'Unheard' recordings shed light on Greene's life and work

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A series of previously unheard radio interviews given by Graham Greene shed new light on the highs and lows of one of the 20th century's great literary careers, the British Library said yesterday.

The broadcasts include reflections on Greene's life and travels as well as an evocative radio reading from a work-in-progress, which he later altered and added to his masterpiece The Quiet American.

Greene's words have been held in the British Library's sound archive, but will become available to the public in a specially compiled CD, The Spoken Word, which marks the anniversary of the author's birthday and is on sale from Tuesday. According to the British Library, the recordings provide a "unique overview of Greene's life and achievements in his own voice with all the nuances that do not survive in the written word".

The author talks about how writing gave him "eye strain" and discusses his passion for Indo-China and his experience of smoking opium. A highlight of the material is a two-hour interview by the writer and broadcaster Nigel Lewis, conducted in 1982 over two days at Greene's house in Antibes on the French Riviera. It was only partly broadcast to the public in 1984, in a one-off radio show Greene at 80. The majority of the exchange, which is the longest private interview Greene ever gave, has been unheard in the archives until now.

When Mr Lewis quizzed Greene about his working day, inquiring whether the novelist was a "nine-to-five man", Greene quipped that he was "more like a nine-to-quarter-past-ten man". After a couple of hours of uninterrupted writing, he was prone to eye strain, he explained.

He also spoke with humour about his early career as a film critic for The Spectator and Night and Day magazine, saying he enjoyed seeing all the bad films just as much as the good, citing the dialogue in the movies of Cecil B DeMille as a prime example of the latter, and the joy they brought him.

As a novelist, essayist and playwright, Greene, who died in 1991, is widely regarded as one of the leading English literary figures of the 20th century, but when starting out he supplemented his writing with freelance journalism.

Night and Day folded in 1937, shortly after Greene's film review of Wee Willie Winkie, featuring a young Shirley Temple. Greene claimed that Temple displayed a certain "adroit coquetry" which appealed to middle-aged men. It brought a libel suit which the magazine lost. Reflecting in the Lewis interview on this sticky point in his journalistic career, Greene revealed a mischievous aspect to his personality, saying: "Until I lost it in the war, the telegram that informed me of the libel suit was one of my most treasured possessions." The recordings also include a 23-minute BBC broadcast of Greene reading A Small Affair, broadcast in 1953. The piece was an extract from a novel then in progress, based on a real-life incident which he witnessed during the Northern Indo- Chinese War, at Phat Diem in December 1951. The material was published four years later in an altered form as part of his novel, The Quiet American.

Steve Cleary, the curator of drama and literature at the British Library sound archive, said that this offered a fascinating insight into his life and work.

He added: "It confirms his powers of observation in real life incidents and how they made it in his novels."

Greene was also outspoken about the filming of several of his novels. He expressed his distaste towards the film version of Travels with My Aunt, saying, caustically, that he had to switch channels after a few minutes when it was aired on French television.

However, he approved of the film adaptations of The Third Man and The Fallen Idol and described Brighton Rock as "not bad" but regretted that the censors had interfered with his original screenplay.

Greene, who was known to suffer from manic depression, travelled to what he called the world's "wild and remote places". His life-long hunt for excitement and fear of boredom, which has been previously documented, is alluded to when he repeatedly uses the word "boredom".

The CD, which is the latest in a series which also features the voices of W H Auden, Samuel Beckett, H G Wells and George Bernard Shaw, will be on sale at the British Library. Its release coincides with the annual Graham Greene Festival, in his home town of Berkhamsted, which opened yesterday and ends on Sunday.

Click here to listen to an extract from 'On Brighton Rock': mms://audio.bl.uk/media/publications/greene.wma