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For the Love of Radio 4
An Unofficial Companion
By Caroline Hodgson
Summersdale Publishers LtdCopyright © 2014 Summersdale Publishers Ltd
All rights reserved.
THE HOME SERVICE AND RADIO 4: A BRIEF HISTORY
At midnight on 29 September 1967, BBC announcer David Dunhill signed off from the Home Service for the last time. At 6.35 a.m. the following morning, he said, Britain would wake up to BBC Radio 4. In his cut-glass accent, Dunhill likened the change to that of a bride on the eve of her wedding – she who would go on being the same person, he said, just with a new name.
It all started in 1922, when the BBC started its first daily radio service, broadcasting for a few hours a day. The first ten years – between the wars – were the Savoy Hill years, when the British Broadcasting Company, just off the Strand, had a gentleman's-club feel about it. The 'History of the BBC' website evokes this, with an image of contributors such as H. G. Wells and George Bernard Shaw being offered whisky and soda as they waited to go on air.
Although socially BBC Radio might have been rooted in an age of Edwardian protocol and manners, at the same time radio was a developing industry, full of self-made men. Radio technology had come on in leaps and bounds during World War One, and in these formative years everything was up for grabs. Nobody really knew the limitations or potential of radio, so to be part of this phenomenon wasn't dependent on your CV, experience or track record. Indeed, there was no such thing as a track record (although being a man was, of course, a prerequisite).
It is quite inconceivable, for example, that John Reith would be given a job today based on the interview he had on 13 December 1922 for the post of General Manager. As he recorded later in his diary, he was not asked many questions, and some of those he was asked he didn't know the meaning of!
This wasn't just a phenomenon of the very early years. In 1929 Val Gielgud was put in charge of radio drama despite never having directed a radio play himself. Later still, in the mid 1940s, the poet Louis MacNeice was experimenting wildly with drama in the Features Department, apparently getting away with it because it seems nobody quite knew what 'features' were.
You can imagine a modern-day Reith swotting up by doing background research the night before his interview, having been required to complete numerous forms in advance. Gielgud would simply never have got a look in (as a result of which Joe Orton might never have got his break), and MacNeice's Features Department would long ago have fallen prey to budget cuts.
Maybe it's right that things should be sharper, more efficient and professional – after all, there are the stakeholders to consider these days – but it's also true that without the chaos of the early days we wouldn't have the Radio 4 we have today, or anything resembling it.
"The fact is I hadn't the remotest idea as to what broadcasting was. I hadn't troubled to find out ..." JOHN REITH AFTER HIS INTERVIEW WITH THE BBC, 1922
THE HOME SERVICE ON THE HOME FRONT
It was on the newly instated Home Service, on 3 September 1939, that Neville Chamberlain's famous, doom-laden words stopped the country in its tracks when he announced that 'this country is at war with Germany'.
Just two days previously, on 1 September, BBC Radio's two stations – the National Programme and the Regional Programme – had been merged to become the Home Service. This was a pragmatic move, in order to prevent enemy aircraft from using the Regional Programme's transmitters for navigating. With the synchronisation of the two frequencies it became impossible to broadcast to the regions. At the same time, because of fears of attacks on the capital, the regional studios started to be used for national broadcasting. In 1939, for example, Clare Lawson Dick, who would later become Controller of Radio 4, was a clerical worker at the BBC's Registry in Wood Norton Hall in Worcestershire – the BBC's 'secret' location. Lawson Dick and other staff received instructions on what to do if the siren sounded. The memo read: 'If the alert is sounded, staff must run into the woods immediately and lie down. Preferably in pairs.'
"I have always enjoyed the 'dotty' side of the BBC." CLARE LAWSON DICK, CONTROLLER OF RADIO 4, 1975–1976
SENDING OUT SIGNALS – THE EMPIRE SERVICE AND EUROPEAN SERVICE
The Empire Service (later the Overseas Service and now the World Service) deserves a mention here because it was at the vanguard of the technological advances which would cascade throughout the whole of radio broadcasting.
The BBC Empire Service was a short-wave service launched in 1932, aimed principally at English speakers in the outposts of the British Empire. Initially, Reith had very low expectations of the Empire Service. In his opening address he said: 'Don't expect too much in the early days ... The programmes will neither be very interesting nor very good.'
