Broadcasting House | How the BBC found its place

On Saturday September 26, 1931, less than a decade after its inception, the BBC began the eight-month task of packing up and moving from the cramped rabbit maze of Savoy Hill to a gleaming headquarters building erected there. effect at Portland Place.

When the first programs were broadcast from this new home the following May, the occasion not only marked a more comfortable working life for staff – it heralded the arrival of the BBC as a major institution at the heart of the nation. The BBC had described Savoy Hill as the place where he had ‘been raised and grown into the property of man’. Now he had reached adulthood.

  • This is part 2 of a 13 part series by David Hendy describing how the BBC has shaped the nation. Read Part 1, The BBC Begins

The building, north of Oxford Circus, was called Broadcasting House. Some 43,000 tons of London clay had been excavated to create three basements descending 12 meters below street level. Above ground were nine stories, 500 windows, balconies planted with laurels, and a clock tower topped by a vast turtle-backed roof. The edifice consisted of 2,630,000 blocks of shimmering white stone arranged in the gently curved shape of an ocean liner.

Inside, a state-of-the-art “sound factory” had been created. Twenty-two studios, numerous dressing rooms, green rooms and a large concert hall, each decorated with art deco flourishes and equipped with the latest radio technology, were stacked in a central tower isolated from outside noise by a 1.2 meter wall thick and hundreds of offices around the outer edges of the building.

Listen | Media historian David Hendy talks to Matt Elton about the founding of the BBC in the 1920s, a decade of innovation and ingenuity, on the HistoryExtra podcast

The entrance hall, accessed through an imposing set of bronze entrance doors, was clad in cool marble, creating an aura of sophisticated modernity. The new home of the BBC, proclaimed the Daily Express, was nothing less than the “brain center of modern civilization”.

It was a moment of excitement mixed with a growing sense of responsibility, but there were grumblings from the staff – and not just because the company was growing so rapidly that even the luxurious Broadcasting House proved too small from the start.

The company was growing so rapidly that even the luxurious Broadcasting House proved too small from the start.

The problem was that the place had an unfamiliar air of stately authority. Every doorknob, faucet and sink was polished daily. A newly designed BBC coat of arms occupied prominent positions around the building. The commissionaires on duty in the lobby stood sharply at attention when the general manager, John Reith, or one of his principal assistants arrived each morning.

There were separate elevators for production staff, artists, and administrators. And the number of planners and accountants seemed to have multiplied overnight. Maurice Gorham, artistic editor of the Radio schedules, wrote about a growing “caste sense” of separation between those working in the factory and a “management” that seemed increasingly detached from the creative process. Broadcasting House, he decided, was simply too “locked in for its own good”.

Ravenous Growth

In reality, the move was only a symbol of a deeper and more complex evolution. There was the sheer production growth to consider. By May 1932, there were two main networks: the National Program and the Regional Program, each generally broadcast from about 10 a.m. to about midnight.

The regional program, as its name suggests, offered a range of opt-outs and opt-ins in different parts of the country. There were also national stations for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the BBC even launched experimental TV shows.

Feeding this voracious, ever-expanding schedule required not only more production staff, but more engineers, more office staff, more facilities, and more paperwork – in short, more bureaucracy. The creative process, happily ad hoc at the start of Savoy Hill, had become more practiced, professional, regulated and routine.

All the while, the BBC had gradually moved closer to the institutions of Britain’s ruling elite – the worlds of Westminster and Whitehall, Lambeth Palace and Sandringham.

A straw in the wind had been the BBC’s clumsy role during the May 1926 general strike. With the national press suddenly shut down, the BBC assembled its own press team for the first time and made a half-decent attempt. to reflect the two parties to the dispute. But the threat of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Winston Churchill, to take control of Savoy Hill and make him a partisan spokesman for the government had undoubtedly concentrated the spirits.

The pressure behind the scenes

It was behind-the-scenes pressure from Downing Street that forced the BBC to deny airtime at crucial moments to Labor Party leader Ramsay MacDonald and the Archbishop of Canterbury, despite allowing the Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin to take the microphone.

Once the strike was over, John Reith complained vehemently that the BBC had been “ingested”. But he acknowledged that self-censorship – in effect being ‘for’ the government in its news coverage, on the grounds that the government was on this occasion ‘for’ the nation – was what saved the BBC from an outright requisition. For him, it was a price to pay.

