Wednesday 28 December 2022

Auntie through the Looking Glass

One final nod to the BBC’s centenary year with this programme, broadcast back in 1997 to mark the 75th anniversary.

In Auntie through the Looking Glass Jeremy Nicholas looks at how the BBC has been portrayed in popular culture from films, novels, poems, songs, cartoons and even cigarette cards. We hear about Death at Broadcasting House and The Killing of Sister George and meet novelist Penelope Fitzgerald. There are poems from D.H. Lawrence and Alfred Noyes, a song from Robert Wyatt and a Week Ending sketch.

This nostalgia-fest does tend to focus on pre-war wireless so there’s the usual comic songs: Little Miss Bouncer (Flotsam and Jetsam), We Can’t Let You Broadcast That (Norman Long) and We’re Frightfully BBC (The Western Brothers). But you’ll also hear some less familiar tunes: Auntie Aggie of the BBC by Scottish comedian Tommy Lorne and a couple of songs from the 1938 Herbert Farjeon revue Nine Sharp called Thank God for the BBC and, remarkably, There’s Never Been a Baddie at the BBC.  

Auntie through the Looking Glass was broadcast on Saturday 18 October 1997 on BBC Radio 4. The readers aren’t credited but one is certainly Jon Glover. The producer is Sue Foster. 

Nine Sharp was a 1938/39 revue for the Little Theatre production company with book and lyrics by Herbert Farjeon and music by Walter Leigh. Part One of the revue included Thank God for the BBC. The cast was Berry Ann Davies as Mother, Michael Anthony as Father, Peggy Willoughby as Daughter, Eric Hoy as Crooner, Eric Anderson as 1st Orator, Gordon Little as 2nd Orator, George Benson as Captain Snaggers (surely based on announcer John Snagge) and the Director, Hermione Baddeley as Miss Bennett, Cyril Ritchard as Vaudeville Eric and Ronald Waters as Radio Val (radio drama producer Val Gielgud?) 

Sunday 18 December 2022

From the Empire to the World

Ninety years ago tomorrow (19 December) the BBC began to broadcast to the world, or at least those parts of it that were coloured red on the map, as the Director General John Reith opened the Empire Service. In this post I look at the early history of the BBC’s overseas broadcasting, dip into some back issues of London Calling and present some programmes that have celebrated the history of the service.    

From studio 3B in the recently opened Broadcasting House at 9.30 am on Saturday 19 December 1932, Reith broadcast to whoever was listening in on their shortwave radios in Australia, New Zealand and Borneo. (1) In his live opening announcement Reith talked about how this was a significant occasion in the history of the British Empire. He continued: “There must be a few in any civilised country who have yet to realise that broadcasting is a development with which the future must reckon and reckon seriously. The more consideration given to it today, the more experience gained, the more it will be realised that here is an instrument of almost incalculable importance in the social and political life of the community. Its influence will more and more be felt in the daily life of the individual, in almost every sphere of human activity, in affairs national and international.” “As to programmes”, he added (in an oft-quoted sentence), they “will neither be very interesting nor very good”.

This was not false modesty on Reith’s part. The broadcasts were an experiment but seemed, at least in the early days, to mainly consist of music played from records, interspersed with talks and ending with a news bulletin.  A listener in Bermuda, used to hearing other broadcasts from the States and Continental Europe wrote to say the programmes were “inferior”, whilst a listener in Canada was of the opinion that it was “feeble, asinine and hopeless for words.”  Not surprising when you consider that the Empire Service only had a staff of six and a weekly programme allowance of £10.(2)

Reith and BBC Chairman J.H. Whitley formally
opened the Empire Service.

Reith had to make that opening address a further four times – “I was very bored with it” he confessed in his diary - at 2.30, 6.30 and 8.30pm and 1 am the next morning  as transmissions to different parts of the world started. First to India, Burma and the Federated Malay States, secondly to South Africa and West Africa, next West Africa and the islands in the Atlantic and finally Canada, West Indies and Pacific islands.(3)

The Director-General had been keen to extend broadcasting across the globe for almost five years but hit resistance from the Government as to how it should be funded – an eternal area of disagreement and compromise throughout the history of the Corporation’s overseas broadcasting. In the end the BBC was to foot the bill for the £40,000 shortwave station at the existing Daventry site. (4)

What did cement the reputation of the Empire Service was the Christmas Day message from King George V whose broadcast was heard across the world, as well as the National and Regional Programme. “Through one of the marvels of modern science, I am enabled, this Christmas Day, to speak to all my peoples throughout the Empire”, began the King’s speech, written for him by Rudyard Kipling. The royal broadcast at just after 3pm followed an hour of Christmas greetings to and from British “wherever they may be” in All the World Over.  

All the Empire Service programmes were in English and were seen as a way of linking together all the Brits scattered around the Empire. And it was essentially a White British audience; the BBC Year Books of the time contain a table showing the population of each country in each zone together with the “white population”. Even so the General Overseas Service (as the English speaking radio service became known) continued in this vein throughout the 40s and 50s combining as it did a mix of programmes selected from the domestic services (the National and Regional Programmes, and later the Home Service and Light Programme), together with specifically produced fayre.

