BBC announces year-long celebration of literature

BBC Arts announces a year-long celebration of literature, with new programming across BBC TV, radio and online, as well as a festival in partnership with libraries and reading groups around the UK.

Published: 9 August 2019
We’re hoping to get the nation reading, re-reading and debating novels through this year-long focus on literature across the BBC.
— Lamia Dabboussy

Cementing the BBC’s commitment to in-depth exploration of literature, the programming reflects the breadth of the art form, from classics to contemporary fiction, from celebrated authors to the less well-known.

This new content will also feature specials of many of the BBC’s regular books programmes including; The Radio 2 Book Club with Jo Whiley, The Verb on Radio 3, World Book Club on the World Service, Book Club and Open Book, both on Radio 4. Plus, there will be further literature content announcements made in the coming months.

Spearheading the celebration of literature is the landmark BBC Two three-part series The Novels That Shaped Our World this autumn with an accompanying festival of programming. The series coincides with what is widely acknowledged to be the birth of the popular English language novel 300 years ago with Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. The series will examine the novel from three unique perspectives: Empire and slavery, women’s voices and working class experiences. These unique films will argue that the novel has always been a revolutionary agent of social change, spearheading shifts in both colonial and post-colonial attitudes, female equality and social mobility.

Highlights of the year-long celebration of literature include specially commissioned documentaries and episodes of radio programmes including:

BBC TV

  • Mark Gatiss, executive producer and co-writer of the forthcoming new Dracula series on BBC One, uncovers the Carpathian heights and crepuscular lows of immortalising the Count, on BBC One
  • Spearheading the celebration of literature is the landmark BBC Two three-part series The Novels That Shaped Our World, on BBC Two
  • Helen Fielding looks back at the origins of her fictional comedy heroine Bridget Jones and unearths the relentless - if doomed - quest for self-improvement, on BBC Two
  • David Olusoga travels to the USA, Uganda and to his home city of Lagos to meet the writers who helped make African novels a global phenomenon, on BBC Four
  • A fascinating, heart-warming story of Michael Bond and his greatest creation, Paddington Bear, who became one of the nation’s best loved characters, on BBC Two
  • Turner Prize-winning artist Gillian Wearing explores the case that George Eliot is essential reading for our current times in a new Arena documentary, on BBC Four
  • Book and travel lover Richard E Grant makes three journeys to France, Italy and Spain, visiting places that have inspired writers across the centuries, on BBC Four
  • An exploration of the life and work of Hilary Mantel, weaving together the stories, the themes, and the characters that appear in her work, on BBC Two
  • Toni Morrison will be remembered within the year, building on the BBC’s vast archive with the award-winning author

BBC radio

  • The Novels That Shaped Our World Festival kicks off on BBC Radio 2’s Book Club with Jo Whiley, when a list of 100 novels that shaped our panellist’s world will be revealed live on air
  • Radio 3’s Free Thinking devotes a programme to discussing the reassessment of George Eliot’s tragic story of Maggie Tulliver
  • Five writers paint a portrait of George Eliot through introductions to her female characters in a five-part series, and Middlemarch is dramatised in a twelve-part serialisation, both on Radio 4
  • An episode of Radio 3’s Private Passions sees American crime fiction writer James Ellroy reflect on a turbulent life, and how he honed his storytelling skills in prison
  • Radio 4’s Desert Island Myths: Three Centuries Of Robinson Crusoe examines the history of the novel and looks at the debate around its lasting legacy
  • Vasily Grossman’s Stalingrad is dramatised and then explored in Stalingrad: Destiny Of A Novel, both for Radio 4
  • In Radio 3’s Sunday Feature: Literary Pursuits Corin Throsby, former BBC Radio 3 New Generation Thinker, examines the intriguing stories behind the creation of classic works of literature
  • Radio 4 celebrates iconic literary works from the 1920s, from well-loved titles such as The Beautiful And Damned and less familiar but significant works such as Jean Toomer’s Cane and Germany’s equivalent to Ulysses, Berlin Alexanderplatz by Alfred Doblin
  • All of this can be listened to on BBC Sounds which will also have 20 iconic novels available in full, in addition to the 100 Classic Short Stories that have already been released

