Isaiah Berlin in the Media

As a student of Isaiah Berlin’s back in the late 1960s, I have been intrigued by the media treatment of his hundredth birthday, which with one or two exceptions, faithfully celebrates both the memory of his dazzling personality and his role as the philosopher of liberalism in the age of the Cold War. His ideological position had little to do with why I went to study with him, after taking a first degree in philosophy, since I was fast becoming a Marxist, but my intellectual interest was the link between Marx and the Romantics, and I’d heard him lecture on the latter and read his book on the former, and he clearly knew a great deal about both.

We bonded, first of all, over our common cultural heritage as scions of Hassidic families from Latvia—he thought my interest in history of ideas to be very un-English but completely understandable when I told him about my extraction. He quickly recounted to me, of course, what he witnessed as a child in Riga at the time of the Revolution before his family fled to England (pretty much the same way he told it to his biographer Michael Ignatieff). Given my declared interest in Marx, and the year being 1968, I took this a friendly warning not to bring politics into it. As it turned out, we bonded principally over our mutual love of music—I was already writing music criticism in the national press and was particularly interested in both the avant garde and musical aesthetics, a frequent topic in our tutorials. (These were always spiced up with amusing anecdotes about Stravinsky or the philistinism of his Oxford colleagues.)

The centenary tributes all speak of his role as a public intellectual, and mention the radio and television appearances which made him familiar to a wider audience (without stopping to consider, pace Edward Said, what makes a public intellectual). This is my subject here because I also became part of this process when I made a film with him while still at Oxford. On the strength of my music criticism, I got to make a short piece on contemporary music for the BBC, and remarkably, as a result, was able to raise funds to set up as an independent. That’s a whole other story, but it led, among other things, to a series of educational films on philosophy shot in Oxford in the summer of 1971, with Isaiah heading the cast list. [Watch a brief extract here.]

The truth is that Isaiah made a rather unlikely candidate for the media. When I came along as his student and said I’d like to make a film with him, he expressed a certain horror at the idea of the camera invading his privacy, so I promised not to do this (and inevitably the resulting films are rather stiff). He was not image savvy, and had a rather idiosyncratic way of speaking—he uttered long sentences full of sub-clauses which were all syntactically perfect, his words coming in fast bursts in a basso-profundo voice with a classic Oxford accent modulated by a slight lisp. In a lecture theatre, this was entrancing. Yet he was a natural for radio. First, because he was a fine interlocutor (as I found out in our tutorials) whose skills had been honed in a small group of philosophy students in Oxford in the 1930s who championed a new pared-down form of philosophising known as logical positivism (on which Berlin himself subsequently turned his back). Excellent training for the BBC’s Brains Trust. And second, because he could also deliver a prepared talk from memory speaking straight into the microphone and thus sound to the listener wholly spontaneous—a rare ability even today. (A glimpse to be seen in Richard Cawston’s This is the BBC if you can find it.) In fact he had a technique for memorising his lectures which he once explained to me, but remained self-conscious and would tell jokes against himself for speaking too fast.

He appeared on television in 1964 in a conversation with J.B.Priestley and A.J.Ayer. This was back in the black-and-white days when the programme controllers still thought there were intelligent viewers prepared to watch half-an-hour of eggheads talking to each about important matters. The dominant aspect watching the programme today is the quaint and old-worldy the mise-en-scène—three gentlemen having an after-dinner chat over drinks and cigars—whose discourse seems to belong to a time of innocence, when you could still discuss deep subjects without reference to existentialism, structuralism, economics, psychology, or any of the competing social sciences which have since made the humanities an open field, porous, trans-disciplinary, dare I say postmodern. And yet, while Priestley is avuncular and Ayer is mostly just plain silly, Berlin defends a complex understanding of the forms of life in modern society which often escapes liberal thinkers today.

If you go and look at the official Isaiah Berlin website, maintained by his executor and literary editor Henry Hardy, you can find a full listing of his broadcasts. Google his name for videos and you get 199 hits. Last year Henry had the fine idea of bringing out a centenary DVD with a selection of Isaiah’s radio and television broadcasts and documentaries from later in his life, a small edition funded from academic resources. Unfortunately the vintage stuff is buried in the BBC Archives, and in practical terms, whatever the promises which Auntie makes for future access, it seems impossible currently to gain access on reasonable terms. I feel particularly glum about this because I’ve just completed a new documentary, on academic funding, which could only be made because the BFI were prepared to grant royalty-free access to a portion of their archive. In other words, they were prepared to deal on the basis that they’ll see returns only if the film becomes commercially successful. And when you’re talking about an archive which is part of the public cultural heritage, and a producer working with public funds, that’s the way it should be.

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