Penelope Fitzgerald's enchanting novel of the BBC in London during World War II. Featuring an introduction by Mark Damazer.
“A wonderful combination of deadpan English comedy and surreal farce.” — A. S. Byatt
“A tribute to the unsung and quintessentially English heroism of imperfect people.” — New Criterion
When British listeners tuned in to the BBC's Nine O'Clock News in the middle of 1940, they had no idea what human dramas—and follies—were unfolding behind the scenes. Targeted by enemy bombers, the BBC had turned its concert hall into a dormitory for both sexes, and personal chaos rivaled the political. Amidst the bombs and broadcasts two program directors fight for power while their younger female assistants fall prey to affairs, abandonment, and unrequited love. Reading this intimate glimpse behind the scenes of the BBC in its heyday, “one is left with the sensation,” William Boyd wrote in London Magazine, “that this is what it was really like.”
This new edition features an introduction by Mark Damazer, along with new cover art.
Inside Broadcasting House, the Department of Recorded Programmes was sometimes called the Seraglio, because its Director found that he could work better when surrounded by young women. This in itself was an understandable habit and quite harmless, or, to be more accurate, RPD never considered whether it was harmless or not. If he was to think about such things, his attention had to be specially drawn to them. Meanwhile it was understood by the girls that he might have an overwhelming need to confide his troubles in one of them, or perhaps all of them, but never in two of them at once, during the three wartime shifts in every twenty-four hours. This, too, might possibly suggest the arrangements of a seraglio, but it would have been quite unfair to deduce, as some of the Old Servants of the Corporation occasionally did, that the RP Junior Temporary Assistants had no other duties. On the contrary, they were in anxious charge of the five thousand recordings in use every week. Those which the Department processed went into the Sound Archives of the war, while the scrap was silent for ever.
`I can't see what good it would be if Mr Brooks did talk to me,' said Lise, who had only been recruited three days earlier, `I don't know anything.'
Vi replied that it was hard on those in positions of responsibility, like RPD, if they didn't drink, and didn't go to confession.
`Are you a Catholic then?'
`No, but I've heard people say that.'
Vi herself had only been at BH for six months, but since she was getting on for nineteen she was frequently asked to explain things to those who knew even less.
`I daresay you've got it wrong,' she added, being patient with Lise, who was pretty, but shapeless, crumpled and depressed. `He won't jump on you, it's only a matter of listening.'
`Hasn't he got a secretary?'
`Yes, Mrs Milne, but she's an Old Servant.'
Even after three days, Lise could understand this.
`Or a wife? Isn't he married?'
`Of course he's married. He lives in Streatham, he has a nice home on Streatham Common. He doesn't get back there much, none of the higher grades do. It's non-stop for them, it seems.'
`Have you ever seen Mrs Brooks?'
`How do you know his home is nice, then?'
Vi did not answer, and Lise turned the information she had been given so far slowly over in her mind.
`He sounds like a selfish shit to me.'
`I've told you how it is, he thinks people under twenty are more receptive. I don't know why he thinks that. He just tries pouring out his worries to all of us in turn.'
`Has he poured them out to Della?'
`Well, perhaps not Della.'
`What happens if you're not much good at listening? Does he get rid of you?'
Vi explained that some of the girls had asked for transfers because they wanted to be Junior Programme Engineers, who helped with the actual transmissions. That hadn't been in any way the fault of RPD. Wishing that she didn't have to explain matters which would only become clear, if at all, through experience, she checked her watch with the wall clock. An extract from the Prime Minister was wanted for the mid-day news, 1'42" in, cue Humanity, rather than legality, must be our guide.
`By the way, he'll tell you that your face reminds him of another face he's seen somewhere — an elusive type of beauty, rather elusive anyway, it might have been a picture somewhere or other, or a photograph, or something in history, or something, but anyway he can't quite place it.'
Lise seemed to brighten a little.
`Won't he ever remember?'
