Changing times: 90 years of the Radio Times
Celebrating 90 years since the BBC published the first issue of our sister title, the Radio Times, Sheldon Hall explores what five of the magazine's covers tell us about both the history of British broadcasting and popular culture
23 October 1936
If truth be told, most prewar Radio Times covers were a little dull, as if a magazine covering a sound medium scarcely needed a visual component. But, for what the BBC’s deputy director-general called “this fascinating new development by which sights as well as sounds can be broadcast”, something novel was needed. The world’s first regular high-definition (compared to earlier systems) TV service was heralded with a special edition featuring a strikingly abstract cover design by Eric Fraser. It shrieks modernity. What matter that early broadcasts were for two hours a day, with a rest on Sundays? So what if the service was limited to a 25-mile radius around Alexandra Palace? A “new art” had to start somewhere and transmissions began on 2 November 1936.
Counter-claims that the German post office got there first have been convincingly quashed – the Beeb boldly went where no broadcasters had gone before and Fraser’s avant-garde graphic pointed the way.
Christmas under fire
20 December 1940
In his spoken foreword to the 1942 Crown Film Unit documentary Listen to Britain, Leonard Brockington describes “the BBC, sending truth on its journey around the world”. A modern commentator might speak more cautiously, but in the context of total war against fascism the phrase has real resonance. So too does this 1940 Christmas cover, among the most topically charged of any festive edition.
The message of keeping calm and carrying on could scarcely be more economically conveyed than by having Santa wear a steel helmet while dispensing reassurance – or perhaps sending truth on its journey.
26 February 1960
The lad ’imself embodies the synthesis of media that is the BBC. Born of radio, Anthony Aloysius Hancock (Tony Hancock’s fictional alter ego) and his Half Hour later transferred to television, thereby providing the model for virtually every TV situation comedy that followed. It is said that streets and pubs emptied when Hancock’s Half Hour came on, and that is easy to believe. Not every episode of the television series has survived, but those that have were among the few pre-colour programmes that could be successfully revived at peak time in later decades.
This cover portrait, one of the most prized among collectors of the magazine, was itself revived by the Radio Times in 1985 to mark a profile of the star on the arts documentary Omnibus. Its first appearance in 1960 announced the start of what was to be the last series of Hancock’s show in its original format, after which he had his co-star and rival for laughter, the Carry On mainstay Sid James (inset picture), excised from the scripts.
Green and pleasant land
14 July 1977
The annual promenade concerts – the BBC Proms – have perhaps received more Radio Times covers than any other single programme. Iconographic repetition has inevitably crept in over the years, but this 1977 image condenses three distinctive symbols of British life and culture. One is of course the Royal Albert Hall, with all its connotations of the artistic establishment, heritage traditions and patriotic deference. Another is the rolling rural landscape, unsullied by signs of industry or modern living.
But the third is the Radio Times itself, in what is for me its definitive incarnation, with the italicised masthead, elegant white border and thin inset frame lines characteristic of the magazine in the 1970s and early 1980s. The cover template for this period is a design classic – in its refinement, simplicity, order and balance. At a time when Radio Times was the official organ of the BBC, and TV Times that of the brash commercial competitor ITV, there was no mistaking which was which.
11 November 1999
In selecting these cover images, I set myself three restrictions: no soaps, no sport, no royals. I might have added no Doctor Who, but the resurgence of what was formerly a children’s teatime show with residual cult appeal is impossible to ignore. It is the BBC’s success story of the millennium, its new flagship for Saturday night and Christmas Day, and a Radio Times feature subject of great regularity. This 1999 cover actually preceded that revival, marking a BBC Two theme night devoted to the memory of a series that then seemed to have run its course. But in popular culture there is no such thing as a dead concept, only a dormant one, and the Doctor’s reincarnation(s) will surely remain with us for the foreseeable future. The Daleks too refuse to lie down: they stand for Doctor Who’s idiosyncratic, peculiarly British, blend of fantasy, horror and adventure.
Dr Sheldon Hall is a senior lecturer in film studies at Sheffield Hallam University