Entertainment & Arts

BBC Radio 4 unveils 60 years of Reith Lectures archive

Montage of former Reith Lecturers TOP ROW (L-R): Robert Gardiner; Richard Rogers; Wole Soyinka; Margery Perham MIDDLE ROW (L-R): Michael Sandel; Ali Mazrui; John Zachary Young; Rabbi Jonathan Sacks; BOTTOM ROW (L-R): George Carstairs; Daniel Barenboim; J Robert Oppenheimer; Bertrand Russell
Image caption For over 60 years the Reith Lectures have been given by a distinguished group of international figures, including scientists, diplomats, artists and philosophers.

The BBC has published 60 years' worth of audio archive and transcripts of the Reith Lectures.

First broadcast in 1948, the lectures were created to advance public understanding of significant issues of the day through high-profile speakers.

Past lecturers include the philosopher Bertrand Russell, "father of the atomic bomb" J Robert Oppenheimer and pianist and conductor Daniel Barenboim.

More than 240 Reith Lectures are also available to download as podcasts.

The Reith Lectures were named in honour of Lord Reith, the BBC's first director general.

Lord Reith maintained that broadcasting should be a public service which would enrich the intellectual and cultural life of the nation, and the Reith Lectures were created as a "stimulus to thought and contribution to knowledge".

Writing on the Radio 4 blog, Andrew Caspari, the BBC's head of Speech Radio Interactive said: "The archive is a journey through the great names and thinkers of the last 60 years. It includes Bertrand Russell, Robert Oppenheimer, Richard Hoggart, A H Halsey and J K Galbraith.

"At Radio 4 it is always slightly daunting to commission people to follow in such footsteps, but in recent years the likes of Onora O'Neill and Daniel Barenboim have maintained the Reiths as one of the UK's most significant intellectual stages."

The inaugural lectures were given in 1948 by the philosopher and Nobel laureate, Bertrand Russell. His series, entitled Authority and the Individual, explored the relationship between individuality, community and state control in a progressive society.

However, Lord Reith was not impressed, writing in his diary: "Listened to the first Reith lecture by Bertrand Russell, forsooth. He went far too quickly and has a bad voice. However I wrote him a civil note."

Image caption Philosopher Bertrand Russell recording the first Reith Lecture in 1948

Earl Russell's lectures triggered a considerably more angry response from the Soviet Union, where they were interpreted as an attack on communism.

The BBC archive documents a Radio Moscow broadcast which said it was "a pitiful world that Russell praised, where packs of wolves would kill for a piece of flesh" - a result of "the philosophy of capitalism in decay".

During the Cold War era, the Reith Lectures were frequently a source of political antagony. One of the most controversial series was delivered in 1957 by the former US ambassador to the Soviet Union, George Kennan.

Alarmed by the growing nuclear arms race, Kennan supported negotiation with Russia and suggested American, French and British troops should be withdrawn from Germany.

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev cited the lectures when he told reporters that Russia would withdraw from East Germany, if Nato troops did the same in the West.

Back in Washington DC, Kennan's former Democratic colleagues denounced him as "out of touch".

Ahead of their time

Throughout eight decades, the lectures have regularly highlighted issues long before they were widely discussed, many of which still resonate today.

In 1952, the historian Arnold Toynbee examined the impact of westernisation in Muslim countries; and the 1962 Reith Lecturer, the anthropologist George Carstairs, outraged the British press when he suggested "pre-marital sexual exploration" might be healthy for relationships.

The 1969 lectures, given by the ecologist Frank Fraser Darling, are considered a landmark in the debate surrounding the protection of the environment as he warned of the onset of global warming.

However, the lectures have been criticised for largely being an all-white, all-male affair. The first female Reith Lecturer was Dame Margery Perham in 1961. A writer and lecturer on African affairs, she examined the impact of colonialism.

Robert Gardiner of the UN Economic Commission for Africa was the first non-white lecturer. Speaking in 1965, his broadcasts discussed how how economic inequality affects race relations.

The youngest lecturer is the neurobiologist, Colin Blakemore, who was just thirty years old when asked to deliver the lectures in 1976. His series, Mechanics of the Mind, explored the human brain and consciousness.

The archive has been made available on the Radio 4 website, and via two podcasts Reith Lectures Archive 1948 - 1975 and Reith Lectures 1976 - 2010. Lecture transcripts are also available.

While compiling the archive, Radio 4 discovered several of the older lectures were missing, and is appealing to the public to contact the Reith Lectures team if they have copies of any of the missing recordings.

The 2011 Reith Lectures, entititled Securing Freedom, will be delivered by the Burmese pro-democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi and former MI5 director general Eliza Manningham-Buller.

Aung San Suu Kyi's lectures will address the themes of liberty and dissent, and will be broadcast on Tuesday, 28 June at 0900 BST on BBC Radio 4 and at 1100 GMT on the BBC World Service.

Baroness Manningham-Buller's lectures will be broadcast in September to mark the tenth anniversary of 9/11, and will reflect on the threats to freedom and the means of countering them in the post-9/11 world.

The Reith Lectures archive is the latest development in Radio 4's plan to make more of its archive available to the public. The recent publication of the Desert Island Discs archive has garnered more than three million downloads since its launch two months ago.

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