Tuesday, 7 June 2022

The White Rose Wedding

In its 100 year history the BBC has provided live radio coverage of twelve British royal family weddings. All but one of those has been held in either London (Westminster Abbey or St Pauls Cathedral) or Windsor (Castle or Guildhall). That exception was the marriage of Prince Edward, Duke of Kent and Katherine Worsley, held in the summer of 1961 at York’s magnificent Minster.

There have been two royal weddings at York Minster, but you have to go back to ye olde medievale Englande and January 1328 for the first one when the new king Edward III married his young French bride Philippa of Hainault. There was more of a local connection for the 1961 ceremony as Katherine Worsley was born just 20 miles north in the picturesque North Yorkshire village of Hovingham.

The first radio royal wedding was in November 1934 this time for the previous Duke of Kent, Prince George, and Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark. That ceremony was described by Howard Marshall, one of the BBC’s main commentators on state occasions and sports events, principally cricket, who would go on to be one of the Corporation’s war correspondents.  And that’s where there is an overlap with the broadcaster in this recording as Audrey Russell also served in that wartime team of correspondents. 

So it’s back to the afternoon of Thursday 8 June 1961 on the BBC Light Programme.  A home recording of the radio commentary of the wedding of Prince Edward and Katherine Worsley made by Eric Bartington surfaced last year and was donated to me by Gerad de Roo . Unfortunately it was too late for the 60th anniversary, but here’s an opportunity to hear it again as broadcast. Audrey Russell is on solo duty for this commentary. However, the old prejudices still persisted as a clergyman greeted her condescendingly with “Ah, Miss Russell, I suppose you’ve come to describe the hats.”  

Audrey Russell – Queen of the Commentators

Audrey Russell was born in Dublin in 1906 but would attend a boarding school near Harrow on the Hill. After going to a French finishing school she re-joined her parents, now living in Mortimer Street in central London, by coincidence just a 5 minute walk from where the new Broadcasting House would be built. With ambitions to join the theatre she took a number of small roles but increasingly found her organisational skills better suited to stage management and eventually worked for the theatre club Group Theatre founded by dancer Rupert Doone.

In the months leading up to the Second World War Audrey joined the Auxiliary Fire Service, a decision that was to change her life.  Following the declaration of war she was stationed at Chiltern Street. Its proximity to Broadcasting House meant that reporters often called in at the station to ask about the fire service’s response to the Blitz. The Station Superintendent was not averse to a little publicity and would welcome BBC staff with half pints of bitter from the nearby Wallace Head pub. On one occasion Audrey was on the beer run when news reporter Robin Duff and actor Terence de Marnay (at the time working on Radio Newsreel) were guests at the station. At Terence’s suggestion she was interviewed on her impressions as a woman in the fire service.  She then in effect became the BBC’s “tame firewoman...often called upon for a story”. One of her recordings heard by Air Commodore Harold Peake so impressed him that he requested she be seconded to the Air Ministry. The upshot was a series of six five-minute talks for the BBC on the work of the WAAF. Though Audrey returned to the fire service after the series it was only a matter of weeks before she was offered a job as a news reporter in the Overseas Service but without the ordeal of facing an Appointments Board.

Working for the Overseas Service from June 1942 she was based at 200 Oxford Street and assigned to Radio Newsreel under its first editor Peter Pooley. In readiness for D-Day  the War Reporting Unit was established  and she would eventually join the team as the first woman to be accredited as a war correspondent. In late 1944 and early 1945 Audrey would send dispatches from Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany and Norway.

After the war she accepted a post as a news reporter in the newly formed Home News Reporting Unit, again the only woman on the team (she was replaced by Sally Holloway in 1951). Somewhat frustrated by now just getting domestic stories to cover she made a number of unsuccessful  attempts to join the Outside Broadcast department as a commentator. Even Richard Dimbleby saw little chance of this happening – though he was later a great supporter – saying that “there will never be a successful women commentator. Why? Because they haven’t got the stamina”.   

Her break into commentating came about because of the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and Prince Phillip in November 1947. The OB team thought it might be a good idea to have a woman commentator on the route, if only to describe the wedding dress, so she was loaned out by the News Division for the event.

