Attitudes to the BBC are, for the most part, spirit-sappingly predictable. Politicians of all parties believe it is biased against them. One powerful lobby claims it is a hotbed of radicals bent on undermining national identity, another that it is the mouthpiece of the establishment. Some critics denounce the licence fee as insulating the BBC against the bracing winds of competition, while others complain that the corporation has already abandoned its public service remit in the search for profit. One chorus takes up the theme that programming remains ‘elitist’ and ‘middle class’, another that it has become demotic and debased. Many people seem to feel that so long as The Archers and the shipping forecast are left untouched, then all is right with the world; others seem to think that the problem is precisely that The Archers and the shipping forecast have been left untouched for too long. It’s not easy to come up with any really new complaints about the BBC.
Faced with this repetitive litany of charge and countercharge, what contribution can historians make? An internal memo in 1952 affirmed that ‘the exact nature of the past of the BBC is important in any discussion of its future’ and that ‘any questioning’ of the BBC’s role ought to be informed by ‘the consideration of the service which this unique institution has so far rendered, and ought to be based not on faulty recollection or hearsay but accurate information’. That’s easily said: too easily perhaps, since the pin-striped positivism of such phrases as ‘exact nature’ and ‘accurate information’ is not likely to go down well in our more relativistic age, where questions of epistemology are so often treated as dependent on questions of sociology. In any case, what does ‘the past of the BBC’ consist of? There are institutional continuities, of course, but millions of radio and television broadcasts have evaporated into the ether. A history that confined itself to matters of governance and finance would be like a history of football that concentrates on decisions in club boardrooms without ever mentioning what happened on the pitch, let alone what the matches meant to millions of ardent fans. Listeners and viewers have been no less ardent about some of the BBC’s programmes, as a ceaseless correspondence of complaint and enthusiasm has made clear over the decades, but how far can historians capture the subjective experience of the living room and integrate it into institutional accounts?
For historians the BBC represents both a fantasy object and a Borgesian nightmare. As an organisation, it has been one of the great record-keeping bureaucracies in history. The BBC’s Written Archives Centre at Caversham is a treasure trove, but it’s also a labyrinth in which one expects to find white-haired historians still groping myopically along the endless shelves of files, doomed to uncover material so fascinating that all likelihood of ever finishing any work of scholarship has long since passed.
If ever there was a historian to whom the phrase ‘daunting task’ acted like a starting pistol it was Asa Briggs, who was commissioned to write an official history of the BBC. The first volume, The Birth of Broadcasting, appeared in 1961; the fifth volume, Competition, taking the story up to 1974, came out in 1995. The full series amounts to some four thousand densely researched pages. It was a remarkable achievement, especially since it was started at a time when few other historians seemed interested in what radio and television meant for British life in the 20th century. Briggs’s history is a monument, but like most monuments it repays repeated visits rather than long residence. In his stately volumes controllers talk to controllers and committees to committees, in unending games of office chess. Others have followed where Briggs led, notably Jean Seaton, who continued the story in livelier vein in ‘Pinkoes and Traitors’: The BBC and the Nation, 1974-87, published in 2015, and there have been any number of more specialised studies on such topics as the BBC and popular music, or the BBC during the Second World War.
The corporation’s centenary sees the publication of two histories that aspire to tell the whole story in a single volume, if not exactly from the cradle to the grave (though undertakers hover in their closing pages), then at least from the crystal set to iPlayer. David Hendy’s book has the strengths of an insider’s account, packed with detail and anecdotes, shrewd in its assessment of personalities, light on socioeconomic change. Simon Potter’s is more academic and astringent. Potter tends to be critical where Hendy is indulgent, but Hendy’s volume is more fun, while Potter’s occasionally dips into right-minded solemnity. They both more than earn their place on the ever lengthening shelf of Beebology.
Neither book can avoid the vexed question of the BBC’s independence. The corporation is not, in any simple sense, a state broadcaster, but nor is it a free-standing commercial enterprise, raising its own capital and generating its own income, though it is increasingly being driven in that direction. It is, as we are repeatedly reminded, a corporation licensed by royal charter, overseen by a board of governors (subsequently trustees, and then from 2017 members of a new board), and largely funded by the licence fee. Successive governments of both parties have tried to exercise control by haggling over the terms of charter renewal, favouring compliant governors, and setting the level of the licence fee, yet at the same time every government has complained that the BBC has constantly undermined their efforts to govern the country.