One of the first broadcasts was King George V's Christmas message – the first time a monarch's voice had been heard by millions of his subjects simultaneously. In his speech, the King addressed the 'men and women so cut off by the snows, the desert or the sea, that only voices out of the air can reach them'. As pre-recording technology was not sufficiently advanced, this address was read out five times as it was broadcast live to different parts of the world. By the end, as he would later record in his diary, he was 'very bored of it'. At the start of World War Two, the BBC's only short-wave transmitting station for the Empire Service was at Daventry. The rapid expansion of overseas services soon necessitated the building of new sites: in Dorset (Rampisham), Devon (Start Point), Somerset (Clevedon), Cumbria (Skelton) and Shropshire (Woofferton). On the east coast a long-wave transmitter was built at Spurn Head to send signals to Germany.
In November 1939 the Empire Service was renamed the Overseas Service. The Forces Programme was launched in 1940, and the European Service in 1941. In addition, by the end of 1942, BBC Radio was broadcasting in all major European languages. Necessity really had, as the adage goes, become the mother of invention as far as radio communication was concerned.
I knew that ... there was ... the BBC speaking calmly and authoritatively ... about the weather, the news and the Empire. ERIC LOMAX, THE RAILWAY MAN, 1995
INFORMATION IS POWER – RECORDING THE WAR
Along with improvements in transmission technology, the other urgent challenge facing BBC Radio engineers was how to improve information- gathering.
Before 1930 the BBC had no viable means of recording sound. Even then, in 1930, the steel-tape technology of the Blattnerphone resulted in recordings which were capable of recording voice, but were not good enough quality for music. The spools were cumbersome and the editing process was essentially a soldering job that was time-consuming and hazardous – a broken tape could result in razor-edged steel snapping free and flying around the editing room.
The Blattnerphone was not remotely portable, so when BBC correspondents were sent to cover the war, they took with them 'Midget' discs that looked like old-fashioned record players.
By this time the Germans had already developed the Magnetophon, the archetype of the modern tape recorder, which used plastic-based tape. Editing was done using a razor blade and sticky tape. After the war, Allied engineers took captured Magnetophons home, and the electrical firm EMI developed the BTR/1 tape recorder from it.
SOMETHING FOR EVERYONE – THE POST-WAR YEARS
Regional programming was resumed after the war. In addition, the Forces Programme became the Light Programme (the forerunner of Radio 2), and the Third Programme (later Radio 3) was launched in 1946. This was the start of 'streaming' radio for individual tastes.
Television broadcasting had started in the United Kingdom in 1936, although BBC Television services were suspended between 1939 and 1946. After the war the nation started looking around for new diversions, and it's probably fair to say that the late 1940s and the 1950s were the wilderness years for radio. That's not to say that nothing happened on radio, but that the power and potential of the moving image had a kind of mesmerising effect upon the nation. The introduction of commercial channels in 1955 heralded the democratisation of broadcast communication, and created a hunger for consumer choice. Radio 'listening-in' parties were replaced by viewing parties, and any television- owning household in the street became a social hub for major events. When Elizabeth II's coronation was televised in 1953, it is estimated that 20.4 million adults (double the radio audience) watched it on 2.7 million television sets. It was the first time the television-viewing audience outnumbered the radio-listening audience.
At the same time, although television ownership was top of the aspiration list in many households, it was simply not an economic reality for many. Families still gathered around the radio of an evening, and during the 1950s and early 1960s the Light Programme, Home Service and Third Programme were steadily building up their schedules.
In 1946 Alistair Cooke broadcast his first Letter from America, and Woman's Hour became the first dedicated radio programme for women. It was also the year that Down Your Way was launched. Each week the presenter would visit a town, meet the people who lived there and play their choice of music – an 'out-and- about' format that shows just how portable radio had become since the days of the Midget. The following year, 1947, saw the start of Gardeners' Question Time (then titled How Does Your Garden Grow?), while the 1950s brought The Archers, Brain of Britain, From Our Own Correspondent and the Today programme to the airwaves. Of course they were all very different in those days, but a modern Radio 4 listener transported back to the 1950s would very likely instantly recognise many of the programmes which still grace the Radio 4 airwaves.
* * *
1967 AND ALL THAT
When Radio 4 was launched in 1967, under the auspices of Managing Director of BBC Radio Frank Gillard, it was alongside Radios 1, 2 and 3. Radio 1 was the hip and groovy new kid on the block, while Radio 2 took over from the Light Programme, Radio 4 occupied the Home Service's frequency and, in 1970, Radio 3 incorporated the Third Programme.
The whole shake-up of BBC Radio was, in part, a response to the threat of pirate radio stations such as Radio Caroline, which had started broadcasting from a ship off the Essex coast in 1964. In particular, the introduction of Radio 1 symbolised the BBC's (largely reluctant) acknowledgement that the craze for popular music wasn't just a flash in the pan, but was here to stay.
