The last six months, since the start of lockdown, has been full of revelations - for us as a society and for all of us as individuals. Both the fragility and preciousness of our social infrastructure has rarely been more starkly highlighted, and we’ve all undergone personal experiences that have shifted our perspective and priorities. The strange thing is the way that ordinary household objects as well as national institutions seem strangely different. None more so than books - perhaps because they are both domestic objects (I include electronic readers) but they contain stories and ideas that connect all those who share them.
Back in March, as schools and offices closed; as restaurants, cafes and pubs shut their doors; as the very ground under my feet began to feel less reliable; the books in my home took on a special aura. They were solid, accessible, safe. After a day of talking into computer screens while trying to keep the kids occupied in the background, they were a world I could delve into to do the very thing I couldn’t in daily life – escape my confinement and myself. And they seemed a reminder that whatever happened to the world outside, the ideas and stories that make up our many cultures would survive. There were many things I stopped doing in lockdown, both by necessity and by choice, but I read more than ever.
In all this, I was not alone. Early fears about the devastating impact of Covid on publishing, bookselling, libraries and festivals were offset, to an extent, by the appetite the public continued to show for buying and reading books. While the challenges remain - many businesses, charities and careers will continue to suffer - the public appetite is a refreshing light at the end of the tunnel.
As our national broadcaster, one important role for the BBC during lockdown and for the foreseeable future is to help stimulate this appetite for reading. "Africa Turns the Page: The Novels That Shaped a Continent" - broadcast on BBC Four and available to watch on iPlayer now - is a case in point. With great passion and insight, David Olusoga highlighted some of the often overlooked English-language masterworks of African and British-born black authors from the last seventy years. David’s film was full of insight, and I am sure it will encourage more people to read those books.
On 8th September I launched the BBC’s Culture in Quarantine programme for the autumn, continuing our work of the last six months in ensuring everyone can experience and participate in arts and culture across our services at a time when many of the traditional points of access - museums, galleries, theatres or concert halls - remain closed or have to limit access to ensure social-distancing. As with the last six months, books remain central to the project.
Programmes which are explicitly about books or which have writers at the heart of them continue throughout all our services, and there are some special projects besides. Towards the end of September, our poetry festival Contains Strong Language is back - the first live poetry festival since lockdown. We’re broadcasting and streaming events from Cumbria with some of our greatest poets, including Jacob Polley, Zosia Wand, Malika Booker. It includes Kate Clanchy’s drama adaptation of Coleridge’s unfinished masterpiece Christabel for Radio 3.
At the start of October, a new seven-part series called "Between the Covers" starts on BBC Two. Made by the team behind "Richard and Judy’s Book Club", it is a lively, funny and entertaining celebration of some of the nation’s favourite books, hosted by Radio 2’s Sara Cox. At the heart of each programme is a book of a week: Matt Haig’s The Midnight Library, Steve Cavanagh’s Fifty Fifty, Ingrid Persaud’s Love After Love, Louise Hare’s This Lovely City, Start Turton’s The Devil and the Dark Water, Clare Chambers’ Small Pleasures and Bolu Babalola’s Love in Colour.
Later in October, the BBC is partnering with the Booker Prize for a major celebration of the award and short-list. Over its history, the Booker Prize has played an extraordinary role in bringing high-quality literature to a vast audience. Its mission feels more important than ever in 2020 and the BBC has a role to play in ensuring it is shared by as many people as possible. Special programmes on BBC Two and Radio 4 will celebrate the short-list and winner in the UK, and our global services will do so to the world.
Also in the autumn, we are rebooting "Novels That Shaped Our World". The project began last year when a panel of six experts selected one hundred books that seemed to them uniquely important. This launch was to be followed by a huge outreach and engagement programme working with local libraries, putting on events for local communities. Lockdown meant these events had to be postponed, and I am thrilled they will be taking place - either digitally or in situation - at almost every library in the country over the next six months. I’m also delighted that Kit de Waal and Molly Flatt are mounting The Big Book Weekend for a second time early next year. Hopefully, people will be able to attend book festivals in person by that time but whatever restrictions we face at that time, Kit and Molly’s mini-festival will prove, as it was in May, a vital way of keeping audiences and authors connected.
Through the autumn and winter, a string of other television documentaries and series continue to put a focus on books and authors. "The Magical World of Julia Donaldson" and "Becoming Bridget" (a celebration of Helen Fielding’s much-loved heroine) both broadcast on BBC Two close to Christmas. On BBC Four, "The Secret History of Writing", a three-part series, tells the story of what is, arguably, humankind’s greatest invention, while Laura Ashe puts a spotlight on "Plague Fiction". Finally, the New Year will see Richard E Grant’s three-part "Write Around the World", celebrating the influence of France, Italy and Spain on literature.
These are just some highlights from BBC Arts over the next few months - and all our regular, week-in week-out books programming continues as well. With all the uncertainty in the books industry and the world at large, the BBC is a consistent and stable presence which carries with pride its mission to promote literature, support authors and encourage everyone to read more.
Jonty Claypole is the director of BBC Arts.