- Shav Versus the Beeb
“The B.B.C. on his ninetieth birthday salutes its Grandest Inquisitor.” With these words Sir William Haley, as director-general of the BBC, concluded his contribution to the collection of celebratory essays devoted to Shaw published in 1946 under the title G.B.S. 90.1 The history of Shaw’s combative, fruitful, and often hilarious association with the fledgling British national broadcaster in the second quarter of the twentieth century makes joyous reading in this excellent, richly informative study by L. W. Conolly.
Haley’s description of GBS as the BBC’s “Grandest Inquisitor,” referred to again in one of the obituaries of Shaw included in this book (xv, 233), no doubt reflects the fact that, from early in the collaboration, readings from and productions of Saint Joan figured prominently in the broadcaster’s programs. The BBC staff members who dealt with the formidable GBS must have been more than once reminded by the Shavian reprimands and instructions of the imperious Inquisitor, who lectures so powerfully to the Maid and her accusers in Shaw’s play. The playwright was at the height of his powers and reputation at the time his association with the BBC began—at almost the same time, the great success of Saint Joan propelled him toward the award of the 1925 Nobel Prize for Literature— and he was not a man to be trifled with. He certainly tested the mettle, and sometimes the patience, of those with whom he had dealings at the BBC (“He keeps on being as nasty as possible,” complained one bewildered BBC official) (31). As Conolly puts it in the Preface to this study, with nice understatement: “the story of the relationship between Shaw and the BBC is not replete with harmony, cooperation and mutual understanding” (xv). But as with most of Shaw’s professional dealings, there was an underlying spirit of good humor and benevolence beneath his trenchant and caustic language, and his criticisms were often accompanied with very shrewd advice. “Nasty” was certainly not the right word for his behavior in his dealings with the BBC. Haley’s phrase “gaily outrageous” catches the tone better.
There were several very good grounds for argument in Shaw’s early relations with the BBC. First there were the matters of copyright and payment of fees for authors. Under its first director-general, the Scottish Presbyterian John (later Lord) Reith, the BBC was not a generous organization. Admittedly, since it did not have advertising revenue and relied on government funding and the compulsory license fees householders had to pay if they wanted to receive the service, the BBC was not [End Page 262] in a position of great affluence. But in its early days, the staff seemed to be rather surprised that authors had to be paid anything for the use of their work. Shaw was prominent in the struggles to get this matter sorted out. He continued with his usual practice of refusing any fees for his own talks and lectures. But his plays were a different matter. He very soon made it clear that the copyright of his works belonged to him, and that the BBC had to obtain permission for their use on the radio, just as others had to do for their performance in the theater. He was also a successful campaigner, with the support of the Society of Authors, for the principle that authors should be paid for broadcasting rights. Even allowing for inflation, the early scale of fees offered by the BBC, about two to five guineas, seems ludicrously inadequate. But at least a principle had been established.
There were other major bones of contention in Shaw’s jousting with the BBC, which are admirably dealt with in this study. Not surprisingly, one source of conflict related to his political opinions. As Conolly’s discussion shows, the BBC was expressly enjoined in its early years to avoid engaging in political and religious controversy, a rather naive (or disingenuous) policy that naturally set it on a...