Voices of the BBC

Posted on 25 November 2021 by Denice Penrose  — No Comments ↓

Voices of the BBC consists of a series of specially-themed websites, developed by the Connected Histories of the BBC team and hosted by BBC History. The nine editions launched between 2015 and 2021 were designed to offer a taster of the BBC’s Oral History Collection and demonstrate how its interviews allow for new interpretations of key themes in the history of broadcasting.

The project aimed to showcase the voices of 100 people from the collection, but exceeded this tally, and produced two more themed websites than were originally planned. These ‘Voices of the BBC’ are intended to sit alongside the BBC’s ‘100 Objects’ and ‘100 Images’ collections which will be part of the BBC Centenary Celebrations in 2022.

Inventing the Future

Inventing the Future website ©BBC

The eleventh and last edition of Voices of the BBC looks at how the Corporation not only sought to reflect society but to change it for the better.

In this edition, Inventing the Future, the founding director of Connected Histories of the BBC, David Hendy, takes a closer look at ‘Reithianism’ ‑ the principles associated with the BBC’s first Director-General John Reith, notably the mission to ‘educate, inform, and entertain’ and an enduring commitment to public service.

Hendy carefully weighs up Reith’s legacy, and how this was taken forward in 1945 by William Haley who reorganised BBC radio into a pyramid structure of The Light Programme, Home Service and Third Programme with overlapping themes to promote high culture. Hendy also considers the continuing influence of Reithian values today and how they might evolve into the future.

Vicky Ball looks at how the BBC reflected changes in the status and social position of women in Britain through programmes that were written by and focused on women, with examples of BBC output that challenged and drove social change.

The BBC is obliged through its Royal Charter and Agreement to be independent and impartial. In considering impartiality, Jean Seaton acknowledges that “arguments that it is not ‘perfect’ or at times a defence for entrenched power have a point.” But she goes on to content: “However, there is no alternative to the attempt except partisan propaganda.”

Seaton looks at difficulties and controversies that the BBC has faced, from the 1926 General Strike, World War Two, and the conflict in Northern Ireland. This section includes interviews from the pioneer of television election broadcasting, Grace Wyndham Goldie, and the forensic interrogator Robin Day.

Reflecting on the power of impartiality, Seaton concludes that “the BBC can only serve the public by exploring, to the best of its ability, what has really taken place… the BBC is there to find out why and what has happened: both the larger, deeper causes and the immediate circumstances.”

The BBC’s technological development runs in parallel with its broadcasting. Bill Thompson looks at innovations that drove improvements in the quality of the BBC’s output and influenced the development of online and internet services. He includes clips from the BBC Oral History Archive featuring engineer Harry Routzen on the problems faced by remote studios, Harold Bishop on studio design and microphones in the 1920s, and Willy Cave on outside broadcasting for the 1948 Olympics. Several important technological developments are mentioned including the LS3/5A loudspeakers, NICAM stereo, DVB-T2, CEEFAX, and the BBC Micro.

Thompson concludes: “for a century the BBC has built on the work of others, shared its innovations and inventions with the world, and collaborated to develop international standards that can be universally adopted, expressing its core Reithian values in the design and implementation of every sort of technology related to its mission.”

Using carefully curated interviews from the BBC Oral History Collection, Inventing the Future shows how the Corporation first set out its obligations a century ago and how it strives to fulfil them, creating a public service broadcasting ethos that has earned respect around the world.


A woman is seated at a desk holding a sheet of paper. A woman is standing behind her, reading the document, alongside a man, who is lighting a pipe. The women are both holding cigarettes
1945 Radio Newsreel – BBC staff discussing a report on the General Election  ©BBC

The BBC pioneered the broadcasting of General Elections on radio and television. This edition considers how despite resistance from some quarters, the BBC found a way to bring the mysterious world of Parliament and politicians into living rooms.