For the next four years Audrey split her time between news reporting and occasional commentating gigs both at home and abroad. Eventually, encouraged by her fellow commentators, in particular Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, she left the BBC in April 1951 so go freelance and secured a contract with OB at almost double her old salary. Within a year she was covering King George VI’s funeral and a year later was on the team for the Coronation. From then on Audrey – whom colleagues affectionately nicknamed  ‘Tawdry Bustle’ – was one of the first people that BBC radio would call on to cover royal and state events such as royal tours aboard (the first being the long Commonwealth Tour in 1953/54), visits by foreign royalty and leaders and royal weddings. She was also a regular contributor to Woman’s Hour appeared on In Town Tonight and the panel games Twenty Questions  and Two in One.

Her last royal engagement was the coverage of Charles and Diana in 1981. In her 1984 autobiography A Certain Voice she wrote: “I hope I never know I have done my last broadcast. Inevitably remembrance will be poignant when such things are out of reach”. She died five years later in August 1989.

For more on Audrey Russell see the BBC 100 website.

For those readers familiar with Marylebone, the fire station on Chiltern Street is now the 3-star hotel Chiltern Firehouse whilst the Wallace Head is now The Flowerhouse Pub.   

British Royal Wedding Radio Coverage

Some of the post-war ceremonies were also covered live on the BBC General Overseas Service, later the World Service.

29 November 1934 Prince George, Duke of Kent, and Princess Marina of Greece and Denmark at Westminster Abbey. National Programme.

20 November 1947 Princess Elizabeth and Philip Mountbatten at Westminster Abbey. Home Service.

6 May 1960 Princess Margaret and Antony Armstrong-Jones at Westminster Abbey. Home Service.

8 June 1961 Prince Edward, Duke of Kent, and Katharine Worsley at York Minster. Light Programme.

24 April 1963 Princess Alexandra and Angus Ogilvy at Westminster Abbey. Home Service.

14 November 1973 Princess Anne and Mark Phillips at Westminster Abbey. Radio 2 & Radio 4.

29 July 1981 Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer at St Paul’s Cathedral. Radio 2 & Radio 4.

23 July 1986 Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson at Westminster Abbey. Radio 2 & Radio 4.

19 June 1999 Prince Edward and Sophie Rhys-Jones at Windsor Castle. Radio 2.

9 April 2005 Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles at Windsor Guildhall. Radio 4 FM.

29 April 2011 Prince William and Catherine Middleton at Westminster Abbey. Radio 4 & Radio 5 live.

19 May 2018 Prince Harry and Meghan Markle at Windsor Castle. Radio 4 & Radio 5 live.

Saturday, 4 June 2022

This is the Derby and this is the race


In this post its back 61 years to a beautiful early summer’s day at Epsom Downs for the 181st running of the Derby Stakes.

The first radio commentary on The Derby was on 1 June 1927 with George Allison setting the scene and race commentary from Geoffrey Gilbey, a racing journalist who’d worked for the Sunday Express as ‘Tattenham’, the Racing Specialist and, from 1927, as ‘Larry Lynx’ in The People. 

The following year Bob Lyle (always billed as R.C. Lyle) , racing correspondent for The Times, read the race – won by Felstead with Harry Wragg riding. Lyle continued to cover the Derby until 1937 when Geoffrey Gilbey was back, this time assisted by his younger brother, also a racing journalist, Quintin Gilbey.

For twenty years the BBC’s main racing commentator was Raymond Glendenning, the moustachioed fast-speaking (measured at clocking up 300 words a minute) all-rounder who also covered football, tennis and boxing. He called his first Epsom Derby in 1940, following a couple of years with Thomas Woodrooffe (he of ‘the Fleet’s Lit up’ fame) at the microphone. Glendenning was assisted by a number of other broadcasters and racing journalists including Wilfrid Taylor, Claude Harrison, Roger Mortimer, Frank More O’Ferrall, Tony Cooke (who went on the join ITV as their first racing commentator) and Peter O’Sullevan, who would, of course, become BBC TV’s voice of racing.   

