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BBC history Hendy
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The BBC: A People’s History
By David Hendy
Published in 2022, 680 pages, hardback, also available as e-book
ISBN: 978-1-781-255254
Profile Books

The British Broadcasting Corporation, one of Great Britain’s best-known institutions, carries a rich history over its hundred years’ existence. Historian Asa Briggs published two books about the Corporation (in 1985 and 1995), which covered much factual detail up to those years. This book will interest those who are keen to know the people of the BBC and the politics that it had to endure. David Hendry delves into the interaction of staff members and government figures, and into the development of programmes that brought about changes. While Hendry only mentions classical music in passing, the BBC’s central role on the British music scene could make the book useful to the readers of these pages.

The author has laboured to find people with long memories, and to study the hidden corners of the BBC’s Caversham Park archives; he unearthed much intriguing detail. It may come as no surprise that the plan for a national radio broadcasting network had its foundation in the expanding Marconi Radio Company. The General Post Office too was instrumental as the state entity for regulating amateur radio enthusiasts’ activity in the 1910s; the office also provided much of the necessary infrastructure.

We are introduced to the biographical background of the three enthusiasts who formed the British Broadcasting Company, headed by a Presbyterian Glaswegian, John Reith. Journalist Arthur Burrows and a 40-year-old former World War I pilot Cecil Lewis joined Reith in laying out the concept for a national radio service. They set up the organisation in time to open with a broadcast of the General Election in 1922, and to show how the speed of radio communication compares with the press. Initially leaning on the Marconi Radio Company with a studio in Marconi House, and later at Savoy Hill, the General Post Office granted the BBC a licence to hold a monopoly in national broadcasting. Two independent stations in Manchester (Metropolitan Vickers, Trafford Park) and Birmingham (General Electric Company, Witton) were linked to form a modest network that would allow the corporation to grow.

Hendry gives us a flavour of the working conditions at Savoy Hill, with its hot, dusty and cramped conditions, yet with generous floor space compared with Marconi House. The bustling activity in the Savoy Hill corridors conjures up vivid mental pictures that bring the book alive. In the first year, 1922, the BBC lost little time to extend external cabling to include dance orchestras from the Savoy Hotel and operas from Covent Garden. From the start, the varied short programmes included book readings, sketches, music recitals, talks and lectures, as well as broadcasts for children—all live, of course, and frequently unrehearsed. Such arrangements lasted until the accumulating success led to expansion plans and the construction of Broadcasting House starting in 1928. It is good to see Eric Gill mentioned in some detail for his sculptural work on the building.

Let me expand the picture by noting a few music-related facts. Up to the beginning of World War II, St. George’s Hall, close to the Broadcasting House, hosted the Proms with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Henry Wood and Sir Hamilton Harty. Funds were found to add a generously sized Concert Hall where Sir Thomas Beecham and brothers Eric and Stanford Robinson would regularly conduct. A large Compton organ was installed there in 1933. The BBC has had a reputation for engaging world-class conductors from early on. During the tenures of William Glock, BBC Controller of Music in 1959-1972, and Ernest Warburton, BBC Head of Music Programmes in 1977-1982, the output became quite varied. Commissions went to composers as early as in 1925, when Geoffrey Toye wrote a radio opera to A. P. Herbert’s libretto. A much later notable commission was Peter Maxwell-Davies’s Symphony No. 8 The Antarctic in 2001.

Back to the book. I had hoped that the acquisition of later BBC buildings would be covered in similar detail, but we read little of the setting up of Lime Grove and nothing of the planning for the Television Centre or Manchester’s Studio 7. (Let me note that it was meant for the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra with notable conductors Raymond Leppard and Edward Downes.) That is a pity: it would be interesting to know how and why the future locations were chosen and financed. It has been rumoured that the BBC always rents its properties, but is this true? Who funded the building of Broadcasting House and who decided to close down Television Centre? One would love to know.

I was involved in the BBC as a small-time writer and presenter for Schools Radio when based at 3 Portland Place, opposite the Langham and Broadcasting House. The book reveals many peculiarities of what is in some measure my organisation. I would have hoped the book to say how much the BBC Director-General John Birt’s accountants really cost the Corporation, and how they dared to audaciously sidetrack the proven, economic, well-trodden and well-oiled organisational routine passed down over decades. To see a purpose-built TV Centre at Wood Lane closed down and inadequately replaced by an expensive adaptation to Broadcasting House suggests madness or cronyism. It seems that David Hendry did not come across any material focusing on such muddling calamities.

We find that in the early days all staff pulled together and were trusted to manage their own departments professionally without interference. Relations between the Director-Generals and government ministers, examined in detail, make the move from Company to Corporation understandable. The Post Office held back an unfair amount of revenue from BBC licences, we are told—but we must remember that it invested heavily in providing an extensive network of cabling to link nationwide studios and to build transmitters. The separate transmitters for the new commercial stations in the ITV building were a folly, and there had been at first no rationalisation. We have to remember that the BBC at Wood Norton trained all cameramen and sound engineers up to the 1960s, and these were headhunted to start ITV. Nowadays the BBC outsources most of its TV programmes, which is costly and contradicts Birt’s blinkered accountants; the government went along. The setting up of an International Broadcasting Union allowed relays from countries that let their output of concerts and operas be shared without payment.

After the initial chapters, the book changes direction to get into the social history of the time. I felt that to spend over fourteen pages on the General Strike was a diversion from the main story, as was a long section on operations during the War. The book takes an in-depth look at some of the long-lasting series of programmes, and tells us how BBC News got out of hand over reports about the Gulf War and other topics. The scandals concerning Jimmy Savile and other celebrity misbehaviour are well researched, and their knock-on effects studied.

BBC Television had enjoyed the stability of anchorman Richard Dimbleby as a long-standing interviewer. David Attenborough, who joined the BBC in 1954, gave even greater all-round stability. He would become a presenter, director, producer and Controller of BBC 2, and was even shortlisted for the position of Director-General. Good notes cover recent initiatives such as BBC Online and BBC Player, yet seem to miss the importance of Ceefax - run by the BBC in 1974-2012 - and its provenance.

Perhaps a book such as this, even at 680 pages, can only scratch the surface of the BBC, but it is pitched more to readers interested in engaging with the staff rather than discovering a factual framework of facilities of this developing organisation.

Raymond J Walker

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