During the 20th century, many British institutions – national museums and galleries, the University Grants Committee, the Arts Council – enjoyed a not wholly dissimilar hybrid status. These ‘arm’s length’ arrangements tended to work fairly well when the men who ran them (they were nearly all men) and the men who ran the rest of the country were very much of the same type. Shared backgrounds and cultural attitudes smoothed the way, and the ‘just a quiet word in your ear’ approach was relied on to sort out differences before they became too pronounced. Potter notes the recommendation of the parliamentary committee overseeing the charter review in 1936 that ‘BBC officers should consult civil servants, informally, whenever “the interests of the state appear to be at all closely involved.”’ Only ‘informally’, of course: nothing more than a chap having a word with another chap. The extent to which this could compromise the BBC’s independence became apparent in the late 1930s when the Foreign Office agitated for foreign-language broadcasts to counter the propaganda of the Axis powers. John Reith, the director general, felt obliged to accept an arrangement that, as Potter puts it, ‘included agreeing that news editors would accept specific guidance from civil servants as to which items needed to be included in, or omitted from, different foreign-language services. All this was subsequently enshrined in a secret “gentleman’s agreement” between the BBC and the government, unwritten and thus eminently deniable by both parties.’
Those convinced that the BBC will always end up bowing to the government of the day tend to adduce its conduct during the general strike of 1926. The official case against the strike was given ample airtime; the strikers’ position was not. When Reith checked with Downing Street to see if the BBC could broadcast a plea by the archbishop of Canterbury for both sides to suspend hostilities in ‘a spirit of fellowship’ (contradicting the government’s hard line that there could be no negotiation until the strike was called off), he was told, in a mild but sinister phrase, ‘the prime minister would rather you didn’t.’ And so, of course, he didn’t.
Winston Churchill, the leading anti-union hawk at the time of the strike, pursued an almost lifelong vendetta against the BBC. He was outraged that the corporation could not simply be commandeered to put out the government’s line, and in later decades was still insisting that it was an enemy within the gates ‘run by reds’. As this may suggest, his interventions were not always well grounded. During the war, he personally rang the duty controller at Broadcasting House to complain about an item he said he had just heard on the nine o’clock news. The controller was able to point out, politely but firmly, that this seemed unlikely given that it was still only 8.50 p.m.
Another illustration of the BBC’s complicated relationship with power is the role of external broadcasting after 1945: was this an impartial news service or an arm of Britain’s soft diplomacy? During the Cold War, the Foreign Office funded and set the guidelines for the European Service’s broadcasting, while the BBC was supposed to have editorial control over content – an arrangement almost designed to cause friction. As Hendy observes, however, ‘potential rows were often defused through personal relationships.’ This was the great advantage of being run by chaps who knew other chaps.
But it didn’t always work like that. One of Anthony Eden’s several miscalculations over Suez was his assumption that he could bully the BBC – which he described in a moment of particular exasperation as ‘a nest of communists’ – into supporting the invasion by threatening to cut or curtail its External Services broadcasting. The director general, Ian Jacob, rightly sensing that the country was divided on the issue, stood by the corporation’s commitment to even-handed reporting. Once American pressure had forced Eden into a humiliating withdrawal from the Canal Zone, the threat evaporated, but the episode did nothing to lessen some politicians’ suspicions about the subversive character of the nation’s principal broadcaster. The Labour governments of the 1960s and 1970s were almost equally antagonistic to the BBC, with Tony Benn ‘equating it with the medieval Catholic Church, controlling thought from a middle-class, establishment position’. Harold Wilson, naturally given to suspicion, thought the BBC was somehow conspiring against him, and in the mid-1970s suggested abolishing the licence fee in order to bring the corporation more directly under government control, a frequent reflex of disgruntled politicians.
Predictably, Margaret Thatcher hated the ‘British Bastard Corporation’, as her husband liked to call it. Coverage of the Falklands War was an inevitable flashpoint, with Thatcher raging against reporters’ references to ‘British’ forces rather than ‘our’ troops. The tabloid press sensed an opportunity to put the boot in, with the Sun wheeling out the tiredest of tropes by damning the BBC’s coverage as the work of ‘traitors in our midst’. Norman Tebbit’s much quoted tirade against the corporation – the ‘insufferable, smug, sanctimonious, naive, guilt-ridden, wet, pink orthodoxy of that sunset home of third-rate minds of that third-rate decade, the Sixties’ – betrayed a shaky grasp of cultural history. (Michael Foot’s description of Tebbit as ‘a semi-house-trained polecat’ may have revealed an equally shaky grasp of natural history, yet still seemed nearer the mark.) There was no pleasing either side in that divided decade: Arthur Scargill was as hostile to the BBC as Thatcher, denouncing the TV news as ‘pure unadulterated bias’. And so it goes on, with complaints and threats stacking up like Brexit-blocked containers.