The year-long celebration of literature is accompanied by BBC Arts’ The Novels That Shaped Our World Festival; a multi-platform collaboration between the BBC, libraries and reading groups that will reveal and explore 100 novels which have had an impact over the last three centuries. The list - which will spark debate and celebrate the joy of reading - is being chosen by a panel of six: journalist and broadcaster Mariella Frostrup, bestselling author, screenwriter and columnist Juno Dawson, Bradford Festival Literary Director Syima Aslam, author Kit de Waal, journalist and editor of The Times Literary Supplement Stig Abell and author Alexander McCall Smith.

The panel will appear on Radio 2’s Book Club with Jo Whiley before the 100 novels, all in the English language and all works of fiction, will be discussed in front of a live audience at an event hosted by Radio 2’s Jo Whiley at the British Library, on Friday 8 November. The panel event will be streamed into libraries onto the Living Knowledge Network.

Lamia Dabboussy, Acting director, BBC Arts, says: “BBC Arts is committed to exploring novels that have had a huge impact on our lives, from the classics to contemporary fiction. We’re hoping to get the nation reading, re-reading and debating novels through this year-long focus on literature across the BBC. Whilst not exhaustive, our programming aims to generate debate and to shed a light on the role of literature to entertain, challenge and spearhead social change since the birth of the English language novel 300 years ago.”

The year-long celebration of literature will include reflections on the work on Toni Morrison, whose significant contribution to the art form is remembered through the BBC’s legacy of archive footage. Toni Morrison’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved has today been revealed as one of the 100 Novels That Shaped Our World, during a panel discussion at the Edinburgh International Books Festival.

JH

 

In Search Of Dracula (w/t)

Mark Gatiss, executive producer and co-writer of the forthcoming new Dracula series on BBC One, will captivate the viewer in this documentary. From Nosferatu to Hammer Horror and beyond, Mark uncovers the Carpathian heights and crepuscular lows of immortalising the Count. The documentary begins at Orava Castle in Slovakia, as used in the classic vampire film Nosferatu. From there Mark takes the viewer to the London Library, on the trail of Bram Stoker's newly discovered research literature. From the UK, Mark flies to Philadelphia in the United States, where he studies Stoker’s hand written notes and examines the abandoned ideas, storylines and characters which went in to become his world-famous story.

Mark meets with actors - including reuniting seven Hammer Brides! - film experts and historians as he explores the Count’s transition from page to screen. From Bela Lugosi’s Hollywood to Christopher Lee’s terrifying incarnation then finally coming face to face with the new Dracula himself; Danish actor Claes Bang. This documentary explores and celebrates this icon of popular culture asking just why do we keep coming back to the Count?

In Search Of Dracula (w/t) is a Hartswood Films Production. It was commissioned for BBC Arts and BBC Two by Mark Bell. Rachel Stone and Sue Vertue are the Executive Producers.

The Novels That Shaped Our World

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The series looks at how the novel changed the world. Using three unique and surprising perspectives: empire and slavery, women’s voices and class experience, these films will look at how, across 300 years, the novel has been at the heart of debate about society, and has often spearheaded social change. The Novels That Shaped Our World will reflect on how the power of the novel in English effected change here and abroad through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. With key moments from novels brought to life with dramatic performances and readings, British and international novelists will talk about the novels that have meant most to them, as the series follows the story of how the novel has reflected our historic social struggles and been instrumental in effecting change.

Episode one will examine the response to race and empire, from Robinson Crusoe and Uncle Tom’s Cabin to Things Fall Apart and Wide Sargasso Sea, as well as lesser known but ground-breaking work such as Aphra Benn’s Orinooko to Sam Selvon’s Lonely Londoners. The programme comes up to date with titles such as Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses and Paul Beatty’s The Sell Out.