This selection of clips from the BBC Oral History Collection was first published in 2015, to coincide with the UK General Election campaign that year. It features archive interviews with: Grace Wyndham Goldie, Ian Jacob, Leonard Miall, E.R. Thompson, Stephen Bonarjee, Harold Wilson, Hugh Carleton Greene, Paul Fox, Tony Benn, John Grist, William Whitelaw, Ludovic Kennedy, Cliff Michelmore, Robin Day, John Cole, and Margaret Douglas.

They offer vivid personal accounts of key moments in the evolution of political broadcasting since 1922. There are also sections on the evolving art of the political interview (including Jeremy Paxman’s famous encounter with Michael Howard in 1997), party political broadcasts, the coverage of party conferences and Parliamentary debates, the use in the studio of computers and the famous ‘Swingometer’, the racist election campaign in Smethwick in 1964, and short profiles of Grace Wyndham Goldie, Richard Dimbleby and Robin Day.

Alongside selections from the Oral History Collection, the website features rarely-seen TV archive recordings of election night coverage and other key political programmes, downloadable copies of several key documents from the BBC’s Written Archive Centre, and interviews with the elections expert David Butler, the former TV producer Suzanne Franks, and the former Head of BBC Political Programmes Sue Inglish, all recorded in 2015 especially for Voices of the BBC.

The Birth of TV

A black and white image, showing five dancers. Three women stand with their hands clasped over their heads, while two men kneel on the ground. The women wear similar costumes, flounced lace skirts, bare midriffs, and halter neck tops, while the men wear striped trousers and floral shirts.
Ballet at Alexandra Palace ©BBC

The BBC launched the world’s first regular ‘high-definition’ television service in 1936. This selection of clips from the BBC Oral History Collection explores the story of the BBC’s involvement in early television, from John Logie Baird’s mechanical experiments in the 1920s through to 1953, when the Corporation’s Television Service covered the Coronation of a new queen.

‘The Birth of TV’ features clips from the archive interviews with: Tony Bridgewater, Harold Bishop, James Redmond, Cecil Madden, Grace Wyndham Goldie, Stuart Williams, Peter Dimmock, Ian Jacob, Norman Collins, George Campey, and Joanna Spicer. There are also interviews with several former members of the ‘scenic design’ staff, recorded by the Alexandra Palace Television Society.

Together, these interviews provide detailed personal accounts of the BBC’s early dealings with Baird, the first trials with the new technology, experimental transmissions, and how many of the most famous pre-war programmes were made at Alexandra Palace. The website has special features on Cecil Madden, early TV sets, the first attempts at international TV broadcasting, the history of Test Cards, pioneering outside broadcasts, working life at Alexandra Palace, and the 1937 and 1953 Coronations. It provides several examples of rarely seen archive footage, including film of John Logie Baird experimenting with his mechanical TV system in 1929, a recreation of the first ever TV play, newsreel coverage of Alexandra Palace in 1936, footage of the 1937 Coronation broadcast, and clips from several pre-war TV drama productions and talks programmes. Documents from the BBC’s Written Archive Centre include one of the earliest audience research reports into TV viewing dating from 1937, and those from Mass Observation include a 1949 report that asked correspondents to reflect on how TV might affect their ‘home leisure pursuits’. A downloadable copy of Edward Pawley’s book, BBC Engineering 1922-1972, is also available through the website.

Radio Reinvented

Radio DJ Tony Blackburn is sitting in a recording studio smiling
DJ Tony Blackburn 1967  ©BBC

To mark fifty years since the launch of Radio 1, ‘Radio Reinvented’ offered a selection of clips from the BBC Oral History Collection that tells the behind-the-scenes story of the suppression of pirate radio and the BBC’s first pop-music station. It also sets this tumultuous episode in broadcasting history against a wider reorganisation of radio across the whole of the Corporation. On 30 September 1967, Radio 1 went on the air, the Light Programme changed into Radio 2, the old Third Programme became Radio 3, and the old Home Service emerged as Radio 4. Although it was a ‘television age’ – indeed, because it was a ‘television age’ – radio was being reinvented from top to bottom. Were the changes wrought in 1967 instrumental in helping the older medium to survive as a major cultural force in the UK – or were other, longer-term processes just as important?