Within a couple of years of its launch daily broadcasts were up to 16 hours a day and would include music (light classics, popular and dance music, jazz and variety), major events including sports commentaries, some talks and, most popular of all news and the chimes of Big Ben. By 1934 the BBC had established an Empire Orchestra of some 21 players with specially negotiated contracts to allow for late-night and early morning playing, to account for live broadcasts to different time zones. To allow for less reliance on the Home news team, there was a separate news editor working with three sub-editors and the beginnings of a Transcription Service providing pre-recorded programmes for sale to overseas stations seen as “a valuable supplement to the direct Empire Service” (more on that below).   

Whilst the impetus for the Empire Service came from the BBC it was political events in Europe that drove the move into broadcasting in other languages. During the Second Italo-Ethiopian War in 1935/36 the Fascist government in Italy set up a radio station in Bari, southern Italy, that included anti-British broadcasts in Arabic aimed at Egypt and Palestine where there was a strong British interest. In the meantime the Ullswater Committee on broadcasting (reporting in 1936) concluded that it was happy to see “the appropriate use of other languages other than English.” Protracted discussions between the BBC, the Foreign Office and the Colonial Office basically came down to funding and news values, the Corporation not wishing to be seen as merely a propaganda arm of the UK government. The funding compromise was an annual grant-in-aid (later on a 3-year rolling basis) that was the main source of the External Services income until April 2014. This did mean that the Government of the day was also able to dictate the language services that the BBC should provide and, for many years, the number of hours for each service.

The BBC’s Arabic Service launched on 3 January 1938 although not without incident (5). A Latin American service, seen as a counter to Italian and German broadcasts to that part of the globe, followed on 15 March with 15-minute transmissions in Spanish and Portuguese.

The extension of radio services in French, German and Italian came about more or less by chance at the time of the Munich crisis of September 1938. With minimum preparation the Foreign Office asked the BBC to broadcast in those languages the text of a speech being given by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. The speech was at 8pm. The BBC was asked to translate it and re-broadcast it only two hours beforehand. In the Voices Out of the Air documentary below, Leonard Miall relates the confusion that occurred behind the scenes as the BBC tried to track down people to simultaneously translate Chamberlain’s speech including the German cartoonist Walter Goetz who was dragged away from a cocktail party having never broadcast before. After that daily news bulletins in the three languages continued and by the following summer they had become consolidated into a European Service.

World War II saw an increase in the hours of the Empire Servicer and a significant boost to the number and duration of language broadcasts: from nine languages over 44 hours a week in September 1939 to 40 languages over 230 hours in December 1941. That wartime expansion led to a split on the BBC worldwide broadcast administration between the Overseas Service and the European Service, which would be the first to move into Bush House.(6)  The Overseas Service included the Empire Service (with five divisions: Pacific, Eastern, African, North American, and British Forces) plus the Near East Service and the Latin American Service. (7)        

It was during World War II that a piece of music was first used that would, for six decades signify to listeners the world over that they were tuned into the BBC. That music was Lilliburlero. The old marching tune had been used as the theme for a 1942 Forces Programme broadcast Into Battle about the fighting spirit of Britain. The following year it was used as an interval signal by the Chinese Service. It was then appropriated by the General Overseas Service from 21 November 1943 to precede the news. It came about as part of an attempt by the BBC to help listeners identify which service they were tuned into. What was known as the Red network (Pacific, African and North American) used the notes B-B-C played on a celeste as an interval signal and Heart of Oak to precede the news. The Green network (the GOS) used Bow Bells and Lilliburlero. (8)     

In 1949 a Memorandum to the 1949 Broadcasting Committee described the BBC’s Overseas output as: First “which is exemplified by the general overseas services in English, is the provision for large and small British communities overseas of what amounts to a Home service from Britain”. Second “programmes directed at foreign countries” and finally “a third kind, not great in quantity but nevertheless important, consisting of programmes addressed to nations or groups within the Empire whose background and language are other than English”.     

Dipping into the London Calling listings for the 21st anniversary of Overseas Broadcasting here’s what was on offer on the General Overseas Service for 19 December 1953:

You’ll spot some familiar programmes, Educating Archie, Much-Binding, The Archers etc. that were made for domestic audiences. I reckon at least ten programmes were also carried by the Home Service, Light Programme and even the Third Programme, including the rugby union commentary. Of course there are some anniversary specials with greetings from the Director General, Sir Ian Jacob, and the last of three features The Voice of Britain. Giving a talk on World Affairs is former diplomat and MP Harold Nicholson who’d been a regular broadcaster on both the domestic and overseas services, sometimes not without controversy (see blog post on Hilda Matheson). The Radio Princess, Princess Indira was making her usual parliamentary review in The Debate Continues. The inclusion of The Archers was not wholly welcomed by all listeners. A 1955 survey showed that recent exiles liked it but those who had not heard it back home were critical and “declared it unsuitable for overseas listeners or said it was wrong to present what they thought was an unfortunate picture of domestic life in England”. By the end of the decade it was dropped though not without an inevitable petition to have it re-instated. “How can the world’s agriculturalists keep up to date with the news of Ambridge”. (9)     

In this Western edition of London Calling we also get a glimpse into what was being beamed to specific regions of the globe. Note the English by Radio programme, a service the BBC introduced in 1942 and the use of “Calling” in titles. During the week there was also Calling the West Indies, Calling the Falkland Islands and Calling Mauritius.   