Episode two discusses the story of women and the novel - both as characters and authors. With Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale capturing global audiences, the programme will show how the plight of women is a theme that reaches right back to the earliest novels. From Richardson’s Pamela to Austen, the Brontës through to Mary Shelley and Virginia Woolf, and to the post-war publishing boom where a new generation of global writers such as Zadie Smith, Toni Morrison and Arundhati Roy have continued to speak out for women to a new generation of readers.

In the final episode, how the novel has embraced the class struggle is explored. From Dickens, Gaskell, and Hardy to Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, to the group of working class writers that began to write their own stories in post war Britain. Looking abroad, class struggles in India and the US are also discussed, and the programme will also look at the growth of the crime novel in the 20th Century was a way of playing on the gulf between haves and have-nots.

Lady Boss: The Jackie Collins Story

This 'truth is stranger than fiction' documentary about best-selling author, rebel, actress, millionaire Hollywood chronicler, mother, sister, survivor, and unlikely feminist, Jackie Collins, is as revealing as it is perceptive. Lady Boss: The Jackie Collins Story tells the untold true story of one of the world’s best-selling novelists whose turbulent, complex, and inspiring life rivalled the spicy plots she dreamed up for her novels.

Lady Boss: The Jackie Collins Story is a Passion Pictures film, co-produced by AGC Studios, CNN Films and BBC Arts. It was commissioned for BBC Arts and BBC Two by Mark Bell.

A Bear Called Paddington & A Man Called Michael (w/t)

This is the story of the unassuming man whose greatest creation, Paddington Bear, became one of the nation’s best loved characters. Now an international phenomenon, the little bear from Peru, was the product of a very particular post war world. Michael Bond drew on his wartime memories of evacuee children to shape Paddington’s personality and his literary agent, from a Jewish family who fled the Nazis, inspired Paddington’s kindly friend, Mr Gruber. The values of decency and tolerance Michael Bond saw in the world he grew up in, were the same he gave to the young bear and this film offers a fascinating, heart-warming portrait of the world that gave birth to Paddington. Featuring interviews with Michael Bond’s family, friends and celebrity admirers, the film will also remind us of the other classic characters Michael Bond created, among them The Herbs, Olga da Polga and Monsieur Pamplemousse.

A Bear Called Paddington & A Man Called Michael is a BBC Studios production. It was commissioned for BBC Arts and BBC Two by Mark Bell. Richard Bright is the Executive Producer.

Hilary Mantel

This film takes us inside the imagination of Hilary Mantel, across a remarkable writing life, weaving together the stories, the themes, and the characters that appear in her work. We will see what she feels her journey has been from her first novel to the highly anticipated publication of The Mirror and the Light, the final novel in the Wolf Hall trilogy. The film offers an intimate portrait of Hilary in her own real world and led by the curiosity that has driven her from the beginning. It is Hilary’s story in Hilary’s voice.

Hilary Mantel is an Oxford Films production. It was commissioned for BBC Arts and BBC Two by Mark Bell. Sue Jones is the Executive Producer.

Being Bridget

In 2020, it will be 25 years since Bridget Jones made her first appearance - in a newspaper column detailing her rocky relationships with men, booze, fags….and knicker elastic. One of the defining figures of the 1990s, Helen Fielding’s brilliant comic creation was an instant cultural phenomenon.

A generation of women saw themselves in Bridget’s funny, honest accounts of thirty-something life, balancing work, relationships and the expectations of family and friends. Bridget Jones’ Diary coined some of the era’s buzz words, from "sad singletons" to "smug marrieds". And it helped launch a new genre, termed “chick lit”.

