BBC WHITE MARCHES (3) — IN PLAIN SIGHT

Broadcasting House, London

Where should this music be? i’ the air or the earth?

It sounds no more: and sure, it waits upon

Some god o’ the island. Sitting on a bank,

Weeping again the king my father’s wreck,

This music crept by me upon the waters,

Allaying both their fury and my passion

With its sweet air: thence I have follow’d it,

Or it hath drawn me rather.

Ferdinand in The Tempest, Act 1 Scene 2

Is it coincidence that a building adorned with pedophile sculptures should be found to house a nest of pedophiles? 

That’s a difficult question, and we have to leave it hanging. First —are these ‘pedophile sculptures’? Or merely sculptures carved by a pedophile? Do they have a pedophile subtext, or are we merely imagining it based on what the sculptor confided to his diaries? An analysis of these works is required before we can say so; can we establish that they contain a perverse sexual display as well as a more explicit allegory of broadcasting?

There appear to be five of them in series. In their titles, they allude to characters from the pen of the writer known as William Shakespeare; specifically, the music- and magic-soaked romance he entitled The Tempest. Because of the visual and musical interludes, this is the shortest play-text he ever wrote. It’s a charming entertainment for a daughter’s wedding, full of mystery and spectacle, incorporating a masque — a show-within-the show integrating acting, singing, and dancing, with fantastical costumes and stage effects. The editors of the first collected edition of Shakespeare’s plays, known as the First Folio (1623), gave it pride of place at the front of the book, presumably because of the evocative theatre-metaphor it uses, and its clearly autobiographical central character.

Behind its spectacular effects lies an intriguing allegorical structure of ideas, and although it is not one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays it has influenced many other writers, provoking literary allusions and variations as diverse as W H Auden’s Caliban on Setebos, T S Eliot’s The Wasteland, Sylvia Plath’s Ariel, John Fowles’ novels The Collector and The Magus, and of course Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World — as well as numerous film-makers and artists. 

The Tempest tells the story of Prospero, an exiled ruler who transforms himself into a powerful mage in order to regain his kingdom. With him, stranded on a deserted island, is his young daughter Miranda, who in Act V utters the words lifted by Huxley for the title of his satirical dystopia: ‘O brave, new world, that hath such people in it!’ Prospero’s only other company is a semi-human monster — Caliban — whom he found on the island, and Ariel, a daemon or elemental spirit whom he released from imprisonment inside a tree, in exchange for twelve years’ service. 

As an immaterial spirit, Ariel’s power is not physical but psychological, spiritual, perceptual. He creates illusions; that is all he does. Even the terrible storm with which the play opens turns out to have been a mass hallucination. Ariel’s hypnotic power is dramatised in music, and Gill highlights this, the flute held by Ariel in the first piece recurring in all of the others. Through Ariel, Prospero can make people fall in love, fight each other or kill themselves. He can do what he likes to his enemies, whom he has caused to be shipwrecked on the island. He can destroy them without ever revealing himself; but although his temperament has its brooding, vengeful side, he continues to grow spiritually during the action and ultimately — prompted by Ariel — foregoes the vengeance he is in a position to exact. The play ends happily, in marriage, the forgiveness of old feuds, the reunion of lost children, fathers, brothers and friends, and the redemption of the self ‘when no man was his own’.

The sculpture which attracts most attention is ‘Ariel and Prospero’, because of its prominent position above the main entrance to the original building, on its South face. Gill portrays Ariel as a small, naked boy, though at the same time a colossus, his feet resting on the globe. With his hands lifted above his head, he leans back against the robed Magus who towers behind him, eyes closed, a beatific expression on his face. Not just the boy’s nakedness but Prospero’s posture and facial expression, as well as the positioning of his hands, are somewhat ambiguous. The effect is subtle, and you might wonder if it’s all in your imagination — that is, until you consider this piece in the context of the whole series. 

The question here is — why is Ariel shown as a naked child? He never takes the form of a child in the play, although he does have a childlike innocence about human nature which might perhaps lead to such a figuration. The nakedness can be glibly justified in terms of classical traditions, I suppose, like the cherubs that adorn medieval and renaissance art. On the exoteric level, Gill seems to be evoking the infancy of these magical new technologies, radio and television, which will one day ‘bestride the world’, to borrow another Shakespearean phrase. 

According to the book I consulted, ‘Broadcasting House in the Nineteen Thirties’, Gill was forced to tone down aspects of the work he had completed for the building as a result of objections at the time. One of the alterations was to reduce the generous proportions of the male member with which he had endowed his Ariel figure. Anecdotes recall his working on ladders dressed only in a long coat, and female employees being instructed not to look up as they entered or left the building. 

There are four other pieces by Gill, located on the West, East and North fronts of the building. The book lists only four in total, but an online image-search reveals five pieces in all. 

In Shakespeare’s play, magic is explicitly a metaphor for theatre, the explosive art-form of the English Renaissance, itself a revival and evolution of the theatre of ancient Greece. It’s a simple step for Gill to stretch the metaphor to embrace the new broadcast media, with Ariel representing the immaterial propagation of radio waves.

