(CMCSL-4): After Winston Churchill, Lewis Was the Most Recognized Voice in Britain in the 1940’s

This is part of an occasional series exploring questionable claims about the life or writings of C.S. Lewis.  For a list of the topics either already explored or planned to be examined you can visit the introduction to this series.    

Most people enjoy being recognized. In fact, those who are well-known are usually ones who seek out the fame. This was not the case for C.S. Lewis. While he enjoyed the company of friends and spoke publicly, he was also a rather bookish man. In an interview published in the September 8, 1947 issue of Time he is quoted as saying, “I like monotony.” So, even though Lewis didn’t seek to be famous, he nevertheless became a public figure.

Much of his fame (at least in England) is attributed to the fact that he was on the radio (BBC) speaking in favor of the Christian faith on four series of talks that later became the book Mere Christianity. His third show from the first series had an audience of over two million listeners! Is it any wonder there is the claim that Lewis was the most recognized voice after Winston Churchill? Even though this detail has been mentioned by established scholars, it is simply not true.

Dr. Bruce Johnson has done excellent research shedding light on this misunderstanding. In an article entitled “C.S. Lewis and the BBC’s Brains Trust: A Study in Resiliency,” published in SEVEN: An Anglo-American Literary Review, Vol. 20 (2013), he provided his findings that many other voices heard on BBC radio were more popular. For example: When Lewis was a guest on the show “The Brains Trust,” there were several other guests who had more recognized voices. This program had a listenership of over 5 million for each of the two programs he was on. In order for Lewis to get that kind of numbers you would have to combine the first eight of his ten stand-alone broadcasts!

The regular panelists for “The Brains Trust” were Julian Huxley, C.E.M. Joad and A.B. Campbell, in addition to the first host, Donald McCullough. Any of these four individuals’ voices would have easily been more recognized than Lewis. Johnson even suggests “dozens of other candidates” (including those four) would have been more popular than Lewis.

Of course, let’s consider the audience Lewis had. They are very good numbers indeed. During his first series of five shows, all but the initial talk had over a million listeners. I already mentioned his highest ever was that third show (from August 20, 1941), which had over two million hearers. Yet, considering the fact that the potential audience was estimated at 35 million, you discover that less than 10 percent of possible listeners tuned in for Lewis. If you just think about it, broadcasts on the BBC focusing on news and entertainment easily had more sets of ears.

Thus, while Lewis’ voice was popular and he had respectable ratings, it is an exaggeration to even suggest he was one of the most recognized voices in England. He wouldn’t have even made the top ten! However, if you put Lewis in the context of other religious broadcasters on the BBC during the war, then you can see he had very good ratings. Yet, as Johnson stated to me in an email on the subject (from 6/29/2015), “no religious programming on the BBC ever did as well (in terms of number of listeners) as did news or entertainment broadcasts.” Therefore, instead of the false claim of being second only to Winston Churchill, it is more accurate to say that Lewis’ shows were popular and his voice was recognizable because of it.

Speaking of Churchill, did you know that he recommended Lewis for a C.B.E. (Commander of the Order of the British Empire) in the early 1950’s? Lewis declined the honor in a letter dated December 4, 1951 and addressed to the Prime Minister’s Secretary. In it, Lewis stated he feared there were those who, had he accepted, would feel more confirmed in their belief that his “religious writings are all covert anti-Leftist propaganda.”  Also did you know that when Lewis married in 1957 that it was at Churchill Hospital, which was named after Winston Churchill’s wife. Finally, did you know that even though Lewis was popular on the BBC, he personally disliked listening to the radio.

The next article to be posted is:

Lewis was Just a Children’s Author



Updated 7/1/2017


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