The BBC: A People’s History by the Connected Histories of the BBC project’s founding director David Hendy was published on 27 January 2022 by Profile Books Ltd. Based on many of the unique oral histories that the CH-BBC project is helping to bring to public view, it is the only BBC-authorised centenary history book and traces the BBC from its maverick beginnings through war, the creation of television, changing public tastes, austerity, and massive cultural change.
The BBC has constantly evolved, developing from one radio station, to television, then multiple channels and now the competition with the internet and streaming services. The BBC: A People’sHistoryis a history of a now global institution that defines Britain and created modern broadcasting; it is also a reflection of 100 years of British history.
Eighty-five years after the BBC broadcast its first-ever variety programme for television during the 1936 RadiOlympia exhibition, the latest edition of ‘100 Voices that Made the BBC‘ – 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.
I wear many hats, and aside from working on the Connected Histories of the BBC project (CHBBC), I am an English teacher. As the project develops, and new archive materials are released, I’m fascinated by the wealth of resources on offer, and feel profoundly privileged to read materials ahead of their release. Today’s blog highlights some aspects of the “100 Voices that Made the BBC” websites that we are creating for the BBC as part of this project, and how they can be used in teaching.
We’re delighted to announce that Professor Margaretta Jolly, a co-investigator in the Connected Histories of the BBC project, has just been awarded the 2019 Hogan Prize. The prize is given to an ‘outstanding essay’ submitted to a special issue of a/b: Auto/Biography Studies.
Former BBC Monitoring Service employee’s journals found and adapted into a new web series.
“I don’t know what the future may bring, but I think there are fairly good prospects in the BBC. After two years there, I have a good chance of getting on the established staff and thus qualifying for a pension. So, perhaps for the first time in my life, I am in a good steady job at last.” Dick Perceval, 12th June 1950.
What was it like to work for the BBC during the Second World War and did it play a special role in shaping the public’s experience of war? These are two of the issues addressed during our project’s third public event held on Saturday 19 October 2019 at The Keep in Brighton.
‘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.
We’ve recently launched the sixth of our 100 Voices that Made the BBCwebsites, featuring some enticing highlights from the Corporation’s oral history archives. It’s all about The BBC and World War Two and it went live on 3 September 2019, to coincide with the 80th anniversary of the announcement that Britain was at war with Hitler’s Germany.
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.
One of my first tasks as project administrator was to identify a Project Management System for the Connected Histories team to use. As an information professional, with a background in libraries management, and a techie at heart, this is the sort of challenge I relish.
Most historians work in text – we imagine ourselves surrounded by books and filing cabinets full of archival scribblings. But increasingly, we also work with other kinds of data. For myself, the BBC Connected Histories project has challenged me to think differently about how I do research and what kinds of sources I use. In part this is because the project focuses on an ‘oral history’ collection – the BBC’s own oral history. But much more importantly, by obliging me to think about ‘sound’, it has also obliged me to think about space and place; video and image in new ways.
When I initially started working for ‘Connected Histories of the BBC’ as a PostDoc Research Fellow, almost a year ago, I naively felt rather confident about my knowledge of what an archive might contain. I have previously worked with various mainly textual-based archives for my PhD research, as well as for different Digital Humanities (DH) projects I was involved with in recent years. I am familiar with the “allure of the archives” but also with the undocumented, scattered, unexpected assets, the often chaotic structure of files, folders and boxes. I am aware of – and by now, trained in – how to treat and respect the original archival order, how to cite and use archival assets as a way to understand and narrate (often hidden) histories about the past.
Introspective, sometimes confessional, the 650+ filmed interviews with former staff in an ongoing oral history of the BBC contrast dramatically with the broadcaster’s lustrous front face. But for anyone wanting to understand the policies, people, direction and self-image of a broadcaster so uniquely powerful and respected, they are a treasure trove.
Former war correspondent, later BBC executive Frank Gillard’s inspired decision in 1971 to interview retiring staff anticipated the rise of ‘corporate oral history’. Today, recordings of the memories – and voices – of employees at all levels are recognised as valuable additions to the business archive, enhancing our understanding of a company’s development and culture.
This edition of ‘100 Voices that Made 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 BBC has opened up its archives for exploration of how TV and radio have understood and covered race, immigration, British identity, and nation across the twentieth century.
As part of the AHRC-Connected Histories of the BBC, the fourth in a series of BBC websites, 100 Voices that Made the BBC, has been released. It’s called People, Nation, Empire. Published to coincide with the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush and the King’s formal renunciation of the title of Emperor of India, it explores how the BBC has tried to reimagine itself in the multicultural and postimperial age – how it’s grappled over the years with the wider issue of who exactly gets to speak on air and who exactly gets to appear on screen. You can see it here
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.
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?
The BBC launched the world’s first regular ‘high-definition’ television service in 1936. This edition of 100 Voices that Made the BBC 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.