The BBC: A People’s History by the Connected Histories of the BBC project’s founding director David Hendy was published on 27 January 2022 by Profile Books Ltd. Based on many of the unique oral histories that the CH-BBC project is helping to bring to public view, it is the only BBC-authorised centenary history book and traces the BBC from its maverick beginnings through war, the creation of television, changing public tastes, austerity, and massive cultural change.
The BBC has constantly evolved, developing from one radio station, to television, then multiple channels and now the competition with the internet and streaming services. The BBC: A People’sHistoryis a history of a now global institution that defines Britain and created modern broadcasting; it is also a reflection of 100 years of British history.
Hendy’s history not only complements Asa Briggs’s five-volume oeuvre on BBC’s history by dealing with a much longer period but takes a different ‘bottom up’ approach rather than an institutional one, by focusing on the people’s stories: on oral histories from former staff, as found in BBC Oral History Archive, as well as on audience accounts and reactions on BBC’s presence/programmes in the public sphere of mid-twentieth-century Britain.
Hendy’s book tells not an institutional history but mainly people’s stories about setting up, staffing, advancing their careers, making friends and enemies, struggling and flourishing within an institution. It also tells people’s stories about the transformative cultural, educational and informational dimension of having the BBC as background throughout their lives.
All in all, The BBC: A People’s Historyhelps tracing the public understanding of the BBC’s own rich and complex past, and especially its role in a society and culture in constant change. This brilliantly-written account of the BBC’s history, that has already gathered many reviews and has gone recently into the top ten of the UK’s non-fiction charts, makes the BBC looks as much of a National Treasure as the NHS, that, using Hendy’s concluding words, “we sometimes never know just how much we need or want [it] until it’s gone” (Hendy 2022, 571). And such a contribution can’t be more timely, just weeks after the announcement of the new five-year licence fee deal before deciding on a new funding model for the BBC and on its future altogether.
Celebrating 100 years of the BBC, David Hendy’s book complements a brilliant series of digital resources. These include 100 voices that made the BBC, which includes many tantalising oral history clips in stories including on war, nation, pioneering women and entertainment.
We are proud to recommend David’s wonderful book!
‘A fascinating and informative account of the BBC’s first 100 years’ Daily Telegraph
‘A dramatic tale of innovation and determination’ Guardian
‘A masterpiece … this is the authoritative, much-needed history of the BBC’s first century’ David Kynaston, historian and Visiting Professor at Kingston University
I wear many hats, and aside from working on the Connected Histories of the BBC project (CHBBC), I am an English teacher. As the project develops, and new archive materials are released, I’m fascinated by the wealth of resources on offer, and feel profoundly privileged to read materials ahead of their release. Today’s blog highlights some aspects of the “100 Voices that Made the BBC” websites that we are creating for the BBC as part of this project, and how they can be used in teaching.
Our overarching aim in the project is working to make the archive materials from the BBC’s oral history collection available to the public. The “100 Voices” websites represent just one part of our work, offering the public some tantalising glimpses of the BBC’s collections, while, behind-the-scenes, we slowly get on with creating a database which will provide access to a huge range of materials. Each edition of “100 Voices” is built around a theme, and includes audio and video clips, documents, news bulletins and interviews from those who witnessed major events. For teachers, this is an incredible, rich archive of primary sources that can be used to broaden understanding of topics, and supplement lessons. They also provide an opportunity for students who are doing independent research to access primary sources of information.
Andrea Levy’s brilliant novel ”Small Island”, which appears in the A Level literature syllabus of several exam boards, tells the story of Jamaican immigrants trying to adjust to life in England. In “100 Voices that Made the BBC: People, Nation, Empire”, there is a section called “Caribbean Voices”. It talks about how the BBC provided programming for those living in the Caribbean, and includes a film clip from a 1944 cinema newsreel, “West Indies Calling” about some of those who came over to help with the war effort. “Caribbean Voices” gives some insight into the development of programmes for those new arrivals to British shores. Clips from the programmes are available, and allow us to see the types of programming that Andrea Levy’s Queenie and Hortense may have listened to, before arriving here.
