Radio Fun

Philip Purser

  • A Social History of British Broadcasting. Vol. I: 1922-29, Serving the Nation by Paddy Scannell and David Cardiff
    Blackwell, 441 pp, £30.00, April 1991, ISBN 0 631 17543 1
  • The Collected Essays of Asa Briggs. Vol. III: Serious Pursuits, Communication and Education
    Harvester Wheatsheaf, 470 pp, £30.00, May 1991, ISBN 0 7450 0536 5
  • The British Press and Broadcasting since 1945 by Colin Seymour-Ure
    Blackwell, 269 pp, £29.95, May 1991, ISBN 0 631 16443 X

Of all the innovations of the 20th century, none has so completely penetrated and combined with everyday life as broadcasting. It would be difficult to find many people born in Britain in the past forty years who did not grow up to Muffin the Mule or Thunderbirds or Dr Who, and for whom the television set has been other than a natural adjunct to existence ever since. It would be equally hard to find natives of fifty-plus whose upbringing was not coloured by Dick Barton, Band Waggon or Monday Night at Seven (later, Eight) on the wireless. When other wells of nostalgia dry up, we bore each other with jokes and catchphrases and signature tunes that have stuck with us. We annotate our lives by reference to fragments seen or heard over the air. If I write ‘the day war broke out’, many will instinctively hear the phrase in the baffled tones of the comedian Robb Wilton who began a famous monologue with it. If I try to recall the actual day war broke out, on 3 September 1939, I can calculate that I was just 14, and remember that about that time, give or take a week, I had a stiff neck from diving into Hoylake Baths with my head on one side: but I can only tell exactly where I was (outside the police station), and what I was doing (listening with a few others to the car radio of a parked car), during the minutes when Chamberlain was speaking on the wireless that Sunday morning.

Broadcasting is, in fact, such a shared, or social, experience that the great difficulty facing anyone embarking upon an avowedly social history must be to make it different from existing histories. It has to be said that for the first half of their first volume of A Social History of British Broadcasting Paddy Scannell and David Cardiff seem scarcely to try. As they tread the well-worn path through the BBC’s approaches – first as a company, then as a corporation – to politics and international affairs and the General Strike and the Abdication crisis and all the other familiar issues, the same old minutes and memoranda are turned up. The files in the BBC’s much-praised written archives must by now fall open at the right places, marked perhaps by a spent match Peter Black inserted in 1971 or a shrivelled potato chip left behind by Asa Briggs. As for the one or two specific issues Scannell and Cardiff are able to enlarge upon, notably the treatment of unemployment and poverty, they have done so by venturing beyond the customary sources and drawing, for instance, on some forgotten but impassioned reportage from the slums by the cricket commentator Howard Marshall, or tracking down Olive Shapley, producer of pioneering social features (i.e. documentaries) with such titles as Miners’ Wives or Homeless People.

When they turn to programme categories, they are good on music and musical tastes: symphonies became extraordinarily popular, especially programme symphonies such as Beethoven’s Pastoral or Berlioz’s Fantastique, while the audience for chamber music was so small it couldn’t be measured. Same with dance music in the heyday of the dance bands: Jack Payne, Henry Hall and Ambrose were all tuneful and popular; the more rarified Fred Elizalde at the Savoy was so disliked that he had to be dropped from the rota. And for the first time, as far as I know, a history of pre-war radio pays serious attention to the BBC’s commercial challengers, Radio Luxembourg and Radio Normandie, and how they astutely recruited favourites the BBC had created (Ted Ray, Billy Cotton and his band, the gramophone record-presenter Christopher Stone), and not only set them off to better advantage but did so in pre-recorded, packaged series that were much more profitable for the performer. In an early demonstration of the dread art of scheduling, the commercial stations also concentrated their forces on attacking the BBC when it was at its weakest, which was throughout the dour Sabbath (church services, talks and serious music only) that Reith insisted on.

