Radio 4 and Radio 3 explore the legacy of Modernism

Marking 100 years since the publication of Ulysses, Radio 4 and Radio 3 explore Modernism’s big bang - and its aftershocks - in a season of programmes.

Published: 16 January 2022
Updated: 16 January 2022
Matthew Sweet
Matthew Sweet
The writers and artists of 1922 made a powerful claim on the idea of the Now - and it still holds.... this series is going to put Modernism back into its context. And if we’re not so dazzled, perhaps we’ll see it more clearly."
— Matthew Sweet, presenter

February 1922 - 100 years ago next month - saw the publication of Ulysses, James Joyce’s modernist masterpiece. The novel was one of the foundational texts of the modernist movement, an explosion of ideas in the arts and beyond - ideas that spread right around the globe and still reverberate today.

To mark the centenary of this moment, Radio 3 and Radio 4 have commissioned a season of programmes across both networks exploring the ideas, achievements and legacy of the modernist pioneers, and why they still matter now.

At the centre of Radio 4’s output is 1922: The Birth Of Now, beginning 24 January at 1.45pm. Presented by Matthew Sweet, the series investigates 10 momentous events that took place in 1922, a crucial year for modernism, and traces their impact through to today, from the Soviet Shabolovka Tower to the development of the first aircraft carrier; from the revolutionary theatre of Berthold Brecht through to the new sounds of Louis Armstrong.

Matthew Sweet, presenter of 1922: The Birth Of Now on Radio 4, and of Free Thinking’s Futurism and Manifestos on Radio 3, says: "The writers and artists of 1922 made a powerful claim on the idea of the Now. And it still holds. It’s why we’re so deferent towards Modernism, with its big monolithic texts and pure clean lines. It’s why, a century on, we still think of ourselves as Postmodern. We’re still dazzled by it. So this series is going to put Modernism back into its context. And if we’re not so dazzled, perhaps we’ll see it more clearly."

Other Radio 4 highlights include a new reading of Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, read by Sian Thomas; Headwaters, presented by 2021 debut novelist Rebecca Watson, which explores the origins of the stream-of-consciousness writing style; Simon Scardifield’s two-part dramatisation of Berlin Alexanderplatz, featuring a cast including Claes Bang and Lee Ross; and Paris-Zurich-Trieste: Joyce L’European, an Archive on 4 documentary which explores the influence of Europe on Joyce’s work, presented by Andrew Hussey.

Radio 3’s Modernist offering includes Radio 3 Breakfast, which will be playing, as part of the modernism season, a selection of pieces from some of the fascinating musical innovators of 1922 and 1923. Further highlights include the Sunday Feature with journalist James Marriott looking at 'all-in-a-day artwork' from Ulysses to Groundhog Day; Irish writers Anne Enright, Colm Tóibín, Mary Costello and Nuala O’Connor exploring the personal and cultural impact of Ulysses in The Essay; and Free Thinking’s Modernism Week, a three-part series, ventures beyond Europe to examine its impact in India, South Africa, Japan and Latin America.

Dan Clarke, Commissioning Editor for Factual at BBC Radio 4, says: “The 1920s was a period of swirling ideas and ideologies not unlike our own, and 1922 was a year of extraordinary modernist innovation in the arts and beyond. This season is going to take us under the skin of what was created in those years and why so much of it still resonates now.”

Matthew Dodd, Editor at BBC Radio 3, says: “From Ulysses and Mrs Dalloway through to pioneering modernist music, and the innovative art and architecture beyond Europe, the cultural impact of Modernism cannot be understated. We’re delighted that this series will allow us to explore the intense artistic creativity of the early years of Modernism while also investigating the difficulties of the movement, and how its legacy still touches our lives today.”

Full schedule of Programmes on Radio 4 as part of the Modernism season:

1922: The Birth Of Now

24 January - 4 February, 1.45pm - 2pm

A 10-part series presented by Matthew Sweet exploring the impact that Modernist ideas which came to fruition in 1922 had on the world, 100 years on, across art, literature, science and technology.

Episode one: The Shabolovka Tower and the Gherkin. In 1922 Vladimir Shukhov built a tower in Moscow that was radically modernist in purpose - to transmit radio - and in design. He used a diagonally intersecting framework, his diagrid system, which uses less steel and requires no columns. This was a catalyst of Soviet modernism. Norman Foster describes the Shabolovka Tower as “a structure of dazzling brilliance and great historic importance”. Inspired by it, he used Shukhov's diagrid system in the design of 30 St Mary Axe - The Gherkin - from the top of which Matthew Sweet looks at the streets and churches T. S. Eliot mapped in The Waste Land.

  • Reader Neil McCaul
  • Producer: Eliane Glazer

Headwaters

8 February, 11.30am - 12pm

A half hour documentary exploring the birth and trajectory of the stream-of-consciousness writing style. Presented by Rebecca Watson, whose own 2021 debut novel utilised experimental stream of consciousness techniques.

Rebecca speaks to academics and fellow writers as she traces the technique back to the American psychologist William James; the French philosopher Henri Bergson; the largely forgotten British author Dorothy Richardson and the iconic writers who made it their own in such canonical works as Mrs Dalloway, The Wasteland and Ulysses.

