How come there's no known recording of George Orwell's voice

01:00 Sat 17th Nov 2001 |

A. Because he was deemed unfit for active service in the Second World War George Orwell - born Eric Arthur Blair - worked in the BBC's Far East Service as Talks Producer, from 18 August 1941 to 4 November 1943, experience he used in his depiction of the Ministry of Truth in his masterpiece of political satire Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).

During his time at the BBC his voice was recorded and broadcast on numerous occasions, so you'd expect there to be at least one example kept for posterity. After all, he was, by this time, already a published author, albeit not quite the celebrity that he would become after the publication in 1945 of Animal Farm.

Anyway, there are a number of reasons why his voice has - as far as we know - been completely lost to posterity:

There wasn't a cheap and durable 'carrier' - medium for archiving sound recordings - available to keep these broadcasts on. The technology of the time was just too expensive or in too short supply, and, particularly during the war years, the carriers used were often recycled. Most material that does survive from this period is very often only a sample or extract of a programme.

If you get access to the BBC Sound Archive catalogue for the 1920s to the 1940s you will find that many of the programmes kept were either related to royal or sporting events. Fifty years ago few people foresaw the long term cultural and historical value of radio programmes - or their commercial potential - an attitude which persisted into the 1970s. The future significance of popular culture such as variety entertainment or popular music was particularly underestimated. So Orwell's broadcasts to the Far East would have been very low on the list for archiving.

Sometimes programmes were heavily restricted by copyright and other rights considerations, so many programmes could never be repeated. Consequently they were thought to have no further use and rarely kept. Ironically the more commercially minded present-day BBC would be willing to re-negotiate those rights - if the programmes still existed - and are generally more inclined to preserve recordings for the social history value alone.

Above all, in Orwell's particular case, there is also anecdotal evidence that he himself demanded that recordings of his broadcasts be destroyed because he didn't like the sound of his own voice. This arose in part from the effects of damage to his throat received while fighting for the Spanish Republicans at Teruel in 1937 and partly because he deemed it too 'Etonian' - rather at odds with his ideological stance.

Q. Presumably the same fate has befallen many other famous authors

A. Indeed, and not just authors. Recordings of interviews and readings by some of the greatest writers living in the twentieth century may have been lost forever as exhaustive searches of national archives have drawn a blank. Among the roll-call of missing presumed lost are Thomas Hardy, D.H. Lawrence and A.E. Housman.

Q. Have any of these lost treasures ever been unearthed

A. Yes. It was long assumed that no recordings existed of Samuel Beckett, but earlier this month (November 2001) one was discovered in America.

Q. Hasn't there been a concerted effort recently to find lost recorded material

A. In May 2001 the BBC inaugurated a programme called Treasure Hunt in an attempt to raise public awareness of the value of such lost recordings and to encourage people to unearth any pre-1980 gems that may be hiding on old reel-to-reels in the attic. In 2000 the National Sound Archive, part of the British Library, also put out feelers in an attempt to locate recordings of authors as part of its exhibition called Chapter and Verse - 1,000 of English Literature.

See also the articles on Aldous Huxley (one of Orwell's schoolmasters at Eton) and the British Library

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By Simon Smith

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