Now, a quarter of a century later, BBC Two celebrates Bridget Jones and the legacy of Helen Fielding’s character. In the age of Fleabag and #MeToo, the film explores how Bridget’s story reflects changing attitudes to women - and the way their stories are told. Being Bridget will feature interviews with Helen Fielding and the friends who inspired the original characters along with rarely seen archive and celebrity fans playing tribute.

Being Bridget is a BBC Studios production. It was commissioned for BBC Arts and BBC Two by Mark Bell. Richard Bright is the Executive Producer.

Kes: A Boys Life

Comedian, actor and former English teacher Greg Davies is a lifelong fan of Barry Hines' classic novel A Kestrel for a Knave, the story of Billy Casper training a kestrel as an escape from his troubled home and school life. In this film, Greg celebrates a novel that transformed how working class lives were portrayed in fiction. He travels to Barnsley to find out what today’s schoolkids make of the world depicted in the book, meets Barry Hines' brother Richard, who himself trained kestrels as a boy and pays his own tribute to the book’s memorable football match. He’ll explore how A Kestrel for a Knave helped inspire a generation of working class writers - and discover why a simple story about a young boy befriending a bird, continues to captivate readers over fifty years since it was written.

Kes: A Boys Life is a BBC Studios production. It was commissioned for BBC Arts and BBC Four by Mark Bell. Richard Bright is the Executive Producer.

The African Novel With David Olusoga

This film tells the story of how African novel became a global phenomenon. It begins with the generation of African writers - many of them educated in Britain - who came of age around the time of independence. As literary rates in Africa were increasing and the continent was gripped by a new sense of post-colonial optimism, writers like Wole Soyinka, Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong'o, Buchi Emecheta, Ama Ata Aidoo and Ousmane Sembène set out to tell the story of Africa in an African voice. Nigerian-born presenter and historian David Olusoga travels to the USA, Uganda and to his home city of Lagos to meet the last of that first generation of writers and in London and New York he’ll meet their successors.

The African Novel With David Olusoga is an Uplands Television Production. It was commissioned for BBC Arts and BBC Four by Mark Bell. Mike Smith is the Executive Producer.

Richard E Grant Write Around the World

A visually stunning series in which book and travel lover Richard E Grant makes three journeys to France, Italy and Spain, visiting places that have inspired writers across the centuries. Taking an essential reading list of five or six books from different periods and genres per programme, Richard’s understanding of the culture, history and landscape of the places he’s visiting and how they’ve changed, will be informed by the writers’ experiences. Retracing individual journeys, exploring landscapes, views and monuments Richard will learn about key moments in writers’ lives and the impact particular destinations had on them.

Richard E Grant Write Around the World is a Storyvault Films production. It was commissioned for BBC Arts and BBC Four by Emma Cahusac. Stuart Prebble is the Executive Producer.

Arena: Everything Is Connected - George Eliot’s Life

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Contemporary artist Gillian Wearing celebrates George Eliot’s legacy in this unique new Arena documentary with an original score by Adrian Utley from Portishead. Just as George Eliot’s Middlemarch explored the lives of ordinary men and women, Gillian Wearing’s experimental film is made up of a diverse cast of people from different backgrounds, and features Jason Isaacs and Sheila Atim as the narrators. Together with writers, actors and local people from Nuneaton, Coventry and London they read extracts from George Eliot’s novels, letters and the first- hand accounts of those who knew her. The documentary film paints a polyphonic and unique portrait of the novelist’s unconventional life and reveals - for modern audiences - the extraordinary woman behind the literary mask.

Arena: Everything Is Connected - George Eliot’s Life is a BBC Studios production. It was commissioned for BBC Arts and BBC Four by Mark Bell. Artist Gillian Wearing is the Director. Martina Hall is the Producer. Janet Lee is the Executive Producer for BBC Studios.

