Black Country Bugle
MARION MCMULLEN looks at how the BBC first took to the airwaves 100 years ago
THERE was drama, variety, talks, children’s programmes, popular and classical music, but radio listeners had to wait until after 7pm to hear the news... to avoid a clash with the newspapers.
John Reith, the BBC’S founding father, had a vision of an independent British broadcaster able to “educate, inform and entertain” the whole nation, free from political interference and commercial pressure.
He was the BBC’S first Director General and wrote down in one short memo his view of journalistic impartiality – “Give both sides”.
The BBC radio call sign “This is London calling, 2LO calling ...” was first heard 100 years ago and by November 14, 1922, more than a million ten shilling (50p) licences had been issued.
Listening to the wireless quickly became one of the nation’s favourite pastimes. People listened at home at first on primitive “crystal” sets with the help of a cat’s whisker wire which was moved until it made the best contact with the crystal. The radio signal could then be picked up on earphones. More advanced sets followed and by the 1930s there were mains powered sets contained in Bakelite cases.
Announcers were required to wear evening dress to read the news and Stuart Hibberd, one of the early presenters, recalled: “I remember more than once the engineers said that my shirt front creaked during the reading.”
The Big Ben time signals and the Greenwich “pips” were heard for the first time in 1924. An early piece of radio magic was an outside broadcast featuring a nightingale singing to the accompaniment of cellist Beatrice Harrison.
Daily transmissions were first broadcast from Marconi House in London. There were also transmissions from Birmingham – call sign 5IT – and Manchester with the call sign 2ZY.
King George V was first heard on radio during a broadcast from the British Empire Exhibition of 1924. The speech was relayed on loudspeakers outside major department stores and the crowds were so large that they stopped the traffic.
The first superstars of radio were the “aunts” and “uncles” who presented Children’s Hour. These included Arthur Burrows, who was
known to young listeners as Uncle Arthur and who also read the BBC’S first news bulletin.
There was also Uncle Caractacus (Cecil Lewis), Auntie Cyclone (Kathleen Garscadden) and Uncle Mac (Derek Mcculloch).
Children’s Hour was so popular that the young Princess Elizabeth gave her first broadcast to the nation
on the show in 1940. She spoke from Windsor Castle with her sister Princess Margaret by her side.
Good taste and decency was high on the Beeb’s agenda from the start and comedians overstepped the mark at their peril. John Watt, the BBC’S head of variety in the 30s, pointed out: “It is said that there are only six jokes in the world, and I can assure you that we can only broadcast three of them.”
A total of 98% of the country was “listening in” to the BBC by the end of the 1930s and nearly nine million licences had been issued.
Gustav Holtz became the first composer to be commissioned by the BBC in 1927 and King George V
gave the first Christmas message in 1932 - it was scripted by Jungle Book writer Rudyard Kipling.
There were some hiccups along the way. BBC commentator and exnavy man Tommy Woodroofe ran into trouble during one broadcast. He had been treated to some generous hospitality aboard his old ship before starting his broadcast from the 1935 Spithead Naval Review with the words: “The Fleet’s lit up... when I say lit up I mean lit up by fairy lights. Is lit up by fairy lights .... ” He slurred on for some minutes more. He was suspended from his job for six weeks.
The decade also saw the birth of the BBC’S Television Services from Alexandra Palace in London. Singer Adele Dixon described the 1936 opening saying “a mighty maze of mystic magic rays is all about us in the blue”. John Reith had little enthusiasm for the new medium and noted in his diary: “To Alexandra Palace for the television opening... I had declined to be televised or take part.”
He later called television “an awful snare”.
Richard Dimbleby was at Heston Airport in 1938 to report for both radio and television on Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain’s return after his meeting with Adolf Hitler in Munich.
Sadly, Chamberlain’s hopes for ‘peace for our time’ would be dashed. Television was shut down in 1939 and radio’s national and regional programmes were replaced by the Home Service as the BBC prepared for new wartime roles on the home front and the battlefield.
A Mickey Mouse cartoon was being shown when the television service was suddenly blacked out for security reasons on September 1, 1939. The same cartoon was shown when television returned on June 8, 1946.