On recording for the BBC

'The Buchan Tradition', BBC Radio 4, 16 April 2015
‘The Buchan Tradition’, BBC Radio 4, 16 April 2015

I was on the BBC yesterday, talking about John Buchan in a half-hour programme you can still hear on the BBC’s iPlayer, here. Obviously it’s not just me: Buchan’s grandchildren Ursula Buchan and James Buchan (both authors), and the esteemed novelist William Boyd contribute most of the snippets of interview, unpicking the detail on why Buchan is still such a readable writer. I was in there as a technical expert. Nick Rankin, the link man and narrator, is also an author: the programme was all about writers talking about how words work, one hundred years later.

We recorded my interview in my office in the Bodleian’s Weston Library in Oxford, still being renovated for its March reopening earlier this year. Sadly, that office is no longer mine, but long life and good writing to all those who sail after me in the beautiful glass-walled cubicles in the Visiting Scholars’ Centre. It’s a very nicely-appointed room, with oak veneer on every edge and cupboard: my visiting uncle, a retired architect, told me it was the BEST veneer, and he was pretty impressed by the quality of the moulded concrete in the stairwell too. The blown-air heating system was a little too good at transmitting the joyous cries of builders still banging on pipes, so I hoped to catch a lunch-break to do the recording.

The three of us (Dan the producer held the mic and recording machine) sat knee to knee in a huddle, and Nick asked me questions for an hour. It was like the reverse of a PhD viva: instead of being expected to show my skill in using big words and hard concepts, I needed to strip down my thinking into BBC-sized chunks (actually, not hard to do) and string them into earnest, heart-felt bites of common sense. I could see from the chaps’ expressions when I was straying too far from the wave-length they wanted, so we’d stop, have a think, and do it again. The best bits came from conversation, when Nick abandoned the script and started being a journalist, asking proper questions, not just requests for platitudes that they hoped might be edited into something bigger. The best radio comes from unexpected interactions, when truth is jolted out of sleep, and you get the real opinion, the real ideas that lurk unexpressed because no-one has asked that question before.

The last time I did a programme for the BBC was in 2013, speaking into a fat mic in the Brussels studio to three men in the London studio, about John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps. It could have gone awkwardly, speaking into the void (actually, a fine view of the Berlaymont Building at the heart of the European Union) and trying to pick up the visual codes of conversation to make the interview sound like we were all in there together. But, I knew the two other interviewees (and they knew my little ways), and the interviewer was tremendous at corralling we three sheep into a coherent debate.

The lovely thing about the Oxford interview was that, far too often, talking about Buchan means talking about The Thirty-Nine Steps, and anti-Semitism, and then the conversation stops. It is so rare to have a public talk with someone who knows other books by Buchan, and can talk about the other issues. It’s like being asked by a properly appreciative visitor to bring all my toys out to play, not just the ones I’ve played with too often. I wasn’t doing Buchan research at the time of the interview, so the top part of my mind was not properly primed with relevant Buchanalia, it was in another universe entirely. So what Dan recorded were the core beliefs, the things I’ve tested and thought about for a very long time. What got used in the programme was only about 10% of what they took, and I’m glad they kept in the bit where I launch into feminist snorting about Buchan’s love scenes.



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