Feisty, opinionated, witty, provocative - with an appealing hint of Irish burr that softened his assault on conventional pieties - George Bernard Shaw was the perfect radio personality.
He cut his teeth as a lecturer on the London circuit in an age that appreciated rhetoric and ideas. Once the BBC was founded a quarter of a century later, Shaw, now balding and white-bearded, was able to use the microphone as a personal megaphone to talk to millions across Britain in the same direct way that, as a bristling red-bearded radical, he had enthralled and antagonised Fabian Society audiences.
In this light, it is hardly surprising that John Reith and Val Gielgud, the BBC's first director-general and head of drama respectively, promoted Shaw and his work on radio, as Len Conolly expertly demonstrates. At the same time, Shaw (even in his eighties and nineties) was just as capable of antagonising politicians as the younger playwrights such as J.B. Priestley were. (Priestley's immensely popular wartime broadcasts were cancelled by Winston Churchill himself.) The chapter in Conolly's book dealing with the war period is tellingly titled: "I won't have that man on the air."
A trenchant example of his talent to provoke, reproduced by Conolly, is Shaw's talk in the 1932 Rungs of the Ladder series - billed as encouraging personal testimony in the middle of a recession from famous people who "started with few advantages and attained recognition and eminence in various fields of life". Other speakers, such as the press magnate Lord Beaverbrook, offered self-congratulatory homilies. In sharp contrast, Shaw declared: "The truth is there are no such things as great men and women (all of the other presenters in the series were men, and their references were exclusively male). People believe in them just as they used to believe in unicorns and dragons. The greatest man or woman is 99 per cent just like yourselves. In fact, I may be insulting you by saying so, because the so-called 'great people' have often been, as to that 99 per cent of common humanity, downright bad lots."
But Shaw's personal presence in BBC studios (or later televised from his country home at his birthday celebrations) were dwarfed by the radio and television productions of his plays. In 1923, as one of its earliest programmes, the BBC broadcast an extract from Man and Superman, while the opening TV programme after the Second World War featured Shaw's Dark Lady of the Sonnets - together with a Mickey Mouse cartoon.
And, as Conolly shows, there was barely a year when Shaw or his plays were not prominently displayed in the BBC repertoire right up to 1951, the year after his death, when there were TV or radio broadcasts of no fewer than 12 of Shaw's major plays - along with a week of obituaries and eulogies.
Surprisingly, given the dominance of Shaw and his plays on Britain's airwaves throughout his long life, this is the very first study of his career in broadcasting. What Conolly focuses on, quite rightly, is the intimate and often acerbic relationship between Shaw - always fighting for authors' rights and the uncut interpretation of his plays in their broadcast versions - and the BBC bureaucracy.
Understandably, considering Shaw's Marxist materialism, Conolly pays a great deal of attention to how much Shaw was paid for each broadcast (for instance, 50 guineas for the 1929 broadcast of St Joan). But this is less than enlightening, since there is no sense of what comparable fees might have been in that period, or indeed what the BBC pays today.
Conolly opens with a description of Shaw as "producing an unforgettable effect ... entertaining, whimsical, witty and wise", with a "beautiful" voice that expressed "the virtuosity of an accomplished musician in words and vocal tone ... to listen to him was a joy". We have examples of Shaw's talks printed in an appendix, but it would have been so much more appealing, in this digital age, to have had a CD with recordings of Shaw packaged with the book. Since this is a study of the meeting between writing and the modern technological world, let us have a digital reproduction of the man himself.
Bernard Shaw and the BBC
By L.W. Conolly
University of Toronto Press 256pp, £24.95
Published 25 April 2009