Saturday 2 December 2023

Broadcasting the Barricades

A little over eighty five years ago, on 30 October 1938, America was in a state of panic. Folk were taking to the highways and driving off into the hills, there were frantic calls to the police and to friends and family, people were taking shelter in their nearest church or arming themselves with shotguns. The cause, a radio broadcast with the breaking news of a Martian invasion, or at least some kind of invasion. Maybe it was the Germans?

Of course we know that most of this did not actually happen. The panic following the broadcast of Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre Production of The War of the Worlds was mainly stoked by the press, unimpressed and unamused by the hype generated by the radio opposition.     

War of the Worlds succeeded due its blurring of fact and fiction and by deploying the grammar of radio broadcasting of the time, ‘we interrupt this program’, portentous bulletins, on the spot reports and so on.

But what US radio listeners wouldn’t have known at the time was that such a spoof broadcast was not a new idea. It had been heard on the BBC some twelve years earlier in a ‘talk’ given by a Catholic priest, the Revered Ronald Knox (pictured above). This talk, titled Broadcasting the Barricades, caused a great deal of public consternation and stirred up a press frenzy though it didn’t quite lead to “panic on the streets of London, panic on the streets of Birmingham.”

There’s no suggestion that Knox’s talk directly inspired Welles and co. but in subsequent interviews he did acknowledge that he knew of its reputation. The BBC broadcast had been reported in the US newspapers at the time with one writing that “we are safe from such jesting”.   

Knox was something of a polymath; his sermons had been published, he wrote about Catholic doctrine, published verse and satirical volumes as well as both writing detective fiction – his first The Viaduct Murder came out in 1925 – and writing about detective fiction – he was a member of the Detection Club and devised his ‘Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction’.    

The idea for what became Broadcasting the Barricades apparently came to Knox during the last election (presumably the General Election of October 1924) as he tried to imagine the news bulletins that might be broadcast during a revolution. This was at a time when the threat of a ‘red revolution’ would have seemed real to many listeners. The Communist Party of Great Britain had not long been formed and with labour troubles already rumbling and the ill-advised 1925 Gold Standard Act the political situation seemed febrile.   

The broadcast, running for 17 minutes in total, was made live at 7.40 pm on Saturday 16 January 1926 from the George Street studios of the BBC’s Edinburgh relay station (call sign 2EH). 2EH broadcast locally produced programmes as well as carrying SBs (simultaneous broadcasts) from London. Knox’s talk was unusual in that it was an SB from Edinburgh heard on a number of other stations, most significantly 2LO in London. It wasn’t, though, broadcast nationwide as 2ZY Manchester, 5IT Birmingham, 2BD Aberdeen and 2LS Leeds did their own thing.  

David Pat Walker (in The BBC in Scotland) describes the programme:

The broadcast had been arranged by Edinburgh’s Station Director George L. Marshall, who had met Knox on more than one occasion and knew of his reputation as an author and humorist. Officially described as a ‘Talk’ it was in fact a lengthy spoof news bulletin, complete with effects, reporting an imaginary communist rising in London.   

At the beginning of the programme some sixth sense made George L. Marshall warn his audience that it wasn’t to be taken seriously but he under-estimated the listeners’ unshakable belief in everything they heard. As grave and utterly unexpected tidings flowed out of headphones and loudspeakers throughout Britain a state of alarm bearing on consternation swept across the country. The National Gallery was in flames. Big Ben had been demolished by trench mortars. A communist revolution was exploding in London and the mass forces of the unemployed had plundered the Savoy Hotel and set it on fire. Finally, as the programme ended, there was a report that ‘unruly members of the crowd are now approaching the British Broadcasting Company’s London station with a threatening demeanour.’

Listeners up and down the country sprang to their telephones, convinced that London had been laid waste. The Savoy Hotel was bombarded with calls from the excited relations of guests while the Irish Free State made enquiries through diplomatic channels to discover whether it was true that the House of Commons had been blown up. Later that evening the BBC issued an apology, ‘the BBC regrets that any listener should have been perturbed by this purely fantastic picture.’

Knox himself thought his broadcast so far-fetched that no one would believe it was real. Unlike War of the Worlds, Broadcasting the Barricades, was a one-man affair with only live effects punctuating the story. His characters added to the satirical nature of his theme: Sir Theophilus Gooch, a film actress Miss Joy Gush, Mr Wotherspoon the Minister of Traffic and a Mr Popplebury, the Secretary of the National Movement for Abolishing Theatre Queues.

Some passages were, however, quite dark: “the BBC regrets that one item in the news has been inaccurately given; the correction now follows. It was stated in our news bulletin that the Minister of Traffic had been hanged from a lamp post in the Vauxhall Bridge Road. Subsequent and more accurate reports show that it was not a lamp post, but a tramway post that was used for the purpose.”   

Meanwhile, down in London announcer Stuart Hibberd was working that evening:

I was on duty at Savoy Hill and, as Knox was speaking from Edinburgh, I did not listen at the beginning, but soon so many phone calls from apprehensive listeners were coming through that I had to listen. Obviously the whole thing was a spoof; you only had to listen to sentences like ‘the mob are now swarming into Hyde park and throwing ginger beer bottles at the ducks on the Serpentine’ to realise this; after all, it was night, and bitterly cold, with ice and snow everywhere in the London area. But still the telephone calls came in, and we had to put out a reassuring announcement at the end. Sometime later that evening a call was put through to me from a commercial traveller, who told me that he had only just got home after a very long day. He found the wireless switched on, both his wife and his sister-in-law, who was staying with them, drunk in the sitting room, and his best bottle of brandy empty under the table. ‘What are you going to do about it?’ he inquired.

Twenty minutes after the live broadcast Knox and Marshall were having supper at the Caledonian Hotel when a call was put through from BBC managing director John Reith saying that staff at Savoy Hill had been annoyed by anxious inquiries. On Monday Reith asked for a full transcript by telegram. Marshall despatched office boy Tony Cogle to the post office to telegraph the script to London. It was, he later recalled, the most expensive wire he could remember having sent. In the meantime Knox had by now travelled over to Dublin where he was due to speak and so missed most of the fallout that hit the press on the Monday.

Despite the initial furore there was no official rebuke for Knox; he continued to broadcast through to the 1950s. Indeed at a programme review board the following month the talk had been picked out as one of the ‘outstanding items’ broadcast in January and even Reith himself was pleased with it as it showed that people were listening. The press attention, he concluded, only served to increase the number of public appreciations. Anyway not too long after Broadcasting the Barricades the BBC had far more important issues on its plate with the General Strike.    

The influence of Broadcasting the Barricades didn’t just extend to War of the Worlds. The following year, on 30 June 1927, Australian station 5CL based in Adelaide broadcast what was billed as a Special Broadcast. It too used the device of interrupting a music programme for a news announcement and then special effects to dramatise a supposed invasion. Inevitably the station, the police and the local newspapers were inundated with calls despite the frequent on-air reminders that it was ‘merely a play’,  

In June 2005 Raymond Snoddy looked at Knox’s broadcast and the fallout from it in the BBC Radio 4 documentary The Riot that Never Was. Recreating parts of the original broadcast was Bob Sinfield as Ronald Knox. It was produced by Paul Slade and Nick Baker for Testbed Productions.  

The full text of Broadcasting the Barricades can be found in Essays in Satire by Ronald Knox available on the Internet Archive

You can read more about Father Ronald Knox and the 1926 broadcast on the Planetslade website.

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