Live Recording: Asa Briggs, Author of the Monumental Five-Volume History of the BBC, Talks to David Hendy about His Thirty-Seven Year Engagement with the Story of British Broadcasting
Hendy, David, History Today
'I gave him a very good lunch--he had a glass of sherry,' Asa Briggs recalls of his crucial meeting fifty years ago with that towering egotist, visionary and sternest of Presbyterians, the BBC's Founding Father John Reith. Briggs, then a young history professor at Leeds, had just accepted a commission from the Director-General, Ian Jacob, to write a history of the Corporation. Reith, just short of his seventieth birthday, had long ago left the BBC. But his personal account of the pre-war years would be invaluable. 'I'm not in the least wanting to see him,' Reith wrote in his diary a few weeks before they eventually met in the Oxford and Cambridge Club. He was on especially bad terms with the BBC, firmly believing it had gone to the dogs since his unhappy departure in 1938.
So it was something of a relief when he announced at the end of the meal that he would, as he put it in his diary, 'give him whatever help I could'. Perhaps the young historian's recent responsibilities as 'moral tutor' to Reith's son Christopher while a student at Worcester College, Oxford had swayed him. Then, as now, personal networks mattered. But just how delicately balanced Reith's attitude had been was only revealed to Briggs as they left the club. 'I stood on the steps and he said to me, looking down at me from his great height: "Briggs, before you invited me to lunch, I wasn't too sure whether I was going to cooperate with you of not, and now I will cooperate. But, if you had written to me on paper from Broadcasting House, I would have cast it into the flames."
With the great man's help secured, Briggs was able, within just three years, to produce the first of what was eventually to become a magisterial five-volume history of the BBC--a commission only completed in 1995 after thirty-seven years of intermittent labour. During this time Briggs progressed from young history professor to cofounder and then Vice Chancellor of the University of Sussex, Provost of Worcester College, Chancellor of the Open University, chairman of president of countless learned societies and good causes, and the author of an extraordinary number of books on, among other historical topics, transport, health, education, science and technology, music, literature, food and drink, entertainment, the Channel Islands, Chartism and--perhaps his favourite subject of all--the Victorians. Despite its lengthy gestation--something which has undoubtedly prevented it from making the same kind of impact on the general public as, say, his Victorian Cities or A Social History of England--Briggs' history of the BBC has slowly built itself into a classic for cognoscenti of great institutions. And it still provides the first and most reliable port of call for anyone, like me, who embarks on a study of British broadcasting and its complex interactions with twentieth-century life.
Like Reith, Briggs can properly be labelled a Founding Father. When he began his work on the BBC in 1958, Raymond Williams and Marshall McLuhan were yet to publish their two pioneering works on media, Communications and The Gutenberg Galaxy (both of which emerged in 1962). True, the whole question of the connection between communications and culture had been in the air for some time. In America, Paul Lazarsfeld and his circle had established the principles of studying radio audiences back in the 1930s and 1940s; the Canadian economic historian Harold Innis had also provided in his Empire and Communication (1950) a highly original analysis of the way in which communication technology could re-order political geography by disrupting patterns of time and space. But, so far, little of this intellectual probing had crossed the Atlantic. In Britain, aside from Richard Hoggart worrying away at the debilitating effects of tabloid journalism and pulp fiction, there was just the personal account of a BBC-insider or two and a study by Hilda Himmelweit called Television and the Child (1958). …