Orwell and the Radio Imagination

Crook, Tim. 2015. Orwell and the Radio Imagination. In: Richard Keeble, ed. George Orwell Now! New York, USA: Peter Lang. ISBN 9781454191155 [Book Section]

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Abstract or Description

George Orwell’s literary and professional life was situated in the radio age of the 20th century. His experience of the media was an everyday world in which radio was the dominant mass medium of electronic communication. His death in 1950 marked the year when television’s competition for audiences and power was intensifying to a tipping point of overtaking radio.

Orwell was connected through his literary and cultural reviewing and criticism with the world of broadcasting at a period when important experiments were being conducted in sound drama and documentary in terms of their political, social and cultural content and aesthetically. Recorded and synthesized sound blended the margins of factual and fictional representation. Orwell may well have been a regular listener to plays and features when he returned to stay with his parents in Southwold, Suffolk, in the late 1920s after resigning from the Indian Imperial police in Burma. By this time the BBC had become a corporation and developed the ability to broadcast nationally and regionally. Moreover, his diary gives brief references to hearing dramatic news of Britain’s involvement in the Second World War on the radio in public places. He had a battery powered radio set of his own after the war. (Davison 2011)

As a prolific reviewer of the cultural scene, it is possible to imagine him embracing the new medium and enthusiastically listening to modernist commentators such as Harold Nicholson and feature program-makers such as Archie Harding, Lance Sieveking, D.G. Bridson ad Olive Shapley. This was a time for avant-garde microphone play experiments by Lance Sieveking (1934) and sound operas and verse plays by Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. (Fisher 2002, Frattarola 2009)

This chapter argues that Orwell was radiophonic in his writing. There was a style of documentary vision in his prose writing that evoked the sound perspective of radio broadcasting. Indeed, there is a distinct drama-documentary style of prose in books such as Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) and Homage to Catalonia (1938). The first part of Chapter Three of his 1935 novel A Clergyman’s Daughter reads like a transcript of the 1934 BBC Manchester feature ‘Opping ‘Oliday. Both the chapter and the radio feature deal with the now lost sub-culture of casual hop-pickers traveling to Kent in the late summer. The BBC program was the first documentary feature to use a recording van. The microphone was thus taken out of the studio to record people directly on location.

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Book Section

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Departments, Centres and Research Units:

Media, Communications and Cultural Studies



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Date Deposited:

23 Feb 2015 08:07

Last Modified:

12 Jan 2018 16:15



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