BBC Sounds

To coincide with the BBC-wide celebration, new recordings of twenty classic novels will all be released in full on BBC Sounds. The first set of ten will be released at the end of August and they include the following syllabus set texts:

  • A Christmas Carol - Charles Dickens
  • Frankenstein - Mary Shelly
  • Jane Eyre - Charlotte Bronte
  • Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde - Robert Louis Stevenson
  • Kidnapped - Robert Louis Stevenson
  • Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
  • Sign of Four - Arthur Conan Doyle
  • Silas Marner - George Eliot
  • The War of the Worlds - HG Wells
  • Wuthering Heights - Emily Bronte

Spanning a broad range of iconic writers and eras, a further batch of these classic novels, all produced by the BBC books team, will be released in November.

Book Club With Jo Whiley

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The Novels That Shaped Our World Festival kicks off on BBC Radio 2’s Book Club With Jo Whiley, when the list of 100 novels that shaped our panellist’s world will be revealed live on air.

  • Producer: Joe Haddow

Sunday Feature: Literary Pursuits

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To mark the BBC celebration of the novel, the Radio 3 series that examines the intriguing stories behind the creation of classic works of literature, Literary Pursuits, returns with a new presenter, Corin Throsby, a former BBC New Generation Thinker.

  • Producer: Sara Conkey for BBC Radio 3

The Verb

Ian McMillan’s weekly inimitable literary salon, The Verb will be putting the novel centre-stage for the month of November.

  • Producer: Faith Lawrence for BBC Radio 3

Free Thinking: The Mill On The Floss

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To mark her bicentenary, Radio 3’s arts and ideas programme Free Thinking devotes a programme to discussions to a reassessment of George Eliot’s tragic story of Maggie Tulliver, first published in 1860.

  • Producer: Robyn Read for BBC Radio 3

Private Passions: James Ellroy

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James Ellroy has been dubbed the ‘demon dog of American crime fiction’, a label he relishes. His crime novels, fifteen to date, are international best-sellers; the world they depict is Los Angeles at its wildest and darkest, cops and criminals as violent as each other. Ellroy’s own life has been dominated by crime; his mother was murdered when he was ten, and Ellroy himself got involved in petty theft and spent time as a young man in jail. In Private Passions, James Ellroy reflects on a turbulent life, and how he honed his story-telling skills in a cell with five other criminals. He reveals how much he owes to classical music – and particularly to Beethoven. He has a bust of Beethoven on his desk as he writes, and speaks to him every day. Sometimes Beethoven answers back. He talks too about his other heroes: Mahler, Shostakovich, Bruckner and Wagner, and his admiration for their monumental works. The choices have a strong romantic streak, perhaps surprising in a writer whose world is so violent and dark. But in conversation with Michael Berkeley, James Ellroy reveals himself as never before.

BBC Radio 4

Write Brummie

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From dawn to dusk we capture people in the act of writing throughout the city of Birmingham.

  • Producer: Rosie Boulton
  • Must Try Softer Productions for BBC Radio 4

Desert Island Myths: Three Centuries Of Robinson Crusoe

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Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe was first published on 25 April 1719. By the end of the 19th century, it had become the most reissued adapted and translated novel in the world. It has been said that Crusoe's discovery of the footprint in the sand is among the greatest and most memorable moments in all of literature. Over the years Robinson Crusoe has been interpreted in a huge variety of ways: notably by critics as the first ever novel in English. Historians still debate the real life inspiration for Crusoe - was it the pirate Alexander Selkirk or the surgeon Henry Pitman - both of whom were marooned? To mark the 300th anniversary of the book, we will examine the creation of Robinson Crusoe and its widespread influence, legacy and many meanings for today - evoking the life and after-life of this now controversial text.

  • Producer: Jane Long
  • A Hidden Flack production for BBC Radio 4

Things Fall Apart

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Chinua Achebe's classic novel about the rise and fall of Okonkwo is dramatized, as part of a season of Nigerian literature. When outsiders threaten the traditions of his clan will Okonkwo's dangerous pride eventually destroy him?

First Words

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Manchester's Shirley May is an inspiration who's helped countless young people become poets and performers. Shirley gives them their first break and helps them find - literally - their first words. This is their story.