This selection of interviews from the BBC Oral History Collection features clips from: Terry Wogan, Hugh Carleton Greene, Robin Scott, Gerard Mansell, David Hatch, William Glock, Howard Newby, Stephen Bonarjee, Patricia Hughes, Tom Crowe, Philip French, Martin Esslin, Barbara Bray, John Tydeman, Liz Forgan. An interview with the presenter Pete Murray, recorded by the British Entertainment History Project, is included, along with clips from two newly-filmed interviews for the Sussex-BBC Centenary Collection: with the veteran presenter Tony Blackburn and the former Radio 1 Controller Johnny Beerling.

Alongside a detailed insiders’ account of the launch of Radio 1, there are short features on: Radio Caroline, jingles, the DJ, needle time, radio drama, the role of the continuity announcer, evolving styles of presentation, the creation of the ‘Music Programme’ for classical music lovers, and pressure for an all-news network. There’s a longer profile of John Peel and a new appraisal of the controversial 1973 radio drama by David Rudkin, Cries from Casement as His Bones are Brought to Dublin. The website also includes several archive programme recordings, key government documents relating to the closedown of the pirates, and downloadable copies of audience research from the 1960s held at the BBC’s Written Archive Centre. Material from Mass Observation includes early accounts of ‘background listening’ to radio from 1949 and public reaction to the BBC’s rolling news coverage of the 1991 Gulf War.

People, Nation, Empire

Pauline Henriques is seated at a desk with Samuel Sevlon in this black and white image. A large microphone bearing the letters BBC is in between them. They both hold pages of paper in front of them.
Pauline Henriques and Samuel Selvon in 1952 ©BBC

To mark seventy years from June 1948, when the Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury and King George formally ceased being Emperor of India, ‘People, Nation, Empire’ dipped into the archives to explore how the BBC has responded to a multi-cultural, post-Imperial Britain. It examines the representation of the immigrant experience on radio and television, and sheds light on the various ways in which broadcasters tried – and sometimes failed – to embrace diversity.

The selection of interviews from the BBC Oral History Collection features clips from: Cecil Madden, David Waine, Richard Francis, Robin Scott, Stuart Hood, Leonard Miall, Alan Bullock, Austen Kark, Charles Curran, Ian Jacob, Gerard Mansell, Martin Esslin, Ferenc Rentoul, Alexander Lieven, George Ivan Smith, Geraint Stanley Jones, Alwyn Roberts, John Snagge, Colin Morris, and Eric Fenn. Those from the BBC’s Oral History of North Regional Broadcasting Collection include: Olive Shapley, Ted Wilkinson, Grahame Miller, Alfred Bradley, and Yvonne Adamson.

The absence in either of these collections of sustained and explicit discussion of issues around immigration, racial discrimination, or cultural diversity is striking – as is the almost complete absence before the 1990s of interviewees from ethnic minority backgrounds. Given this, ‘People, Nation, Empire’ has had to draw on a lot of other archive material – especially written records and programme footage – in order to explore the theme of multiculturalism. Content of particular note includes: downloadable documents from the BBC Written Archives Centre, including news bulletins from 1948 reporting the arrival of the Empire Windrush and plans for programmes for immigrants in the 1960s; extracts from pioneering television programmes such as Special Enquiry: Has Britain a Colour Bar? (1955), A Man from the Sun (1956), Morning in the Streets (1960), Make Yourself at Home (1965), Fable (1965), and Empire Road (1978); programme archive recordings that feature interviews with several leading writers and poets, including Louise Bennett, Derek Walcott, John Figueroa, George Lamming, Langston Hughes, and James Baldwin; and Mass Observation records that explore public attitudes towards minority communities.

