The recent series The BBC at War provided a fascinating insight into the dilemmas facing the corporation in its first in-depth coverage of a world conflict. Balancing the fine line between war reporting, and maintaining an independent position while remaining loyal to the nation, was one of its first major challenges. As the battle of the airwaves intensified, how the corporation responded to this challenge in the face of hostile propaganda became a formative moment in extending its global influence. In doing so, it drew on an impressive range of broadcasting talents such as Richard Dimbleby and JB Priestley, whose voices – in different ways – brought news and comfort to many at home and abroad.
British journalist Richard Dimbleby, covering the Normandy landings during the Second World War. (Photo by Leonard McCombe/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The distinctive contributions of many of these reporters and commentators have now been forgotten. One of the most prominent, Howard Marshall, the BBC’s director of war reporting, had come to notice in the 1930s with his evocative and lucid cricket commentaries. He would go on to report on the D-Day Normandy landings and the liberation of Paris, and his familiar tones brought home frontline reports. He would later go on to describe the 1953 coronation, before falling into oblivion.
One of Howard Marshall’s protégés at the BBC was Cyril Lakin, who after joining the Empire Service in 1940, became a familiar voice for listeners in the ‘dominions’ (as autonomous countries within the British Empire – including Canada, New Zealand and Australia – were then called), during and after the Blitz. A newspaperman and son of a butcher from Barry, South Wales, Lakin was at the time assistant editor and literary editor of the Sunday Times, then owned by the Kemsley press. A month before war broke out, he had accompanied Lord Kemsley to Germany to meet Hitler and his entourage in a belated and botched attempt at appeasement, whereby British and German newspapers would publish an account of the rival positions. The meeting, according to Leonard Russell in The Pearl of Days, his history of the Sunday Times, shocked Lakin profoundly, as he saw at first hand the full scale of the Nazi threat. It was enough to drive his war-time BBC role as well as a later parliamentary career.
During the Blitz, Lakin moved temporarily to the Hyde Park Hotel, which, despite housing an unexploded bomb in its foyer for several months, proved a respite from the chaos. He was known more for his empathetic editing style rather than his writing skills, and he counted many of the poets and writers of the 1930s among his reviewers. Following this experience, he seemed to make a seamless transition to the airwaves.
In addition to Marshall’s encouragement and that of Michael Barkway, the BBC’s Overseas Service editor, he also benefited from the tips of another broadcasting friend, Ivo Geikie Cobb, a distinguished Harley St surgeon who wrote detective novels under the pseudonym Anthony Weymouth. Geikie Cobb even compiled his own guide to broadcasting, which may have helped Lakin in his early days.
The BBC European Service control room, London, 1943. (Photo by Felix Man/Picture Post/Getty Images)
Lakin found himself in the middle of a propaganda war as Britain came under fire in the Blitz. His response followed the emerging BBC approach, namely to offer a reassuring voice that was straight with the facts and free from illusion about the prospects of victory. His broadcasts were popular and his large audience regarded his ‘quiet tone and humour’ as a lifeline.
Lakin’s influence can be seen in the letters pages of the Western Mail. On Wednesday 20 May 1942, one Australian listener speculated that he was “probably the most quoted man in this country: In every week of life it is: ‘Did you hear what Cyril Lakin said last night?’” On Friday 22 May 1942, another recalled: “During the difficult period after Dunkirk (we) hurried home to hear what Mr Lakin had to say in his news commentary. His grasp of the realities of the situation, his sound forecasts, his humour and his friendly reassurance were qualities which kept us confident.”
In June 1942, Lakin was elected as the Conservative and National Government MP for Llandaff and Barry, his hometown. This election, in which the official opposition stood aside and even the communists told their supporters that Stalin favoured a Lakin victory, propelled him into a short parliamentary career. He did not give up his position at the Sunday Times and politics extended his broadcasting commitments as he became co-presenter, with Labour’s Maurice Webb, of a popular radio programme: Westminster and Beyond. In bringing the opinions of the public into the vicinity of experts and the politicians, the programme foreshadowed later politics shows.
However, he lost his seat in the 1945 Labour landslide, and his promising broadcasting career came to a premature end in 1948, when he died in a car crash in the South of France, at the end of a family holiday. His daughter Bridget, who recently turned 90 and the sole survivor from the wreckage which killed her father, believes he was a natural broadcaster who would have thrived in the later TV era. Lakin is my uncle’s uncle, yet so obscure has he become that he became a forgotten figure even in his only family. I only became fully aware of his story when glancing through the papers of another BBC wartime figure; its former Talks Producer, George Orwell.
Geoff Andrews is the author of The Shadow Man (2015), a biography of the Cambridge communist James Klugmann. In addition to his research on Cyril Lakin, he is also working on a biography of John Cairncross, the so-called fifth man of the Cambridge Spy circle.