This section lists the programmes for Europe in English and the vernacular services. Of these languages the BBC now only provides Russian (online), Turkish and Serbian (online). There’s also a French language service for Africa and a Portuguese service for Latin America.

Further afield the offerings for the Pacific and Asia:

In 1959 Martin Esslin gave this talk about the first 21 years of the European Service. Martin had joined the European Service during the war as a German talks producer. He’d go on to be Head of Radio Drama.

For the External Services the 1950s could, in the view of Mansell, be described as a “period of decline and lost opportunities”. There has cumulative cuts in grant-in-aid since 1949, cuts in staff and language services, and transmitters and aerials that really needed replacing or modernising.   

From 1958, under the newly appointed Head, Bob Gregson, the General Overseas Service made the gradual shift away from focussing on a service for the Briton abroad (“audiences in the Commonwealth, to British Forces, and to British communities overseas” per the BBC Handbook) to one that would also cater for those for whom English was a second language. This was in part a response to technology changes and the increase in listening on transistor radios and in part a reaction to the changing post-war geopolitical situation with the decolonisation of the Empire and the Suez crisis (10).

The 1960s would be “the decade of Africa” with the creation of a separate African Service and, later in the decade, the building of a new Ascension Island relay station to help shortwave coverage to West Africa (as well as to South America).  Internally all the remaining services finally moved into Bush House in late 1957 and there was also to be less dependence on programmes from the domestic services. “We can no longer be merely an image of the Home Service or Light Programme”, said Gregson. In May 1965 the name of the service itself changed. It was no longer just catering for the Empire (or the Commonwealth) but the world. So, in May 1965, it became the BBC World Service. (11)

Under Gregson’s tenure there was also a “radical shift of emphasis to news, comment and the background discussion of world affairs”. Some long-running programmes starting in the era included the Saturday afternoon sports magazine Saturday Special (1959) with PaddyFeeny (changing to Sportsworld in late 1987), the “radio shop window for British industry" New Ideas (1958),  Focus on Africa (1960), Topical Tapes for rebroadcast by stations worldwide (1962),The World Today, Commentary, Science in Action (1964), Letterbox (1965), Outlook (1966) and World Radio Club (1967). To reflect the change in emphasis Home News from Britain was renamed News About Britain.   

Back to London Calling and this time the edition that coincides with the BBC’s 50th anniversary in November 1972.

Although news has been the backbone of the World Service, from the mid-60s to the early2000s it has always carried a full range of other programmes.

Drama: plays, sometimes under umbrella titles such as Modern English Theatre, Theatre of the Air, Globe Theatre or Plays of the Week with many of them directed by the award-winning Gordon House. Drama serials some of which have found their way onto Radio 4 Extra (The Toff and Down Payment on Death are recent examples). Even a soap set in a west London health centre called Westway.

Script cover for a recording of a 1966
production of The Masters (BW)

Music: request shows like Records Round the World and Anything Goes with Bob Holness. Pop music in Pop Club, A Jolly Good Show, Top Twenty and Multitrack. Rock music in Rock Salad with Tommy Vance. Jazz in shows with Humphrey Lyttelton or Steve Race and Jazz for the Asking with Peter Clayton (later Malcolm Laycock). Classical music in The Pleasure’s Yours with Gordon Clyde and Classical Record Review with Edward Greenfield. Any number of Radio 1 and Radio 2 DJs had shows including John Peel, Brian Matthew, Paul Burnett, John Dunn, Gloria Hunniford, Andy Kershaw, Ken Bruce and Steve Wright

The presenters of Records Round the World pictured in 1969.
Back l-r Sarah Ward, Don Moss, Colin Hamilton, Adrian Love
Front l-r Gordon Clyde, Maggie Clews, Elizabeth London
Chairing is Paddy Feeny

Arts: magazine shows such as The Lively Arts, Theatre Call, Book Choice, Focus on Film and the long-running Meridian.

And before this list gets too long some other programmes have included The Merchant Navy Programme which was replaced by Seven Seas, the quiz Take It or Leave It with Michael Aspel, The Farming World, Waveguide, Network UK and Omnibus

For the 50th anniversary of the External Services in 1982 it was not only a special cover for London Calling but also a very rare event, a Radio Times cover. The accompanying article by Frances Donnelly helped promote the BBC1 documentary (shown on 8 December 1982) Hang On, I’ll Just Speak to the World, the title coming from announcer Keith Bosley as he addresses the camera and realises he has a programme junction to announce. You’ll find the documentary on YouTube uploaded by the producer Jenny Barraclough.   