Special features focus on, among other themes, the origins of broadcasting to Europe, the BBC in India, pioneering programmes to the Caribbean, personnel links between Australia and the BBC, the work of Una Marson, Langston Hughes’ work for the BBC in 1964, the story of LGBTQ+ programmes on the BBC, the Black and White Minstrel Show, the pioneering access programme ‘Open Door’, representations of the North, religious broadcasting’s approach to different faiths, and how programmes for children were conceived. In addition, ‘People, Nation, Empire’ featured an interview with the producer Tony Laryea, recorded by the British Entertainment History Project, and three new interviews – with Mike Phillips, Mark Tully, and Satish Jacob – recorded for the Sussex-BBC Centenary Collection.

Pioneering Women

BBC reporter Noni Wright is seated on the grass, holding a microphone. A young man is speaking to her while 8 others look on.
Noni Wright ©BBC

This edition of ‘Voices of the BBC‘ was prompted by the 2018 centenary of partial women’s suffrage. It draws on the BBC Oral History collection to explore the working lives of women at the BBC, both on air and behind-the-scenes, tracing the story from early pioneers in the 1920s and 1930s through to very recent debates about equal pay.

The selection of interviews from the BBC Oral History Collection features clips from: Olive Bottle, Janet Adam Smith, Mary Lewis, Grace Wyndham Goldie, Dorothy Preston, Mary Ticehurst, Monica Sims, Zena Skinner, Dorothy Torrey, Frances Line, Clare Lawson Dick, Charles Siepmann, Joanna Spicer, Jana Bennett, Zarin Patel, George Ivan Smith, Audrey Russell, and Yvonne Littlewood. An interview with Gillian Hush, part of the BBC’s Oral History of North Regional Broadcasting, is also included. Engineering staff, including Gladys Davies, Barbara (‘Bimbi’) Harris, and Muriel Powell, are from the Alexandra Palace Television Society’s archives, and interviews with Yvonne Littlewood, Patricia (Paddy) Foy, and Margaret Dale, are from the British Entertainment History Project. Two new interviews, with Annie Nightingale and Lorna Clarke, filmed for the Sussex-BBC Centenary Collection, are also included.

The website profiles several women who were never included in the BBC’s Oral History Collection but whose careers are historically significant, such as Hilda Matheson, Mary Somerville, Doris Arnold, Ada Hakeney, Elise Sprott, Fanny Cradock, Sue Lawley, Gwyneth Freeman, Muriel Howlett, Mary Hill, Peggie Broadhead, and Susan Belbin. More detailed profiles include analyses of the careers of the pioneering Marathi broadcaster Venu Chitale, the war correspondent Audrey Russell, and the pioneering Radio 1 DJ, Annie Nightingale.

A section on women of the BBC Radiophonic Workshop discusses the work of Elizabeth Parker, Daphne Oram, Maddalena Fagandini, Glynis Jones, and Delia Derbyshire. Other special features include items on Woman’s Hour, women engineers and camera operators, presenters, secretaries, typists and workers in the ‘General Office’, Controllers and senior managers.

The BBC and World War Two

Head and shoulders image of BBC War Correspondent in uniform, holding a BBC microphone.
Robin Duff ©BBC

On 3 September 1939 Britain went to war with Hitler’s Germany. In the fight against fascism, broadcasting played a starring role: as public informant, morale-booster, and propaganda weapon. ‘The BBC and World War Two’ draws on the Oral History Collection to explore how the BBC shaped the popular experience of wartime – and how, by 1945, war had transformed the BBC itself.