Monica Ali’s book “Brick Lane”, another A-level text, talks about the life of Nazneen, a Bangladeshi woman who moves to London. Another part of the “100 Voices” websites focuses on the role of the BBC in India, charting the programming available to those in India both in the days of the British Empire, and after independence. In interviews recorded specially for this project, Mark Tully and Satish Jacob share their eye witness accounts of some of the major political changes that took place such as the declaration of a State of Emergency by the Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1975, the attack on the Golden Temple, Operation Blue Star, and the creation of Bangladesh in 1971.
These clips and accounts give valuable insights into the background of some of the literature in the A level curriculum, and provide material that can be used to contribute to the understanding of the novels’ context.
Cultural Change and Development of Language
A significant part of the study of the English language, and of cultural change, includes study of how language changes and develops over time, and the influence of different cultures and pronunciations. Scattered throughout the “100 Voices” websites are interviews showing how the BBC adapted with the times, moving from the BBC’s use of modified ‘Received Pronunciation’ to the use of local voices and dialects. An example of this is in the section called “London Calling” which features a clip from an interview from “Women’s Hour” in 1976, with the Jamaican poet Louise Bennett. She was one of the first regular performers on “Calling the West Indies” after the war. This clip represented a radical departure from the usual BBC style which can be heard in other clips, such as that of John Snagge.
In particular, “100 Voices, People Nation and Empire” focuses on how Britain began the process of adapting to its multi-cultural and post-Imperial status, and the challenges the BBC faced in representing the changing nature of its audiences. This edition of “100 Voices” includes a clip from the opening edition of the documentary trilogy, “Windrush”, produced by Trevor Phillips. There are clips from some of the earliest BBC programmes for immigrants, such as “Make Yourself at Home,” and programmes that allowed regional and marginalized voices to be heard. Olive Shapley talks about how armed with mobile recording van, she was able to get out of the studio, and interview people going about their everyday lives in the streets. The main image on our project website is Olive Shapley with Mrs Emerson in the colliery village of Craghead, County Durham BBC North Region in 1939.
Broadcasting interviews like this represented a radical departure from normal BBC practice as set out by its first Director-General, John Reith. In 1924 he wrote a memo to staff declaring that “The speakers on Sundays should be men who can really get their message over, with a good voice and correct diction, and preferable preachers with a reputation.” That statement in itself is a fabulous discussion topic for a lesson, debate or assignment.
The clips, images and documents in the “100 Voices” websites are a treasure trove of snapshots of cultural change, and offer gems of information and visual representations of cultural change, and national diversity. I would urge you to search for your own diamonds in these carefully curated resources.
I’ve always loved Wilfred Owen’s war poetry, particularly the visceral imagery of “Dulce et decorum est.” While one of the editions of “100 voices” focuses on the Second World War, rather than the First, they still offer clips that give an insight into the life of a nation at war, and the inescapable irony that in spite of Owen’s derision of the idea that it is fitting to die for one’s country, and his disturbing imagery, the world went to war again a few years later. For students who have no experience of war, to listen to the chilling clip of Neville Chamberlain announcing that this country is at war, gives an understanding to the solemnity of the event that is unparalleled: https://www.bbc.com/historyofthebbc/100-voices/ww2/country-at-war
I found the Immersive Virtual reality Education Production of the 1943 Berlin Blitz 360˚ to be particularly fascinating. It uses original archive recordings from September 1943 when the BBC’s war correspondent, Wynford Vaughan-Thomas, boarded a Lancaster bomber to transmit the experience, and recreates a view from the cockpit on that night. He described it as “the most beautifully horrible sight I’ve ever seen”. As a writer, I can see how that quote could be used as a writing prompt for a piece of creative writing.
There is a wealth of material for English teachers in the archive, but even more for History teachers. I’m old enough to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the Cold War, the focus of “100 voices: the BBC and the Cold War.” The Cold war is a large part of the History syllabus. I didn’t fully understand the significance at the time (and I wonder if we ever know how truly significant any event is until we’re able to judge it from a distance), but it was fascinating to listen to Bridget Kendall, the BBC’s former Moscow Correspondent, give a vivid behind-the-scenes account of the rise of Perestroika and Glasnost and the ultimate end of the Soviet Union.