The BBC also issued an LP This is London narrated by Leo McKern. This was adapted from the World Service programme Voices Out of the Air. It’s on the World Service website under yet another title 50Years of Broadcasting to the World.

I’ve no recordings marking the 60th anniversary (if you do please contact me) but here are a few pages from the last ever edition of London Calling from October 1992. The following month it became part of the BBC Worldwide magazine. 

For the 70th anniversary the World Service went to Table Mountain near Cape Town for 14 hours of live broadcasting presented by Heather Payton and Ben Malor. The location was significant as it was the site of an early Empire Service link up with the African Broadcasting Company for a “descriptive commentary by the Johannesburg Station Director of the panorama from the summit of the mountain” on 6 March 1933.    

On 21 December 2002 the celebrations were reviewed in this edition of Pick of the World.  The This is London programmes mentioned in this programme are also online here.

In 2012 for the 80th anniversary the celebrations were moved forward to February as the World Service was now getting ready to pack up at Bush House and move into the redeveloped Broadcasting House. On 29 February a number of programmes were broadcast from the courtyard at Bush House. Some of these, including Outlook, World Have Your Say, World Business Report and the live news meeting are online.  

Here are a couple of programmes from that day that are not available. First from 1000 GMT World Update with Dan Damon. Dan presented this programme for 17 years but left the BBC in 2021 to become an Ordained Minister for the Church of Wales. 

From 1600 GMT World Briefing with Oliver Conway.

It’s a low-key affair for this year’s 90th anniversary, perhaps not surprising as the BBC is yet again under the financial cosh and there are major cuts planned for the language services, including the end of linear broadcasts for the Arabic service. The Documentary with Nick Rankin, listener’s programme memories on Over to You and a couple of editions of Witness History about Una Marson and broadcasting during the Cold War seem to be the token offerings.  

There are two other services whose history is inextricably linked with the Empire Service, and its later incarnations, that of the Monitoring Service and the Transcription Services. The monitoring of foreign radio broadcasts started on an informal level in 1937 with particular interest as to what was coming from Italy and Nazi Germany. In the summer of 1939 the Ministry of Information asked the BBC to undertake wartime monitoring and the service was set up with a base at Wood Norton. Initially heading the service was Malcolm Frost of the BBC’s Overseas Intelligence Department (originally set up in 1937 to conduct audience research in countries that the Empire Service was broadcasting to) later to become the Director of the Monitoring Service. The service moved to Caversham Park in April 1943 where it would remain until just over four years ago, moving into New Broadcasting House. You can read more detail about the early days of the Monitoring Service on Chris Greenway’s blog here.   

As the Empire Service often had to broadcast the same programme to different parts of the world at different times it became an early adopter of recording the original transmission for repeating during the day; what were initially called ‘bottled’ programmes (a term coined by the BBC’s first Chief Engineer Peter Eckersley, though he’d left by the time the Empire Service launched). These bottled programmes were either cut on discs (with a playing time of between 5 and 9 minutes) or recorded using the Blattnerphone system.  At the same time the BBC was also looking at providing radio stations around the world with a selection of its programmes on disc. This would in part overcome some of the issues with shortwave listening, help negate other station’s pirating BBC output and to generate income (albeit broadcasters were charged a nominal fee for the discs).

In July 1932 the BBC announced its intention to supplement the proposed Empire Service with recorded programmes. “These programmes, which will be produced with all the available artistic resources of the BBC, are to be recorded on discs and circulated to all stations overseas which subscribe to the service”.  The advantages were: “the original programmes will be available for broadcasting at any time, and will be received by the local listener at perfect quality”. 

The first set of discs offered by the BBC included Cakes and Ale, a programme of old English songs and choruses; Lily Morris, Bransby Williams and Charles Coburn in vaudeville, with Henry Hall’s Dance Orchestra; a dramatised biography of Christopher Wren; a programme of traditional Scottish music; Postman’s Knock, a British musical comedy written by Claude Hulbert; A.J. Alan telling a story; A Pageant of English Life from 1812 to 1933; a Children’s Hour programme. Orders were placed from New Zealand, Australia, India, Ceylon, Kenya, South Africa and Southern Rhodesia. A second batch of discs was issued in 1934 and the Transcription Service was underway under the leadership of Malcolm Frost as Head of the Empire Press Section (he was also the post-war General Manager of the BBC Transcription Services).

Complications arose at the start of World War II when the Foreign Office set up its own Joint Broadcasting Committee (the director was the BBC’s ex-Head of Talks Hilda Matheson) to provide British recorded programmes of a propaganda nature to radio stations. The BBC was concerned that listeners may not be able to distinguish between its own and JBC programmes but by October 1941 the services were merged as London Transcription Services. By the end of the war it was distributing programmes in nineteen languages to over 500 stations.

