Constructing and addressing the 'ordinary devoted mother': Donald Winnicott's BBC broadcasts, 1943-62

Karpf, Anne (2014) Constructing and addressing the 'ordinary devoted mother': Donald Winnicott's BBC broadcasts, 1943-62. History Workshop Journal, 78. pp. 82-106.


Donald Winnicott’s 50 BBC radio talks, broadcast between 1943-62, constitute the heart of his oeuvre and were later published in the bestselling book, ‘The Child, the Family and the Outside World’. This article argues that, although commentators have routinely alluded to the broadcast origins of these talks, the importance of their institutional context is commonly effaced, as a result dehistoricising them. The article seeks to recover the conditions of production of the talks as ‘spoken word’, emphasising Winnicott’s formidable linguistic skills, his understanding of register and his sensitivity to listeners, qualities developed under the formative influence of Winnicott’s two producers, Janet Quigley and Isa Benzie.

Contemporary attempts by the BBC to popularise psychoanalysis met with significant resistance and criticism within the Corporation but Winnicott avoided such controversy, it is argued here, because of the way he was positioned within the BBC, and the role he played in wartime British society. The article places Winnicott among other popularisers of psychoanalytic ideas at the time, such as Susan Isaacs, John Bowlby and Ruth Thomas, and contends that, while Winnicott’s idealisation of motherhood has been rightly criticised, his broadcasts also conveyed a powerful sense of motherhood as a lived experience.

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