The commentator for the 1961 Derby was Peter Bromley, for four decades the voice of racing on BBC radio. Bromley had been involved in racing since the early 50s, first as an assistant trainer and amateur jockey and then from 1955 as a course commentator (working for British Racecourse Amplifying and Recording Company, now known as Racetech) at a time when it was still a novel occupation.  He worked as a paddock commentator for ITV before moving to BBC television as third man to Peter O’Sullevan and Clive Graham.

In 1959 he took up the new post as BBC Racing Correspondent split between tv and radio. Radio, in particular Sports Report, wasn’t that keen to use him as editor Angus Mackay favoured ex-print journalists. Bromley recalled one run in with Mackay when he was asked to do a one and a half minute piece on the Gold Cup. However, Peter thought that Wednesday’s Champion Hurdle race provided what he and his producer, Tony Preston, thought was a newsworthy item as it had been won by a one-eyed horse and an amateur jockey. His report began with a 20 second mention of this before going onto the Gold Cup. Getting torn off a strip for departing from his brief he sent a memo to Mackay that pointed out: (a) I was convinced that there was a news story in the Champions Hurdle, (b) I suggested the 20 seconds to the producer before the programme, who accepted it, (c) I did not over –run and (d) I did tip the winner of the Gold Cup. His reply from Angus simply read (a) We weren’t, (b) He didn’t, (c) You’re not expected to and (d) You are expected to.

Radio did relent and within a year Glendenning had retired from racing commentary (though he continued to cover football until early 1964) and Peter was offered the position of BBC Radio Racing Correspondent starting in early 1961 providing the main commentary on the 50 or so races per annum as well as sports news reports, previews and reviews.         

Bromley’s first Classic was the Grand National that March and by the time the Derby came along he’d already covered the likes of the 1.000 and 2,000 Guineas, Royal Ascot and Goodwood. Helping Peter at that time, reading the starting prices (something the BBC had shied away from until ITV started reporting on the betting in 1958) and reviewing the race was Roger Mortimer. For 29 years (1947-75) he was the racing correspondent of the Sunday Times and continued to broadcast alongside Peter until 1971. The other voice, down at the paddock, is that of Michael Seth-Smith. Michael was also a course commentator but during the 60s and 70s (and as late as 1985) was BBC radio’s second racing commentator.      

By the 1970s Bromley was commentating on over 200 races a year, all viewed through his pair of German binoculars, a relic of the Second World War. By the time of his retirement in 2001, following that year’s running of the Derby, he’d commentated on over 200 Classics and 10,000 races. He died two years later in June 2003, just four days before the running of the Derby.    

Back to 1961 and radio coverage of the Derby was slotted into the schedule on the Light Programme between Woman’s Hour and Music While You Work on Wednesday 31 May. This is typical of the sports scheduling at the time which, aside from Saturdays or Test Match Special, had to jostle for position amongst the music shows, comedy and magazine programmes.  The continuity announcer introducing the coverage is Bryan Martin.   

Note how formal this coverage now seems to modern ears. Just the voices of the three broadcasters, no interviews with owners or jockeys, no real sense of atmosphere, no colour.

As to the race itself there was a very full field of 28 horses with Moutiers as 5-1 favourite, whilst the eventual winner, Psidium started at 66-1. He ran the first half of the race at the back of the field and it was only in the last furlong when French jockey Roger Poincelet pulled Psidium to the outside, that it made a finishing burst to the line winning by 2 lengths. The horse was trained at Newmarket by Harry Wragg, by a neat coincidence the jockey on that second broadcast Derby 33 years earlier.

Once again this recording was made by the late Eric Bartington and I extend my thanks to Gerad de Roo who rescued it and passed it to me.

The title of this post comes from the poem The Derby by Henry Birtles.


Thursday, 2 June 2022

Trooping the Colour


The annual Trooping of the Colour has been a part of British life for a little over 260 years and from the accession of King George in 1820 it’s been an annual event to mark the Official Birthday of the Sovereign. Radio coverage of the ceremony dates back 95 years to 1927 and it resumed again in 1930 continuing until 1994. Only the war years and cancellations for bad weather (1948) and a national rail strike (1955) stopped the Trooping.