* * *
KEEPING THE HOME FIRES BURNING
It is often said that the Home Service was the forerunner of Radio 4. While this is largely true, it is also an oversimplification. When it happened, the 1967 'switchover' was ostensibly between the Home Service and Radio 4, but in fact Radio 4 as we know it today has been shaped and influenced – and in some cases directly 'fed' programmes – by the National Programme, the Regional Programme, the Light Programme, the Third Programme and the Empire/Overseas Service.
In 1967, BBC Radio was not streamlined according to taste in the way it is today. Whereas we now think of Radio 2 as mainly popular music and chat, Radio 3 as classical music and drama, and Radio 4 as speech radio, programmes were often 'shared' between the stations. So a comedy series that went out on the Light Programme, or a drama that went out on the Third Programme, would be repeated on the Home Service, offering the material to a different audience. Radio 2, for example, still had comedy slots up until the 1990s. Over time, as Radio 4 developed into speech radio, it inherited some of its programmes from the Light Programme/Radio 2 (including Woman's Hour and The Archers), the Third Programme (such as drama), or one of the regional stations via the Home Service (such as Gardeners' Question Time).
Steve Arnold, of the Radio Times Archive, explains it in terms of a kind of aspirational hierarchy:
The channel structure was seen as a pyramid, with the Light at the base – accessible to all – the Home above that and there to encourage people to try out more ... and the Third the pinnacle that all should aspire to.
The waters are also muddied by the fact that the switchover did not take place in one go. Indeed, the Home Service survived in some parts of the country for a considerable time after 1967, as the funding wasn't available to fully upgrade the local radio station network.
THE FORMATIVE YEARS – 1970s, 1980s AND 1990s
If Radio 1 was the hip and groovy youngster in 1967, Radio 4 was a maiden aunt who had simply undergone a change of name. Indeed, many listeners would have noticed little if any change between Radio 4 and the Home Service. Spoken-word programmes, drama, serials, comedy, quizzes, discussion and mainstream classical music had become the substance of the Home Service schedule, and that was not about to change with the advent of Radio 4. Some of the programmes, such as Desert Island Discs and Letter from America, were so well established on the airwaves that they were set to celebrate their thousandth editions. In addition, during term time, Radio 4 still broadcast schools programming as part of its output – just as the Home Service had. Nevertheless, change was afoot in the 1970s, and it was most noticeable in Radio 4's news and current affairs output. There was a move to dig deeper and look at stories from fresh angles. In 1970 a number of new programmes were introduced, among them PM, Start the Week, Analysis and the satirical Week Ending, while the investigative programme File on 4would become a feature of the airwaves by 1977.
Also in the 1970s programmes such as You and Yours started to champion (and arguably shape) a generation of consumers that had not previously been catered for. Money Box and Does He Take Sugar? both had listeners' interests at their core. Meanwhile in Checkpoint, Roger Cook was not content to represent the consumer from the studio but waded in, microphone in hand, to confront the corrupt and the crooked on behalf of the cheated.
This coincided with a drive to involve the Radio 4 listener more directly, and new technology was allowing for greater interactivity. It's Your Line, fronted by Robin Day, was Radio 4's first phone-in programme in 1970. Feedback was first aired in 1979, rounding off a decade in which the voice of the listener had become a feature of the airwaves.
Once a sedate maiden aunt, Radio 4 seemed to be getting more in tune with the spirit of the people. She was, however, still rather serious and perhaps a bit worthy. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, though, we started to glimpse her lighter side, particularly when it came to drama. Landmark serialisations such as The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1978), The Lord of the Rings(1981) and Adrian Mole (1982), and sitcoms such as Simon Brett's After Henry (1985–1989) started to demonstrate that Auntie did, after all, have a sense of humour.
In the early 1990s the 'Producer Choice' initiative started to be discussed, and it soon became the hot topic in broadcast media, particularly at the BBC. Although the idea met with vocal opposition, it was introduced as policy in April 1993.
Producer Choice was the brainchild of Director General John Birt, whose idea was that introducing market forces and competition into the BBC would sharpen practices and encourage producers to keep their budgets under control.
Excerpted from For the Love of Radio 4 by Caroline Hodgson. Copyright © 2014 Summersdale Publishers Ltd. Excerpted by permission of Summersdale Publishers Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Radio 4 in Facts and Figures,
The Home Service and Radio 4: A Brief History,
Radio 4 Now,
And Now for the News,
Cheers and Tears,
Talking Politics – Radio 4's Relationship with Westminster Today,
Drama and Readings,
Comedy and Light Entertainment,
I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue,
Arts, Culture and History,
Desert Island Discs,
Women on Radio 4,
Science and Nature,
Gardeners' Question Time,
Religion and Ethics,
Sport on 4,
Test Match Special,
Letter from America,