But these are concerns of the broadcasters more than concerns of their audience; they are social phenomena as noted at the sending end rather than experienced at the receiving end. For the effects on the public – in matters of taste and fashion and the ‘crazes’ of the day – the authors fall back on those old reliables, Punch cartoons and letters to the Radio Times, though they do raid one interesting extra source of comment, the radio fan magazines that briefly flourished in the Thirties. This makes it all the odder that they ignore the popular newspaper columnists of the era, such as Collie Knox. However superficial his views might seem to academic historians, he sure as hell had his ears attuned to the likes and dislikes of his readers. Finally, after 355 pages, Scannell and Cardiff turn their attention to the circumstances, and indeed the mechanics, of being a listener. The early enthusiasts fiddling with their crystal sets were inspired by the quest itself as much as the content of the signals they succeeded in picking up. As the crystal set was incapable of being amplified (except by putting the headphones in a biscuit tin), ‘listening-in’ was mainly a private pursuit. Only with the advent of valve sets and loudspeakers did it become a family activity.

At first, the sets were nearly all battery-powered, meaning heavy glass accumulators which had to be carried to the shop to be recharged, and whose acid, if spilled, took the colour out of carpets and the polish off the sideboard; battery sets nevertheless remained in demand even when most people had mains electricity, because wall points were sparely provided, often only one per house. Mains sets were heavily promoted by the industry but only became generally affordable with the Philco of 1935, which cost just over £5 and was billed as the People’s Set – and here I must raise a petty quibble. ‘Its curved black bakelite case,’ the authors explain, ‘was reminiscent of the People’s Car, the Volkswagen, which came into mass production in Germany at the same time.’ Nonsense! The Volkswagen was not produced in sufficient numbers under the Nazis to distribute it even to the citizens who had subscribed for one. Philco would much more logically have pinched the name from the Volksempfänger, or People’s Receiver, which was promoted just as loudly as the car, and actually was manufactured in large quantities. Despite a quotation from Vile Bodies and references to Graham Greene, George Orwell and J.B. Priestley, this section is a testament to the inadequacy of written sources, on their own, when researching matters as elusive as the likely ambience in which radio programmes were heard. At one extreme, Scannell and Cardiff reproduce comic exhortations from the Radio Times on how to prepare for a radio play (be seated five minutes before it is due to start, with the lights turned down) or listen to a string quartet (imagine them to be playing a game among themselves and at the end, as the last chord fades away, ‘nodding to each other with a smile as if to say: “Jolly good fun, that!” or “That goes better every time!” ’).

At the other extreme, an extract from a listening survey paints a picture of the ‘hurly-burly’ in the household as one member of the family tries to listen to Toscanini and the others sigh, grumble, talk business and bang in and out of the room. Surely there are enough pensioners still around who would be happy to chip in a few reminiscences of how it really was for them. Or perhaps it would be sensible to shift the emphasis from the social to the cultural influence of broadcasting. The question that towers above all others to do with British broadcasting is whether it has ever succeeded in uniting all quarters, all classes and all brow-levels in one common culture. I would put in a claim on behalf of television roughly from 1961 to 1985 – maybe Scannell and Cardiff will do the same in a later volume. I am sure they will make a case for radio in the special circumstances of 1939-45. Meanwhile they come very close to pinning a rosette on the output of the BBC’s Variety Department, anyway, in the last years of peace, which is both just and imaginative of them.

Variety, or Light Entertainment in today’s terminology, had been a minor activity occupying only two or three producers, largely left to their own devices. Neither Reith nor his immediate lieutenants were interested in such common fare. Only the competition from Luxembourg and Normandie persuaded them that perhaps they should do more. What they did, by a happy accident of accidie, was to promote Variety into a department in its own right, with no fewer than 29 producers by 1936, while continuing to take absolutely no interest in the product.

Eric Maschwitz, in charge, had a free hand and made the most of it. From his string of successes Scannell and Cardiff wisely choose Band Waggon as their exemplar. It was one of the first programmes (after Music Hall, In Town Tonight and Monday Night at Seven) to go out at the same time on the same evening every week. It was the first to have a regular performer, or ‘resident comedian’ as the BBC preferred to define Arthur Askey’s role. And it was concocted so informally that only after two or three shows did Askey have the bright idea of taking that pompous phrase literally and pretending that he and his foil, Richard Murdoch, were living in a flat at the top of Broadcasting House. For some reason this fancy captivated the nation, and from it developed a wonderful gallimaufry of imaginary characters – Lewis the Goat, Mrs Bagwash, her daughter Nausea. It established the basic formula of anarchic private world, whether town hall or RAF station or run-down spa, that would yield, in turn, Itma, and Much Binding and Merry-Go-Round, and see us all through some lousy times ahead.