That first broadcast on 5 June 1926 carries no detail in the Radio Times, indeed it is only listed as a simultaneous broadcast with London for stations 2ZY Manchester, 5PY Plymouth and 5SX Swansea. However, 2LO in London makes no mention of it but the BBC and the listings magazine were slowly recovering from the General Strike so this may account for it.

Throughout the thirties the Trooping of the Colour was narrated for BBC radio by the wonderfully named Major James Bourne Seaburne Bourne-May, late of the Coldstream Guards where he saw 20 years service and took part in the ceremony himself on five occasions.    

When it returned after the war in 1947 Wynford Vaughan-Thomas commentated. In 1949 and 1950 Brian Johnston was at the microphone and from 1951 to 1960 the master himself Richard Dimbleby. The post-war radio coverage, usually midweek or on Saturdays – it didn’t become a Saturday only fixture until 1966 – was on the Light Programme, shifting to the Home Service (later Radio 4) in 1959.

From 1961 to 1981 Robert Hudson (pictured above) was the radio commentator, also taking over the Remembrance Sunday service from the Cenotaph the following year. Preparations for the broadcast took Hudson two weeks and “included visits to the Regiment trooping the colour to the Household Cavalry at Knightsbridge Barracks and to the band rehearsals at Chelsea Barracks. In the course of these I would interview all the key figures in the parade and submit myself to the lavish hospitality of the Officers’ Mess. A Guard’s gin and tonic is quite unlike any other”.

For his final broadcast in 1981 he had amassed “sixteen pages of notes, pasted on cardboard” on an upturned box on the window ledge of his vantage point in the Horse Guards Building. “I plan to give fifty-two separate pieces of commentary during the ninety-minute broadcast. Each will be preceded by a cue-light signal to our engineers in a small room behind. Instantly they lower the volume of the sound behind my voice; a split-second operation”.

When Robert Hudson stepped down the commentary in 1982 and 1983 was provided by former cricketer turned commentator Neil Durden-Smith. The cricket connection was perhaps no coincidence as Hudson had been the producer of Test Match Special for many years. From 1984 to 1990 sports commentator (mainly golf, tennis and skiing) Julian Tutt covered the ceremony. He would go on to provide the Trooping the Colour commentary for BBC television. Finally between 1991 and 1994 it was the turn of Tom Fleming. BBC radio then dropped their coverage, but it continues as a tv event.

For this recording of Robert Hudson’s first commentary on the Trooping of the Colour we go back to 10.55 am on Saturday 10 June 1961 when listeners to the BBC Home Service heard this.

 Once again this recording was made by the late Eric Bartington and I extend my thanks to Gerad de Roo who rescued it and passed it to me.    

Sunday, 29 May 2022

Silver Jubilee – London Calling


In the week leading up to the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations I’m taking a trip back to 1977 for the Silver anniversary to look inside the pages of London Calling, the programme magazine of the BBC World Service.

There are a number of special programmes to mark the Silver Jubilee: Orb and Sceptre, an anthology in words and music, Monarchy and the Media with long-time commentator Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, the cinema series Take One with a Jubilee Review hosted by Alexander Walker and a countdown of the Top Twenty of 25 Years with Paul Burnett.  Other programmes would also appear on the domestic services such as the BBC International Festival of Light Music on Radio 2 and My Music – Jubilee Edition on Radio 4.

On the drama pages there’s a lovely quote about the importance of the World Service from actor Richard Burton. Great to see that no matter how famous you are it’s still a thrill to hear your name on the radio, even if he seems to not know when his birthday is. During 1977 over on Radio 4 Burton was the narrator for the historic drama series Vivat Rex.

Wherever I go, I take with me a very powerful transistor radio. I carry it all over the world, and wherever I am, I listen to the BBC World Service. It’s the only truly reliable source of information one gets in the darker places of the world.

I remember once when I was in Marrakech. I tuned into the World Service and heard myself reciting a poem by Dylan Thomas. At the end the BBC announcer said: “That was Richard Burton reading Dylan Thomas’s Poem in October about his birthday – and happy birthday to you, Richard Burton, if you’re listening.”

And that was how I discovered it was my own birthday. But I didn’t care about that, it was hearing my name mentioned on the World Service that really pleased me.

