Project Update

We’re entering a particularly busy time in the life of the Connected Histories of the BBC project. This month’s blog focusses on some of our upcoming events.

The BBC Studio in Delhi © BBC

Digital User Group Meeting

The Digital User Group (DUG) consists of experts in digital archiving, and meets regularly to provide support and assistance for the project. The DUG will be meeting in March and will be looking at the proposed data models, tagging and data structures for the database we are developing in order to make the BBC Oral History Archive more easily available to the public.

Project Advisory Board

The Project Advisory Board (PAB) consists of academics, project partners and industry experts. The PAB meets annually to review the progress of the project, and to provide advice where needed. The PAB will be meeting at the University of Sussex in July.

New Interviews

We’re delighted that Elisabeth Robson Elliot, the former head of the BBC’s Russian Service, has agreed to be interviewed for the project. We plan to use excerpts for the next version of the 100 Voices websites, which will focus on War. Bridget Kendall, the former Diplomatic correspondent of the BBC, and now the first female head of Peterhouse, has also agreed to be interviewed for the project. We’re excited to hear what they can tell us about their experiences working for the BBC. We have identified three other individuals who we are approaching to be interviewed this year. Previous interviewees have included Lorna Clarke; Tony Blackburn; Johnny Beerling; Annie Nightingale; Mike Phillips; Satish Jacob and Mark Tully.

100 Voices That Made the BBC websites

Alban Webb and David Hendy are reading through transcripts of the BBC oral history collection in preparation for the next ‘100 Voices’ website. Due for launch in September,  the new website will focus on what the BBC’s archives can tell us about its role in the Second World War, and the Cold War. The website will feature exclusive extracts from the BBC Oral History Archives, and give an insight into war reporting. We will also include footage from the new interviews we will be filming in the coming months.

Public Event

An important part of the project is collecting memories from members of the public. In the summer, we are planning another public event, which will showcase the new website, and offer an opportunity for the team to collect memories. Please sign up to our mailing list to receive updates, and copies of our news releases. We are also on Twitter: @ConnHistofBBC

Denice Penrose,
Project Administrator

Why oral history? The BBC and the challenge of memory

Introspective, sometimes confessional, the 650+ filmed interviews with former staff in an ongoing oral history of the BBC contrast dramatically with the broadcaster’s lustrous front face. But for anyone wanting to understand the policies, people, direction and self-image of a broadcaster so uniquely powerful and respected, they are a treasure trove.

Frank Gillard in Germany, May 1945 © BBC

Former war correspondent, later BBC executive Frank Gillard’s inspired decision in 1971 to interview retiring staff anticipated the rise of ‘corporate oral history’. Today, recordings of the memories – and voices – of employees at all levels are recognised as valuable additions to the business archive, enhancing our understanding of a company’s development and culture.

Oral history has often been seen as appropriate for community or family projects. and has distinguished itself as a method of choice for socialists, feminists, and working class historians, giving ‘history back to the people in their own words’, as Paul Thompson put it in The Voice of the Past. Rob Perks, the British Library’s oral history curator, considers that oral history’s radical origins have tended to make it ‘ideologically averse’ to business history. Yet the growth of corporate oral histories has extended the method’s boundaries, both in the business world and in big public enterprises such as the BBC. It’s obvious that businesses and big bureaucracies have their own stories to tell – from founder-entrepreneurs making good, to the politics of growth, acquisitions and mergers, to struggles for survival in a world of constant change, from internet shopping to austerity and globalisation. Yet when a business or enterprise hits its centenary, as the BBC will do in 2022, oral history can reveal the secrets of endurance, or help turn heritage into brand.