In the bas-relief on the West side of the building we see a visual embodiment of this technological metaphor, the angels’ folded wings echoing those of the heraldic eagles on the BBC’s coat of arms, the arrangement of their feathers evoking lines of force or radiating electromagnetic waves.

These companion pieces go under the title ‘Ariel Between Wisdom and Gaiety’, obviously a reference to the BBC’s charter-obligation to inform and educate as well as entertain. The first of the pair is located above the bookshop windows at street level. I’m not sure of the location of the second; the book accords it pride of place above the concert hall entrance on the North side, but Wikipedia gives that place to the fifth piece in the series. In the first image it looks as if Wisdom’s right arm has been clumsily extended to take the hand away from where it would otherwise rest. Was this another of the alterations Gill was forced to make to tone down the images?

Ariel’s face is turned towards Wisdom; in the second piece, towards Gaiety — who is holding his flute in front of his mouth in a gesture reminiscent of the sign of silence. Wisdom’s left hand performs a similar gesture in front of her own lips. In her right hand, she holds an open book with the latin word OSCULTA — Listen! — inscribed across its pages. 

It’s the placement of Wisdom’s right hand that makes the eye recoil in doubt. The immediate impact is obscene; a half-glimpse of either of these works evokes another scenario in the mind, consciously or unconsciously, in which the child Ariel is being molested by two adults.

The last two pieces in the series focus on the psychological power of music, dramatising its hypnotic effect. From my brief research I’m not sure where this fourth piece is located on the building or what its title is, but again it is a highly dubious visual image. Ariel, still naked, is now the largest figure in the tableau. On either side of him is a group of three figures, which seem to represent archetypal family groups of man, woman and child. Ariel is seated in the centre, playing his flute. All six of his listeners gaze at him, entranced. On each side, the child of each family is closest to him and reaches out a hand…

In the final relief, Ariel is fully grown, a physically powerful figure, and has finally put some clothes on. The most important thing in this image is that the adults have disappeared. In a superficially innocent, exuberant image, the two children are completely under the power of Ariel’s music, dancing on either side of him and bunching up their skirts in their hands. Ariel’s stance both complements and contrasts with that of the children — he is not dancing but controlling, embodying focused purpose, not abandon.

So what are we looking at in this series of sculptures? A surface text relating to the BBC and a private subtext relating to Gill’s secret life? Or are text and subtext inextricably bound together in a more generalised psychopathic scenario?

In the surface text, a powerful new technology is shown even in its infancy bestriding the world. In its maturity we see it dissolving the family, making the adults disappear and isolating the children. The whole allegory is centred around music, just as the building is itself centred on an internal ‘tower’ of cantilevered studios using state-of-the-art architectural strategies to isolate them from the city ambience, traffic on the road and the vibrations of underground trains, as well as sound from other studios. The BBC, of course, broadcasts not only music but spoken word and drama, but the music motif of the sculptures can be taken as symbolic of the hypnotic power of the new medium as a whole, not only its light entertainment wing. Even without the perverted subtext, the series reads like a parable of social engineering, the induction of a hypnoid trance that leaves its subjects isolated and vulnerable. The innocent surface text is not elaborated merely to veil a perverted subtext — the allegory is sinister on both levels.

The writer who used the pseudonym ‘Shakespeare’ in the last dozen years of his life, living in self-imposed exile from the court, wrote this play for a daughter’s wedding (he had three). For his characters to be turned into lintel guardians for a sanctum of pedophiliac culture is a gross perversion of the original. Prospero guards the honour of his young daughter fiercely, and everything he does, we understand by the end of the play, is motivated by his infinite care for her future. Look at her the wrong way, and the mage will torture and enslave you, hunt you with spirit dogs, terrify you with visions of hideous winged furies and drive you mad.

By contrast, Gill’s variation on the theme is characterised by a kind of sinister frivolity, which reminds me of something, I don’t know, maybe a cartoon villain in a blonde wig, chomping on a fat cigar… it seems to tell a story that only happened later. Jimmy Savile was five years old when the building was opened. His key to the castle would be music; children deprived of protection would be his prize. Before his time was over, the BBC would become notorious for reporting on an event before it happened. In his Broadcasting House sculptures, we might say that Eric Gill somehow achieved the same feat.

Like Savile, Gill seems to enjoy flirting with confession, lifting the mask teasingly, toying with exposure. The occult practice of hiding in plain sight gives the sociopathic artist a sexual tingle.

Does what happens within a particular space depend on the kind of invocations that are made around and within it?

Walk in under that statue mounted above the entrance like a tutelary deity, and you’ll find yourself in an art deco lobby. Here you will see a sixth piece by Gill, standing alone.

It’s called ‘The Sower’.

Get it?

Once you see it, you can’t unsee it — Gill’s foreshadowing of the growth of the sick culture which ate the institution out from inside, turning it into a leering parody of all it was supposed to stand for.

______________________________________________

PS During cleaning and restoration work in 2006, a hidden coda to the series was discovered. Gill had carved a beautiful female face on Prospero’s back, where it could not be seen. The artist reportedly commented that no one would understand the true meaning of his work until the building fell down. He must have been referring to this hidden face, but what it represents and what clue it is intended to reveal are beyond me at this point.

Any ideas are welcome.






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