Radio Camelot: Arthurian Legends on the BBC, 1922-2005

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ROGER SIMPSON, Radio Camelot: Arthurian Legends on the BBC, 1922-2005. Arthurian Studies lxx.Woodbridge, Suffolk: D.S. Brewer, 2008. Pp. xv, 193. isbn: 0261-9814. £50.

There is no shortage of books on the Arthurian legends in poetry, painting, literature, music, and film. But until now there has been almost nothing on the Arthurian legends on radio. Roger Simpson has now rectified that with a major study of the legends on the BBC. As he points out at the beginning, there is a major drawback in researching the subject. Few recordings exist of Arthurian programmes from before the 1960s. But much information and contemporary reaction to programmes can be gleaned from the BBC Written Archives at Caversham, and complete runs of The Radio Times and The Listener, the two most significant magazines devoted to broadcasting. For the past twenty years Simpson has been tape-recording virtually everything of Arthurian interest broadcast on the BBC and can comment upon programmes from these years from personal experience.

Simpson divides the story of Arthurian broadcasting into four periods 1922-1939, 1940-1959, 1960-1979, 1980-2005, and within each section he examines separately music, history, literary adaptations, and new work. In the field of music, by far the largest number of performances was accorded to Wagner's two Arthurian operas, Parsifal and Tristan und Isolde, except during the Second World War when their scheduling was curtailed. The only English work to achieve a similar regularity of performance but much less often was Purcell's King Arthur. The work of Rutland Boughton, who composed a cycle of Arthurian operas, was shamefully neglected, perhaps because of his extreme left-wing political views. But in 1956 the BBC commissioned the cantata The Lady of Shalott from composer Phyllis Tate to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the creation of the Third Programme, the high culture channel. There was a sprinkling of programmes down the years on the historical Arthur, including several in the 1960s on the archaeological excavations at Cadbury, the putative site of Camelot. But the radio was far more interested in the literature and drama of the Arthurian legends. Throughout the BBC's history, there have been regular readings of Malory's Morte D'Arthur, Tennyson's The Idylls of the King and the medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Among the highlights Simpson flags up are J.R.R. Tolkien's new translation of Gawain and the Green Knight, read in four parts on the Third Programme in 1953 and twelve half hour readings of Malory's Morte D'Arthur by a star cast (Robert Eddison, Robert Hardy, and Maxine Audley among them) on Radio 3 (as the Third Programme had by now become) in 1971. Simpson pronounces it 'arguably the greatest of all Malory broadcasts ever. …