Mark Tully & Satish Jacob 2018 © Connected Histories of the BBC

The BBC is of course an extraordinary corporation, with a compelling history. Advantaged through subsidy by licence, it has always needed to balance competing demands as entertainer, educator, journalist and civil servant. Oral history can convey what it has felt like to live with these exceptional responsibilities, taking us into the world of digitisation and the transformation of public expectations and demands. The pride, pleasure, anxiety and frustration of doing all of this and more, are audible in many recordings. Listening for these, particularly where they reflect organisational dissension and change – such as Director General John Birt’s internal market reforms – helps us negotiate the risks of ‘vanity’ history when institutions interview their great and good. The Connected Histories of the BBC [CH-BBC] project is frankly exploring internal differences and minority voices, and the social contexts in which the corporation lives. This includes new oral histories, independent of the BBC’s existing collection. An interview with Mark Tully, former Bureau Chief in Delhi, for example, who resigned in protest at Birt’s changes, offers the perspective of a once powerful BBC insider.

Mike Phillips, spotted for Open Door in the 1970s as a commentator on Caribbean affairs, offers another angle, reflecting on the BBC’s struggle to adjust itself to multicultural Britishness. Phillips supports the case that there were BBC people who pushed for greater equality in content, but also testifies to the deeply personal struggles this could entail. At times, BBC programmes on national identity were far more open and progressive than the conservative, inward-looking oral history interviews with top management.

Oral history’s unreliability as retrospection drawn out through the biases of particular interviewers is of course a long-standing complaint made by traditional, document-based historians. Certainly, the CH-BBC draws on the rich store of letters, programme materials and related archival items to test and triangulate what is remembered and recounted. But oral history has an advantage as a medium of sound and feeling over the written record. Further, the mythologizing elements of memory – for example, the BBC World Service as a friendly Tower of Babel – can be pressed for analysis. At its peak, the World Service broadcast in 45 languages including a Welsh service transmitting to Patagonia, and Portuguese for Jersey, targeting the ex-patriate staff working in the island’s hotels. Yet as this incredible service has been forced to retrench, in the context of the arguably greater babble of the internet, the meaning behind the fall of the Tower of Babel takes on more significance.

Thus the oral history of the BBC joins the emerging critical corporate history archive which includes Tesco, Barings, the National Trust and the British Book Trade. Common themes touch on personal careers as part of a collective development and culture, and illuminating too the larger context of ‘long economic downturn’ and financialisation, the speeding pace of production and audit trails. Yet the BBC’s willingness to open up and work with historians and curators to share these voices is itself the best signal that this is a history of the future as much as the past. Here, through opening and connecting the archive, corporate memory will meet community memory, inviting us all to share our own stories of a business which remains a way of life as well as a cherished national institution.

Margaretta Jolly

CI to the project

Margaretta Jolly. Image Credit © Tom Reeves

100 Voices that Made the BBC: Pioneering Women

Lorna Clarke Speaks with David Hendy –
© Connected Histories of the BBC

As part of the AHRC-Connected Histories of the BBC, Saturday1st December 2018 saw the launch of the fifth in the series of BBC websites, 100 Voices that Made the BBC.

Pioneering Women is published to coincide with the centenary of women’s suffrage in the UK, and explores the contribution that women have made to shaping close to 100 years of British broadcasting.

The website includes a large number of clips from programmes which have not been seen or heard since they were first broadcast several decades ago. There are also numerous extracts from interviews, as well as photographs and written documents that are being made publicly available for the very first time.

Highlights include: 

