BBC Radio 4, 3 December 2008
This production, based on a hitherto unknown fragment of Thomas's work
discovered in a Texas library, took a humorous look at the role of speech at a time during the Second World War when the Ministry
of Information advised that 'careless talk costs lives.' Dylan Thomas (Philip Madoc) began by focusing on some
of the famous wordsmiths of the past, notably Oscar Wilde, a lover of the beauties of language, especially when accompanied
by a glass of wine. Thomas also introduced Dr. Samuel Johnson who - in a semi-apocryphal and inaccurate quotation - informed
listeners that talk was essential to differentiate human beings from beasts. Thomas contrasted this phrase with the current
political situation in the early 1940s, which seemed to be dominated by 'careless talk.' Politicians communicated in easy-to-digest
soundbites; the wireless pumped out programme after programme with little intention other than to create verbal wallpaper;
while official censorship deprived any utterance - whether spoken or broadcast - of any real significance. This last aspect
of Thomas's argument was comically emphasized through frequent use of the bleeper.
Thomas believed that if communication was to retain its importance in the contemporary
world, people had to be given the chance to talk freely. While certain words and phrase might prove useful for enemy agents
infiltrating the highest social or political circles, this would not lead to the destruction of British civilization. After
all, a good conversationalist should know how and when to indulge in double-speak. What was more important in Thomas's view
was to permit conflicting opinions, so that people could develop the kind of social and political awareness that
would prevent them from indulging in 'careless talk'. Intelligent conversation was vital to Britain's future health, otherwise
the act of speaking would be reduced to a mindless babel of half-baked clichés. Alison Hindle's production made this point
clear through the repeated use of overlapping voices, none of which could be understood.
Written in a mock-humorous style reminiscent of Gerard Hoffnung's comic speeches
of the early 1950s, The Art of Conversation seems all the more important in the digital world, as listeners
are faced with a plethora of talk radio stations dedicated to the kind of inane chatter that Thomas so despised.