At the outset, the BBC’s fragile autonomy owed as much to commercial calculation as to high-minded planning. By 1922 a number of companies were becoming aware of the potential of new transmitters to send signals not to a specific end point, as with the telegraph, but to anyone within range who had a ‘receiver’. Partly to avoid wavelength mayhem, the GPO negotiated with the six main companies who sold receivers to set up an entity to be called the British Broadcasting Company. The manufacturers were to be, in effect, the shareholders, but the new organisation was to have considerable freedom of action, not least because much of its funding was to come from a share of the revenue from the licence which the GPO obliged every owner of a receiver to buy. The company had a de facto monopoly, a situation which brought certain constraints (there was to be no on-air advertising, for example).
It soon became evident that radio was outgrowing the awkward arrangement in which a consortium of wireless manufacturers owned what was already coming to function as a ‘public service’. So in 1927, following the recommendation of a committee of inquiry, the company was turned into a public corporation, based on a royal charter, overseen by a board of governors and funded by a share of the income from the licence fee. It was fortunate that the great press barons, such as Harmsworth and Beaverbrook, weren’t interested in broadcasting: had they been, they might have contested the BBC’s monopoly position more vigorously. In the event, the new arrangement was in place before the immense potential of radio was widely appreciated. In the early years, relatively few households had a licence for a receiver and transmitter coverage was patchy. But by 1936 the BBC could reach 98 per cent of the population.
For the most part, early broadcasting was parasitic on existing genres: there were transmissions of concerts, plays, lectures, variety shows, church services and so on. Perhaps only the ‘feature’ was truly native to radio, a genre that came into being in the interwar years and flourished in the decade after 1945. But in time the BBC became a great patron of new writing as well as of new music. Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood, broadcast in January 1954, may be the most celebrated piece of literature it’s hard to imagine coming into existence without radio; more generally, plays written for radio have adapted or reinvented an established form. But the great filler was music, especially varieties of ‘light music’. By the end of the 1930s, as Hendy reports, ‘musical comedy, operetta, ballads, film scores, organ recitals, solos, palm-court trios, “seaside” music, military bands, brass bands and small orchestras playing classical highlights had all been homogenised into a capacious category of “light” music that became the centre of gravity in the BBC’s output.’ For all the recurrent fuss over the broadcaster’s political bias, and for all the sneers about the unrealistically highbrow character of some programmes, in the 1930s and 1940s the greater part of airtime was given over to easy listening as represented by programmes such as Music While You Work.
The Second World War is often regarded as the BBC’s finest hour. It certainly strengthened the position of ‘the wireless’ in national life. In no other major war can people’s experience have been so pervasively mediated, and at the same time made bearable, by listening to the radio, while the BBC’s international wartime role enormously enhanced its reputation around the world. Potter is sceptical about the extent to which the corporation managed to defend its independence against government pressure in these years, arguing that it adopted an ‘essentially co-operative, and sometimes submissive, approach’. Hendy devotes more than a hundred pages to the period, three chapters that are among the best things in either book. He brings out the way the BBC’s subsequent reputation as an impartial news broadcaster went back to the delicate line it had to tread between supporting the war effort and refusing to put out obvious falsehoods for propaganda purposes. And he does justice to, among other things, the romance of sending coded messages to resistance groups in occupied Europe, not least with the following astonishing statistic: the evening before D-Day, ‘the BBC started transmitting an unusually long list of messages across the English Channel. Within 24 hours, 1050 acts of railway sabotage had been initiated via the BBC, 950 of which were successful.’
Hendy also gives a vivid picture of daily life at the BBC under wartime conditions. Many of its activities were moved out of London in 1939, the bulk of them to Wood Norton Hall near Evesham. Soon, around a thousand items a week were being produced from the depths of rural Worcestershire, though announcers continued to say ‘This is London calling’ (clearly, ‘This is Wood Norton calling’ just wouldn’t cut it). Even in this sylvan retreat, safety procedures had to be followed in the event of an air raid. ‘The warning signal that went off at Wood Norton consisted of “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic” blasted through loudspeakers. As soon as it was heard, all the producers, actors, administrators, secretaries and engineers promptly did as they were told and ran into the nearby woods to lie down in pairs.’ I suppose it’s what you’d most want to do if you thought you were about to die.