  • BBC journalist Martha Kearney (presenter of Today on BBC 4) reflects on the inspiring career of the BBC’s first female war correspondent Audrey Russell.
  • The surprising story that in its earliest decades, the BBC was at the forefront of employers who promoted equal opportunities and equal pay for women. Documents reveal the determination of the first Director-General John Reith that women and men “should rank on the same footing” and should be equally eligible for promotion. 
  • Documents revealing that the BBC was one of the first organisations to introduce maternity leave – this was in 1929, and it was in order to retain the services of the Mary Somerville, who headed the School Broadcasting department.
  • In the year that has seen the appearance of the first female Doctor, the website celebrates the pioneering composer Delia Derbyshire of the Radiophonic Workshop, who was responsible for the extraordinary arrangement of Doctor Who’s theme tune.
  • Photographs, footage and interviews with other women of the Radiophonic Workshop including Daphne Oram, Maddalena Fagandini, and Elizabeth Parker, the sound designer for cult TV series Blake’s 7.
  • A specially recorded interview with the first female DJ on Radio 1, and the first female presenter of the Old Grey Whistle Test, Annie Nightingale, who talks about facing sexist attitudes in broadcasting, and how moving from journalism to radio allowed her to concentrate on what really mattered – the music.
  • A specially recorded interview with Lorna Clarke, Head of Production for Radio 2 and 6 Music, who discusses the equal pay dispute.
  • A unique BBC love story between the BBC’s first telephonist Olive May and engineer Cecil Bottle, which provoked John Reith to reprimand the head of engineering for letting it happen!
  • The story of Muriel Howlett, an Australian who was working as a typist in the BBC newsroom when John Reith asked her to report from on board the first flying-boat service from England to Australia in 1938.
  • A specially recorded interview with Dame Jenni Murray, presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, giving her personal response to the archive material being released on this website. Dame Jenni reflects on the pioneering BBC women who inspire her, including Audrey Russell, Mary Somerville and Hilda Matheson; and talks about her experiences of sexism in the1970s; and being a “member of the #metoo brigade”.
  • Interviews with women who became broadcasting engineers during the Second World War, and excelled in roles previously only occupied by men.
    Recorded interviews with important presenters and producers including Olive Shapley, Gillian Hush, Monica Sims, Yvonne Littlewood, Zena Skinner, Margaret Dale, and Susan Belbin.
  • A television interview from a 1954 edition of Mainly for Women, with the Indian politician and diplomat, Lakshmi Pandit.
  • There is also a section called ‘Share Your Memories’ where you can upload your own thoughts and recollections as a viewer and listener to these BBC programmes.- 

The text has been written by Dr Kate Murphy (Bournemouth)and Dr Jeannine Baker (Macquarie University, Australia), with guest contributions from other academics, including Professor Lucy Robinson (Sussex),Dr Sejal Sutaria (Grinnell College, Iowa), Dr David Butler (Manchester), Dr Emma Sandon (Birkbeck), Kate Terkanian (Bournemouth), Professor Helen Wood(Leicester), as well as Martha Kearney (BBC). 

Previous websites in the 100 Voices that Made the BBC series can be found at:

They include websites about the race and identity, the history of elections broadcasting, the birth of television, and the reinvention of radio in the 1960s. These websites also include a large number of programme clips, interviews, photographs, documents, and transcripts for download.

The 100 Voices that Made the BBC series is part of the AHRC-funded Connected Histories of the BBC project based at the University of Sussex and running from 2017 to 2021. 

Jeannine Baker

December 2018

Website Launched- 100 Voices that made the BBC: People, Nation, Empire

The BBC has opened up its archives, to explore how TV and radio have understood and covered race, immigration, British identity, and nation across the twentieth century.

As part of the AHRC-Connected Histories of the BBC, the fourth in a series of BBC websites, 100 Voices that Made the BBC, has been released. It’s called People, Nation, Empire. Published to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush and the King’s formal renunciation of the title of Emperor of India, it explores how the BBC has tried to re-imagine itself in the multicultural and postimperial age – how it’s grappled over the years with the wider issue of who exactly gets to speak on air and who exactly gets to appear on screen. You can see it here

The website includes a large number of clips from programmes not seen since first broadcast several decades ago, as well as lots of interview recordings, photographs and written documents that are being made publicly available for the very first time through this website.

Subjects covered include:

  • the history of programmes addressing race and immigration
  • pioneering access television in the 1970s
  • broadcasting’s role in fostering Caribbean literature
  • the BBC in India
  • the World Service as a cultural melting-pot
  • portrayals of ‘the North’
  • religious broadcasting in a multi-faith world
  • the history of programming about LGBTQ+ issues.

As well as viewing clips and interviews, you can download and keep selected transcripts of interviews recorded with BBC pioneers and kept in the Corporation’s oral history archive.

You can also download important and previously unavailable documents from the BBC’s Written Archive Centre, which help reveal the inside story of the BBC.

