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NL1 - Anthony Burgess as Television Critic
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Burgess performed the role of television critic for The Listener on a regular basis from 1963. He was hired as a reviewer of BBC documentaries, with a particular remit to write about arts broadcasting, at a time when there was rather more cultural programming than BBC viewers would find today. I think there is a strong element of performance in Burgess’s television criticism: he sustains a pose of amateurishness, and frequently writes about his inability to operate his television set. On one occasion he says that he stayed up late to watch The Sky at Night, presented by the astronomer Patrick Moore, but was so drunk that he started hallucinating and had to go to bed. He doesn’t appear to have much time for the idea that it might be part of the critic’s job to be both conscious and sober when the programmes he’s reviewing are being broadcast. Nevertheless, Burgess demonstrates that he is no fool when he drops quotations from Joyce, Eliot and Hopkins into his reviews. So the reviewing voice is an odd mixture of things: there’s a knowing literariness present as well as an oafish blokeishness, which is surely intended to reassure by saying something like: ‘I may be a professional television critic, but I don’t really understand the technology, and I can’t even make the machinery go.’ Frequently there is a hyperbolic rage directed against anything the critic finds culturally undesirable, particularly pop music and youth culture. (It becomes harder to know what to make of Burgess’s critique of youth culture if we remember that he had recently published A Clockwork Orange, that orgiastic celebration of teenage violence which was waiting, like a time-bomb, to explode onto the front pages when Kubrick filmed it in the 1970s.)

My first example of Burgess as television critic is a review of a Monitor documentary from January 1965, in which Sir John Betjeman travelled to Hull to interview Philip Larkin in connection with the publication of Larkin’s second collection of poems, The Whitsun Weddings. Betjeman, wrote Burgess

… was the best man to mediate between Larkin and ourselves. Talk about homogeneity: it was sometimes hard to tell where Betjeman’s commentary ended and Larkin’s verse began. The Betjeman eye inevitably hit on some of the stone funerary fantasies of Hull, where Larkin works as a librarian, but for the most part we got the younger poet unalloyed. His personality is a compelling one, despite his instinct to retreat rather than push and his whiff of healthy death-urge, and towards the end of the programme, I experienced one of those rare glimmerings of conviction: here is a poet who is going to be major. The grey tag about ‘welfare state poetry’ won’t do. If Hull stands for the supermarket life which poets must nowadays take as their subject-matter, Hull has been given a voice by Larkin, and that voice is louder than the city’s.

It seems to me that in this piece Burgess is taking his responsibilities as a cultural commentator seriously: the review is a good example of the critic acting as a kind of talent-spotter, drawing the attention of his readers to a relatively unknown poet. But elsewhere in Burgess’s reviews we see him playing the part of cultural gatekeeper, attacking programmes he sees as vulgar, inadequate or not sufficiently critical of their subject matter. Writing about Elizabeth Taylor, Burgess demonstrates that he is capable of scorn and viciousness:

The limit of frothy insubstantiality was reached on Christmas Eve with that incredible ‘Elizabeth Taylor in London’ – a waste of public money, an impertinence and an insult, an invitation to a feast of nothing … The score was Hollywood-inspirational, overblown variations on Greensleeves, a brassy sepulchre. Elgar and Walton would have brought the sound of real London, and real London was not wanted … The eponymous goddess who conducted us around this unreal city was a jaw-dropping vision of totally meaningless allure – Yves St Laurent icing, delectability of fairy gold, the poor little box of tricks of Zuleika Dobson. The pretence of being interested in London’s poets was disgusting (‘I am an actress and my medium is words’), the mockery of patrician English positively dirty. Miss Taylor’s own idiolect belongs nowhere. Her general quality of rootlessness would be pathetic did she not claim roots in Hampstead … and somehow imply that she had soared above her place of origin. ‘Elizabeth Taylor in London’: she does us too much honour, she does really. The year is over. I can, with confidence, vote this the most deplorable programme of the year.

There’s a surprising degree of anger behind this review, related, I think, to Burgess’s conviction that the purpose of television ought to be to educate as well as to entertain. Part of the critic’s function, as Burgess seems to see it, is to discourage bad programmes by sending flaming arrows of controlled rage in their direction. Yet it’s worth considering the other side of the coin as well, and trying to establish what kind of television Burgess admires in his Listener columns. Most of the programmes he reviews favourably – aside from nature documentaries or political programmes about the Cold War – are popularising accounts of Modernist authors or documentaries about contemporary classical composers.