In a new interview recorded specially for this project, Gienek Smoller, who at the time was the assistant head of the BBC Polish Section, reveals how an IBM computer was used to get news in and out of Poland during Martial Law. He talks about his experiences working for the reform organizations “KOR” and “Solidarity,” and fighting for freedom.
Another fascinating section talks about the threat of Nuclear destruction and includes the controversial BBC film “The War Game” Originally scheduled for transmission sometime in 1965, and banned by the BBC, it was released twenty years later.
For those studying the Second World War, the 100 Voices: the BBC and World War Two is particularly relevant . There are interviews with those working behind the scenes to bring the news, eyewitness accounts of major events, and diary entries from the Mass Observation Archive. There are accounts of how the BBC helped the war effort, and even how the music played in broadcasts provided secret messages to resistance fighters in occupied Europe.
There is so much more to draw from in the “100 Voices” collection, with resources for the Sciences (“The Birth of TV” and “Radio Reinvented”), Arts, Media History, Journalism, Politics and many other subjects. Every time I approach the collection, I learn something new, or find a new insight. I could easily keep writing, but perhaps it would be good to hand over to the other teachers out there to see how they can use this incredibly diverse and valuable collection of resources.
If you’ve used any of the archive materials in your lessons, we’d love to hear from you. If you’d like to share your lesson plans using the materials, we’d love to put them on our website.
We’re delighted to announce that Professor Margaretta Jolly, a co-investigator in the Connected Histories of the BBC project, has just been awarded the 2019 Hogan Prize. The prize is given to an ‘outstanding essay’ submitted to a special issue of a/b: Auto/Biography Studies.
Here, Professor Jolly offers a bit of the background to her award.
In an age of citizen journalism, popular memoir and oral history communities, we enjoy an incredible variety of personal life writing. But for every life story circulated, there is the question of how it will be sustained and inherited. This of course is at the heart of the CH-BBC project, whose aim is to preserve, connect and celebrate the personal stories of BBC staff for future generations.
My essay in the special issue of a/b: Auto/Biography Studies, ‘Survival Writing: Autobiography versus Primatology in the Conservation Diaries of Alison Jolly’ offers an exploration of my mother Alison Jolly’s work as a primatologist of ring-tailed lemurs. I propose that my mother chose autobiographical modes to unsettle anthropomorphic and western perspectives, and to enhance conservation efforts in Madagascar. I arranged publication of her diaries posthumously, at her request and have found solace in this and in feminist cyborg scholar Donna Haraway’s ideas which interlink all species’ survival in the wake of the ‘anthropocene’.
Former BBC Monitoring Service employee’s journals found and adapted into a new web series.
“I don’t know what the future may bring, but I think there are fairly good prospects in the BBC. After two years there, I have a good chance of getting on the established staff and thus qualifying for a pension. So, perhaps for the first time in my life, I am in a good steady job at last.” Dick Perceval, 12th June 1950.
22 years ago, in Brighton, I found a box of journals in a pile of rubbish by the side of the road. Written by a man called Dick Perceval, they cover the 50 years from 1925 – 1975. They are an extraordinary record of the life of an ‘ordinary’ man.
From 1950 to 1964, Dick worked as a report writer for the BBC Monitoring Service. Previously, he had worked as a journalist, until the outbreak of World War Two interrupted his career. After volunteering to join the Royal Artillery as a Gunner and spending six months on anti-aircraft guns at Enfield Lock, Dick was suddenly summoned to the War Office to be interviewed for a job. He had no idea what the job was, or why they had chosen him, but as result of the interview he was recruited to work at Bletchley Park, as part of the team in Hut 3, where Enigma messages sent by the German Army and Air Force were decrypted, translated and analysed for vital intelligence.
On the conclusion of the war, Dick went to Hamburg, working in political intelligence as part of the Allied Control Commission, before returning to the UK to take up a job with the BBC Monitoring Service.
