This article was first published in the March 2018 issue of BBC History Magazine
Life’s rich tapestry
By the dawn of the 1930s, radio was bringing the entire world to listeners’ living rooms
“I am just an ordinary housewife with little time for reading at my disposal, but I do look forward to a quiet hour or so… As I thread my needle, I may hear that I am to visit an African village, look at flowers or insects with that ‘inner eye’, or sing myself breathless in Sir Walford’s ‘cross-country run’.” These words – taken from a letter to the Radio Times‘ weekly Selections from the Editor’s Post Bag – capture perfectly radio’s power to fire listeners’ imaginations, as this still relatively new form of mass communication entered the 1930s.
Selections from the Editor’s Post Bag presented the whole gamut of readers’ views – the only qualification was that they adhered to principles of good taste and free speech. One editor named it a “Marble Arch corner in print”.
Not all correspondence was complimentary. One irate lieutenant-colonel listed “glaring mistakes” in the 1933 military radio play The Fantastic Battle.
Despite such quibbles, by the 1930s more and more listeners were praising radio’s educational value – especially when it was aimed at children. Programmes covering not only music, literature and science, but also practical and imaginative material, did much to prepare pupils for life after school, as well as broaden their horizons.
Throughout the decade, Britain’s biggest names sprinkled their stardust on TV and radio
In 1933, philosopher and social reformer Bertrand Russell debated with the headmaster of Eton the perennial question: “Should the Public Schools Be Abolished?” It was a debate of such importance that the Radio Times devoted its front cover to it.
Radio was enabling Britons to engage with the ideas of some of the country’s greatest thinkers. They were also engaging with the country’s leading entertainers – and not just on the radio. From 1936, people living in close proximity to Alexandra Palace in north London could watch regular weekday entertainment programmes via the new medium of television.
Just as radio had done before it, some of television’s earliest broadcasts showcased the works of Shakespeare, with performances by acclaimed actors such as Yvonne Arnaud and Henry Oscar.
Soon celebrity culture had also reached the pages of the Radio Times, with The Stars at Their Firesides (1938) giving listeners tantalising details about the home decor of famous performers.
Radio’s crowning glory
From horse racing to George VI’s coronation, outside broadcasts presented programme-makers with a whole new set of challenges
By the time the Radio Times reached its 10th anniversary issue in 1933, few people could believe that only a decade had passed since the BBC’s birth, so closely entwined had radio become with the nation’s cultural and social life.
Yet the enduring novelty of broadcasting is preserved in the Radio Times’ regular articles on matters such as the new facilities in Broadcasting House, which opened in 1932, and the technical challenges presented by outside broadcasts from theatres, cricket pitches and race tracks.
A case in point is the coronation of King George VI in May 1937, dubbed “the most difficult broadcast ever attempted by the BBC”. So arduous was it that the Radio Times regaled readers with three pages of notes on how coverage of the day’s events were to be transmitted – from the location of the microphones in Westminster Abbey and the TV cameras at Hyde Park Corner to the responsibilities of engineers in the control rooms. The mechanics of broadcasting were clearly thought to be of equal interest as essays on the actual content of programmes, such as Edwin Evans’ exploration of Coronation Music Through the Ages.
But it was not all serious. Up for t’Coronation, a fictional piece in the voice of radio character Sarah Brown, puts a light-hearted spin on the royal ceremony. Sarah narrates her experience of seeing the procession in person: “Ah yelled wi’ all my might. Ah felt fair shamed after, but by gum, Polly Ann, nowt like that ever ‘appened to me before.”
A voice for the unemployed
Early radio reflected the social conscience of a nation by highlighting the plight of the less fortunate
From its inception, BBC radio has covered the hottest political topics of the day. And, in the early 1930s – with the world economy plunged into depression, and the numbers of jobless soaring – no topic was hotter than that of unemployment.
In 1932, as thousands of workers participated in a series of hunger marches, the BBC invited Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald to speak on The Nation and the Unemployed. Within weeks, the future Edward VIII had opened SOS, a new talks series on voluntary schemes across the country helping those out of work. The Radio Times listing for SOS includes a photograph of the prince in a street “in the industrial north” with rows of capped and seated men.
More practical programmes for the unemployed included the four-month series New Ways for Hard Times (1932), which offered advice on growing vegetables and rearing chickens in backyards, gardens and allotments.
In 1935, the BBC’s Question Time talks encouraged listeners to write to Broadcasting House with questions for the National Council of Social Service on matters such as housing and unemployment benefit. The Radio Times reported that a thousand letters a week landed in its postbags while the service was running.
Keep calm and tune in
With the Second World War raging, radio came into its own as a conduit between the government and the people
On 3 September 1939, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain delivered one of the most famous radio broadcasts in British history, taking to the air to announce that the country was at war with Germany.
The Radio Times was quick to mobilise its resources in the wake of this fateful news. A day later, it published a supplementary issue, leading with the slogan: “Broadcasting carries on!” And so it did. The BBC had been planning for this moment for a year, in full awareness that broadcasting would be the primary means of communication in wartime.
Programme production immediately left London, with variety shows moving to one city, orchestras to another and dramatic actors elsewhere. The BBC also implemented a new wartime schedule, featuring news on the hour and urgent instruction on first aid. For all that, many of the old favourites – such as The Children’s Hour – survived.
Leading writers such as Louis Mac-Neice joined Laurence Gilliam’s BBC Features and Drama departments to write and produce “morale-boosting” pieces. One such piece was The Shadow of the Swastika, documenting the Nazis’ rise to power from 1919. The Radio Times was careful to note that this series, written in consultation with Oxford historian EL Woodward, drew on “authentic facts, speeches, and documents”, so distinguishing it from Hitler’s propaganda machine.
In the closing months of 1939, the Radio Times was packed with references to gas masks and black-outs. The final issue of the decade even announced the launch of a series of special programmes – on everything from music to sport – designed for the armed forces. In that same issue, the Radio Times declared its intention to bring the year to a close in a “spirit of cheerful determination”.
The last broadcast on BBC radio before the midnight service on New Year’s Eve was titled The Face of Courage. The Nazis may have been on the front foot, but Britain would not be silenced.
Amanda Wrigley is a cultural historian at the University of Reading. Her books include Greece on Air: Engagements with Ancient Greece on BBC Radio, 1920s-1960s (OUP, 2015).
For more on the Radio Times (which is published by the same company as BBC History Magazine), go to radiotimes.com
Amanda Wrigley took part in a discussion of Radio Times history on Radio 4’s PM programme – click here to listen.
The BBC Genome Project has put details of thousands of programmes broadcast between 1923 and 2009 online – click here to find out more.