Regional Roots: The BBC and Poetry in Northern Ireland, 1945-55

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IN nineteenth-century France the salons of Princess Mathilde, Madame Sabatier, and others served as way stations between authority and art--places where the state and the writer could use each other for power, prestige, and influence. Patrons found themselves constantly intervening between the realms of literature and politics, securing protection for new artists while seeking favors for the established. Along with the artists came fashionable hack-journalists who, much like the state officials, possessed the power to begin or end a writer's career. Again, it was the patron's role to mediate between the artist and the press, ensuring a harmonious relationship on both sides. As the prestige of the writer grew, so too did the prestige of the salon to which he was attached and the power of the patron herself. Ultimately the salon is the place, Pierre Bourdieu writes, where

   those who hold political power aim to impose their vision on artists
   and to appropriate for themselves the power of consecration and of
   legitimation.... for their part, the writers and artists, acting as
   solicitors and intercessors, or even sometimes as true pressure
   groups, endeavour to assure for themselves a mediating control of
   the different material or symbolic rewards distributed by the state.
   (1996:51)

Over a century later a similar ritual of courtship between writers and the state took place in Northern Ireland, under the roof of the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in Belfast. There, during the years after World War II, power began to shift from the highbrow commentators of the London studio to local Belfast producers, men who carried their recording equipment over the back roads of Northern Ireland to interview farmers, storytellers, and housewives. This shift from centralization to regionalization at the BBC was not specific to Northern Ireland--indeed all British provinces benefited from this postwar policy. Only in Northern Ireland, however, was the relationship between the writer, the state, and the media so precarious. Thus, like Princess Mathilde's salon, the BBC became a way station where the officially sanctioned ideology of the day--regionalism--was taken up by a group of writers outside of and often at odds with the establishment. By deftly operating both outside and within its constraints, these writers added momentum to a postwar literary movement that paved the way for the "Ulster Renaissance" of the 1960s, and they initiated a pattern of transcultural non-sectarian exchange between writers in Northern Ireland and mainland Britain. The BBC was in many ways the Ulster poets' door out of the dark.

In the aftermath of World War II, the BBC felt its mission more keenly than ever; as its director William Haley said in 1945, it was to "improve cultural and ethical standards" in Britain (Briggs 1996:26). If fascism was the by-product of ignorance and moral decay, then it was the BBC's duty to improve the morality of its congregation. In order to accomplish this task, Haley felt strongly that the BBC should concentrate its efforts on providing programs that would appeal to all classes, not just to an urbane London minority. This meant expanding the range of programs as well as coverage. Thus regional broadcasting was restored in July 1945 to the three English Regions--North, West, and Midlands--and expanded to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. The intent was to improve standards through competition, while giving listeners an echo of their own distinct cultures. As one BBC director saw it, regionalization was "a matter of great importance for the future of democracy" (Briggs 1996:26).

Before regional programming was introduced, BBC presenters spoke with upper-class accents. One staff member noted in 1950 that working-class men in Yorkshire pubs complained the BBC was "too much high-brow," just "posh voices talking down to us" (Briggs 1996:276). He recommended that classless voices be employed. …