In 1946 the LTS became BBC Transcription Services and was based at St Hilda’s (a former convent) at the back of the Maida Vale studios. Programmes on offer were either specially recorded for TS or selected from existing programmes broadcast on the domestic or external services. They covered the full range of drama (the World Theatre series was particularly successful), comedy, talks, concerts and musical performances, documentaries, schools programmes and English by Radio. TS would either pick selected episodes from a series to be issued on disc or perhaps take the whole series – this has since been invaluable for repeats on BBC Radio 4 Extra were gaps in Sound Archives holdings can be filled using TS disc copies. Programmes recorded exclusively for TS included the long-running Top of the Pops presented by Brian Matthew and Pop Profiles (now both highly sought after by collectors) and the Vintage Goons series (1957-58).They also had a mobile recording unit available for concerts, including The Proms, and music festivals. 

In 1964 Transcription Services moved to Kensington House in Shepherd’s Bush were it was part of Overseas Regional Services (English), giving the Head of service the acronym H.O.R.S.E. By the early 1990s all the masters were moved to Bush House and eventually would find their way into Sound Archives, though with a great deal of catalogue information missing. (12) BBC Radio International now provides a similar service of licensing programmes for re-broadcast around the world.    

(1) The BBC had already dabbled with shortwave broadcasting setting up experimental station G5SW at the Marconi works in Chelmsford, with the first major transmission to Australia on 11 November 1927, By November 1928 the transmitter was in poor condition and breakdowns were frequent but trial broadcasts seem to have continued into 1931. Testing at the Daventry station had started on 14 November 1932 exactly 10 years to the day since the BBC’s first broadcast.

(2) Within months the allowance had increased to £100 a week and by the end of 1933 it was £200.

(3) Reith wasn’t the first voice heard on the Empire Service; that fell to announcer William Shewen who started with “This is London calling the Australian zone through the British Empire Broadcasting Service at Daventry”. Shewen was the only staff announcer for a while but by 1937 they had a team of five working in shifts and where necessary sleeping over in one of the two bedrooms provided in Broadcasting House. Other pre-war announcers, mostly ex-military types,included Robert Dougall (later best known as a BBC tv newsreader), Pat Butler,  former Talks Assistant H.P.K.Pooley, Hugh Venables, Robin Duff (later a BBC War Correspondent) and Duncan Carse (the voice of Dick Barton, Special Agent 1946-51).   

(4) The Empire Service site at Daventry included the main station building with a transmitter hall, control rooms and offices plus five aerial array zones, one for each of the geographic areas. Shortwave transmitting capacity was increased at the start of World War II at Clevedon near Bristol, and Rampisham Down in Dorset.

(5) The first Arabic new broadcast on that opening day has been described as “the most famous and perhaps the most controversial in the history of the Service”. It included the item “Another Arab from Palestine was executed by hanging at Acre this morning by order of the military court. He was arrested during recent riots in the Hebron mountains and was found to possess a rifle and some ammunition.”  This seemingly innocuous factual report sent shock waves though the Arab world and the Foreign Office. “Is the BBC bound to broadcast to the Empire the execution of every Arab in Palestine?” asked Rex Leaper, Head of the Foreign Office News department and responsible for liaison with the Corporation. . The BBC took the stance that as the item had been featured in an Empire Service bulletin it could see no reason for not including it in the Arabic news. 

(6) The wartime overseas services found themselves scattered around bases in London and over in Worcestershire. When land mines damaged Broadcasting House in December 1940 members of the European Service were re-housed at Maida Vale before moving to Bush House in March 1941. The Maida Vale studios themselves took a hit in May 1941. Other bases were, at various times, at Wood Norton and also the nearby Abbey Manor, Aldenham House in Elstree, and Bedford College in Regents Park. I wrote about the studios at 200 Oxford Street in July 2017.  

(7) The wartime changes to the Overseas Services are a little complicated. In November 1939 the Empire Service was modified “so as to make it virtually a World Service”, though the name Empire Service seems to have continued. In late 1942 it became known as the General Overseas Service. In February 1944 it merged with the Forces Programme to become the General Forces Programme meaning it was also available in the UK on the medium wave (see announcement in the Radio Times above). For home listeners the GFP was replaced by the Light Programme in July 1945 but continued on shortwave for troops outside N-W Europe. The old General Overseas Service title was back in 1947.According to the 1946 BBC Year Book “the BBC has always regarded the General Forces Programme as being contained within the General Overseas Service”.

Photo BW

(8) The colour coding of the networks persisted into the 1990s when Bush House still had a Green continuity studio. The European Service used the V for victory drum beats.

(9) That wasn't quite the end of The Archers for overseas listeners as in 1959 the Transcription Service offered slightly edited versions of the omnibus editions. A stash of these discs, 2,670 episodes were 'discovered' in 2003 and that story was told in Ambridge in the Decade of Love

(10) In July 1956 the Government had established a Committee on Overseas Broadcasting against a background of growing Foreign Office unease over the External Services budget. The Suez Crisis that October was “the point at which the strategic reassessment of the overseas services of the BBC became fused with the problems of Britain’s evaporating influence in the Middle East...” (Webb)

(11) The new name came not from the BBC but was included in the report of the Rapp Committee’s 1964 report on “the methods and effectiveness of the External Services”. Amongst the many recommendations on language services and relay stations was the term BBC World Service which would have “more meaning to the new audiences of English speakers around the Globe”. The World Service started broadcasting around the clock in 1968.  

