Broadcasters at the helm of the BBC
Historian DONALD STANLEY looks at the connections between Beaconsfield and two men who went on to become instrumental to the history of the BBC
BEACONSFIELD has been the home of two pioneers of television broadcasting.
Harrias House in the Old Town was the country mansion of Lord John Reith under whom the BBC was the first broadcaster to offer a regular television service.
One of a row of houses, now shops and offices at the far end of the New Town, was the birthplace of Norman Collins, a leader of the movement that ended the BBC’s broadcasting monopoly.
The contrast between their two homes was reflected in their very different personalities.
John Reith was a son of the Scottish manse who began his career as an engineering apprentice. Wounded early in the First World War he was sent to the USA where he supervised armament contracts. In 1922 he was appointed General Manager of the British Broadcasting Company, forerunner of the BBC, which had been formed by a group of electrical manufacturers to meet the demand for organised broadcasting for their sound receivers.
Reith left the BBC, which he ‘ruled with a hand of granite’, and in 1940 was appointed Minister of Information. This was shortly before Norman joined the corporation initially as a probationary talks assistant rising to become post-war head of television which he left in 1950 to campaign to end its television broadcasting monopoly. He was frustrated by the BBC’s failure to accept the need for television to develop independently of radio.
In contrast, Reith saw the Corporation’s monopoly as the only way it could uphold its standards saying in the Lords: “Somebody introduced smallpox, bubonic plague and the Black Death.
“Somebody is now minded to introduce sponsored broadcasting.”
In conjunction with Lord (Lew) Grade, Norman applied successfully for the weekday Midlands television franchise and for London at weekends.
The results of the 1922 General Election had been the first to be broadcast on radio. Nearly 40 years later Norman coached Prime Ministers Macmillan, Douglas-Home and Heath for their television appearances.
Norman had many interests in the world of entertainment and elsewhere and was much in demand as a member or chairman of organisations as diverse as the Royal Television Society, National Playing Fields Association and even an investigation into the Loch Ness Monster. Before going to bed at night he would draft exactly five pages of whichever of his best sellers he was writing at the time, which included ‘London belongs to Me’.
Pioneers: Lord Reith in 1967. Above left, Broadcasting House, home of the BBC from 1932