The 20th century through the eyes and ears of the BBC

McClatchy NewspapersMarch 13, 2012 

ENTER VID-BBC-REVIEW 3 MCT

"In Their Own Words" is a set of documentaries that uses BBC archival footage to discuss the 20th century through influential writers and philosophists. (Courtesy AthenaLearning.com/MCT)

HANDOUT — MCT

English history never went down so easily.

Delving into the archives of the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), a new two-DVD set, “In Their Own Words,” is a delight for any student of the 20th century.

The two DVDs hold three one-hour documentaries. The creators distilled over a century’s worth of BBC radio and television interviews into six different subject topics — culture, economics and anthropology for “Great Thinkers,” and chronological (1919-39, 1945-69 and 1970-90) for “British Novelists” — and provide narratives to set the interviews in historical context.

Under “Great Thinkers,” episode one is “Human, All Too Human” deals with psychology and humanity. It starts with Sigmund Freud and Margaret Mead, and ends in with modern research as of the 1990s.

The other two episodes are the economic system with John Maynard Keynes, and the culture wars with American writer and filmmaker Susan Sontag and art historian Sir Kenneth Clark of the 1969 BBC TV series “Civilisation.”

Under “British Novelists,” the chronological DVD starts in 1919 and includes Evelyn Waugh (“Brideshead Revisited”) and has the only voice recording made of writer Virginia Woolf. Episode two’s “The Age of Anxiety, 1945-1969” has J. R. R. Tolkien (“The Lord of the Rings”) speaking Elvish and schoolmaster William Golding, who wrote “Lord of the Flies.” Other writers include Salman Rushdie (“The Satanic Verses”) and Martin Amis.

The narration is essential. For example, while discussing the 1960 spy fiction, the narrator says, “If (Ian) Fleming (James Bond) provided escapist entertainment with a dash of sadism, Le Carre was all about the paranoia and everyday reality of intelligence work.” Then, John le Carre — the nom de plume of David Cornwell, a former British intelligence officer who wrote “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” — says “I think that it’s a great mistake if one’s talking about espionage literature to include Bond in this category at all. It seems to me that he’s more some kind of international gangster with, as is said, a license to kill.”

The “Culture Wars” started with the very beginning of the BBC. With the advent of radio “ordinary people were given entry into the finest offerings of art, literature and music. All at the flick of a switch.”

It makes clear that any change in the definition of “culture” brought savage response from the establishment. As the narrator puts it, “British critics love to wrangle over high versus low culture.”

Along with these DVDs, Acorn Media’s Athena Learning branch plans to offer on their website discussion questions to accompany the documentaries for educators and other interested parties. Acorn Media, a major distributor of British drama, recently raised its profile by purchasing the rights to a majority of mystery writer Agatha Christie’s literary estate.

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“In Their Own Words: BBC Interviews with Great Novelists and Thinkers,” Athena Learning, Acorn Media ($49.99, 351 minutes)

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