(12) The Transcription Service masters included 16" discs, 1/4" tape and DATs. They were moved from Bush House in c. 2006 to the TV/Film archive in Windmill Road and then relocated to the new BBC Archives facility at Perivale in 2011. 

Further reading and listening:

In this blog post I have only dipped a toe into the history of the BBC’s External Services. As well as consulting back issues of London Calling, BBC Year books and the Asa Briggs volumes I have also referred to (and some quotes are taken from):

Let Truth Be Told by Gerard Mansell (Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1982)

A Skyful of Freedom by Andrew Walker (Broadside Books, 1992)

What did you do in the War, Auntie? By Tom Hickman (BBC Books, 1995)

London Calling by Alban Webb (Bloomsbury, 2014)

BBC World Service by Gordon Johnston & Emma Robertson (Palgrave Macmillan, 2019)

I should also mention Broadcasting Empire: The BBC and the British World, 1922-1970 by Simon Potter (OUP, 2012) though I’ve yet to find a physical copy that isn’t available for about £100.  

For more on the history of Lillibullero there's this edition of Meridian from December 1998. 

You can hear Reith's opening Empire Service broadcast on the British Library website

Thanks also to Andy Finney and Simon Rooks for some additional information and to Barry Warr for the illustrations BW.

Thursday 15 December 2022

Another Chance to Hear

Listening to BBC Radio 4 Extra can sometimes feel like they’re just playing Hancock’s Half-Hour and Round the Horne on a loop for the last two decades. But aside from these “much-loved” comedy gems the station has a well-deserved reputation for digging deeper into the BBC’s archives and airing lesser-known comedies, dramas and readings. Indeed this coming weekend we have the first broadcast in nearly 70 years of an edition of Life with the Lyons and an Afternoon Theatre drama from 1974 that’s not had a repeat since 1977.

Despite pulling in an audience of 1.8 million (and hitting a high of 2.1m in 2015) Radio 4 Extra is now on radio’s death row. In May of this year DG Tim Davie announced that 4 Extra would (at some as yet undetermined date but certainly not in the next three years) stop broadcasting “on linear”. 

Today the station is twenty years old. It was launched in a flurry of digital radio expansion in 2002 alongside the new services of 5 live Sports Extra, 6 Music and 1Xtra and the Asian Network going national on DAB.

Initially called just BBC7 a press release in November 2002 promised: “A great mix of entertainment with the best of BBC comedy, drama and books as well as a brand new daily live kids' radio show, BBC 7 is the fifth BBC digital radio station to launch this year and completes the BBC's digital radio portfolio”.  

Here’s an early promo for the station:

Broadcasting 18 hours a day (7am-1 am) BBC7 was zoned with six hours of comedy (Comedy Hour, Classic Comedy, Comedy Zone and The Comedy Club), a drama zone, crime and thriller strand, science fiction and horror in The Seventh Dimension and four hours of children’s programmes. Of those ‘zones’ just The Comedy Club and The 7thDimension remain. It started broadcasting around the clock from January 2004.

The station underwent a subtle name change in October 2008 to BBC Radio 7 (using just BBC7 was deemed confusing and people thought it was a tv service) followed by a re-launch in April 2011 as BBC Radio 4 Extra.

The original BBC 7 head of programmes Mary Kalemkerian described her job like this:

I am entrusted with the BBC's heritage and I have to select what will go out on the air, but it is not just like a jukebox where you pluck a token out and put something on. I have to make sure the rights are cleared, as the BBC doesn't own half of its archive. So I work a lot with agents and also look at ways of polishing up these radio jewels by repackaging programmes to make them more accessible to a younger audience. I also commission some new programmes – quite a bit of contemporary comedy.

In addition to mining the archives or taking narrative repeats of Radio 4 comedy shows the station has often commissioned its own programmes, albeit a relatively small amount. Its 2007 service licence included a commitment to at least 10 hours of new comedy a year and 20 hours of new drama, though this was later amended to “some” new comedy and drama. It was also expected to contribute to BBC radio’s target of 10% of new commissions to go to the independent sector.

Original commissions include the Saturday morning 3-hour features, The Comedy Controller, Ambridge Extra, dramas such as Trueman and Bailey, The Comedy Club interviews and a number of comedy series, the most successful of which was Newsjack.

Broadcast between 2009 and 2021 Newsjack had six main presenters over its 24 series run: Miles Jupp, Justin Edwards, Romesh Ranganathan, Nish Kumar, Angela Barnes and Kiri Pritchard-McLean. It offered an Open Door policy in which members of the public could email in their sketches and one-liners. These submissions plus sketches from the staff writers are then knocked into shape by the script editor and producers. For this edition from the sixth series in 2012 Newsjack received 675 emails and 27 writing credits were given of which 21 were non-commissioned writers. With Justin Edwards are Pippa Evans, Lewis Macleod and Nadia Kamil.    