The general strike blurred the professional boundaries between broadcaster and administration. Almost two weeks of coordination between the Savoy Hill newsroom and the Admiralty office in Whitehall, where the government’s information operation was based, had seen BBC staff working alongside senior officials to write advertisements and copy the veterinary agency. It was a temporary arrangement, but one that Reith’s advertising manager described as a “pleasant partnership” that he wanted to see “perpetuated”.

How the BBC’s Empire Service provided ‘a belt around the Earth’

Just months after decamping to the grandeur of Broadcasting House, the BBC celebrated another milestone in its rise to international status. On Monday, December 19, 1932, the Empire Service (now the World Service) was born, sending its signal thousands of miles and in all directions from the powerful new Daventry transmitter.

The new service was an opportunity to keep Britons in what the BBC called ‘the hinterland’ connected to their homeland – and for the homeland, in turn, to ‘spread its ideas and culture’ to other countries. other parts of the globe.

But this was not the first time that dominions and colonies were linked to the imperial capital by what Radio schedules called “a belt around the Earth”: experimental shortwave broadcasts to Australia had taken place as early as 1927. There had also been “Empire Day”, an annual event of unbridled jingoism in cities and towns across the country, characterized by speeches, singing and saluting the flag, with schoolchildren, in particular, encouraged to celebrate the undisputed virtues of British colonialism.

Not wanting to be outdone, the BBC took the opportunity to broadcast to home listeners an increasingly elaborate parade of thanksgiving services, traditional songs from around the world and popular tunes that had ” played their part in building and consolidating the empire”.

International links have also become a prominent feature of the BBC’s Christmas Day programming. In December 1938, as the threat of war loomed over Europe, listeners were sonically propelled through various capitals, from Stockholm to Prague, as they were treated to ancient songs from isolated churches, the swirling sounds of a funfair in Berlin’s Lustgarten and the chatter of a Greek café, side by side with descriptions of family festivities from a Swedish housewife, a German toymaker and a Czech schoolgirl.

The emphasis on the voices of “ordinary men, women and children” was striking – and a welcome reminder that the BBC had not entirely lost its common touch.

There was more going on here than the BBC getting closer to politicians and civil servants. By the early 1930s the BBC regularly offered listeners an annual series of shows which tuned in to the great occasions of respectable civic life: Trooping the Colour, the Lord Mayor’s Banquet, Royal Ascot, the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race and the National Eisteddfod, for example.

On 15 May 1932 – the very day the Broadcasting House was officially opened – London listeners heard a British Legion Memorial Parade relayed from Portsmouth, an evening carol from a Somerset parish church and a short speech from the Viscount Elibank. The following day, the Prince of Wales inaugurated the Somme Memorial at Thiepval.

Later that year there was the first-ever royal Christmas Day broadcast, when a nervous George V sat down at his desk in Sandringham to deliver a message to Britain and the empire .

Yet it was hard to resist the impression that the BBC’s rising status implied a growing obsession with its own somewhat exaggerated sense of dignity.

The technical skills involved in making these occasions happen were remarkable. Yet it was hard to resist the impression that the BBC’s growing status – and growing centrality in national life – implied a growing obsession with its own somewhat exaggerated sense of dignity, as well as a preponderance of the antennae of somewhat orthodox middle-class values.

It is true that there has been a concerted effort to accommodate popular taste in the schedule. Listeners got to enjoy Gracie Fields on the hit series music hall; there was lots of dance, football and boxing music, as well as the occasional documentary about steel workers or coal miners.

But it was clear that Broadcasting House would be a different place from Savoy Hill, and that the BBC of the 1930s would be different from the BBC of 1922. That carefree working culture of the early days was gone forever, it seemed. , and the pioneers were now whispering darkly that the “conservative forces” were taking control. As she grew into adulthood, the company also became a quite respectable part of the British establishment.

The BBC at 100

A century ago, a group of idealistic radio pioneers launched one of Britain’s most famous institutions: the BBC. In this 13-part series, media history David Hendy describes how society has shaped the nation. Catch up on Part 1: The BBC Begins

David Hendy is Emeritus Professor at the University of Sussex. His latest book is The BBC: A People’s History (Profile, 2022)

This article first appeared in the February 2022 issue of BBC History Magazine

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