WILLIAMS, RAYMOND

British Media Critic

Raymond Williams was to become one of Britain's greatest post-war cultural historians, theorists and polemicists. He was a distinguished literary and social thinker in the Left-Leavisite tradition. He was concerned to understand literature and related cultural forms not as the outcome of an isolated aesthetic adventure, but as the manifestation of a deeply social process that involved a series of complex relationships between authorial ideology, institutional process, and generic/aesthetic form. Pioneering in the context of the British literary academy, these concerns are heralded in the brief-lived post-war journal Politics and Letters, which he co-founded. They are perhaps best summarised in Culture and Society 1780-1950, his critical panorama of literary tradition from the Romantics to Orwell, predicated on the key terms "industry", "democracy", "class", "art" and "culture". This ideological sense of cultural etymology became the basis of his influential pocket dictionary Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society.

Marked by a commitment to his class origins and his post-war experiences of adult education, his expansion of the traditional curriculum for English also entailed an early engagement with the allied representational pressures of film and cinema, in books such as Preface to Film, Drama from Ibsen to Eliot, Drama in Performance, Modern Tragedy and Drama from Ibsen to Brecht. His perception of the links between film and drama remains evident in his 1977 Screen essay on the politics of realism in Loach's TV film The Big Flame and in his historical introduction to Curran's and Porter's British Cinema History (1983).

His preoccupation with the relationships between ideology and culture, and the development of socialist perspectives in the communicative arts, were to continue in such works as The Long Revolution, May Day Manifesto 1968, The English Novel from Dickens to Lawrence, The Country and the City, Marxism and Literature, Problems in Materialism and Culture, Culture, Writing in Society, Towards 2000, Resources of Hope, The Politics of Modernism, and Politics, Education, Letters. Politics and Letters: Interviews with 'New Left Review' provides a useful retrospective.

In the 1960s Williams' work was to take on new dimensions. He published his first, autobiographical novel, Border Country, which was to be followed by Second Generation, The Volunteers and The Fight for Manod. At the beginning of the decade, he was to write his first book directly addressing the new world of contemporary mass media, Communications, an informative and influential volume in the early history of media studies in Great Britain and internationally. He was to move to the centre of left cultural politics, in the crucible of 1968, with his chairmanship of the Left National Committee and his edition of the May Day Manifesto 1968.

Throughout the 1960s he was participating in what he remembered as innumerable TV discussion programmes as the young medium found its style. Two of his novels became TV plays, now sadly lost--a "live" version of A Letter from the Country (1966) and Public Inquiry (1967), filmed in his native Wales.

From 1968 to 1972 he contributed a weekly column on TV to the BBC magazine The Listener. Now collected as Raymond Williams on Television: Collected Writings, these illustrate Williams' response to a wide range of TV themes and pleasures--from an enthusiasm for television sport to a distrust in the medium's stress on "visibility", to arguments about the economic and political relationships between production and transmission.

He went on to develop these ideas more formally in the book Television: Technology and Cultural Form, one of the first major theoretical studies of the medium, largely written on a Visiting Professorship at Stanford in 1972. There he soaked up American TV, almost inevitably developed his influential concept of TV "flow", and encountered the newly emerging technologies of satellite and cable.

In 1970 he had contributed a personal documentary, Border Country, to the BBC series One Pair of Eyes, which was to be followed, at the end of the decade, by The Country and The City: A Film with Raymond Williams, the last of five programmes in the series Where We Live Now: Five Writers Look at Our Surroundings (1979). In the 1980s he contributed to a trio of Open University/BBC programmes--Language in Use: "The Widowing of Mrs Holroyd" (1981), Society, Education and the State: Worker, Scholar and Citizen (1982) and The State and Society In 1984 (1984). He also appeared in Identity Ascendant: The Home Counties (1988), an episode in the HTV/Channel 4 series The Divided Kingdom, and in Big Words, Small Worlds (1987), Channel 4's record of the Strathclyde Linguistics of Writing Conference.

Williams' contribution to cultural thinking was that of the Cambridge professor who never forgot the Welsh village of his childhood. He was a theorist of literature who himself wrote novels; an historian of drama who was also a playwright; and a commentator on TV and the mass media who himself regularly contributed to the medium in a variety of ways. For him, unlike so many academics, the medium of television was a crucial cultural form, as relevant to education as the printed word. When Channel 4 began transmission in Great Britain in 1982, it was entirely appropriate that this innovative Channel's opening feature film should be So That You Can Live, Cinema Action's elegy for the industrial decay of the Welsh valleys, explicitly influenced by the work of Williams, from whose work the film offers us readings.

The Second International Television Studies Conference, held in London in 1986, was honoured to appoint him as its co-president alongside Professor Hilde Himmelweit. But it was a gathering, eventually, that he could not join, and by the time the next event came round in 1988 the conference sadly honoured not his presence, but his passing. The breadth of his impact in the U.K. cultural arena can be gauged from the British Film Institute monograph, Raymond Williams: Film/TV/Cinema (1989), produced to accompany a Williams memorial season at the National Film Theatre and containing a contribution by his widow.

