Hobson’s choices

23rd March 2020

John Wyver writes: Childishly pleased as I mostly certainly am with my headline, it’s not my only reason for starting a short series of posts about Harold Hobson (1904-1992). Specifically I intend to explore Hobson’s television criticism for the BBC’s weekly magazine The Listener between May 1947 and September 1951. I was prompted to look at these columns, one or two of which I have used before in my research, by considering The Artist’s Eye (1947-1949) series for a recent post. Like everyone else who recognises his name, I knew of Hobson (above) as a famed theatre critic. When I was a teenager his pronouncements each week for The Sunday Times carried enormous weight, and in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Michael Billington rightly celebrates his achievements :

Hobson was often regarded as a wayward, mercurial critic. His lasting achievement lay in his constant championship of avant-garde writers. His most distinctive quality was his ability to discover an epiphanic experience in a single moment…

(Look out for one such epiphany below.) Billington fails to mention that Hobson regularly passed judgement on the emerging medium of television, and his contributions to The Listener are rarely, if ever, cited in media studies literature. Yet he was writing at a crucial time for the BBC’s service and, since he was already established as a theatre critic, his thoughts on the stage and the screen, and on the hybridity of television drama, are particularly interesting. It is Hobson’s writing on television plays that I want to consider more fully in future posts, whereas this offering is more of a general introduction.

Hobson wrote some 70 columns, initially monthly, and then fortnightly from December 1949, after the opening of the Sutton Coldfield transmitter brought television to the Midlands. (Complaining on 1 June 1950 about the medium’s metropolitan bias, Hobson reflected ‘Though television has now reached the Midlands, there is deplorably little evidence that the Midlands have reached television.’) The generic heading for his column, along with those of The Listener‘s radio reviewers, was ‘Critic on the hearth’, appended to which was the subtitle, ‘Comments on BBC programmes by independent critics’. Indeed, Hobson frequently demonstrated his distance from the corporation, as with his response to the ceremony marking the transmitter coming on air, which he described as

… a lamentable affair. At a dull ceremony Mr Paling, the Postmaster-General, made a dull speech. This was followed by a revue at the King’s Theatre, Hammersmith. Here Miss Bonnie Hale, Mr Leslie Henson and Mr Stanley Holloway spent some time in proving that very able actors can on occasion be dull.

Initially Hobson ranged across the entirety of television’s output, but from early May 1951 he was restricted to drama and entertainment, with Reginald Pound alternating to cover OBs and ‘programmes of an instructional nature’. As someone fascinated by the adaptation of stage plays for television, I am grateful that he wrote so much about the theatre and screen drama. At the same time I really appreciate his responses to factual programming and outside broadcasts, as with this note on 9 February 1950 about the BBC’s first OB from the British Museum (about which I wrote last week):

Mr Robert Gibbings, burly, bearded and benevolent, was a friendly and modest guide, seeming genuinely eager to look at things he must have seen many times before, and if some of his collaborators from the Museum staff appeared to be trying to edge him off the screen this only added to the naturalness of the proceedings.

We have next-to-no recordings of television from these years, and certainly no complete television dramas. Which has meant that the output in the period up to 1953, when programmes began to be tele-recorded, just in time for the Coronation in June, has been little-studied by broadcasting historians.

What research that has been done are initiatives characterised as ‘archaeological’, sifting the traces of the output in production memos, Radio Times features and listings (the latter now available by BBC Genome), publicity photographs, audience research notes in the later years – and reviews. Hobson’s writings are some of the most substantial, with numerous detailed descriptions as well as value judgements, and as a consequence are of immense value. Perhaps, when we are through these dark days, an enterprising publisher might be interested in an edited and annotated collection?

Coming to you live

Hobson contributed his first column to the 8 May 1947 issue of The Listener, just eleven months after the television service had resumed operations after the war. An initial month of focussed viewing, which had included the Cup Final (Charlton Athletic 1, Burnley 0), a quiz (transplanted from radio) with Lionel Hale, and a studio production of Eugene O’Neill’s Mourning Becomes Electra, had left the impression that

for the moment an ordinary radio programme certainly seems to me to be rather stale and flat after the brightness and liveliness of television… But so far as I can see television has not added a new joy to the world; it has only dressed up old joys in new clothes, and made them more widely available. For I could see Mourning Becomes Electra in the theatre; and I might, if I were a millionaire, even have gone to the Cup Final.

