An Odd Couple - Propaganda and Modernism

An Odd Couple - Propaganda and Modernism

Through our monthly book reviews, we want to provide an opportunity for students and early-career academics to discuss new non-fiction publications which contribute to our understanding of Orwell’s life and work. Our book reviews give the views of the author and do not reflect the position of The Orwell Foundation.

In the first of our book reviews, Ilona Mannan, a PhD candidate in English at UCL, reviews Daniel Ryan Morse's 'Radio Empire: The BBC’s Eastern Service and the Emergence of the Global Anglophone Novel.'

George Orwell described his time at the BBC as ‘two wasted years’ (Orwell, 1998, 4). The Eastern Service, for which he worked from 1941-43, offered little more than ‘palpable lies’; he believed it lacked both ‘intellectual honesty’ and ‘balanced judgment’ (Orwell, 470-1).  At best, he conceded, his work had made ‘propaganda slightly less disgusting than it might otherwise have been’ (Orwell, 214). Despite Orwell’s disillusionment, his employment was productive: he wrote 220 news commentaries, cultural, educational and political programs, as well as essays, stories and interviews (Meyers, 2000, 213-214). Nor was the Eastern Service as ‘complete [a] muck-up’ as he feared (Meyers, 214). Designed to counter the threat of fascist broadcasts and protect India from increasing calls for independence, the service also provided a means to promote modernist literature. In Daniel Ryan Morse’s Radio Empire: The BBC’s Eastern Service and the Emergence of the Global Anglophone Novel, Orwell is a shadowy figure—we sense his presence in ‘a series of fraught negotiations between politics and aesthetics’ (Morse, 2020, 14). Yet while he derided the ‘small’ audience, ‘a few thousand listeners at most’, he saw the Eastern Service as an opportunity, one that allowed him to be ‘more highbrow than is generally possible on air’ (Morse, 16). Morse depicts Orwell as one of a coterie of writers, who used their time at the BBC to create ‘an international vision of literary exchange’ (Morse, 13). Together with James Joyce, E. M. Forster, Mulk Raj Anand, Attia Hosain and Venu Chitale, Orwell saw his broadcasts as a means to shift literary culture away from London.

Radio Empire sets out to do two things. Primarily, Morse establishes the significance of the Eastern Service to literary studies; unlike Caribbean Voices, another prominent radio programme broadcast by the BBC World Service between 1943 and 1958, it has received little critical attention. Morse’s focus on previously neglected archives, including original scripts and rehearsals, allows him to trace radio’s influence on writers who are not traditionally compared. Works as diverse as Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake, Forster’s A Passage to India, Anand’s The Big Heart, Chitale’s In Transit and Hosain’s Sunlight on a Broken Column are used to emphasise the Eastern Service’s wide-ranging cultural impact. Morse shows how the BBC’s employment of colonial writers influenced British literary culture— the service not only aiding the global Anglophone novel, but helping to create it.

More broadly, his study permits an analysis of how various media coexist in variously cooperative and competitive relationships’ (Morse, 29). If Morse’s premise is to ‘reanimate’ our understanding of the relationship between literature and radio—probing their ‘complicated give-and-take’ to see how the two mediums interacted —he indicates how they continually learnt from and challenged each other (Morse, 198). There are times when Morse’s likening of the forms feels somewhat forced; his analysis of the ‘increasing polyphony’ of Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake attributes the novel’s multi-vocal landscape to the writer’s love of radio, but does not examine the text’s relationship to other works which shared an interest in representing multiple voices (Morse, 151). Eliot’s The Waste Land, Woolf’s The Waves, and even Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, which Joyce considered ‘a masterpiece’, all suggest a wider historical trend, not attributable to radio (Joyce, 1900, 75).

Yet Morse’s questioning of how the novel could continue to represent day-to-day life in an age of national broadcasts offers a nuanced analysis of the interconnection of radio and literature, providing insight into their many shared influences. Navigating between imperial propaganda and artistic experimentation, these writers, Morse suggests, used mass media to spread modernism beyond the cultural elite. His analysis modestly challenges literary criticism, which often identifies the English intelligentsia as ‘hostile’ to ‘the new phenomenon of mass culture’ (Carey, 1992, 1). Morse emphasises how Orwell and Forster not only ‘shared the microphone’ with south Asian colleagues, but used their positions to promote, discuss and analyse their work (Morse, 117).

Subsequently, Morse offers new perspectives on canonical writers—the image of Joyce as an avid listener, who constructed a ‘giant antenna’ on the balcony of his Parisian apartment, is comic and insightful. Morse explores how the radio was a source of inspiration for Joyce and a significant place for Wakean commentary (Morse, 39). Forster is also shown in a new light. Morse suggests how ‘his radio work allows us to see a different Forster’, a far more radical figure in his open support of his Indian colleagues: he divided his time between the works of English and Indian writers, often discussing their texts together (Morse, 113). This inclusivity changes our perception of the Eastern Service: a force against fascism, it was also used to create a more egalitarian literary world. Morse emphasises how Anand’s broadcasts allowed the colonies to influence English writers earlier than previously thought; the Eastern Service was a testing-ground for works which focussed on colonial and post-colonial experience. For Chitale and Hosain, radio was an inspiration in terms of their interest in soundscapes, and a liberating experience that allowed female voices to be heard.

Morse also offers his readers a different view of Orwell. By exploring his work as a producer, rather than a writer, Morse insists that the traditional image of Orwell at the BBC as a ‘solitary’ author should be balanced with a knowledge of the ‘rich, interactive environment’, which allowed him to discuss new literature with his contemporaries (Morse, 82).  The Eastern Service exposed Orwell to new writers and ideas; he was both ‘supportive of’ and ‘influenced by’ those he worked with, particularly Anand (Morse, 125).  Yet this literary network was not necessarily cohesive: ‘mutual suspicions’ existed despite a ‘spirit of cooperation’ (Morse, 127). When Orwell told his colleagues that K. S. Shelvankar’s The Problem of India had been banned, Forster mentioned the article approvingly in his next broadcast (Morse, 97). The personalities that enriched the Eastern Service did not always agree politically or creatively.

Radio Empire is an important work of scholarship, offering a considered analysis of the relationship between radio and literature in the war and post-war years.  For scholars, Morse offers new insights, illustrating how Orwell worked alongside other writers to promote modernism to a wider audience; his time at the BBC was characterised by artistic experimentation. Orwell’s conviction that radio could determine ‘the fate of the world’ was not just a reaction against fascism; he and his contemporaries at the Eastern Service used radio to challenge the status quo, seeing mass media as a means to publicise previously unheard voices (Morse, 121).


Carey, John, The Intellectuals and the Masses (London & Boston: Faber and Faber, 1992).

Joyce, James, On Ibsen (1900) (Copenhagen & Los Angeles, Green Integer, 1999).

Meyer, Jeffrey, Orwell: Wintry Conscience of a Generation (New York: W. W. Norton, 2000).

Morse, Daniel Ryan, Radio Empire: The BBC’s Eastern Service and the Emergence of the Global Anglophone Novel (New York: Columbia University Press, 2020).

Orwell, George, Two Wasted Years (London: Secker & Warburg, 1998).

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