`Sometimes he appeals to Mrs Milne, but she doesn't know either. No, his memory lets him down at that point. But he'll probably put you on the Department's Indispensable Emergency Personnel List. That's the people he wants close to him in case of invasion. We'd be besieged, you see, if that happened. They're going to barricade both ends of Langham Place. If you're on the list you'd transfer then to the Defence Rooms in the sub-basement and you can draw a standard issue of towel, soap and bedding for the duration. Then there was a memo round about hand grenades.'
Lise opened her eyes wide and let the tears slide out, without looking any less pretty. Vi, however, was broadminded, and overlooked such things.
`My boy's in the Merchant Navy,' she said, perceiving the real nature of the trouble. `What about yours?'
`He's in France, he's with the French army. He is French.'
`That's not so good.' Their thoughts moved separately to what must be kept out of them, helpless waves of flesh against metal and salt water. Vi imagined the soundless fall of a telegram through the letter-box. Her mother would say it was just the same as lassssst time but worse because in those days people seemed more human somehow and the postman was a real friend and knew everyone on his round.
`What's his name, then?'
`Frédé. I'm partly French myself, did they tell you?'
`Well, that can't be helped now.' Vi searched for the right consolation. `Don't worry if you get put on the IEP list. You won't stay there long. It keeps changing.'
Mrs Milne rang down. `Is Miss Bernard there? Have I the name correct by the way? We're becoming quite a League of Nations. As she is new to the Department, RPD would like to see her for a few minutes when she comes off shift.'
`We haven't even gone on yet.'
Mrs Milne was accustomed to relax a little with Vi.
`We're having a tiresome day, all these directives, why can't they leave us to go quietly on with our business which we know like the back of our hand. Tell Miss Bernard not to worry about her evening meal, I've been asked to see to a double order of sandwiches.' Lise was not listening, but recalled Vi to the point she had understood best.
`If Mr Brooks says he thinks I'm beautiful, will he mean it?'
`He means everything he says at the time.'
There was always time for conversations of this kind, and of every kind, at Broadcasting House. The very idea of Continuity, words and music succeeding each other without a break except for a cough or a shuffle or some mistake eagerly welcomed by the indulgent public, seemed to affect everyone down to the humblest employee, the filers of Scripts as Broadcast and the fillers-up of glasses of water, so that all in turn could be seen forming close groups, in the canteen, on the seven floors of corridors, beside the basement ticker-tapes, in the washrooms, in the studios, talking, talking to each other, and usually about each other, until the very last moment when the notice SILENCE: ON THE AIR forbade.
The gossip of the seven decks increased the resemblance of the great building to a liner, which the designers had always intended. BH stood headed on a fixed course south. With the best engineers in the world, and a crew varying between the intensely respectable and the barely sane, it looked ready to scorn any disaster of less than Titanic scale. Since the outbreak of war damp sandbags had lapped it round, but once inside the bronze doors, the airs of cooking from the deep hold suggested more strongly than ever a cruise on the Queen Mary. At night, with all its blazing portholes blacked out, it towered over a flotilla of taxis, each dropping off a speaker or two.
By the spring of 1940 there had been a number of castaways. During the early weeks of evacuation Variety, Features and Drama had all been abandoned in distant parts of the country, while the majestic headquarters was left to...
Having come late to fiction--she was past 60 when her first novel appeared--Penelope Fitzgerald has made up for lost time. Three of her nine books were shortlisted for Britain's Booker Prize, whish she won in 1979 for Offshore. Her novel The Blue Flower, based on the life of the German poet Novalis, nabbed the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction.
“Awards are one thing, talent's another, and Fitzgerald has it in spades. Warm and wry, her writing is as economical as it is perfect. It's always a pleasure to see a new book under her name.” — Washington Post
“Fitzgerald is one of the finest living English writers, and readers acquainted only with her prize-winning historical novel of Germany, The Blue Flower, will relish encountering her on her home territory. Her beautifully economic fictions are always alive with meticulous, surprising phrases, whether she's conveying the expectant dread in England in 1940, when invasion seemed imminent, or writing about something more pragmatic, such as workers carrying on ‘with the exalted remorselessness characteristic of anyone who starts moving furniture.’” — Salon
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