On the 12th June 1950, he writes,
“I handed in an application to the BBC in answer to an advertisement of theirs for “Report Writers” in their monitoring service at Caversham. Qualifications were a knowledge of foreign affairs and journalistic experience – salary, rising by annual increments of £45, up to £995 a year.”
Dick spoke fluent German, having spent some of his childhood in Germany. In 1925, he attended the University of Berlin on a one year foundation course, and his connections to Germany were further solidified through his marriage to Sorina Erbes – a German woman, 23 years his senior, and a fabulously flamboyant character. More of her later…
Dick started at the Monitoring Service in the Russian section and not, as he expected, in the German section. His journal gives a sense of the working environment at Caversham.
“Individually, the other six people in my section are all nice, but there is a marked tendency on the part of everybody there to keep to himself and I rather miss the spirit of camaraderie that I experienced throughout the war, and also in the Hamburg intelligence office. I have not therefore found any close friends at Caversham and, indeed, during the nine months I have been there, I have only met one of the 300 odd people working there outside the office socially, and that was a young man whom I invited round for a drink during the five weeks that we lived in a flat near Caversham. My work is entirely writing, most of which I do alone in a typing cubicle, and that suits me quite well.”
Dick loved writing. As a young man he had dreams of being a great author. Or Prime Minister. He couldn’t quite decide which. He came from a very privileged background and as a young man believed himself to be a genius. He was also a Romanticist, and his attempts at writing novels, which he documents in his journals, resulted in love stories with tragic and melodramatic plot lines, based on the people he surrounded himself with. Which brings me back to Sorina.
Dick met Sorina in 1931, when he was 22 years old, and was captivated by her. She was 44, married with three sons aged 12, 16 and 19. Following her divorce, her remarriage and a second divorce, Dick and Sorina were married in 1936, when he was 26. It was the biggest mistake of his life. It was a desperately unhappy marriage, his family cut him out of any inheritance and he didn’t have any children – a fact that caused him great sadness later.
Sorina died in 1960, of a heart attack and in his arms. After a couple of journal entries in which he reflects movingly about her death and on their life together, Dick stops writing until 1964.
“It is with great hesitation that I start writing a journal again, after an interval of about three years, I believe. During that period, I have had little time, and less inclination, to do this, although much that is of great importance to me has happened during these three years.
On 5 September 1961, I married again. I married Sheila, whom I had known for some years previously at the BBC, where she also worked before our marriage. It has been a most happy marriage and a great blessing in my life.” July 25th 1964
With the support of Sheila, Dick took early retirement from the BBC in 1964. He goes on –
“My work at the BBC continued much as before, the last few years being spent in the Far Eastern section of the Monitoring Service, which I much preferred to the Russian and East European sections I had previously worked in, partly because my own past experience in the Far East made it much more interesting to me, and partly because the people I worked with were more congenial to me. It was more interesting, but still not very interesting. The truth is that my heart was never really in my work at the BBC, most unfortunately. Whether this was my fault or not it is difficult to know. Except for one, comparatively brief period there, when I worked in the East European section, I was reasonably happy or at least as much so as one can expect to be when one’s heart is not in one’s work. But this is the fate of the vast majority and I was one of them.”
He reflects on whether he achieved ‘success’. He says that he started with the BBC on £750 per year and this rose to over £2000 by the time he left, but the increase was due to automatic processes, rather than through promotion, so he considered that his career was neither success nor failure.
“Neither a failure nor a success, alas, just about sums up the whole of my career to date, in my opinion, and that is the cause of the disappointment in my life that I feel. The main cause – but if I feel disappointed, this does not mean that I feel embittered. Not at all. I have long asked myself what true success in life may be, and how it can be judged. It is a question that fascinates me. I realised long ago that success cannot be measured merely by what a man earns, nor necessarily by what rank, position or grade he may rise to.”
In 2018, I visited Caversham to look at Dick Perceval’s staff file, which had been kept in the archives. The first document in the file is from 1938, 10 years before he started working there. It is a letter to the editor of the BBC magazine The Listener, to enquire if there were vacancies. The final document is his leaving note. Under the title Assessment of Career (including efficiency, conduct and any special aptitudes), there is a note that reads,
“Mr Perceval opted for Voluntary Early Retirement after nearly 16 years of service as Report Writer, Monitoring Service. On many occasions he acted temporarily as Senior Report Writer.
