In honor of the Advent season, Katherine Graber writes on The Man Born to be King by Dorothy L. Sayers, a twelve-play cycle on the life of Christ .
Although she is most commonly known today for her Lord Peter Wimsey detective novels, her theological writings, and her translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, Dorothy L. Sayers also holds the distinction of creating one of the British Broadcasting Corporation’s most celebrated (and controversial) radio dramas, The Man Born to be King. For many twenty-first century listeners, this children’s radio series sounds innocuous enough, but its original ten month run on the BBC’s Children’s Hour program prompted a hailstorm of both indignation and adulation from the British public, ranging from Ulster housewives to the House of Commons.
Today, visitors to the Wade Center can not only listen to the original radio drama from 1942 but also leaf through the published edition of the radio scripts (London: Victor Gollancz, 1943), with a foreword by the series’ producer J.W. (James) Welch describing the radio drama’s controversy. Even more unique, The Man Born to be King archive contains hundreds of letters written from listeners to Dorothy L. Sayers, revealing a wide range of responses to the original broadcasts. This listener correspondence provides a glimpse into why a BBC radio drama for children generated such diverse and heated reaction from war-time Britain.
The Man Born to be King’s beginnings were auspicious enough. In February 1940, James Welch, the BBC’s Director of Religious Broadcasting, commissioned Dorothy L. Sayers to write a twelve-part series depicting the life of Christ; an enterprise riding on the success of her 1938 Nativity radio drama, He That Should Come. An Anglican clergyman, Welch felt a particular concern for the religious education of children and believed the current programming on the Children’s Hour failed both to capture listener interest and convey solid teaching. Welch’s concern was only heightened by the London Blitz, which prompted mass evacuations of children to the countryside, far from their home churches and habitual worship. As Welch envisioned it, this new series could reach unevangelized children as well as provide better spiritual instruction for the five million children who already tuned into the Children’s Hour on Sunday nights. Sayers enthusiastically signed on to Welch’s vision for the program, but added several conditions to her participation. She insisted that this new series would employ the same sort of dramatic realism used in He That Should Come and that she would depict Christ as a character in the drama (a practice not condoned in 1940 by the Lord Chamberlain, who regulated theatre censorship and forbade the depiction of deity on the stage).
Most radically, Sayers decided to adapt the Gospel stories into vernacular idiom, jettisoning familiar biblical language. Rather than lifting passages straight from the long-cherished and familiar Authorised Version Bible, Sayers determined that her first-century characters would speak twentieth-century English vernacular. As Sayers saw it, spiritual malaise was often the result of over-saturation in Scripture, especially the old-fashioned Authorised Version. She later wrote to a listener, “[I]t is heard so often that it becomes merely a task or a boredom, or merely produces no impression attall (sic).” (Letter from Dorothy L. Sayers to Mrs. V. Ackland. n.d. The Man Born to be King Archive, Folder 19. Marion E. Wade Center, Wheaton College, Wheaton, IL.)
Sayers’s decision to replace the exalted and beautiful language of the Authorised Version with every day English was something of a revolutionary choice in war-time Britain, but Welch wholeheartedly agreed that her conditions were necessary. In the foreword to the published version of The Man Born to be King he later wrote, “[T]he language of religion has lost most, and for some people all, of its meaning. Especially was this true of the Authorised Version.” (Welch, J.W. Foreword. The Man Born to be King: A Play-Cycle on the Life of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. By Dorothy L. Sayers (London: Victor Gollancz, 1943), 11.)
Ten days before the first episode of The Man Born to be King aired on December 21, 1941, Sayers read an excerpt from the series at a BBC press conference, which ignited a storm of controversy. Sayers’s reading included dialogue between Matthew the tax collector in which he scolds the disciple Philip in a distinct cockney accent for being cheated out of six drachmas: “Fact is, Philip my boy, you’ve been had for a sucker.” (Ibid., 117)
When the press reported on Sayers’s reading the next morning, the radio drama made headline news. Welch recalled that “Almost all of the journalists who had attended the conference wrote fairly and sympathetically about the new venture; but a few used the occasion for sensational reporting.” (Ibid., 9) In particular, the Daily Herald’s headline proclaimed, “Gangsterisms in Bible Play,” and the Daily Mail described the series as “BBC ‘Life of Christ’ in Slang.” Public outcry against the yet unheard radio drama followed close behind the press release. James Welch himself received a note from the Director General of the BBC describing the controversy: “Two shocks broke on us this past week: Pearl Harbor and The Man Born to be King.” (Kenneth Wolfe, The Churches and the British Broadcasting Corporation, 1922-1956: The Politics of Broadcast Religion, (London: SCM Press, 1984), 226.) The extent and volume of the criticism came as a surprise to Welch, who dispiritedly recalled, “It was not an encouraging reception for a great evangelistic enterprise.” (Welch, Foreword, 10)
Despite shrill protests, The Man Born to be King was released on schedule, airing in twelve installments between December 1941 and October 1942. The series proved so popular that it was rebroadcast during Lent in 1943 and published in book format that same year. In addition to the innumerable children who tuned into the broadcast on Sunday nights, nearly 10% of the British adult population listened as well. (Wolfe, 235) The BBC continued to air the drama series regularly over the next several decades.