Right from the get-go, then, Hobson was searching for the specifics of television as a medium. Inevitably, though, cinema was a key referent – and in the next extract he invokes not just a run-of-the-mill product of the dream factory but a masterpiece of Weimar expressionism. Thomas Hardy and Turner are invoked as well. For the 5 June issue Hobson wrote about the ‘telecast’ of the British Industries Fair, in which incidentally he praised former radio war correspondent and neophyte television commentator Richard Dimbleby as ‘the first person I had seen on the television screen who impressed me as having a perfectly natural manner.’ But it was the report by Winifred Shotter from the toys section of the fair that prompted one of his epiphanic moments:

… the best part of it was the [toy] trains… suddenly, and for a brief second, the thing happened. The gleaming lines, and the sheen on the engines, and the gloom of the tunnels, and the sidings and the buffers miraculously ceased to be themselves. They became a magical composition of masses of black and white. They seemed like an echo of the mad enchantment of Dr Caligari.

Let me recall what Hardy said specifically of Turner’s water-colours. ‘Each is a landscape plus a man’s soul… What he paints chiefly is light as modified by objects‘. What we saw here was, for a moment, light modified by a toy railway station. It was the month’s best effect.

Hobson was far from alone in identifying live-ness as the quality that was specific to television, as he wrote in his 29 April 1948 column:

What one is always looking for in television is, of course, the unique thing. One wants to look at the screen, and say, emphatically, ‘There is something that, before television was, the world knew nothing about: there is an experience which, without television, it would be impossible to have.’

Such an experience television frequently supplies. It does so whenever it brings into the the drawing-room some event that is actually at that moment taking place elsewhere.

Notwithstanding Hobson’s enthusiasm for live relays, he was sorely disappointed by the BBC’s coverage of the Olympic Games held in London in August 1948. Writing in his 2 September column, he compared his impression of the Games as seen on television as a ‘shabby, shoddy muddle’ with the enthusiastic reception accorded to them by newspapers:

Seen from an armchair, the Games seemed to have neither comprehensive plan nor individual impressiveness of presentation. On the television screen they looked like some haphazard athletic events run together at the last moment by an incompetent spiritual instructor who had counted on the annual Sunday School treat being washed out by rain.

The arts on screen

Over the years I have written a lot about the film documentaries made with British artists by John Read. Read directed the first BBC film with a living artist, Henry Moore, made to coincide with the opening of the Festival of Britain in early May 1951. I knew that before this Read produced a number of live studio programmes about the arts, including one on the Greek sculptures known as the Elgin Marbles. But before discovering the following fragment of Hobson’s writing (from 18 May 1950) I had little sense of the broadcast – and so this too demonstrates the value of mining these columns. At the same time, of course, the writing reveals the imperialist understanding of both broadcast and critic. Hobson described The Elgin Marbles as

a quite perfect example of what a cultural and educational programme should be… I started to watch Mr Read’s programme in boredom, and stayed enthusiastically to admire. His conjunction of photographs, engravings, portraits, reconstructions, was something that could be achieved nowhere except on television. He gave us excitingly a sense of these sculptures crumbling down the long, desolate ages, and of Lord Elgin’s belated rescue of them, and made even me, blind as I am to form, realise dimly something of the beauty that connoisseurs find in those prancing horses and frustrated centaurs.

Presentation of the arts is also intriguingly engaged with by Hobson in a response (21 September 1950) to an early evening piano recital with Yonty Solomon playing Debussy, Henselt and Chopin:

Some attempt is being made to render the Solomon piano recitals good television. It consists chiefly in printing sub-titles under the pianist, explaining what the music is about. This is a mistake. It distracts the attention from Solomon’s playing. This is a great pity, since he plays magnificently.

Are you sitting comfortably?

For the most part Hobson adopts the role of the individual critic watching from an abstracted position for the formation of his subjective responses. Just occasionally, however, he gives us glimpses of the experience of viewers new to television, as he does in his 27 November 1947 column describing the broadcast of the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh:

Through my wife, my daughter, and myself issuing casual and unco-ordinated invitations to see the telecvast, we found that thirty-two people, including eight children, had crammed themselves last Thursday into the matchbox that serves me in the office of a home. Fortified by cakes and coffee, these people sat through the two and a half hours’ programme without any sign of boredom; and towards the end the shouts of the crowd before the palace were taken up by our own children, till the whole house rang with cries of ‘We want the bride! We want the bride!’

This is a charming image, and thanks to Harold Hobson’s skilful words, is one that I can picture vividly as itself a slightly fuzzy, black and white electronic trace from nearly 70 years ago.

Still to come, in future posts, Hobson’s choices from the television drama of the late 1940s and early 1950s.


  1. Alan Lawrence says:

    Thank you John. I’m looking forward to more. I’m living in Rome now––interesting times.

    Best wishes

  2. Luke McKernan says:

    I had no idea Hobson wrote about television (he mentions it not at all in his autobiography). The Listener pieces look like they are a real treasures. The mocking of the medium while looking for those precious instances when someone worked out what television was for reminds me of Clive James’s TV reviews. The Winifred Shotter epiphany could have come from his pen. An edited collection would be very welcome.


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