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Anthony Burgess as Television Critic

By Andrew Biswell


I have to confess that my heart sank when it was announced on the BBC Midnight News (on 8 March 1999) that ‘Stanley Kubrick, the creator of 2001 and A Clockwork Orange,’ had died. Hearing this solemn announcement, I was reminded of the student interviewer from the Transatlantic Review who informed Anthony Burgess that he was the creation of Stanley Kubrick, in the sense that without Kubrick’s intervention nobody would have heard of Burgess, or would have wanted to read him. Yet the fact that the Université d’Angers has set up a Centre to encourage the study of Burgess is in itself a powerful argument in favour of his work. (Perhaps it is worth adding that there is, as yet, no Stanley Kubrick Centre, either in France or, for that matter, anywhere else.)


My purpose here is to argue that Anthony Burgess’s journalistic work as a television critic for The Listener may be seen as a sustained attempt to articulate a Modernist aesthetic. The Listener was, until it closed in 1991, an upmarket weekly magazine published by the British Broadcasting Corporation. The function of The Listener was threefold: firstly to publish edited transcripts of BBC television and radio programmes, particularly talks (at a time when broadcast talks, rather than panel discussions, were still commonplace on the radio); its second function was to provide a commentary on broadcasting in the form of reviews – though for some years after commercial television began in Britain, The Listener had nothing to say about it, confining its criticism to the output of the BBC. The third important role the magazine played was that of a cultural weekly, reviewing new films, plays and books, and it became famous for its literary pages in the 1930s, when it championed and published poetry by W.H. Auden, Cecil Day Lewis and Stevie Smith, as well as work by other, forgotten poets whose work never made it into book form. In its early days, The Listener established a reputation as a forward-looking cultural magazine which was prepared to get excited about the contemporary arts, including the developing art of television. As a magazine which gave to television and radio the same kind of detailed attention that it gave to books or the opera, The Listener occupies a unique place in British cultural history.The Listener had been running for more than 30 years before Anthony Burgess began contributing to it in 1961. In many ways it seems to have been the periodical that kick-started his journalistic career at a time when he was earning hardly anything from novel-writing. Burgess worked for the magazine occasionally as a feature writer, extensively as a book reviewer, and he was, until 1968, one of its regular television critics. Beyond this, The Listener published transcripts of Burgess’s radio talks and of documentaries he made for television. And, of course, the magazine’s books pages also carried reviews of Burgess’s novels. When Burgess reviewed Stanley Kubrick’s film version of A Clockwork Orange, he did it in the pages of The Listener. So it is a periodical which tells us a lot about this particular author, and also one which gave him space to say whatever he wanted when he was starting out as a professional writer and critic. 


Last Updated on Sunday, 30 June 2013 18:59