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C. S. Lewis is universally recognized as one of the intellectual giants of the twentieth century. A noted scholar, Lewis was able to reach a vast popular audience during his lifetime and continues to attract thousands of new readers every year. But how did Lewis first become a popular public figure? During the most desperate years of World War II, Lewis was asked by the British Broadcasting Corporation's recently created Home Service to give radio addresses on Christianity to a nation shaken by war. The choice ...
C. S. Lewis is universally recognized as one of the intellectual giants of the twentieth century. A noted scholar, Lewis was able to reach a vast popular audience during his lifetime and continues to attract thousands of new readers every year. But how did Lewis first become a popular public figure? During the most desperate years of World War II, Lewis was asked by the British Broadcasting Corporation's recently created Home Service to give radio addresses on Christianity to a nation shaken by war. The choice was controversial. At first dismissed by critics as a layman who was unqualified to tackle such weighty issues, Lewis proved to be enormously persuasive. These radio talks were eventually published as Mere Christianity, which now ranks as one of the great classics of religious literature.
This rich chapter in Lewis's life, which deals with his love-hate relationship with the "new" medium of broadcasting, has received little attention from biographers and commentators. Yet it was Lewis's work on the radio that made him a household name. By combining narrative skill and adroitly quoting from correspondence, Phillips captures Lewis's reservations, vexations, achievements, and, finally, his enormous success.
C. S. Lewis in a Time of War is a fascinating look at how these talks were created and the enthusiastic response they generated at a time when bombing in London caused many radio stations to be evacuated. This book reveals a rich, previously untapped vein of Lewis's life and work that will intrigue his millions of fans.
On Friday 1 September 1939, the Reverend James Welch was sitting in studio 3E on the third floor of Broadcasting House.1 The BBC's Director of Religious Broadcasting was conducting the daily act of worship in the studio especially designed for religious programmes. The Daily Service was broadcast on BBC radio each morning between 10.15 and 10.20. A slip of paper was quietly passed to him with some breaking news: 'Germany invaded Poland early this morning'. Welch knew exactly what he had to do. 'That paper was the signal to alter our service, and especially our prayers, to meet the wartime needs of our people. We broadcast a prayer for the people of Poland. We added a prayer for trust in God in all that might lie ahead.'2
Broadcasting House is the headquarters of the British Broadcasting Corporation, the BBC, situated at the top end of Regent Street where it meets Portland Place, adjacent to All Souls Church. The building itself is shaped like the stern of a huge ship. The offices run along the outside facing the street and the studios are positioned off corridors along the middle, well away from the noise of traffic. Studio 3E is tucked away in the middle of the building on the same floor as the Director-General's office.
The Daily Service went out live. This means that, unlike a pre-recorded programme, it was possible to change the content even as it was being broadcast on the air. James Welch responded immediately to the words he saw. There was no time to reflect on them or lay them to one side. He led the nation in prayer.
By five o'clock that day the BBC's emergency plans were in operation. As different departments dispersed across the country, religious broadcasting was on its way to its first wartime home in Bristol. It now faced its greatest challenge and in James Welch had a leader willing to take risks and to test new ideas. Welch was fully aware that the traditional programming offered by his department would not be sufficient in wartime. Such radical new circumstances would demand programmes that would attempt to deal with the toughest questions facing listeners as the possibility of war became a reality.
Though the horrors of the Great War of 19141918 may have given a shocking taste of what was to follow, nothing could have prepared the British people for the total devastation of the Second World War. It was to be waged not only on the battlefields, but on the streets and in the homes of ordinary people as they found that no one was out of reach of the German bombs. One of the most precious commodities was up-to-date and accurate information. It is impossible to over-estimate the importance of the role BBC Radio played during the war years.
The invasion of Poland had triggered the implementation of a whole series of contingency plans and decisions. One of these was to evacuate over one million children from London to the countryside, to protect them from the anticipated bombing raids that it was assumed would follow from Hitler's act of aggression. The six o'clock evening news gave warning that the evacuation was about to begin. All over Britain, every BBC transmitter station and office was opening sealed orders. In between records, listeners heard the staff announcer repeat the warnings and tell listeners to retune their radio to two designated wavelengths. At 8.15 p.m. the nation heard the BBC's new 'on-air' identification for the first time: 'This is the BBC Home Service'.3
The children evacuate the cities
In London, twelve railway stations were packed with children. The BBC reported their departure and later broadcast interviews with some of them once they had arrived. One cheerful boy used the BBC to send a message to his parents left behind in the city. 'Mum and Dad, don't get worried about us, we're all very happy here and I don't think anyone wants to go home yet.'4 An American broadcasting network, CBS, had sent over its esteemed news correspondent Edward R. Murrow to direct its news coverage. His vivid reporting spoke of a silent city without its children. For six days he had not heard a single child's voice and it felt very strange.5
One of the missing voices belonged to Jill Freud (at that time called Jill Flewett).6 Her school had carried out a full dress rehearsal for evacuation a year before in 1938. She was living in Barnes and at age twelve was evacuated with her two sisters, aged five and fifteen. Jill's mother was given twenty-four hours to make up her mind whether to let all of her children go. Jill recalls that 'at that time, I had no awareness at all of what it must have meant to them. I mean, cheerily waving goodbye and getting homesick but not thinking that I had a mother who didn't have a job and whose whole life was looking after us.'7 She found herself billeted with two Unitarian sisters. It was another two years before she joined an Oxford household -- that of C.S. Lewis.
By 2 September, the first evacuees had arrived in Oxford. C.S. Lewis described them in a letter to his brother, Warnie, as 'very nice, unaffected creatures and all most flatteringly delighted with their new surroundings. They're fond of animals which is a good thing.' Within a week the pleasure of the evacuees was beginning to wane. 'Modern children are poor creatures. They keep on asking "What shall we do now?" After being told to have a game of tennis or to mend their stockings or write home, when done, they just come looking for more ideas. Shades of our own childhood!' Lewis tells his brother, who had already been conscripted.8 All men between the ages of eighteen and forty-one were liable for conscription into military service. By the end of 1939, one and a half million conscripts were in uniform. . . .
Excerpted from C.S. Lewis in a Time of War by Justin Phillips Copyright © 2006 by Justin Phillips. Excerpted by permission.
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