  • Producer: Beaty Rubens

Paris-Zurich-Trieste: Joyce L’European

29 January, 8pm-9pm

Professor Andrew Hussey examines the massive impact that James Joyce's self-proclaimed exile in Continental Europe, where he spent more than half his life, had upon his work.

  • Producer: Geoffrey Bird

Open Book: Ulysses

16 January, 4pm-4.30pm

Chris Power is joined by Colm Toibin and Merve Emre to explore the enduring legacy of James Joyce’s Ulysses, as this groundbreaking novel marks its centenary. How should this complex, challenging text be tackled by today’s readers?

Berlin Alexanderplatz

5 - 6 February, 2.30pm - 4.30pm

Simon Scardifield’s two-part dramatisation of Berlin Alexanderplatz features a cast including Claes Bang and Lee Ross. Alfred Döblin's modernist masterpiece set in the underworld of 1920s Berlin is said to have exploded into 1929, the year of its publication, changing urban writing forever.

  • Produced by Emma Harding and Marc Beeby
  • Directed by David Hunter and Gemma Jenkins

Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf

24 January - 4 February, 12.04pm - 12.18pm

A 10-part reading of Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, read by Sian Thomas and abridged by Katrin Williams. This classic Modernist novel, one of Woolf’s most celebrated works, follows a day in the life of a high society woman in 1923.

  • Abridger: Katrin Williams
  • Producer: Justine Willett

The Beautiful And Damned

22 and 29 January, 3pm - 4pm

Another chance to hear F Scott Fitzgerald's 1922 novel about a glamorous but doomed marriage, adapted by Robin Brooks.

  • Producer: Gaynor Macfarlane

Start The Week

24 January, 9am - 9.45am

Start the Week discusses the legacy of Modernism with a panel of guests.

Full schedule of Programmes on Radio 3 as part of the Modernism season:

Sunday Feature: The Art Of A Day

30 January, 6.45pm - 7.30pm

James Marriott explores the 'all-in-a-day artwork' pioneered by James Joyce’s novel Ulysses. Why did Joyce choose to set his 'odyssey' within the confines of just one day? And what has been the cultural impact and long afterlife of the one day artwork, from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway to Katherine Mansfield to Groundhog Day? We speak to Ulysses experts, novelists AL Kennedy and Ian McEwan, who continue to draw inspiration from it and make the one-day form their own; and literature-loving physicist Carlo Rovelli, who unravels the many timescales at play in these artworks, and the nature of time itself.

BBC Radio 3 Breakfast

31 January - 4 February, 6.30am-9am

From Monday 31 January to Friday 4 February, Radio 3 Breakfast will be playing a selection of pieces from some of the fascinating musical innovators of 1922 and 1923.

  • Producer: Brian Jackson
  • Producer: Beth Sagar-Fenton

The Essay: Reading Ulysses

31 January - 4 February, 10.45pm - 11pm

Five Irish writers each take a passage from James Joyce’s Ulysses and, through a close reading, explore its meaning and significance within the wider work, as well as what it means to them. Reading Ulysses is a famously challenging experience for most readers, so can our Essayists help?

Anne Enright takes a passage from the first episode, Telemachus, and sets the scene in Dublin. Colm Tóibín tells us about songs and singing with a passage from Sirens. Mary Costello selects the Q&A-laden Ithaca, Nuala O’Connor explores the character of Molly Bloom in the final episode Penelope and John Patrick McHugh tells us about the comedy in Calypso.

  • Producer: Camellia Sinclair

Free Thinking: Modernism Week

1 - 3 February, 10pm - 10.45pm

Tuesday: How To Create A Modernist Masterpiece

Guests Will Self, Alex Harris, Owen Hatherley and Kevin LeGendre trace the key elements of early modernism in jazz, books art and architecture.

Wednesday: Modernism Around The World

Presenter Rana Mitter and guests put aside modernism’s Eurocentricism and look at pioneering modernist art, writing and architecture from India, South Africa, Japan, Latin America.

Thursday: Futurism and Manifestos

Matthew Sweet takes a journey into the manifesto that declared the aims of the groundbreaking Futurist branch of modernism.

  • Producer: Luke Mulhall

Radio 3 in Concert: Russian Heart, Soviet Steel - BBC Symphony Orchestra live from Barbican

4 February, 7.30pm-8pm

Hannah French presents the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Principal Guest Conductor Dalia Stasevska performing live from London’s Barbican Hall.

From the unsettling vantage point of the 1920s and 30s three Russian composers reflect on their homeland. Dmitri Shostakovich’s outlandish Piano Concerto No.1 is performed by young Albanian Marie-Ange Nguci, with its standout part for trumpet, played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s Principal Trumpet Philip Cobb. Rachmaninov, who had fled the Soviet Union to America, in his final Symphony No.3 pines in broad melodies, and astonishing orchestral sounds, for pre-Soviet Russia. The shock of the new begins it all with the heat of Soviet futurism in Alexander Mosolov’s the Iron Foundry, a punch of a piece in which the whole orchestra literally imitates the sounds of a factory floor.

During the interval of this live broadcast from the Barbican Hall, the BBC Symphony Chorus with Chorus Director Neil Ferris perform Russian and Russian-inspired works live from the Maida Vale.

Words and Music: Modernism

6 February, 5.30pm-6.45pm

Radio 3’s curated selection of readings and music with an edition inspired by the early years of modernism.

  • Producer: Luke Mulhall 

JH