Asa Briggs was, of course, the first and still is the most eminent of the historians of broadcasting, just as his wife Susan was the first and most entertaining compiler (in Those Radio Times in 1981) to peer up the social frills of the wireless era. The third volume of Lord Briggs’s Collected Essays, subtitled Serious Pursuits, contains several spin-offs from the task that Sir Ian Jacob, then Director-General, first invited him to take on in 1958 – a history of the BBC which became his monumental History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom. He traces the emergence of mass entertainment, with broadcasting arriving almost last on the scene and at the time thought to offer the least prospect of affecting society. He reassesses John Logie Baird and John Reith. He turns up a quaint precursor of broadcasting, an entertainment telephone system, which flourished in but one city in the world, Budapest. Most pertinent to what we have been discussing so far is a paper Lord Briggs gave at a symposium in Canada only last year. The theme of the symposium was the use of broadcast records, as distinct from conventional documents, in the study of history. Briggs says that he is all for the former; it was his desire to lay his hands on ancient radio and TV recordings that led him, partly, to accept Sir Ian’s invitation.

Alas, he found that such treasures had never existed, or if they had existed had failed to survive. The cheap and compact preservation of radio programmes only became feasible about the middle of the century, of television not until it was three-quarters through. Many earlier tapes had been ‘wiped’ for re-use. Briggs had to rely, at least at first, on the written archives, or, as he puts it, on papers about the broadcasting output rather than the output itself. A beneficial consequence of his disappointment was that he was invited to chair a committee which prodded the BBC into overhauling all its archives, sound, visual and written. Categorisation was reformed – there is now a Category C, for example, which will presumably have lightened Paddy Scannell and David Cardiff’s further labours. Category C is ‘material of sociological interest, giving examples of contemporary life and attitudes’.

Lord Briggs says politely that in his experience this is also the category that requires the closest examination. Future users will have to learn that they cannot treat broadcast evidence as straightforward raw material. They will have to take form as well as content into account. They will have to understand that in almost every kind of programming there is an element of contrivance that can properly be called fiction. They will have to realise that evidence can never be separated from its context in time and place – or as I would rephrase it, from the grimy viewpoint of 32 years of newspaper reviewing, that all images are suspect, and film images the most suspect of all Standard footage is used to set the scene of indicate particular times of war or famine of depression or prosperity regardless of the fact that in detail it is wrong by five years and five hundred miles. Contemporary attitudes, ever contemporary idiom and accents, are recklessly projected back to past times. Most dangerous of all, films feed on films, television programmes borrow from previous television programmes, and each time the dud information gains in acceptability. I came from the archives: it must be true mustn’t it?

I’m reluctant to quote the narrator of my own novel Friedrich Harris: Shooting the hero, but the old boy does take the process to a logical conclusion, and there is a certain irony in that, with any luck, he is due to become film himself. ‘I read that all our television emissions since television began are beaming out into space. The game shows, the newscasts the soaps, the movies, they go speeding on forever. And when, many thousands of years from now, our civilisation is dead and the scholars of some distant world study signal monitored from Earth, how will they ever be able to distinguish between our dreams and our history, our myths and our reality, our truth and our lies?’

The British Press and Broadcasting since 1945 (latest volume in the ‘Making of Contemporary Britain’ series) is history for those who see history dictated by economic and social forces rather than by heroes and kings, though Cecil King does get a few mentions. Lord Hartwell, who directed the fortunes and misfortunes of the Daily Telegraph for most of the 45 years under review, and in the Sunday Telegraph launched the first new national newspaper since the Thirties, appears on the scene only when he leaves it. The Daily Mail is located in the declining middle market between the pops and the heavies which it shares with the Express and, lately, Today: but of why it should have languished there under six or eight different editors, and then quite suddenly have soared aloft – of this there is no mention, let alone any explanation. Sir David English’s name is not in the index.

Colin Seymour-Ure presents his information with terseness and economy. On ownership and franchises, circulation figures and audience ratings, political and juridical factors, he is comprehensive. But this book does read awfully like a crib for a Mastermind finalist whose chosen subject is British Press and Broadcasting since 1945.