Radio / Thirtysomething: Robert Hanks on a decade of Fascism, Communism and documentary features

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
At the time, the Thirties must have seemed a pretty depressing decade, what with unemployment and Fascism and war. In retrospect, though, as Radio 3's Thirties season makes clear, there is something rather comforting about the whole era, perhaps because it's one of those rare times in history when arbitrary chronological labels actually seem to fit in, more or less, with the pattern of events: at one end there's the Wall Street Crash and the onset of the Depression; at the other, the Second World War. You know where you are with the Thirties.

The sense of an era of tidy definitions was taken up in The Red and the Black (Radio 3, Friday), a well- crafted montage feature by Simon Elmes and Julian Hale (who did a similar sort of thing last year with reference to May 1968). As the title suggests, this was a look at the decade in terms of the big ideological conflict, the Red Flag vs the Black Shirt. But while it dealt in terms of big headlines, with some big music in the background for emphasis, the details were the most powerful part - like the man singing a cheery marching song about 'the lads from the BUF', making the Fascists sound a bit like a Brownie pack.

That sense of a slightly hollow innocence is one of the less comforting things about the Thirties. Denis Healey, for instance, talking about his time in the Communist Party to Robert Kee on A Personal View (Radio 3, Saturday), said that nobody in this country had any idea that Stalin's show trials were anything but genuine. It's probably true, but hindsight makes the ignorance seem oddly culpable.

At least ignorance became more difficult as the decade went on. One of the great changes, as recorded in Documenting Ourselves (Radio 3, Monday to Friday), was the rise of documentary on film, in literature and on the radio. Christopher Cook was certainly exaggerating when he said that documentary was 'the nation's preferred aesthetic' - it's a safe bet that more people watched Walt Disney than Humphrey Jennings - but it's probably fair to say that it boomed. Partly, this was just a technological change; portable equipment made documentary possible. But it was also political: the deliberate elevation of the ordinary man.

There were some silly manifestations of this - the carefully scripted radio 'documentaries' about Northern working life presented by an actor trading under the folksy persona of Harry Hopeful; or the unconscious condescension of the title of a programme about hopping in Kent, 'Opping 'Oliday. At the other extreme, there was the insane particularity of Mass Observation, recording spittoon use and 'female taboos about eating'.

But listening to Fiona McLean's polished series, you realised that the documentary boom was not just a passing craze, but a stage in the development of democracy in this country: it taught people something of the value of their own lives. Without the eccentricity of Mass Observation, perhaps we would not have had the NHS or social security (on The Red and the Black, one man described the indignities of means- testing, when you were forced to sell your furniture before you could claim the dole). On the other hand, you would also have missed out on radio phone-ins. Swings and roundabouts, eh?