The BBC begins: how a group of radio pioneers launched one of Britain's most famous institutions
A century ago, a group of idealistic radio pioneers launched one of Britain’s most famous institutions: the BBC. In the first instalment of our new 13-part series charting how the corporation shaped the nation, David Hendy looks back at its earliest days
When did the BBC begin broadcasting?
At six o’clock in the evening on Tuesday 14 November 1922, the BBC took to the airwaves for the first time. Nearly a century later, we might think of this as a defining moment in cultural history but, at the time, it made almost no impact on the world. Newspaper coverage of the launch was virtually non-existent. Only The Times mentioned it briefly on one of its inside pages; the fact that inverted commas were placed around the word “broadcasting” was ample proof of just how unknown the term was judged to be.
Nor was the broadcast itself especially exciting. For the hardy few who tuned in, the first thing they heard through the hiss and crackle of the ether was a short news bulletin and a weather forecast. The BBC’s announcer read them both twice: first at normal speed, then more slowly so that listeners could take notes. Soon afterwards, the transmitter fell silent for the night.
For the hardy few who tuned in, the first thing they heard through the hiss and crackle was a news bulletin and a weather forecast
The BBC – at that point the British Broadcasting Company, not yet a corporation – had been established a month earlier to exploit “wireless” technology that had been around for nearly three decades. Back in 1894, the British physicist Oliver Lodge had been the first to demonstrate radio transmission publicly when he sent a Morse code signal 60 metres and captured it with a specially built receiver. Since then, the young Italian entrepreneur Guglielmo Marconi had laboured to turn Lodge’s laboratory device into a lucrative private communication tool, with the potential to make telegraph cables redundant. In the years either side of the First World War, thousands of wireless “amateurs” had tinkered with home-made kits, eavesdropped on messages, and even set up their own small-scale transmitters.
It was partly to provide these enthusiasts with an incentive to buy receivers, and partly to avoid the American experience of “chaos in the ether” with too many stations competing with each other, that Britain’s General Post Office granted a broadcasting monopoly to a single national entity: the BBC. As a result, in late 1922, the initiative lay firmly with the tiny handful of men and women on the new company’s payroll.
Its dour and formidable general manager, John Reith, did not arrive until December. So, at first, the two people best placed to shape what early broadcasting might become were Arthur Burrows, a former newspaper journalist and Marconi Company manager, and his deputy, Cecil Lewis, a dashing young First World War flying ace. Burrows had been horrified by the use of wireless in spreading misinformation during that conflict. Meanwhile, Lewis had returned from the front determined to add to “the wisdom and beauty of the world” rather than destroy it. Both men wanted to turn what had been an obscure and private medium into a cultural resource from which everyone might benefit.
Hooked on entertainment
It was by no means clear exactly how this would be done. As Reith pointed out, “there were no sealed orders to open”. The date of the BBC’s opening night had been carefully chosen to be sure everything would be up and running in time to broadcast the results of the following day’s general election. Yet Lewis, who was responsible for creating a detailed schedule of programmes for the months to come, believed that news should only ever play the smallest part, having had his fill of “current affairs” during the war. “I didn’t really care what was happening in Abyssinia,” he later confessed. What he wanted was drama, music, big shows. “We were hooked on the idea of entertainment,” he explained.
Resources, though, were scarce. Nor were many performers convinced that the newfangled medium of radio was worth their effort. As a result, the BBC had a distinctly ad hoc feel about it. When it first took to the airwaves in November, the company was squeezed into a single room in Magnet House, just off London’s Kingsway. Every evening, when it was time for the day’s broadcasting to begin, Lewis, Burrows and their colleagues would have to dash down to the Aldwych and scurry up to the top floor of Marconi House, where a small box room had been kitted out with a piano and microphone. For now, this was the home of 2LO, the “London” station. Two more stations in Birmingham and Manchester, 5IT and 2ZY, muddled along in similarly cramped conditions.
The wholesale move of the company headquarters and London operation to a larger building just off the Strand the following year allowed broadcasters to spread their wings a little. Savoy Hill offered enough space for a decent-sized general office, separate rooms for senior staff, a modest telephone exchange and several new studios. Even so, conditions were basic. Rats ran through the warren of corridors. The Thames ran nearby, emitting its noxious reek. And the heavy drapes with which the studios were soundproofed created a dusty, overheated airlessness.
