Broadcasting House: a new home for the BBC
As it approached its second decade, the BBC’s happy-go-lucky attitude was fading fast. And, as David Hendy reveals in the second instalment of our 13-part series tracing the corporation’s cultural impact, the government was now taking a keen interest...
On Saturday 26 September 1931, less than a decade after its creation, the BBC began the eight-month-long task of packing its bags and moving from the cramped rabbit warren of Savoy Hill to a gleaming purpose-built headquarters building in Portland Place.
When the first programmes were broadcast from this new home the following May, the occasion did not just mark a more comfortable working life for staff – it announced the BBC’s arrival as a grand institution at the heart of the nation. The BBC had described Savoy Hill as the place where it had “spent its childhood and grew up to man’s estate”. Now it had reached adulthood.
- This is part 2 in a 13-part series of David Hendy charting how the BBC shaped the nation. Read part 1, The BBC begins
The building, north of Oxford Circus, was called Broadcasting House. Some 43,000 tonnes of London clay had been excavated to create three basement floors descending 12 metres below street level. Above ground were nine floors, 500 windows, balconies planted with bay trees, and a clock tower topped with a vast turtle-back roof. The edifice consisted of 2,630,000 blocks of shimmering white stone arranged in the gently curved shape of an ocean liner.
Inside, a state-of-the-art “sound factory” had been created. Twenty-two studios, numerous cloakrooms, green rooms and a large concert hall, each decorated with art deco flourishes and equipped with the latest radio technology, were stacked in a central tower insulated from exterior noise by a 1.2-metre-thick wall and hundreds of offices around the building’s outer edges.
Listen | Media historian David Hendy speaks to Matt Elton about the founding of the BBC in the 1920s, a decade of innovation and ingenuity, on the HistoryExtra podcast
The entrance hall, reached through an imposing set of bronze front doors, was clad in cool marble, creating an aura of sophisticated modernity. The BBC’s new home, proclaimed the Daily Express, was nothing less than the “brain centre of modern civilisation”.
This was a moment for excitement mixed with a growing sense of responsibility, yet there were grumbles from staff – and not just because the corporation was expanding so quickly that even the luxurious Broadcasting House was found to be too small from the beginning.
The corporation was expanding so quickly that even the luxurious Broadcasting House was found to be too small from the beginning
The problem was that the place had an unfamiliar air of stately authority. Every door handle, tap and washbasin was polished daily. A newly designed BBC coat of arms occupied prominent positions around the building. The commissionaires on duty in the entrance hall would stand briskly to attention when the director-general, John Reith, or one of his senior deputies arrived each morning.
There were separate lifts for production staff, artistes and administrators. And the number of planners and accountants seemed to have multiplied overnight. Maurice Gorham, art editor of the Radio Times, wrote of a growing “caste feeling” of separation between those toiling away on the factory floor and a “management” that seemed increasingly detached from the creative process. Broadcasting House, he decided, was simply too “stuck-up for its own good”.
In reality, the move was merely one symbol of a deeper and more complex evolution. There was the sheer growth in output to consider. By May 1932, there were two main networks: the National Programme and the Regional Programme, each usually on air from about 10am to around midnight.
The Regional Programme, as its name suggests, offered a range of “opt-outs” and “opt-ins” in different parts of the country. There were national stations for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland too, and the BBC had even started experimental television transmissions.
Feeding this voracious, ever-expanding schedule required not only more production staff, but more engineers, more clerical staff, more facilities and more paperwork – in short, more bureaucracy. The creative process, joyously ad hoc in the early days at Savoy Hill, had become more practised, professional, regulated and routine.
While all this was going on, the BBC had been moving steadily closer to the institutions of the British ruling elite – the worlds of Westminster and Whitehall, of Lambeth Palace and Sandringham.
One straw in the wind had been the BBC’s awkward role during the General Strike of May 1926. With the national press suddenly shut down, the BBC had lashed together a news team of its own for the first time, and made a half-decent attempt to reflect both sides in the dispute. But the threat by the chancellor of the exchequer, Winston Churchill, to seize control of Savoy Hill and turn it into a partisan mouthpiece of the government had undoubtedly concentrated minds.
It was behind-the-scenes pressure from Downing Street that forced the BBC to deny airtime at crucial moments to Labour Party leader Ramsay MacDonald and the archbishop of Canterbury, despite having allowed prime minister Stanley Baldwin to take to the microphone.