BBC Radio 7 also had a large commitment to broadcast children’s programming, at one point at least 1,400 hours a year, later reduced to 350 hours when it became 4 Extra. This was mainly the pre-school series The Little Toe Show (later CBeebies on BBC Radio 7) and for older children The Big Toe Radio Show (later known as Big Toe Books). When they ended in 2011 there was just an hour of kid’s programmes now titled The 4 O’Clock Show and presented by Mel Giedroyc. This in turn was pulled in March 2015, justifiably as it only attracted  5,900 10-14 year olds and had an average listener age of 60.   

Adopting a magazine style format, The 4 O’Clock Show was something of a pick ‘n’ mix affair with some clips taken from elsewhere on Radio 4’s output. Based on the evidence of this recording from 12 March 2015 it’s not hard to see why it got the chop. Here Mel introduces Dick and Dom investigating How Dangerous is Your School with the help of students and staff at the Cardinal Wiseman School in Greenford, London. There’s an extract from Saturday Live about life on a farm, more science, this time out in space, with Stuart Henderson from Radio 4’s Questions, Questions and musician Pete Roe on restoring and playing harmoniums. There’s an interview with actor Ron Ely (of Tarzan fame, yes, really) and Gabriel Quigley reads from Roddy Doyle’s A Greyhound of a Girl. Oh, and Mel reveals what’s inside her big bag.

Radio 4 Extra doesn’t broadcast live (with a couple of exceptions) but is built in advance from a number of pre-recorded elements. Obviously there’s the programmes themselves and then the separate links for The Comedy Club and The 7th Dimension. All the continuity elements – intros, outros, top of the hour junctions, trailers and promotions and station imaging (from Mcasso) – are added to the playout system. If a programme goes out more than once a day the same intros/outros are used.

Those live broadcast exceptions are, back in the days of BBC7/BBC Radio 7, the weekday editions of The Big Toe Radio Show, originally presented by Kirsten O’Brien and Jez Edwards. The only other instance I’m aware of is for an hour on 14 November 2012 when Jim Lee provided the live continuity around the all station link-up for Radio Reunited as part of the BBC’s 90th anniversary.   

Here’s part of Jim's ‘live’ continuity:

When BBC7 started presenters or announcers would be associated with different strands of the station’s output. This changed from 2010 when the same continuity announcer was heard throughout the day (with the exception of The Comedy Club and The 7th Dimension).

In 2014 Feedback’s Roger Bolton visited 4 Extra and spoke to Commissioning Editor Caroline Raphael, announcer Joanna Pinnock and producer Nick St George.

The continuity announcers are either current or former Radio 4 announcers plus a small number of voiceover folk who just provide 4 Extra continuity. The 4 Extra day runs from 6.00 am to 5.59 am and the announcers record two 24-hour days in one session. Back in 2019 one of the station’s most regular voices, Alan Smith, told me how it all works:

About 3 weeks before transmission, the programmes appear in the 4Extra schedule in the order they’ll be played-out. It’s at this point that announcers can listen to the programmes to get a feel for them. We don’t listen all the way through; we hear just enough to get a sense of what’s going on. Our listening is supplemented by written information which is held in the programme database. This database is a fantastic resource as it contains a plot summary of every programme together with its transmission history, cast & crew details and any contentious/sensitive factors which need to be flagged up.

Then the writing process begins! All of us who present on 4Extra write our own scripts, so everything you hear us say on air is information taken from the database that’s given a personal twist in our own style. It takes two working days to write two 24-hour on-air days. We all have different amounts of time committed to 4Extra – in my case I do two 24-hour on-air days every five weeks; some presenters do a bit more, some a bit less.

Then, about 10 days before transmission, its recording day when we go to the studio with the producer, armed with our completed scripts. This part of the process is super-efficient as we simply record all the individual links we’ve written, one after the other, plus the promos and trails. It takes about three hours to record the two 24-hour days. The announcers then leave the producer to put all the links into the schedule and build the final on-air audio.

In this sequence you’ll hear a number of familiar voices introducing the programmes on BBC Radio 7 and 4 Extra. In order you’ll hear Zeb Soanes, Steve Urquhart, Wes Butters, Neil Sleat, Debbie Russ, Luke Tuddenham, David Miles, Alan Smith, Penny Haslam, Joanna Pinnock, Jim Lee, Chris Berrow, Alex Riley, Kathy Clugston, Susan Rae, Amanda Litherland, Toby Hadoke, Nick Briggs, Andrew O'Neil, Arthur Smith and Jon Holmes.

BBC7 presenters/announcers included Joanna Pinnock, Penny Haslam, Jim Lee, Alex Riley, Michaela Saunders, Phil Williams, Richard Bacon, Kevin Greening, Etholle George, Alan Smith, Helen Aitken, Kerry McCarthy and Alex Riley.