Highlights include:

  • BBC news bulletins from the day the Empire Windrush arrived in 1948
  • Rare clips and images of African-American and Black British performers on pre-war and post-war BBC television.
  • Documents revealing the behind-the-scenes story of how and why the BBC launched programmes for ‘Asian immigrants’ in 1965.
  • Clips of, among others, Paul Robeson, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, Derek Walcott, George Lamming, Louise Bennett, and John Figueroa speaking on the BBC.
  • Clips from pioneering dramas and documentaries dealing with immigration and cultural identity: A Man from the Sun (1956), Special Enquiry (1955), Morning in the Streets (1960), Fable (1965), Black Christmas (1977), Empire Road (1978)
  • The very first episode of Make Yourself at Home, the BBC’s TV programme for Asian immigrants launched in 1965.
  • Specially recorded location-interviews with the veteran Indian correspondents Satish Jacob and Mark Tully, discussing the role of the BBC in India and its reporting of key events such as the storming of the Golden Temple at Amritsar and the premiership of Indira Gandhi.
  • A specially recorded interview with the novelist and broadcaster Mike Phillips, discussing the challenges of being a black reporter at the BBC in the 1970s.
  • Documents and interviews asking why The Black and White Minstrel Show was still being broadcast in 1978.
  • Extended clips from two early episodes of Open Door, the BBC’s radical 1970s experiment in ‘access TV’ – one by a group of Black London teachers, the other by the ‘Transex Liberation Group’ – alongside interviews and documents revealing the origins of the series.
  • Documents from Mass Observation revealing British attitudes about race and immigration since 1939.
  • The story of Una Marson, the BBC’s first black producer, who developed broadcasting to the Caribbean during the Second World War – including the earliest known recording of her, and newly-available documentary evidence of why she left the BBC in 1946.
  • Programme scripts from the pioneering series Caribbean Voices, including the first appearance of a poem by Samuel Selvon.
  • Vivid portraits of the life and culture of the BBC’s ‘North Region’ before and after the war, through freshly-released interviews with Olive Shapley, Yvonne Adamson, Alfred Bradley, and John Snagge.
  • Intimate descriptions of life among international broadcasters working at Bush
    House during and after the Second World War.
  • A frank account from the former head of religious broadcasting, Colin Morris, about disagreements between the BBC and the established churches over the direction of multi-faith programming in the 1960s and 1970s.
  • Clips of early episodes from pioneering children’s TV series such as The Flowerpot Men (1952), Playschool (1971), Grange Hill (1978), and recorded interviews telling the inside story of their creation.
  • A timeline of key events in the BBC’s attempts to represent sexual diversity since 1957, including clips from This Time of Day-Lesbianism (1965), Man Alive-Consenting Adults (1967), Open Door (1973), Gaytime TV (1995), and other key documentaries from the 1960s through to 2017.
  • A filmed recording of John Agard performing his poem Grey, from the Video Nation series – part of the BBC’s marking of the fiftieth anniversary in 1998 of the arrival of Windrush.
  • A specially recorded interview with the broadcaster Samira Ahmed, giving her
    personal response to the archive material being released on this website.

Full transcripts from the BBC’s Oral History archive being made available here for the first time include: Olive Shapley, Alfred Bradley, Ted Wilkinson, Yvonne Adamson, David Waine, Colin Morris, and Owen Reed.

There is also a section called ‘Share Your Memories’ where you can upload your own
thoughts and recollections as a viewer and listener to these BBC programmes.


The text has been written by David Hendy and Alban Webb from the School of Media, Film and Music at the University of Sussex, with guest contributions from other media historians, including Aasiya Lodhi (Westminster), Jeannine Baker (Macquarie), James Procter (Newcastle), Jamie Medhurst (Aberystwyth), and John Escolme (BBC).

Previous websites in the 100 Voices that Made the BBC series can be found here. They include websites about the history of elections broadcasting, the birth of television, and the reinvention of radio in the 1960s. These websites also include a large number of programme clips, interviews, photographs, documents, and transcripts for download.

The 100 Voices that Made the BBC series is part of the AHRC-funded Connected Histories of the BBC project based at the University of Sussex and running from 2017 to 2021. For background, see here.

David Hendy,
University of Sussex
Wednesday 18 July 2018