Once the strike was over, John Reith complained volubly about the BBC having been “interfered with”. But he recognised that self-censorship – in effect, being “for” the government in its news coverage, on the basis that the government was on this occasion “for” the nation – was what saved the BBC from being commandeered outright. For him, that was a price worth paying.
The General Strike blurred professional boundaries between broadcaster and officialdom. Nearly two weeks of co-ordination between the Savoy Hill newsroom and the Admiralty Office in Whitehall, where the government’s news operation was based, had seen BBC staff working alongside senior civil servants to draft announcements and vet agency copy. It was a temporary arrangement, but one that Reith’s director of publicity described as a “pleasant association” he wished to see “perpetuated”.
How the BBC’s Empire Service provided “a girdle around the Earth”Only months after decamping to the grandeur of Broadcasting House, the BBC celebrated another momentous step in its rise to international status. On Monday 19 December 1932, the Empire Service (now the World Service) was born, hurling its signal across thousands of miles and in all directions from the powerful new Daventry transmitter.
This new service was an opportunity to keep Britons in what the BBC called “the back of beyond” in touch with their homeland – and for the homeland, in turn, to “diffuse its ideas and culture” to other parts of the globe.
But this was not the first occasion on which the dominions and colonies had been linked to the imperial capital by what the Radio Times called “a girdle around the Earth”: trial short-wave broadcasts to Australia had taken place as early as 1927. There had also been “Empire Day”, an annual event of unbridled jingoism in towns and villages across the country, characterised by speeches, singing and saluting the flag, with schoolchildren, especially, encouraged to celebrate the unquestioned virtues of British colonialism.
Not wishing to be left out, the BBC took the chance to broadcast to home listeners an increasingly elaborate parade of thanksgiving services, traditional songs from around the world, and popular tunes that had “played their part in building and consolidating the empire”.
International link-ups grew into a prominent feature of the BBC’s Christmas Day programming too. In December 1938, with the threat of war hanging over Europe, listeners were sonically whisked around various capitals, from Stockholm to Prague, as they were treated to ancient carols from isolated churches, the swirling sounds of a fairground in Berlin’s Lustgarten and the chatter of a Greek cafe, cheek by jowl with descriptions of family festivities from a Swedish housewife, a German toymaker and a Czech schoolgirl.
The emphasis on the voices of “ordinary men, women and children” was striking – and a welcome reminder that the BBC had not entirely lost its common touch.
There was more going on here than the BBC cosying up with politicians and civil servants. By the early 1930s, the BBC was regularly treating listeners to an annual round of programmes that eavesdropped on the great occasions of respectable civic life: Trooping the Colour, the Lord Mayor’s Banquet, Royal Ascot, the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race, and the National Eisteddfod, for example.
On 15 May 1932 – the very day that Broadcasting House officially opened for business – London listeners heard a British Legion memorial parade relayed from Portsmouth, evensong from a Somerset parish church, and a short talk from Viscount Elibank. The following day, the Prince of Wales unveiled the Somme memorial at Thiepval.
Later that year, there was the first-ever Christmas Day royal broadcast, when a nervous George V sat at his desk in Sandringham to deliver a message to Britain and the empire.
Yet it was hard to resist the impression that the BBC’s growing status involved a growing obsession with its own, somewhat overblown sense of dignity
The technical skills involved in pulling off these occasions were remarkable. Yet it was hard to resist the impression that the BBC’s growing status – and growing centrality to national life – involved a growing obsession with its own, somewhat overblown sense of dignity, along with a preponderance on air of somewhat orthodox middle-class values.
True, there was a concerted effort to accommodate popular taste in the schedule. Listeners could enjoy Gracie Fields in the hit series Music Hall; there was plenty of dance music, football and boxing, plus the occasional documentary about steel workers or coal miners.
But it was clear that Broadcasting House would be a different place to Savoy Hill, and that the BBC of the 1930s would be different from the BBC of 1922. That happy-go-lucky working culture of the early days was gone forever, it seemed, and the pioneers now muttered darkly of “conservative forces” taking control. As it had grown into adulthood, the corporation had also grown into a thoroughly respectable part of the British establishment.
David Hendy is emeritus professor at the University of Sussex. His latest book is The BBC: A People’s History (Profile, 2022)