Wednesday 11 November 2015

This New Noise: The Extraordinary Birth and Troubled Life of the BBC by Charlotte Higgins

Image result for this new noise book cover

I didn't intend to read this book at all, but because of Nonfiction November I'm spending a lot of my library time browsing the nonfiction sections at the moment and honestly, the cover just reached out to me. I mean, look at it. It's gorgeous! Once I'd picked it up I was intrigued. I know next to nothing about the BBC besides that the general public pay our licence fees so they can run without advertising, so this was very interesting.

Charlotte Higgins is the chief culture writer for the Guardian newspaper, and was asked to take time out from that to write this. She starts at the beginning with the first Director General of the BBC, John Reith, back when it was radio only, and covers so much in 240 pages that I'm amazed that the page count is so low!

The book sort of goes chronologically, but she focuses mainly on personalities within the organization which keeps it really interesting. For example I had never heard of Hilda Matheson, who was the first head of talks in the 20s. She also happened to be Vita Sackville - West's lover for many years, which was an interesting kind of side note and she just sounds fascinating. Honestly I went looking for books about her life afterwards and besides her own book, Broadcasting and one biography there isn't anything. She would make such a good character in a historical novel. Plus, she was a female boss in the '20s! What's not to love?

I also found it really interesting to learn more about the controversies behind the resignation of recent (ish) Director General Greg Dyke, whose departure I heard about but wasn't really paying enough attention to get the specifics of. Turns out it was all connected to the Hutton Inquiry, which was kind of a big deal and I should have been paying more attention, but there we go.

So much has happened during the life of the BBC and it is something that I'm quite attached to. BBC documentaries were a mainstay of my childhood and I feel that I've learned a lot from them over the course of my life, so it was really great to learn more about the tensions and victories involved in the actual day to day running of the institution and the making of programmes. Also it contains pictures of really really young David Attenborough, which I found amusing.

It also doesn't only focus on the good stuff. Higgins really delves into the personality clashes and aspects of mismanagement as well as giving voice to critics of the BBC, who are relatively frequently employees or ex employees of the BBC itself. Overall I was very well immersed in This New Noise, and I finished it feeling like I'd learned a lot, which is pretty much what I want from this kind of nonfiction really!

Recommended if: you're interested in the BBC or quirky aspects of British history.


  1. That sounds very interesting! It sounds well balanced between good and bad, too. I was amazed several months ago when I learned on NPR that people must pay for a "license" to watch TV and that is how the BBC is funded. I had no idea...

  2. I had never heard of this book -- it would be great to learn about the origins of such an important influence on our culture. Thanks!

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