I think one of the greatest thrills you can have is to hear your own name on the BBC. And to hear it on the World Service, well, that’s like being knighted.

Wednesday, 4 May 2022

Third Girl Wanted


This week BBC Radio 4 Extra is repeating, for the first time in 55 years, episodes of a series of stand-alone dramas called Personal Column. Amongst the five episodes airing this week (selected from the original series of 28) is Jill Hyem’s Third Girl Wanted. The story setting is a familiar motif for Hyem’s radio scripts at this time, that of three flat-sharing girls. 

In Third Girl Wanted Gemma, played by Patricia Gallimore before she became Ambridges’ Pat Archer, packs her bags and leaves with her flatmates, played by Anne Stallybrass and Marian Diamond, having to work out why. 

Two years previously Jill Hyem (pictured above) and Andrew Sachs had written the 20-part serial Dear Girls in which job-hunting Tish Grant joins her fashion designing sister Biddy in her London flat. Tish is looking for a job whilst Biddy is looking for love.

Moving on to 1969 sees a Saturday Night Theatre production written by Jill Hyem and Alan Downer titled The Ropewalk, an Edwardian house that’s been converted into flats.  In the opening scenes we hear flat-sharing sisters Lynn and Tracey Dixon who are looking forward to welcoming their somewhat naive new flat-mate who’s on her first visit to London Heather Benfield, another role for Patricia Gallimore.  

The Ropewalk was a try-out for Radio 2’s daily soap Waggoners’ Walk that replaced the ailing The Dales later that same year. Again with scripts from Jill Hyem and Alan Downer the opening scene of the first episode is, as I’m sure you’ll have now guessed, set in a London bedsit, this time  with sisters Lynn and Tracey Dixon waiting to split the rent with a third girl, Barbara Watling (played by Heather Stoney) fresh down from Yorkshire.

The revisiting of this theme is no surprise given the social context of the time: increased employment opportunities for women, a more mobile workforce, changes in the controls on rented accommodation under the 1965 Rent Act and the Swinging London background. Hyem herself was committed to writing better parts for women after only gaining several bits parts in TV series and B-movies.

By 1961 Jill Hyem was combining acting with writing, providing short sketches for Monday Night at Home “a selection of recorded wit, music and humour” linked by Basil Boothroyd. Submitting drama scripts to the BBC she was warned to “never write more than two women in a scene. They catch each other's tone.” Obviously ignoring this advice her first Afternoon Theatre play Better Than Nowhere set in a rest home indigent old ladies featured parts for six women and one man. 

From 1964 until its demise in 1969 Hyem was one of the team of scriptwriters on The Dales (successor to Mrs Dale’s Diary). She’d secured the position – and in the process beating off competition from Tom Stoppard - when producer Keith Williams was seeking fresh blood to liven up the series. With fellow Dales writer Alan Downer, another actor turned writer, they were the lead writers for eleven years on Waggoners’ Walk until that was axed. Though she’d continued to write other dramas for radio, around thirty in all, television beckoned in 1980 when she was offered the chance to write for Tenko. This led to more tv scripts for shows such as Howard’s Way and another wartime drama series Wish Me Luck. By the millennium now tired of securing television commissions she returned to her first love of radio to write a number of plays for Radio 4, the last being Backtrack in 2007. Jill Hyem died in 2015.     

Personal Column was a concept devised by writer Philip Levine. Twenty-eight separate dramas by a number of writers were aired on the BBC Light Programme from March to September 1967.  

Third Girl Wanted will be broadcast this Friday. Another Jill Hyem drama from the same series titled Evening Out is currently online here.  

Monday, 11 April 2022

50 Years of Not Having a Clue

It's been fifty years since people were first given silly things to do with swanee whistles, song lyrics, London tube stations and sound charades with some of them accompanied by Colin Sell at the piano. Yes, radio's antidote to panel games I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue was first heard by an unsuspecting public this day in 1972.

The genesis of I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue goes back to 1969 after the conclusion of series seven of I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again (it came back for a final eighth series in the summer of 1972). Writer and performer Graeme Garden was already committed to working on BBC2's Broaden Your Mind with Tim, Bill and Jo from ISIRTA. This was followed by The Goodies (starting in late 1970) and scripts for LWT's Doctor in the House (also 1970), Doctor at Large (1971) and Doctor in Charge (1972).  