-Phillip Drummond

RAYMOND (HENRY) WILLIAMS. Born in Llanfihangel Crocorney, Wales, 31 August 1921. Attended Abergavenny Grammar School, 1932-39; Trinity College, Cambridge, M.A. 1946). Served in Anti-Tank Regiment, Guards Armoured Division, 1941-45. Married: Joyce Marie Dalling, 1942; children: one daughter and two sons. Editor, Politics and Letters, 1946-47; extra-mural tutor in literature, Oxford University, 1946-61; Fellow, Jesus College, Cambridge, from 1961; reader, Cambridge University, 1967-74; Professor of Drama, Cambridge University, 1974-83; Visiting Professor of Political Science, Stanford University, 1973; general editor, New Thinkers Library, 1962-70; reviewer, The Guardian, from 1983; adviser, John Logie Baird Centre for Research in Television and Film, from 1983; president, Classical Association, 1983-84. Litt.D.: Trinity College, Cambridge, 1969; D.Univ.: Open University, Milton Keynes, 1975; D.Litt.: University of Wales, Cardiff, 1980. Member: Welsh Academy. Died in Cambridge, 26 January 1988.

TELEVISION PLAYS

1966 A Letter from the Country
1967 Public Inquiry
1979 The Country and the City

PUBLICATIONS

Reading and Criticism. London: Miller, 1950.

Drama from Ibsen to Eliot. London: Chatto & Windus, 1952.

Drama in Performance. London: Watts, 1954.

Preface to Film, with Michael Orram. London: Film Drama, 1954.

Modern Tragedy. London: Verso; Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1958.

Culture and Society, 1780-1950. London and New York: Columbia University Press, 1958.

Border Country (novel). London: Chatto & Windus, 1960.

The Long Revolution. London and New York: Columbia University Press, 1961.

Communications. London: Penguin, 1962; 3rd edition, 1976.

Second Generation (novel). London: Chatto & Windus, 1964.

May Day Manifesto 1968, editor. London: Harmondsworth Penguin, 1968.

Drama From Ibsen to Eliot. New York: Oxford University Press, 1968.

The Pelican Book of English Prose: From 1780 to the Present Day, editor. London: Harmondsworth Penguin, 1970.

The English Novel from Dickson to Lawrence. London: Chatto & Windus, 1970.

Orwell. London: Fontana, 1971.

D. H. Lawrence on Education, editor, with Joy Williams. London: Harmondsworth Penguin, 1973.

The Country and the City. London: Chatto & Windus, 1973.

Television: Technology and Cultural Form. London: Fontana, 1974.

George Orwell: A Collection of Critical Essays, editor. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1974.

Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. London: Fontana, 1975.

English Drama: Forms and Development: Essays in Honour of Muriel Clara Bradbrook, editor, with Marie Axton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977.

Marxism and Literature. London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

The Volunteers (novel). London: Eyre Methuen, 1978.

The Fight for Manod (novel). London: Chatto & Windus, 1979.

Politics and Letters: Interviews with New Left Review. London and New York, 1979.

Problems in Materialism and Culture: Selected Essays. London and New York: Verso, 1980.

Contact: Human Communication and Its History, editor. London: Thames and Hudson, 1981.

Culture. London: Fontana, 1981.

The Sociology of Culture. New York: Schocken, 1982.

Cobbett. London and New York: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Towards 2000. London: Chatto & Windus, 1983.

Writing in Society. London: Verso, 1983.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Boston: Twayne, 1985.

Loyalties. London: Chatto & Windus, 1985.

People of the Black Mountains. London: Chatto & Windus, 1989.

The Politics of Modernism: Against the New Conformists, edited by Tony Pinkney. London and New York: Verso, 1989.

Raymond Williams on Television: Selected Writings. New York: Routledge, 1989.

Resources of Hope: Culture, Democracy, Socialism, edited by Robin Gale. London; New York: Verso, 1989.

What I Came to Say. London: Hutchinson, 1989.

FURTHER READING

Eagleton, Terry, editor. Raymond Williams: Critical Perspectives. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1989.

Ethridge, J.E.T. Raymond Williams: Making Connections. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Gorak, Jan. The Alien Mind of Raymond Williams. Columbia, Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 1988.

Inglish, Fred. Raymond Williams. New York: Routledge, 1995.

O'Connor, Alan. Raymond Williams: Writing, Culture, Politics. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Pinkney, Tony, editor. Raymond Williams. Bridgen, Mid Glamorgan, England: Sern Books, 1991.

Stevenson, Nick. Culture, Ideology, and Socialism: Raymond Williams and E.P. Thompson. Aldershot, England: Avebury, 1995.

 

See also Television Studies