It was the policy at the Listener that the choice of programmes to be reviewed should be left to the critic – so, although Burgess was, in one sense, constrained because he could write only about documentaries and arts programmes, the selection of material nevertheless tells us a lot about what culture meant to him at this time. In 1964, for example, we find him expressing admiration for a production of Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes at Saddler’s Wells. ‘This could not have been better done,’ he writes. ‘It was an important television event, and it should have been on BBC-1. It still remains to be pointed out – and some television programme ought to be concerned with this sort of thing – that the excellence of Peter Grimes has a great deal to do with Montagu Slater’s libretto, the only libretto I know that can be read in its own right as a dramatic poem.’ It’s worth noting in passing that, while Burgess applauds the production of the opera and the BBC’s decision to broadcast it, he voices a characteristic writerly anxiety that Slater’s words, which deserve as much attention as Britten’s music, are in danger of getting lost.

Britten’s music is a subject returned to frequently in Burgess’s Listener reviews, and he followed the televised performances of the War Requiem with interest, though he found it hard to decide whether Britten’s music, good as it was, matched the high standard of Wilfred Owen’s words.

If documentaries about opera, ballet contemporary poetry and literary fiction represent the kind of television Burgess reviewed warmly in his Listener columns, there were limits to his cultural enthusiasms. One of the documentaries he disliked was about the Royal Academy School of Art:

One often talks about being driven to drink. I have to record that the second programme in the ‘All Sorts to Make a World’ series sent me pubwards shivering with rage. This [documentary], ‘Art for Whose Sake?’, was as wretched a gallimaufrey of phoney aesthetics and scruffy-underdog whining as ever steamed up from the dog-end littered floor of a Soho-wine-club. [You’ll notice that Burgess’s insults are often much too literary to be really offensive.] We went to the Royal Academy School of Art to meet students who cultivated a deliberate lack of personal allure … Young Mr Dimbleby was their voice when he said that if photography had been invented earlier, perhaps patrons of art would not still be so obsessed with the representational. What it is now a moral duty to buy is the abstract canvas, apparently, and we do foul wrong to ask for something as reasonable as an imaginative composition of shapes that have their origin in the real world. Anyway, said these students, in the last analysis we only paint to please ourselves. Gurt topfloor ararkis wertle dick-dock. That is written to please me, and to hell with communication. I may add that these young painters (not the sculptors; the sculptors were different) spoke as graceless an English as I have heard in a long time.

There is more than a suggestion here of what Umberto Eco has called ‘apocalyptic’ cultural criticism, which steadfastly refuses to see any virtue in such things as experimental, abstract or non-representational art. Such criticism is terribly nostalgic for a period when painters wished to please their public with recognisable images – yet it’s surprising to find Burgess articulating such a position in the same magazine column where he regularly celebrates the difficult, ‘elitist’ art of James Joyce, T.S. Eliot or Benjamin Britten.

I want to illustrate this problem more clearly with reference to the Engineering Building at Leicester University, designed by the architect Sir James Stirling, completed in 1965 and discussed by Burgess in his Listener column in the same year. There were four other documentaries under review in the same week: two about ballet (examining the careers of Rudolf Nureyev and Morgot Fonteyn), one about a playwright from Bolton called Henry Livings, and one about the conductor Sir John Barbirolli. The Leicester Engineering Building had been discussed in a Monitor documentary which also contained a feature on the architecture of South African townships. Describing James Stirling’s Leicester building, Burgess deplores what he calls its functionalism, though he concedes that, in a broadcast interview, Stirling ‘exhibited the proper artist’s passion.’ The review continues:

I suppose laymen like myself worry about contemporary architecture because the necessary excitement of the concept is so rarely conveyed in the finished product – different from the other arts. What can we do about the Leicester achievement except admire without being moved? And it’s nothing to do with engineers who, moving others, are themselves as stone. Are we (if there are any such) moved by new theological colleges?


Last Updated on Sunday, 30 June 2013 18:59