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Have you heard? Oxford DNB releases 200th episode in biography podcast

By Philip Carter

Way back in 2007, when Twittering truly was for the birds, a far-sighted editor at the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography piped up: maybe people would like to listen as well as read? So was devised the Oxford DNB’s biography podcast which this week released its 200th episode—the waggerly tale of Charles Cruft (1852-1938), founder of the eponymous dog show held annually in early March.

Over the last seven years we’ve offered two episodes of the podcast per month. Each lasts between 10 and 25 minutes and follows a set format: the reading aloud of a single biography of a historical figure, taken from the Oxford DNB and chosen by Dictionary editors. The structure of an ODNB biography is ideal for the podcast format; dictionary entries being concise, rounded accounts of a life (personal as well as public), told chronologically, and written by specialist authors. Notable writers whose work appears in the podcast list include Will Self on J.G Ballard, Bernard Crick on George Orwell, David Lodge on Malcolm Bradbury, and Anthony Thwaite on Philip Larkin.

Since 2007 many episodes have been commissioned to mark noteworthy anniversaries. For example, Captain Edward Smith and the bandleader Wallace Hartley on the centenary, in 2012, of the sinking of the Titanic; or Ludwig Guttmann, creator of the Paralympics, for the London Games later that year. Others mark notable birthdays (the centenary of the birth of Alan Turing in June 2012, for instance); or dates in the British history calendar (the extraordinary story of Guy Fawkes for 5 November and Fred Perry for Wimbledon fortnight); or one-off events such as the enthronement in March 2013 of Justin Welby, the 105th archbishop of Canterbury, with the story of the first incumbent, St Augustine.

A great many of the 200 episodes—all of which are available free in the archive—chart the lives of well-known people: Anita Roddick, Roald Dahl, Scott of the Antarctic, Dr Crippen, Wallis Simpson, and so on. There are many more familiar names we’d love to include. However, the restrictions of the podcast format (a 25-minute recording allows an upper limit of c.3000 words for a script) means that this isn’t, unfortunately, the place for a Dickens or a Darwin whose ODNB entries run to more than 20,000 words. Even so, it’s possible to touch on major historical figures through the lives of those with whom they spent time: the story of Nora Joyce sheds light on James; that of Alice Liddell (of ‘Wonderland’ fame) on Lewis Carroll.

Julia Margaret Cameron: Photographic study "Pomona" (Alice Liddell as a young woman). 1872. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Photographic study “Pomona” (Alice Liddell as a young woman) by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1872. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

A few episodes, among them Orwell and Diana, princess of Wales, have been reduced from the original Oxford DNB article for reading aloud. Likewise, a handful of episodes take the form of dual lives comprising two Dictionary entries fused together: 15 minutes with the motor-car designer Charles Rolls just wouldn’t seem right without the accompanying story of Henry Royce; and so too the combined talents of Fortnum & Mason, Mills & Boon, or Eric & Ernie. Aside from these edits, what’s read aloud is pretty close to what you’ll find in the Oxford DNB for that individual. People with complex lives tend not to receive the podcast treatment: complicated, multi-layered stories are hard to untangle in 15-20 minutes. More suitable are recognizable people who dedicated themselves to a particular purpose (Alexander Fleming and penicillin, for instance) or lesser-known individuals closely associated with a familiar event or artefect, such as Charles Lucas, first recipient of the Victoria Cross.

Over the course a year, we hope to put out a mix of episodes covering a range of time periods, topics, and tones. Our earliest life is Boudicca (d.60/61 AD), the most recent (in terms of date of death) is Beryl Bainbridge (1932-2010). In between there’s plenty for the medievalist as well as the modernist—the life of Emperor Hadrian is much more than the story of wall-building, while that of the hermit St Godric is an ear-catching account of the privations of an 11th-century anchorite. Some of the chosen stories make for difficult listening. Try, for instance, Margaret Roper or Annie Darwin, daughters of Thomas More and Charles Darwin respectively. Others, like the scandalous medieval cleric, Bogo de Clare, or the raffish socialite Neil ‘Bunny’ Roger, are pure pleasure.

Entertainment is important, of course. But the podcast also provides an alternative route to historical biography for school teachers and pupils—many of whom, it’s fair to say, would not otherwise turn to a work of academic reference like the Oxford DNB. Episodes on Wilfred Owen, the abolitionist Olaudah Equiano, or the suffragette Emily Davison relate to aspects of the UK’s national curriculum. Hopefully, the series can also spring a few surprises on older listeners, be they the Hanoverian female soldier Hannah Snell; the doyen of pigeon racing, Albert Osman; or Charles Isham, bringer of garden gnomes to England.

About 650,000 episodes are downloaded annually from the ODNB podcast. Three things may account for this. First, there are our readers, Paul and Lynne—professional voice actors who have brought to life the words and worlds of writers, politicians, criminals, inventors, eccentrics, and—with Elizabeth Parsons—a would-be ghost. Then there’s the London studio where each episode is recorded, edited, and polished to a high standard.

Finally, and most importantly, there’s our common love of human stories, and of other people’s business—as testified by popular BBC radio series, such as “Great Lives”, “Last Word”, or the “New Elizabethans”. The Oxford DNB biography podcast makes a modest contribution to our fascination with real lives, albeit one that spans nearly 2000 years of British history and offers more than 50 hours listening time. That you can—while cooking dinner or walking the dog—be in the company of Mrs Beeton or, now, Charles Cruft seems rather wonderful.

Philip Carter is Publication Editor of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is a collection of 59,003 life stories of noteworthy Britons, from the Romans to the 21st century. The Oxford DNB online is freely available via public libraries across the UK, and many libraries worldwide. Libraries offer ‘remote access’ allowing members to gain access free, from home (or any other computer), 24 hours a day. You can also sample the ODNB with its changing selection of free content: in addition to the podcast; a topical Life of the Day, and historical people in the news via Twitter @odnb. A new e-brochure offers more on the Oxford DNB podcast, along with selected content. All 200 episodes are available as free downloads in the Archive. New episodes in the podcast are available on alternate Wednesdays as ‘Oxford Biographies’ via iTunes.

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