Despite all the tv work Graeme was still keen to work on radio and was thinking of recreating something that brought the fun and anarchy of ISIRTA but without the chore of script writing. A comedy panel game looked like it could provide the answer. Just a Minute and My Word! were already very popular and others had come and gone such as The Tennis Elbow Foot Game (1966-68) - which may have provided the spark for Clue's Word for Word round - The Clever Stupid Game and You Don't Say (both 1970).

But could Gyles Brandreth have provided the inspiration for Clue? It's possible. In 1971 Graeme was a panellist on eight editions of A Rhyme in Time, a comedy word game with a poetry twist in which the other panellists, consisting of Cyril Fletcher, Caryl Brahms and June Whitfield, would "converse in verse".  The programme was devised and introduced by Gyles Brandreth. Just seven months later Clue came on air

Graeme discussed his ideas for a new show with producer David Hatch and together they worked up a format and recorded a pilot. Getting the green light for a series the pilot aired on 11 April 1972 and 12 episodes followed, though for these Hatch was busy elsewhere and John Cassels produced. Early editions were, according to Garden "rather messy and self-indulgent". It seemed that completely dispensing with some scripted elements and preparation didn't work. He continues: "In the first series it was all virtually ad-libbed - that was my mistake, and since then we've all learned a bit more about doing panel games. We know that the audience like it a) because you appear to be witty, and b) because you appear to be put 'on the spot' and have to sweat. And those are two different things; if you've got to make up, say, a calypso, it's almost impossible to do that on the spot, and so you spend an hour or so beforehand writing it ... but the team's increasing experience, particularly in knowing which sections they should prepare, has led to a much improved control over the show."     

The idea of riffing on a theme and the fact that they were both jazz fans probably led to Graeme and David thinking of Humphrey Lyttelton as the chairman, an inspired choice and a major factor in its longevity. Those early editions all featured ISIRTA alumni (Bill Oddie, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Jo Kendall and John Cleese) plus Barry Cryer filling for Humph as chairman when he couldn't make a couple of the recording dates. But Bill, Jo and particularly John were not entirely comfortable with winging it.  Only Bill returned for the second series in 1973, along with Barry now as a regular panellist and by the third in 1974 Willie Rushton had come on board and we entered the first golden era for Clue with the famous four of Messrs Garden, Cryer, Brooke-Taylor and Rushton. By the fourth series in 1975 Colin Sell had replaced Dave Lee at the piano.

From my own ISIHAC archive comes this recording, in fact it's the first one I ever recorded, of the Christmas 1980 special so you get an extra 15 minutes or so. It features all the regulars from that time and the producer is Geoffrey Perkins.

The passage of time has taken its toll on Clue participants with the deaths of series regulars Willie Rushton, Humphrey Lyttelton, Jeremy Hardy, Tim Brooke-Taylor, writer Iain Pattinson and, just a few weeks ago, Barry Cryer. But the formula is still proving durable as it marks its golden anniversary and recent series with a host of new voices to the programme are just as funny with plenty of laugh out loud moments.

Radio 4 will be marking the programme's anniversary this Saturday in an edition of Archive on 4 at 8 pm. 50 Years Without a Clue is presented by Greg James.    


Quotes cited in From Fringe to Flying Circus by Roger Wilmut (Eyre Methuen 1980). For more on the programme's history see The Clue Bible by Jem Roberts (Preface 2009)

The Tennis Elbow Foot Game was devised by Norman Hackforth (the 'Mystery Voice' on Twenty Questions) and produced by David Hatch (series 1) and Bill Worlsey (series 2). Regular panellists were Sheila Hancock, Olga Franklin, Paul Jennings, Fenella Fielding, Hackforth himself and Max Robertson as the umpire. Series 1 October to December 1966 (13 episodes) on the Home Service. Series 2 November 1967 to May 1968 (26 episodes) on Radio 4. It then transferred to BBC2 for a series of 12 episodes July to October 1968.    