The range of responses, both appreciative and outraged, to The Man Born to be King are preserved in the fan mail Sayers received from listeners across the nation. Surprisingly, the majority of the letters are from adult listeners, not children. While Sayers certainly received letters expressing concern or indignation over the radio drama, most listeners expressed enthusiasm. Over and over again, listeners wrote to thank Sayers for making the gospel stories and the figure of Christ “real” to them. Many individuals credited The Man Born to be King for rekindling their interest in the Bible and Christianity. One listener from Leeds wrote to Sayers, “Your new translation enabled light to be shed on many obscure passages, and the ‘really real’ Lord.” (Letter to Dorothy L. Sayers, May 24, 1943. The Man Born to be King Archive, Folder 24.) Some fans of the series admitted losing interest in Christianity as children, citing the Authorised Version Bible and compulsory religious education in school as deterrents to spiritual curiosity. Even the production engineer for The Man Born to be King told Sayers that his own interest in the Scriptures had “wilted with familiarity,” but her vernacular paraphrase had given him new appreciation. (Letter to Dorothy L. Sayers from David Godfrey, October 20, 1942. The Man Born to be King Archive, Folder 24.) One self-professed unbeliever confided to Sayers, “[T]he well-known passages are a familiar echo to me, but I don’t know my Bible …. The main character [Christ] you showed most beautifully and washed clear from my mind those dreadful illustrations I remember as a child.” (Letter to Dorothy L. Sayers from L.R.E. Wingfield Digby, August 15, 1943. The Man Born to be King Archive Folder 22.)
In his foreword to the published scripts, James Welch also recorded listeners’ reactions to hearing the gospel stories in vernacular English, many reinforcing his concern that the Authorised Version Bible could be a spiritual blockade to adults and children alike. “I have long felt that the archaic though beautiful English of the Bible and the Church services constitutes a barrier to their understanding” one woman observed. (Welch, Foreword, 13) Another listener wrote to Sayers, requesting that she write a modern translation of the entire Bible after the success of The Man Born to be King: “I believe you could present the Gospel in a way that would make it live for many people for whom the Authorised Version is a beautiful curtain.” (Letter to Dorothy L. Sayers from Katharine M. Darroch, June 12, 1943. The Man Born to be King Archive Folder 22.)
In the weeks following the initial press reaction, Dorothy L. Sayers attributed the controversy surrounding her radio drama to “religious maniacs,” who displayed “a most alarming amount of fetish worship of the Authorised Version.” (Letter from Dorothy L. Sayers to Dr. William Paton, January 30, 1942. The Man Born to be King Archive Folder 22.) Although Welch’s “great evangelistic enterprise” was intended to target biblically uninformed children, Sayers’s fan mail reveals that many of those who were so affected by the series were often adults, long acquainted with the Bible. While attachment to the familiar words of the Authorised Version was at the heart of the protest against radio drama, it was also central to its success. For many adult listeners, the antiquated language of the Authorised Version had contributed to their apathy toward Scripture. This familiarity with the Authorised Version, however, also served to rekindle interest in the person of Christ, as he was depicted in Sayers’s fresh rendering. As a result, the “fetish worship of the Authorised Version” Sayers found so alarming was in reality a significant factor in The Man Born to be King’s efficacy, a feat of irony that even a detective novelist would have no choice but to appreciate.
Katherine Graber is Reference Archivist at the Billy Graham Center Archives at Wheaton College and former Wade Center graduate student worker. She holds a B.A. in English literature from the University of Missouri-Kansas City and a M.A. in History of Christianity from Wheaton College. Katherine is currently pursuing an M.S. in Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.