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NL1 - Anthony Burgess as Television Critic
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This strikes me as a maddening response to Stirling’s majestic structure, which surely ranks alongside Coventry Cathedral as one of the most impressive post-1945 buildings in England. (Stirling, incidentally, an architect of international reputation, also had a hand in the slightly later New State Gallery in Stuttgart.) I think it’s at moments like this that Burgess defines his position as a critic who was willing to embrace Modernism in writing and in music, but was much more sceptical of it in the visual arts. This position is similar in many respects to that of John Betjeman, the poet and broadcaster who was appointed Poet Laureate in 1972. Betjeman was, like Burgess, a writer deeply involved in journalism and television, and both men shared the conviction that Modernism was acceptable in literature but a corrosive or alienating force in painting and architecture. Betjeman was well known as the champion of Victorian Neo-Gothic church architecture, and he had argued the case against Modernist buildings both on the BBC and in the pages of the Architectural Review, where he worked as an editor. Writing of the houses in the average English town, Betjeman said: ‘They bear no relation to the landscape in either material, colour or proportion. They aren’t even well built. Electric light poles march with telegraph poles down either side of each road.’ Burgess seems to approach architecture with a broadly similar aesthetic in mind when he complains that Stirling’s Engineering building fails to move him as, presumably, a Gothic cathedral or the Free Trade Hall in Manchester would have done.


Yet it would be foolish to argue that, simply because you are in favour of certain aspects of the Modernist project, you are therefore obliged to subscribe to all its other manifestations. I think there is a potentially fruitful tension between the Modernist music and writing of which Burgess approves and the painting and architecture which he regards as alienating, inhuman or needlessly solipsistic. One of the basic qualifications for being a television critic (or any other sort of critic) is that it is necessary to have strong opinions, together with a willingness to expose your prejudices. And it is helpful, given the pressures of meeting a weekly deadline, to have a theory of what you are criticising, even if you don’t necessarily state it in any single article. What Burgess’s television reviewing tells us is that his reading of Modernism is not at all straightforward. Although he is sympathetic to experimentation and the ditching of the old fixities in some of the arts, his overall response to Modernism comes across as cautious, critical, and sceptical. Taken together, these Listener reviews seem to argue that Burgess is determined to preserve his status as a rogue, independent cultural commentator, unwilling to be talked into orthodoxies or ideologies.

Yet Burgess’s scepticism extended in the early 1960s to the medium of television itself. In his novel One Hand Clapping, published under the pseudonym Joseph Kell in 1961, he describes a working class couple from the north of England, Howard and Janet Shirley, whose leisure time is spent eating food out of tins and watching game shows on television. The point seems to be that such lives are artificial and detached from ‘real’ life, ‘real’ food, and traditional forms of culture. Janet’s conditioned response to television advertising is, I think, intended to remind us of a Pavlovian dog:

Sometimes in the evening when we sat looking at the TV … the feeling would come over me that it would be nice to have a little child upstairs calling down, ‘Mummy.’ This was especially during the commercials, showing mother and daughter both protected by the same soap, or the mother loving her children so much that she washed all their clothes in Blink or whatever it was (they’re all the same, really).


Last Updated on Sunday, 30 June 2013 18:59