BBC “Great Lives” Revisited

In this week’s issue of The Tablet, columnist Christopher Howse revisits last December’s BBC Radio 4 broadcast of the series Great Lives in which Evelyn Waugh was the subject. See previous posts. Presenter Matthew Parris interviewed panelists Russell Kane, a comedian and Waugh fan, and Ann Pasternak Slater, an Oxford Senior Research Fellow and Waugh scholar. According to Howse, he had received a letter from a Tablet reader about the program, who wrote to him:

in a great rage at “anti-Catholic bigotry on Radio 4”. On an edition of the popular programme Great Lives about Evelyn Waugh, she heard an exchange between the presenter Matthew Parris and his guest, the comedian Russell Kane.

Matthew Parris: “I find his Catholicism very difficult, because he was such a clever and discerning and honest man, and to have swallowed whole the doctrine of the Catholic Church in the way that he did just strikes me as odd.”

Russell Kane: “Could it be as simple as he was in the middle of some horrible emotional collapse and the priest got in there at the right moment and converted him and it was an addiction that got in at the right time?”

The reader went to the BBC complaints department. She argued that apparently the only explanations for anyone being Catholic are stupidity, dishonesty, mental breakdown, addiction and priests taking advantage. It goes without saying, she thought, that this wouldn’t have been said about someone Jewish, Muslim or Hindu, or would have been edited out. But she got nowhere. […]

Howse then listened to the program, which is still available on BBC Radio 4 via the internet. After hearing it through, he concluded:

The programme also featured an expert on Waugh, Ann Pasternak Slater, to keep the record straight, and she contradicted Mr Parris. When he wondered whether he took Waugh too seriously, she countered: “I think you take him too shallowly.”

I don’t complain that the BBC put the programme out. Anyone who has read biographies of Waugh knows that his decision to become a Catholic was discerning, honest and self-denying. He assumed, for one thing, that he wouldn’t be able to remarry, since his first wife had gone off and left him.

Howse might have added that the reader cited Parris’s comment out of context since it was preceded by a very thorough and reasoned analysis by Pasternak Slater of the basis for Waugh’s conversion to Roman Catholicism. Howse is correct in concluding that there was nothing unfair or one-sided about the BBC 4 presentation that would warrant the sort of censorship the reader seemed to suggest.

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