though they are nevertheless still significant. In identifying these influences, it is clear that the biography of the producer needs to be taken into account. In the case of Sieveking, who wrote, produced and directed Kaleidoscope, we can, for instance, identify his alertness to European culture as something most likely learned during his time as a Prisoner of War in a highly cosmopolitan Officers’ camp in Germany in 1917-18.

The second, The Kamikaze Ground Staff Reunion Dinner (1979), was a tragi-comic drama, which the BBC proudly submitted to the pan-European Prix Italia awards in 1980. It had been well-received in Britain, but – as the BBC’s written records relating to the Prix Italia reveal – was received with “baffled incomprehension” by the jury in Italy. The programme’s failure to win a prize prompted some extended soul-searching by the BBC. The written records of these internal BBC exchanges show a group of radio-makers drawing a stark distinction between British and other European productions. Continental programmes, they argued, were technically polished, often highly experimental, but often wilfully incomprehensible – in short, producers’ productions, indulgent in style and indifferent to ratings. BBC programmes, by way of contrast, were always concerned with reaching an audience, even if not a large, mainstream one; they were also aiming to educate – to nurture ‘appreciation and understanding’ of an art-form. They might not win prizes, but they mattered more in broader cultural terms. Couched in these classically Reithian forms, the debates reveal how even supposedly pan-European radio encounters such as the Prix Italia can become forums in which national differences (or perhaps more accurately, national prejudices) are reinforced rather than challenged.