This selection of interviews from the BBC Oral History Collection features clips from: Harold Bishop, John Snagge, John Daligan, Clare Lawson Dick, Stuart Williams, Mary Lewis, David Davis, John Green, Charles Hill, Alec Sutherland, CHG Millis, George Budden, Elisabeth Barker, Francis McLean, Godfrey Talbot, Frank Gillard, Tony Bridgewater, Leonard Miall, Alan Bullock, Harman Grisewood, Owen Reed, Malcolm Frost, Audrey Russell, Cecil Madden, William Paley, Robin Duff, Norman Collins, and Susan Ritchie. There are interviews with John Ammonds and Olive Shapley from the BBC History of North Regional Broadcasting Collection.

Alongside a detailed insiders’ account of the BBC’s role during the opening weeks of the war, there are features on the ‘Bore War’, music and comedy programmes as morale-boosters, life inside the BBC during the Blitz, bomb attacks on Broadcasting House, the BBC’s dealings with the Political Warfare Executive over propaganda broadcasts to Europe, coded messages being sent to resistance groups on the Continent, the BBC’s relationship with Britain’s allies, and the status of certain individuals – such as Churchill, De Gaulle and Petula Clark – as iconic wartime broadcasters.

There are several archive clips from broadcasts of the period. These include: Neville Chamberlain’s announcement of the start of war, Government announcements about wearing gas masks, a 1941 programme about Mass Observation, Ed Murrow reporting on the Blitz, the hit comedy series ITMA, Priestley’s Postscript, Workers’ Playtime, Music While You Work, Front Line Family and The Man Who Went to War – both from the BBC North American Service – Charles De Gaulle’s June 1940 appeal to the French, the announcement on 6 June 1944 that D-Day had commenced, commentary from the beach landings in Normandy, War Report, and special VE day broadcasts from May 1945. Documents from the BBC’s Written Archives Centre include secret plans to relocate broadcasting away from London, censorship arrangements for News, planning for D-Day and coverage of the Second Front. ‘The BBC and World War Two’ features a large number of extracts from Mass Observation, including several wartime diary entries that vividly capture public reactions – both positive and negative – to BBC output.

The BBC and the Cold War

A man is standing with his arms raised triumphantly. Behind him is a large banner bearing the word Solidarity in Polish.
Polish Solidarity ©BBC

‘The BBC and the Cold War’ marks the anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall on 9th November 1989. In both its domestic programmes and those broadcast overseas by its World Service, the BBC mapped the course of the Cold War for a global audience. Moreover, as an international broadcaster, the BBC soon found itself engaged in an arms war of the ether, as it beamed its programmes over the Iron Curtain.

Reflecting on the critical role the BBC played, as a source of both news and intelligence, the BBC Oral History Collection reveals insider accounts from the cultural frontline of the Cold War. The website features clips from interviews with: Anatol Goldberg; Ian Jacob; Gerard Mansell; Alexander Lieven; Maurice Latey; Martin Esslin; Charles Curran; Ferenc Rentoul; Harman Grisewood; Oliver Whitley; Hugh Gaitskell; Huw Wheldon; Hugh Carleton Greene; Frank Gillard; Tony Benn; Noel Clarke; John Tusa. Alongside these are programme clips that illustrate the significance of broadcasting during the Cold War: the competing speeches of British Prime Minister Anthony Eden and Opposition Leader Hugh Gaitskell during the height of the 1956 Suez crisis; issues of civil defence and the horror of thermonuclear destruction, as seen in the 1965 BBC drama The War Game, which was banned from broadcast for twenty years.

In interviews recorded for the Sussex-BBC Centenary Collection, Eugeniusz Smolar reveals how an IBM computer provided a vital link between the Polish Solidarity movement and BBC journalists as they reported on the imposition of Martial Law in Poland in the early 1980s. Bridget Kendall and Elisabeth Robson-Elliot give eyewitness accounts of the collapse of Soviet communism in Moscow. And Peter Udell reflects on a career broadcasting over the Iron Curtain.

