By Bridget Griffen-Foley
Entertaining, informative, lucid, kaleidoscopic: this centenary history of the British Broadcasting Corporation is like the finest BBC program. The task facing David Hendy, emeritus professor of media at the University of Sussex, and a former BBC journalist and producer, could hardly have been more daunting.
Since its first broadcast crackled to air on November 14, 1922 (barely rating a mention in the British press), the BBC has transmitted somewhere between 10 and 20 million TV and radio programs. It is a multi-channel phenomenon that broadcasts and streams around the clock and around the world. Historian Asa Briggs laboured for more than 30 years, between the 1960s and the 1990s, on a five-volume history of broadcasting in Britain commissioned by the BBC.
After committing to write an authorised history for the BBC centenary, Hendy had to contend with pandemic interruptions to research, as well as his own case of long COVID. His achievement, then, is all the more remarkable.
The book’s early pages remind us of the exhilaration of wireless, something utterly novel and untried, and explain how the BBC’s first generation had been scarred by World War I as they built a new community, with a transcendent sense of purpose, at the original headquarters, Savoy Hill. While the opening chapter may be focused on the founding figures of Cecil Lewis, John Reith and Arthur Burrows, the book is also about “the waifs and strays, the damaged souls, the oddballs, idealists, pragmatists, moralists, military types, dilettantes, actors, journalists and pacifists” who peopled the BBC.
Hendy has sought to uncover the world of thought and debate behind key BBC developments, and understand “one of the most extraordinary creative communities of the last century”. Drawing partly on the collection of hundreds of oral history interviews with staff that the BBC has been accumulating for decades, the author unpicks the experiences of lift attendants, telephonists and engineers as well as brilliant program-makers such as Lance Sieveking, Hilda Matheson and David Attenborough.
The BBC is democratic in another way. Running through the first of the book’s four sections is a consideration of how early broadcasters struggled to understand working-class life from the inside, and how they haltingly came to take popular culture seriously and explore the lives of ordinary Britons. Helping to drive this transition was the BBC North Region, centred in Manchester, and documentarians Geoffrey Bridson and Olive Shapley, who brought to the airwaves compelling and sympathetic slices of everyday life.
This is a refreshing institutional history that spends little time on boardroom meetings or minutiae. And yet a slightly fuller explanation of the administrative arrangements surrounding the BBC’s birth might help readers understand the complex relationship between the broadcaster, the General Post Office (GPO) and the government.
The book’s vivid second section is devoted to World War II, when many BBC operations were decanted to the country, the staff who stayed in London slept in shifts on mattresses in the concert hall, and Broadcasting House was struck by bombs. The BBC emerged from the war with not just operations in the provinces, Wales and Northern Ireland, but as a fully-fledged global institution, with English and foreign-language services across the world.
The BBC began regular television transmissions in 1932, more than 20 years before Australia. The service was suspended during the war and roared back into life in 1946 in time for the Victory Parade, with Hendy showing us how the BBC carved out a fertile space somewhere between “Nation” and “People”. This history is an accomplished work of synthesis: of detail, and of other scholarship. Hendy writes about news, talks, religion and natural history, and sport, music, variety and children’s programming – on radio, on television and online.
The ABC, of course, modelled itself on the BBC, though it also had a commercial sector with which to compete, and had first call on new BBC dramas and comedies until the British broadcaster entered into a deal with Foxtel in 2013. (That the BBC’s Listen with Mother was modelled on the ABC’s Kindergarten of the Air might have been noted by Hendy.)
Winston Churchill had loathed the BBC since the General Strike of 1926, and in the 1950s ensured that the BBC would not enjoy a monopoly on television as it did in radio. Hendy demonstrates how under a later Conservative prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, the BBC operated within a potent climate of political, commercial and personal hostility. He looks at more recent self-inflicted wounds, including the methods used by Martin Bashir to secure an exclusive interview with Diana, Princess of Wales, and the shelving of an investigation into Jimmy Savile’s suspected paedophilia.
Hendy’s conclusion lays out the forces now arrayed against the BBC, most notably with another Conservative government freezing funding and announcing plans to abolish the licence fee that has financed the broadcaster for a century. Hendy reminds Britons that the broadcaster BBC belongs to them, not the government of the day.
As Australia’s national broadcaster celebrates its 90th birthday on July 1, perhaps “Aunty” might consider further opening its archives, interviewing its staff, and exploring its history at the heart of Australian everyday life as it heads towards its own centenary.
Bridget Griffen-Foley founded the Centre for Media History at Macquarie University.
The BBC: A People’s History by David Hendy is published by Profile, $49.99.
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