Robert McCrum explores the elusive Samuel Beckett’s astonishing literary career through rare audio tape recordings from the Samuel Beckett Research Centre at the University of Reading.

Housed in the unlikely spot of the Museum of English Rural Life, Beckett – the lifelong outsider – would have enjoyed the absurdity of finding his archives next to dairy farming data and combine harvester records. As a result, perhaps not unintentionally, Beckett’s tapes have remained here as a well-kept secret.

Many of the tapes are interviews recorded by Beckett’s friend, the scholar James Knowlson, while he was researching an official biography. The interviews they contain reveal fascinating insights into the way Samuel Beckett worked closely and collaboratively with his actors and friends – including Sian Phillips, Paul Daneman, Billie Whitelaw and Harold Pinter – and the respect they showed for him in return.

Taking Krapp’s Last Tape as inspiration for this programme, Robert tells the story of the Samuel Beckett archive at Reading and invites surviving collaborators, friends and those who have found inspiration in Beckett’s work – including Tom Stoppard, Edna O’Brien, Sian Phillips, Lisa Dwan, Lady Antonia Fraser and James Knowlson – to listen to extracts from the tapes and reflect on his unique method and the expression of his genius.

Robert aims to gain new insight into the mind of one of the 20th century’s literary giants, while bringing out the poignancy and nostalgia involved in revisiting memories and life-events through the tapes.

Produced by Melissa FitzGerald
A Blakeway production for BBC Radio 4

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