His period of service shows he was always conscientious and hardworking.” It is not an effusive report!
I have been working with sound designer Scott Smith and performer Gerard Bell to adapt entries from Dick’s journals into a series of short films that are available, for free, as a web series called To Be Continued. Dick Perceval’s story is brought to life through the re-appropriation of archive footage. A cast of hundreds is drawn from old Hollywood films, public information broadcasts, cine club creations and home movies.
Dick Perceval’s journals are fascinating. He writes about the life events that we all experience – falling in love, heartbreak, loss, disappointment, acceptance and of world events – war, elections, times of uncertainty, even a European Referendum. Dick’s journals shine a unique light onto the 20th century.
Subscribe to the series for free to receive links to further episodes delivered to your email address, on the same date that Dick wrote the journal entry. The series, which began on January 1st will continue till December 31st 2020.
What was it like to work for the BBC during the Second World War and did it play a special role in shaping the public’s experience of war? These are two of the issues addressed during our project’s third public event held on Saturday 19 October 2019 at The Keep in Brighton.
David Hendy introduced the latest addition to our 100 Voices that Made the BBC website https://www.bbc.com/historyofthebbc/100-voices/ww2 . David highlighted how the BBC’s oral history archives contain interviews with staff regarding their wartime experience. Among the recordings are Mary Lewis from the Duplicating Section who spoke of the “social revolution” that took place at the BBC, and Frank Gillard who was recruited as the War Correspondent.
I was particularly interested to hear about how large numbers of BBC staff were evacuated out of London during the war to Bristol, Bedford, Bangor, and Weston-Super-Mare. However, the BBC continued to operate from Broadcasting House and we learnt how the staff slept on the floor of the Concert Hall whilst facing the very real threat of being hit by German air bombers. Indeed, Broadcasting House was hit in October 1940 resulting in several deaths and many injuries.
Another extremely rich source of archival information was introduced by Fiona Courage, the curator of the Mass Observation Archive, which is held at The Keep. Among the 16 documents from the Mass Observation Archive available on the website are various responses from ordinary listeners to war news, A particularly striking one is the entry made in Adelaide Poole’s diary which noted that at times she could not bear to listen, wondering “what else the BBC will broadcast in order to give a thrill to those who sit at ease in far-off places?”
In the afternoon we split into three groups for our Reminiscence session where the participants were invited to share their wartime memories or their experience of listening to the BBC in more recent conflicts. Among the contributions was John who was evacuated to Bournemouth during the war and remembers the radio as absolutely crucial to his family and to him as a child – especially the news at nine O’clock and Children’s Hour.
Two of our contributors told us about the disappearance of tanks and Canadian soldiers from Brighton overnight and how the BBC later in the day brought news of the D-Day landing. The grandfather of one of our group presented the news and she retold how he explained to her that if he was reporting on controversial material an armed guard would stand next to him as he spoke into the microphone to make sure that he did not reveal anything sensitive – which he really resented. A discussion was held on the current BBC news output and whether viewers are “cosseted” from images of dead bodies and whether this poses a threat to the credibility of the BBC.
This discussion set the scene perfectly for the plenary session with our guest speaker Allan Little. Allan has been a BBC correspondent since 1985 and reported from Baghdad during the first Gulf War in 1990 and 1991. He gave a fascinating insight into the relative independence of BBC correspondents by giving details of his report on the bombing in 1991 of the Amiriyah air raid shelter where over three hundred people were sleeping. Despite facing criticism in Britain of the report being an instrument of propaganda, Allan stuck by his story as it was what he and Jeremy Bowen had witnessed. However, BBC Correspondents face criticism from all sides and Allan explained how during his time reporting on the breakup of Yugoslavia (1991 to 1995) he faced death threats for being perceived as a Western spy.
I found that the mixing of the memories of BBC staff and listeners created a powerful synthesis that highlighted the nuances of the history of the BBC. I very much look forward to the next event which will be held in 2020 on the topic of the Cold War.