Radio 4 Extra announcers include or have included Joanna Pinnock (there from the start in 2002), Alan Smith, Jim Lee, Wes Butters (the station’s “bit of rough” according to a recent Radio Times profile, who’s been on since 2009), Susan Rae, Kathy Clugston, Rory Morrison, Zeb Soanes, David Miles, Neil Sleat, Luke Tuddenham, Debbie Russ, Chris Berrow, Amanda Litherland and Steve Urquhart.  

The 7th Dimension presenters have included Toby Hadoke, Nick Briggs, Natalie Haynes, Andrew O’Neil and Nicola Walker.

The Comedy Club introductions and interviews have been looked after by Arthur Smith, Jon Holmes, Jake Yapp, Jessica Fostekew, Paul Garner, Angela Barnes, Laura Lexx, Rob Deering, Jade Adams, Cariad Lloyd, Sarah Campbell, Harriet Kemsley, Diane Morgan, Iain Lee, Tom Wrigglesworth, Tiff Stevenson, Lou Conran, Isy Suttie and Thom Tuck.

With thanks to Alan Smith and Chris Aldridge.   

Postscript: Well wouldn't you know it. After saying how few shows on Radio 4 Extra are live, one appears in 2023. In January Jake Yapp's Unwinding started a 20 programme run live on weekday evenings between 7 and 10 pm. 

Tuesday 15 November 2022

Auntie's Secret Past

In Auntie’s Secret Past we learn of the contents of the time capsule in the Broadcasting House foundation stone, the furore over Prospero and Ariel (“maidens are said to blush”), the pithy memos of the Programme Review Board, the “surfeit of sentiment” concerns over Vera Lynn’s Sincerely Yours, why women commentators were not favoured and whether television viewers should be called ‘televiewers’ or ‘lookers’.

This programme, broadcast in 1997 to mark the BBC’s 75th anniversary delves into the Written Archives at Caversham to bring some of the behind the scenes stories of the Corporation to life. It’s also scattered with a generous selection of Sound Archive gems.

Presented by Terry Wogan and produced by Bridget Apps, Auntie’s Secret Past went out on BBC Radio 2 on Sunday 9 November 1997.    

Saturday 12 November 2022

BBC 100

On Monday the BBC celebrates 100 years since its first radio broadcast on 14 November 1922.

Making the opening announcement on station 2LO was Director of Programmes Arthur Burrows who wrote: “November 14, 1922, was the day chosen to commence British broadcasting in the official sense. It was the day of the declaration of polls in connection with the General Election, and the news for that evening consisted in the main of election results. The next day the Birmingham station, 5IT, began to operate, and within a week 2ZY had also joined in the work. The London station continued in my charge (Mr Jeffries arranging the musical programmes and sharing in the pleasures of the children’s hour). Birmingham fortunately secured the direction of Mr Percy Edgar, already well known in the Midlands, and Metropolitan Vickers appointed to the Manchester station Mr K.A. Wright, a young graduate of Sheffield, who, since his earliest days with the firm, had shown a keen interest in music and its propagation by wireless. One cannot look back upon those early days without a smile.”

To mark the BBC’s centenary I’ve produced this sound montage 100 Years of BBC Radio in 100 History. Roughly chronological in order it’s my selection of some memorable voices and programmes designed to show something of the breadth of the radio services. I hope you enjoy it.

You’ll hear some broadcasters who make more than one appearance but see if you can spot who appears most often, on seven different clips throughout the sequence.

Here’s the version with accompanying pictures.

The selection of early clips was, of course, limited by what’s survived from that period. Most of my audio for the first half century comes from compilation records issued by the BBC (for their 50th and 75th), documentary programmes about BBC history I’ve recorded over the last 40+ years and repeats, often on Radio 4 Extra. Those 1920s clips you here were all recreated for the May 1932 programme The End of Savoy Hill produced by Lance Sieveking. Much of what you hear from the mid-70s onwards was recorded by me at the time or may come from recordings kindly donated since starting this blog.  

Inevitably as soon as I’d edited the ‘final’ final version I remembered all the stuff I’d missed out. No “I’m rather worried about Jim” or “Give ‘em the money Barney”, no Noel’s funny phone calls, no reports from foreign correspondents (other than wartime), the role of the  European Service during the Cold War. I could go on. Summarising local radio or what the BBC calls ‘the Nations’ was impossible; they all just get seven minutes. The wonderful World Service has been reduced to two minutes.

I first started work on this project after completing my BBC90 montage, saving clips away in a separate folder. Most made the cut, some just didn’t fit or no longer felt appropriate or interesting. Serious editing, sequence by sequence, started in February and altogether I’ve used nearly 700 different bits of audio (including jingles). I reckon about 20% of material was also in the BBC90 celebration. Thanks go again to Andy Howells who helped with some BBC90 material in 2012 and to Aircheck Downloads who tracked down a couple of DJ jingles for me that appear in one of the Radio 1 sequences.

Here’s the audio only version.   


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