The Clever Stupid Game was devised and chaired by Robin Ray. John Cleese was a panellist on one of the 8 episodes broadcast on Radio 4 May to July 1970.

You Don't Say was devised by Jimmy Thompson, Johnny Whyte and Nicholas Parsons and chaired by Cyril Fletcher. A 12 episode series produced by Alastair Scott Johnson was broadcast on Radio July to September 1970.

A Rhyme in Time was broadcast over 8 episodes from July to September 1971. In this BBC blog Gyles Brandreth says there were two series, the first produced by David Hatch and the second by Simon Brett. I can only trace the one series with Brett producing. My guess is that an unbroadcast pilot was produced by Hatch.     

Monday, 28 March 2022

Hilda Matheson and the Battle of Savoy Hill

This week BBC Radio 4 is broadcasting the 5-part dramatised account of the story of pre-war BBC Talks Director Hilda Matheson and her working relationship with Director-General, John Reith, and the censorship of a talk by writer and politician Harold Nicolson in The Battle of Savoy Hill.

Matheson was effectively head-hunted by Reith in September 1926 to front the Talks Department, the first woman to be appointed to a senior role at the BBC.  During her brief 5-year tenure she effectively set the template for speech radio on authored talks (a style of broadcasts that has now all but disappeared with the exception of Radio 3’s The Essay), news and political coverage and debate and discussions on literature, history, social conditions, home economics, farming and so on. The Week in Westminster, started by Matheson in 1929 and still heard today, albeit under a much changed format on Saturday mornings, remains a testament to her pioneering work. Broadcasting, she saw as “a means of enlarging the frontiers of human interest and consciousness, of widening personal experience, of shrinking the earth’s surface.”  

It was Matheson’s entrĂ©e into the life of London’s cultural and intellectual elite that helped secure her BBC employment; she’d first encountered Reith at an event in March 1926. During World War I she worked for the secret service – recruited at Oxford where she’d been a home student, as women weren’t yet recognised as bona fide students at that time - where she was posted to Rome. She left her role as political secretary to Nancy Astor MP to take up her job with the BBC, then based at Savoy Hill. Lady Astor would, in time, contribute to some of the early editions of The Week in Westminster. 

The nature of speech radio was still being developed under Matheson and she was keen to get the key thinkers and doers of the time to speak to the nation, to help shape the way that scripted talks were written for the medium and how they would best be delivered to sound both natural and authoritative without being stilted and lecturing. Her remit also included adult education and news, when the small news section created under Education moved to Talks in 1927. Matheson would commission Philip Macer-Wright, formerly of the Westminster Gazette, to report on how news presentation could be improved at a time when the BBC was still relying on re-writing Reuters-provided bulletins.

One aspect of Hilda’s life that the puritanical Reith would surely have objected to – although apparently it was something of an open secret at Savoy Hill - was her relationship with author Vita Sackville-West. She’d met Sackville-West in December 1928 when she came into the studios to speak with Hugh Walpole on the subject of The Modern Woman (though she had already broadcast some talks earlier in the 1928 on poetry and her travels in the Middle East). Correspondence from Hilda to Vita, of which almost 100 letters survive, also feature in The Battle of Savoy Hill.  

By 1930 Matheson’s working relationship with John Reith was already somewhat fractious particularly with regard to any subject or speaker regarded as ‘controversial’, with the DG naturally erring on the conservative side. This all came to a head in late 1931over the series The New Spirit in Literature (twelve talks broadcast on the National Programme Sept-Dec 1931) in which Vita’s husband Harold Nicholson had been invited to speak. Reith and Director of Programmes Roger Eckersley wanted no mention of D.H. Lawrence and James Joyce. Nicholson threatened to pull out “pointing out the ludicrous nature of a programme on modern literature without reference to these two defining authors”.  A compromise was reached but Matheson felt severely undermined and tendered her resignation.    

What is also interesting, certainly from a current perspective, is that Matheson’s resignation was also seen as useful to Reith and the BBC over perceived left-wing bias in some of the talks’ subject matter and choice of speakers. The October 1931 General Election had led to the formation of a National Government under Ramsey MacDonald but the bulk of its support came from the Tories and there was growing criticism of the BBC in the right-wing press. Thus her leaving the Corporation helped Reith to be seen to be stamping out any perceived left-wing bias.