After the war, the two domestic stations that had broadcast throughout, the ‘Home’ and the ‘Forces’, were replaced by what was termed ‘the pyramid’: the Light Programme for popular listening, ascending to the Home Service for the middle range of BBC offerings, and culminating in the intellectually and aesthetically more ambitious Third Programme. Both the conception, and the proportions of the listening public that each station attracted, reflected the class structure of the day. It’s difficult now to recapture the centrality of radio to national life in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The war had made news bulletins required listening, a response replicated at moments of national and international crisis ever since. Other kinds of programme became fixed points in many people’s days. Launched in 1948, Mrs Dale’s Diary attracted ‘more than half of the available working-class radio audience’. The Archers, first broadcast in 1951, soon had an audience of almost ten million; it has been calculated that a quarter of the adult population were listening when Grace Archer was killed off in 1955. (Some listeners could take things rather literally: the actor who played Phil Archer reported that, after a scene of snogging in the back of a car, he was sent contraceptives through the post.) And radio had its peculiar reverse impact on print: the Radio Times, ‘the Bradshaw of broadcasting’, became the biggest selling weekly in Britain, while the Listener, ‘the Hansard of broadcasting’, had a circulation of more than 50,000, larger at the time than all serious periodicals except the New Statesman.
Television had made a faltering start in the 1930s, with its signal only available to those in the Greater London area and very few people owning or renting sets. The fledgling service was closed down for the duration of the war, but when it restarted it was still thought a minor affair, obviously secondary to radio. In 1952, the year before the coronation, there were eight times as many radio-only licences as TV licences, but things rapidly changed. By 1958 ‘the number of households with television sets exceeded, for the first time, those with sound-only licences. That year BBC expenditure on television also exceeded its budget for radio for the first time.’
The coronation, described by one insider as ‘the outside broadcast of all outside broadcasts’, played a part in promoting television, though its impact on TV ownership has sometimes been exaggerated. Technological advances (better transmitters) and the availability from 1955 of a second channel (ITV), played a larger part, while increasing affluence and the accompanying ‘privatisation of experience’ were even more significant. It’s still remarkable that more than half the adult population of the country (20.4 million people) are supposed to have watched the coronation on TV, if not always in their own homes. Contrast this with what has been logged as ‘the most complained about event in the history of the BBC’: not Kenneth Tynan saying ‘fuck’ on air, or a programme giving equal time to an alleged IRA commander and a loyalist hardliner, or even the proposal to alter the timing of the shipping forecast, but the blanket coverage given to the death of Prince Philip in 2021.
Everyone who has grown up in the broadcasting age has a relationship with particular programmes and personalities. Even more than is the case with reading, whose form is less tied to a particular moment in time, memories of and attitudes to broadcast media are significantly determined by one’s generation. I was a young child in the 1950s and then that relatively new phenomenon, a teenager, in the 1960s, so my radio and TV memories were shaped accordingly. I was a bit young fully to appreciate the zany genius of The Goon Show (though I can still sing ‘The Ying Tong Song’), but I was more than happy to let Grandstand structure my Saturday afternoons, with all matches beginning at the divinely appointed time of 3 p.m. The drama of the results coming in by ticker tape had the immediacy of a war room. I was no budding cultural critic: what I heard and watched all seemed as much part of ‘reality’ as the bus to school or roast potatoes at Sunday lunch. I didn’t think it odd that the panellists on What’s My Line? wore evening dress, nor did it occur to me to be offended by The Black and White Minstrel Show, just as I laughed at the byplay between ‘Sandy and my fwiend Julian’ in Round the Horne without understanding the innuendo.