Yet for the BBC’s rapidly growing staff, Savoy Hill was a thrilling place to work. It was bursting with energy, bustling with ambition, and free – for the moment – of the weight of tradition or routine. Programmes – short skits, book readings, brief musical recitals, the occasional talk or lecture – were always live, frequently unrehearsed, and sometimes required back-room staff to fill in at the microphone. For Children’s Hour, Arthur Burrows would turn into “Uncle Arthur” and Cecil Lewis would become “Uncle Caractacus”.
Small house orchestras were squeezed into sweltering studios, and BBC engineers would set out with cables and microphones to “relay” opera from Covent Garden or dance bands playing at the Savoy Hotel. The arts of writing for the ear, studio sound effects and running sports commentary all steadily emerged from the chaos.
Idealists and dilettantes
Most programmes were simple affairs, with the occasional attempt at something more spectacular. In 1928, the producer Lance Sieveking attempted to recreate the kind of modernist art he enjoyed in avant-garde novels and expressionist cinema. His programme, The Kaleidoscope, was a dazzlingly multi-layered montage of dramatic scenes, music and readings that tied up all seven of Savoy Hill’s studios at once – and left most listeners utterly bewildered.
Sieveking saw his job as akin to that of a medieval craftsman set free to carve gargoyles to his heart’s content. In a building stuffed full of men who had fought in the war, military metaphors and titles abounded. Sieveking – like Cecil Lewis, an ex-pilot – referred to the BBC as an “Air Force”. Fellow producer Lionel Fielden thought of it as a “port in a storm”: a home-from-home for the waifs and strays, idealists and dilettantes who had returned from the battlefield looking for new adventures.
Through toiling away in the studios, the BBC’s first generation of staff found a common mission
Though the work was unpredictable, it was never directionless and the BBC’s first generation of staff found a common mission. Their aim – as John Reith put it, quoting Matthew Arnold’s 1869 work, Culture and Anarchy – was to make “the best that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere”. Radio would be the means of forging a civilised world from the ashes of conflict. “We may have been silly,” Fielden recalled, but “God save us, we really believed that broadcasting could revolutionise human opinion.”
Within a few years the BBC would be regarded as a dignified, somewhat starchy, rather cautious national institution. For now, though, Savoy Hill was youthful, volatile and, above all, brimming with hope.
David Hendy is emeritus professor at the University of Sussex. His new book is The BBC: A People’s History (Profile, 2022)
IN FOCUS: The microphone that struck fear into the hearts of seasoned performers
At the heart of the BBC’s operations at Savoy Hill was a simple bit of kit that was vital to broadcasting but utterly terrifying to many who stood before it: the microphone. The earliest models had been no more than telephone receivers dangled from ceiling hooks or propped up on stands. Before long, a more sophisticated device took over: the Magnetophone. This consisted of a large, round magnet nestled in a thick sling of spongy rubber to protect it from vibration, mounted in a square wooden frame or “Faraday Cage” to protect it from electromagnetic interference.
The BBC wanted its studios to have a homely feel, and had kitted them out with settees and armchairs, side tables, lamps and plenty of atmospheric lighting. So the Magnetophone’s wooden box was also covered in an attractive silk fabric, and the whole contraption was mounted on splayed legs fitted with casters so it could be pushed around the studio like any old piece of domestic furniture.
By this point it looked rather like an old-fashioned meat safe – a device used to keep food fresh before the invention of the fridge – and that’s precisely what BBC insiders called it.
Despite this affectionate nickname, guest artistes were invariably taken aback by its presence and bizarre appearance. Accomplished actors who had long ago overcome stage fright found themselves experiencing the horrors of “microphone fright”. Many confessed to being temporarily “paralysed” upon seeing it for the first time. It was rumoured that Hollywood star Tallulah Bankhead slid under the table in faints.
Even those who managed to tame their nerves often failed to grasp the principles of the underlying technology. When told that 2 million people around the country would be listening to him, the great Shakespearean actor Henry Ainley decided that, in order to make absolutely sure they heard him properly, he really needed to let rip. He had to be pulled forcibly away by two studio workers before the transmitter was completely blasted to pieces.