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C. S. Lewis at the BBC: Messages of Hope in the Darkness of War
by Justin Phillips
London: HarperCollins, 2002
(321 pages; £20.00, hardcover)
reviewed by Dale Nelson
C. S. Lewis doesn’t appear in this book’s narrative until page 49, the British Broadcasting Company’s first letter to him isn’t sent until page 80, and we don’t read of his first broadcast until page 114. However, most readers will appreciate the well-presented account of the origin, development, attitudes, and wartime policies of the BBC that Phillips, a BBC insider, provides—and some will shake their heads wistfully over the overtly Christian stance that prevailed in this government-sponsored organization—something hardly thinkable today. Readers will be impressed by the author’s handling of technical information; there’s enough here to appeal to old-time radio buffs, yet others will not be bored.
There are good biographies of Lewis available (George Sayer’s, especially), but readers of this book will enjoy Phillips’s rendition of Lewis in wartime, Lewis the speaker to the RAF, Lewis the broadcaster. Phillips had access to Lewis’s letters in the BBC files and interviewed people who knew Lewis. (One of his chief sources is Walter Hooper, and it is only fair to say that the cloud over Hooper’s head from the observations and charges of Kathryn Lindskoog remains in place, so it is good that little in Phillips’s book depends solely on Hooper’s say-so.)
There are amusing bits. Here’s Lewis after his first microphone test: “I was unprepared for the unfamiliarity of the voice; not a trace, not a hint, of anything one could identify with oneself!” However, Lewis adapted rather well—although it is interesting, even enjoyable, to “eavesdrop” on critiques of Lewis as a broadcaster that are not colored by adulation of his splendid books for large audiences—The Problem of Pain, The Screwtape Letters—which were just beginning to appear at this time. Indeed, Phillips states more than once that the discipline of writing for radio made Lewis a better writer, though he didn’t always enjoy the struggle to process his message.
Lewis and George Orwell both broadcast for the BBC during the war. (The word is that Orwell’s voice was not good, his having been shot in the throat years before, during the Spanish Civil War.) It’s possible that they became acquainted there—or at least that they crossed paths in the corridors of Broadcasting House—but there seems to be no record of the two having met.
This book will be the source of what’s bound to become a favorite bit of Lewisian trivia: What immediately preceded Lewis’s first broadcast, on August 6, 1941? The poor man!—it was the news in Norwegian, broadcast as a service to information-hungry Scandinavians. Not a great lead-in for a first-time speaker (who was “not well known”) on “Right and Wrong: A Clue to the Meaning of the Universe”! Nor were huge audiences likely to tune in to the end of Lewis’s broadcast because of passionate interest in what followed him on the schedule, namely, continuing coverage of the annual Eisteddfod in Wales!
Lewis gave away money paid him for these broadcasts, arranging that it be sent to widows and orphans, people otherwise unknown to the Lewis fan and scholar, such as “Miss Whitty of 7 Chertsey Road, Bristol 6,” and “Miss Buron of Twyford,” or to a clergy widows’ fund. The BBC would have been only too happy to pay him for more programs than he felt willing and able to provide.
A bonus for Dorothy L. Sayers fans is the account of the broadcast of her cycle of radio plays on the gospel, The Man Born To Be King, and the considerable anxiety it occasioned because a human actor spoke the words of Christ. (Some people felt that British wartime losses were God’s judgment—even before the BBC made the broadcasts.) “Miss Sayers” was quite unbending in her insistence upon the artistic integrity of her work, at one point ripping up a contract and mailing it back to the BBC.
Phillips does a fine job of tracking Lewis’s involvement with the BBC, and of portraying his domestic circumstances as well—these were years in which Lewis had to manage life with his deceased friend’s mother, a difficult woman who hoarded rationed butter and, till they became infested with bugs, jars of flour, and who daily provoked “scenes.” Only a fragment of Lewis’s “Mere Christianity” broadcasts from this time has survived, although one may still be able to acquire recordings of later radio addresses, notably his late “Four Loves” discussions.
Phillips’s book deserves to be read by the many who value and keep returning to Lewis’s classic work in apologetics. Without doubt, the book belongs in all libraries with significant Lewis collections.
Dale Nelson is Associate Professor of Liberal Arts at Mayville State University in Mayville, North Dakota.