From the emergence of a new global conflict out of the unresolved tensions of the Second World War, to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the BBC provided a running commentary on the lived experience of the Cold War. This included giving voice on the airwaves to those living on the other side of the Iron Curtain, in the BBC German Service programme Letters without Signature, exploring the theme of nuclear disarmament, as exemplified by the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, and the uses made of the open source intelligence supplied by the BBC Monitoring Service to its BBC and British government customers. As a consequence, ‘The BBC and the Cold War’ offers unique insights into the role of broadcasting during the defining geopolitical conflict of the second half of the Twentieth Century.

Entertaining the UK

Morecambe and Wise are standing on a stage, performing. Morecambe is singing, one arm raised, while Ernie has both arms outstretched, and is leaning back. Both are wearing black suits and bow ties.
1970 Eric Morecambe, Ernie Wise – ©BBC – Photographer: Unknown

Eighty-five years after the BBC broadcast its first-ever variety programme for television – during the 1936 RadiOlympia exhibition – Entertaining the UK draws on a range of interviews from the BBC Oral History Collection to explore the most enjoyable of the BBC’s three founding principles: to entertain. Along with the Reithian injunctions to inform and educate, collectively they have underpinned public service broadcasting in the United Kingdom for a century.

Comedy, music, drama, natural history, and a sense of occasion and spectacle have all played their part in convening the country, nations and regions around the BBC’s broadcast output. Entertaining the UK sheds new light on this rich heritage, giving us a ring-side seat next to some of the most memorable moments in the history of broadcasting. These include the magic of Morecambe and Wise – and the Christmas Special with André Previn – the invention of the Generation Game, and the origins of Dr Who. Innovative new formats, such as Sportsview and Grandstand pioneered new journalistic techniques, while the advent of natural history broadcasting irrevocably changed our relationship with the world around us. Drama and comedy allowed us to examine the light and dark sides of the human condition, and music has remained part of the rhythm and rhyme of broadcasting over the last 100 years.

Interviews from the BBC Oral History Collection include: Paul Fox; Steven Hearst; Bill Cotton; John Ammonds; Frank Muir; Donald Baverstock; Hugh Carleton Greene; Desmond Hawkins; Tony Soper; Monica Sims; David Attenborough; Alan Hart; Michael Grade; Sydney Newman; Peter Dimmock; Seymour de Lotbiniere; Bryan Cowgill; Ray Lakeland; Francis House; Meryl O’Keefe; James Burke; Roger Mosey; Amanda Farnsworth; William Glock; Humphrey Burton; Yvonne Littlewood; Alun Oldfield Davies; Cliff Morgan; Huw Wheldon; Michael Jackson; Andrew Stewart; James Hawthorne. In addition, there are clips from British Entertainment History Project interviews with James Gilbert, Dennis Main Wilson, David Attenborough and Pete Murray, and with Johnny Beerling, from the Sussex-BBC Centenary Collection.

Entertaining the UK reflects a core editorial concern for the BBC: the need to engage audiences with broadcast material that informs and educates, while also entertaining them sufficiently to keep them coming back. The BBC’s solution was to create content that did both, as far as was possible, fusing them into its particular brand of public service broadcasting.

Header Collage

A selection of interviewees in the Connected Histories of the BBC catalogue. Top Row from Left to Right: Joan Bakewell, Asa Briggs, Deborah George, John Tusa, Mamta Gupta, Olive Bottle / Bottom Row from Left to Right: Julia Zapata, Esther Rantzen, Venera Koichieva, Suluma Kassim , John Birt, Olive Shapley, Mike Phillips

This collage contains a selection of interviewees from the Connected Histories of the BBC catalogue. Top row from left to right: Joan Bakewell, Asa Briggs, Deborah George, John Tusa, Mamta Gupta, and Olive Bottle. Bottom row from left to right: Julia Zapata, Esther Rantzen, Venera Koichieva, Suluma Kassim, John Birt, Olive Shapley, and Mike Phillips.