  • Producer: Kevin Core for BBC Radio 4

Who Will Call Me Beloved?

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Tania Hershman lives alone and likes it - but as the writer-in-residence in Britain's biggest cemetery she has started to wonder - who will call her 'beloved' when she dies - how will we commemorate the growing number of single people in this country with imagination and tenderness?

  • Producer: Faith Lawrence for BBC Radio 4

George Eliot: A Life In Five Characters

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Marking the 200th anniversary of the birth of George Eliot five contemporary writers paint a multi-faceted portrait of this greatest but perhaps least familiar of Victorian novelists through vivid introductions to and heart-felt celebrations of five of her female characters.

Out Loud

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Kirran Shah, journalist writer and spoken word artist, examines an emerging counter culture in Bradford where local people share life stories in bars, cafes and safe spaces in the city. This is a personal journey sharing how these evenings have been crucial to Kirran’s own health and wellbeing.

  • Producers: Kirran Shah and Melanie Harris
  • Sparklab Productions for BBC Radio 4

Middlemarch

Middlemarch by George Eliot is a jewel in the classic novel crown. Life, love and politics set in the fictional English town of Middlemarch. The adaptation will be broadcast in both two longer instalments (Saturday 23 November and 7 December) and a 12 part serialisation between Monday 25 November and Friday 5 December.

  • Producer: Tracey Neale for BBC Radio 4

The Mill On The Floss

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A brother and sister pitted against one another in love and life. A powerful and dynamic exploration of what happens when the head confronts the heart, The Mill On The Floss is a novel of grand passions and tormented lives but it is also one of ordinariness. As the rebellious Maggie's fiery spirit and imaginative nature bring her into conflict with her narrow provincial family, most painfully with her beloved brother Tom, their fates are played out on an epic scale.

How Can I Possibly Read Everything?

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Mark Hodkinson presents a semi-autobiographical, impressionistic audio odyssey with gentle but profound observations on the nature of our personal book collections - why and how we amass them, what it says about us, how we ever expect to find time to work through them. And how has the nature of availability changed? Will stockpiling of tangible ‘culture’ survive digitisation? Writers, philosophers, book lovers and collectors will consider the fascinating nature of culture, literature, collecting, time and existence helping us discover fresh insights and balance against Mark’s own experience.

  • Producer: Kellie While
  • A 7 Digital production for BBC Radio 4

*An earlier version of this release listed Patti Smith as presenting the programme.

Stalingrad

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Prequel to Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate covering the start of the Great Patriotic War (1941-1945) and introducing the characters who run through the later novel.

  • Producer: Jonquil Panting for BBC Radio 4

Stalingrad: Destiny Of A Novel

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To mark and support this year's dramatisation of Vasily Grossman's Stalingrad this drama reveals the titanic and dangerous struggle waged by Grossman to save his novel from an increasingly hostile Soviet regime. It also lays bare how censorship and the State worked.

Power Lines

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Radio 4's dynamic contemporary poetry programme returns for a second series. Poets Sabrina Mahfouz, Inua Ellams and Steve Camden seek out diverse new poetry where it is being created in clubs, pubs, theatres, fields and tower blocks across the UK creating a compelling snapshot of life in Britain today.

  • Producer: Sally Spurring
  • Wire Free Productions for BBC Radio 4

The Beautiful And Damned

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F. Scott Fitzgerald's second novel charts the beginning of the Jazz Age through a doomed and glamorous marriage.

Cane

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A haunting masterpiece; Jean Toomer's searing portrait of the American south is considered the first work of African-American modernist literature.

Berlin Alexanderplatz

Franz Biberkopf leaves prison, back on the streets of Berlin he is determined to go straight. But Berlin has other ideas. An ambitious and timely dramatisation of Döblin's modernist masterpiece; a novel that exploded into 1929 and changed urban writing forever.