My epiphany occurred late on a Saturday evening in November 1962. I was a spotty 15-year-old with an unsteady grasp of the difference between girls and Martians, and a literary urge whose expression in my homework wasn’t appreciated by my teachers. But by the time I went to bed that evening I had been given a glimpse of the kind of person I thought I wanted to become. That Was the Week That Was entranced me. It was clever, irreverent, funny, and at the time there were to my mind no higher values (it was all helped by my having an instant crush on Millicent Martin). I’m now more aware of the programme’s limitations: driven by overconfident young men such as David Frost and Bernard Levin, much of its content might generously be called ‘undergraduate humour’. Though politically impudent, it was of its time and place in its unspoken assumptions about such matters as gender and race. (Tynan called such satire ‘anti-reactionary without being progressive’.) But it hit its moment perfectly. It’s so often invoked in retrospects of the 1960s that it’s sobering to be reminded that it only ran for thirteen months. However popular it may have been with suburban, black-polo-neck-wearing enragés like my younger self, That Was the Week That Was soon became too much even for the liberal director general, Hugh Carleton Greene; tired of fielding endless complaints, he concluded that it was, after all, possible to be a bit too iconoclastic and he cancelled it after two series. It may be that, as with some poets, an early death contributed to an enduringly glamorous reputation.
If it’s hard to get away from nostalgia when discussing broadcasting, good history can at least show that the apparent constancy of the BBC’s character is an illusion, hiding radical discontinuities and self-reinventions. It can also remind us that much of the output has always been forgettable, run-of-the-mill stuff. Yet at the same time the effect of studying the history can be to increase rather than diminish one’s gratitude for the existence of the BBC. Understandably, neither of these books has much to say about broadcasting in other countries, but more comparative studies would bring out just how exceptional the BBC has been. There can be disagreements about why this is: some credit the licence fee, some point to the sustained dominance of British public life by certain cultivated elites, some cite a long-entrenched hostility to ‘free enterprise’. Whatever the explanation, it’s hard not to be grateful for what happenstance has delivered over the past century, a sentiment intensified by the briefest exposure to certain ‘news’ broadcasting in the US or much of the ‘entertainment’ that dominates TV in some other European countries. That’s without raising the contrast with countries where the state broadcaster pumps out the government’s propaganda in brazen and uninhibited ways.
Can it continue? Both these books, Potter’s especially, show what a semi-commercial behemoth the corporation has become. ‘By 2021 the BBC was running ten domestic television channels, 56 radio stations, a substantial online presence, and an international news service broadcast in English and more than forty foreign languages.’ This growth has involved fundamental changes to the BBC’s nature:
The public corporation has, over the last thirty years, essentially become a commissioning body. It runs radio and television networks and digital services, but no longer makes many of the programmes that they deliver to audiences. Instead, today it fills broadcast schedules and slots on iPlayer by buying content from over 350 different independent production companies and from its own commercial operation, BBC Studios, which also makes content for other providers.
The BBC is a hybrid in a world of hybrids. It retains some ‘public service’ obligations, and for many listeners and viewers is still the ‘national broadcaster’, but it’s not obvious that it will be able to sustain this role. An Ofcom survey in 2018 showed that 16 to 34-year-olds were ‘consuming’ less than half as much BBC ‘output’ as the national average and in 2019 the number of people in the UK watching Netflix overtook those on iPlayer. The majority of people under thirty are more likely to watch programmes on phones or laptops and never listen to BBC radio at all. On the other hand, in 2020 91 per cent of UK households accessed some BBC services every week, as viewing numbers surged during lockdown.
Perhaps the licence fee, a regressive flat tax tied to an outdated model of a household, should now be regarded simply as ‘venture capital for creative production’, as a 2005 report called it. Its appropriateness as a way of funding a multimedia empire is obviously open to question, even among those who support the idea of public service broadcasting, though it is difficult to see an alternative funding model that would sustain the distinctive character of the BBC. But of course there are many who have no desire to see that character sustained, and once again the undertakers are polishing the brass on their coffins. Nadine Dorries’s recent proposal for the privatisation of Channel 4 is an ominous sign of the way the political wind is blowing.
Potter ends his study by declaring, not wrongly but a little earnestly: ‘Anyone who cares about what we read, watch, and listen to, on television, radio, or online, should think about what life would be like without the BBC, and about how the corporation might, in the future, find new and better ways to serve all our needs.’ Hendy ends his, fetchingly if a little sentimentally, with the diary entry of a retired nurse in the Second World War who had turned off her radio in protest against its unappealing programmes, but who then, when her set was broken for three weeks, declared herself ‘lost … as though a friend has gone from the house’. Hendy presents this snippet as ‘a simple reminder that we sometimes never know just how much we need or want something until it is gone’. Whether or not we think the BBC is now ‘crouching below/Extinction’s alp’, to adapt a phrase from Larkin’s ‘The Old Fools’, the poem’s bleak concluding line may be all the comfort we can give ourselves: ‘Well,/We shall find out.’