After leaving the BBC Hilda continued to be involved in radio. Nancy Astor tried to persuade her to become a BBC Governor but she declined. Instead she became a radio critic and columnist for The Observer and Weekend Review, wrote a book on the subject (Broadcasting , Thomas Butterworth Ltd, 1933) and at the outbreak of World War II became the Director of the JBC (Joint Broadcasting Committee) founded to “promote international understanding  by means of broadcasting”. She also worked for Baron Hailey in 1937-38 on producing The African Survey, eventually taking over the bulk of the work, for which she received an OBE. By now she was living with the poet Dorothy Wellesley – her relationship with Sackville-West had ended in 1931. Diagnosed with Graves’ disease Hilda did not survive an operation to remove part of her thyroid gland and she died in October 1940 aged just 52.

The BBC marked her passing in the annual BBC Handbook adding that “it was her zeal, and her ability to impart it to the wide circle of her acquaintance, that started broadcast talks and discussions, and began that process of bringing to the microphone the celebrity, the expert, the thinker, and the man-in- the-street which has continued since in ever-widening circles”.

Until just a few years ago Hilda Matheson’s pioneering role in radio broadcasting was largely overlooked. The 6’6” frame of John Reith tends to loom large over the pre-war BBC narrative. In 2018-2019 the BBC ran the Hilda Matheson Woman into Leadership regional development programme. Just last month even MI5 recognised her role in that organisation and with the BBC as part of their LGBT+ History Month events.

The Battle of Savoy Hill written by Jill Waters is broadcast on Monday to Friday this week on BBC Radio 4 at 12.04 and repeated at 22.45 and then available to listen again on BBC Sounds. Hilda Matheson is played by Romola Garai, Vita Sackville-West by Nancy Carroll, John Reith by Derek Riddell, Harold Nicholson and R.S. Lambert (a producer in the Adult Education section and the first editor of The Listener) by Richard Goulding and Lionel Fielden (a Talks producer) by Simon Paisley Day.  The narrator is Clare Higgins.

Hilda Matheson 1888-1940


(1) When Hilda joined the BBC as a Talks Assistant (i.e. producer) in September 1926 the Talks division was part of the Education Department under the stewardship of John Stobart but was hived off in January 1927 under Hilda’s management. Broadcast talks were an early feature of BBC schedules with the first given on 23 December 1922 and the second on 27 January 1923 on the unlikely subject of How to catch a tiger.

 (2) The changes in the structure of the Talks department and the role of Education and News are too lengthy and involved to reiterate here. For more on this early BBC history see The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom, Volume II: The Golden Age of Wireless 1927-1939 by Asa Briggs and A Social History of British Broadcasting, Volume I 1922-1939 by Paddy Scannell and David Cardiff.

(3) Hilda Matheson’s successor as Director of Talks was her deputy Charles Siepmann. He was followed in 1936 by Richard Maconachie and in 1941 by George Barnes (later the first controller of the Third Programme and a couple of years later as the grandly titled Director of the Spoken Word which included the Talks division). Succeeding Barnes in 1946 was R.A. (Tony) Rendall and following his retirement on ill health grounds was Mary Somerville from 1950 to 1956. Former talks producer John Green was Controller, Talks (Sound) from 1956 to 1961 when it was merged with Current Affairs Talks under the management of J.A. Camacho. In 1972 it moved again to become part of Talks and Documentaries headed by George Fischer. Under Director-General John Birt it was finally subsumed into the mighty News and Current Affairs Directorate in 1987. The External Services also had an Overseas Talks department and a separate European Talks Department.   

(4) To read more about Hilda Matheson there are a couple of excellent books. Stoker: the Life of Hilda Matheson is a biography written by Michael Carney whilst Kate Murphy’s Behind the Wireless looks at the role of women at the BBC in the pre-war years. There’s also the fictionalised story of plucky BBC secretary turned Talks producer Maisie Musgrave as told in Radio Girls by Sarah-Jane Stratford in which Reith and Matheson are main characters.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...