The British Broadcasting Corporation, the BBC — the Beeb — turns 100 this year. “Hullo, hullo, 2LO calling, 2LO calling,” a few thousand listeners heard through the hissing ether at 6 pm on November 14, 1922. “This is the British Broadcasting Company. 2LO. Stand by for one minute please!” What followed were short news and weather bulletins, read twice, the second time slowly so that listeners could take notes.
David Hendy, in his thorough and engaging book, The BBC: A Century on Airwrites that you can’t understand England without understanding the BBC. It occupies, he says, “a quasi-mystical place in the national psyche.” It’s just there, like the white cliffs of Dover.
the BBC sparked to life in the wake of World War I. Its founders included wounded veterans, and they were idealists. Civilization was in tatters; they hoped, through a new medium, to forge a common culture by giving listeners not necessarily what they wanted, but what they needed to hear.
The audience was fed a fibrous diet of plays and concerts and talks and lectures; sports included Derby Day and Wimbledon. Announcers wore dinner jackets as well as their plummy accents, “as a courtesy to the live performers with whom they would be consorting.” Catching the chimes of Big Ben before the evening news became a ritual for millions.
Radio was new; the BBC felt that it had to teach people how to listen. “To keep your mind from wandering,” it advised, “you might wish to turn the lights out, or settle into your favorite armchair five minutes before the program starts; above all, you should remember that ‘If you only listen with half an ear, you haven’t a quarter of a right to criticize.’”
the BBC gained a reputation for being a bit snooty, and soporific. One complaint can stand for many: “People do not want three hours of [expletive] ‘King Lear’ in verse when they get out of a 10-hour day in the [expletive] coal pits, and [expletive] anybody who tries to tell them that they do.”
the BBC took it from both sides. To mandarins like Virginia Woolf, it was irredeemably middlebrow; she referred to it as the “Betwixt and Between Company.” the BBC loosened up over time and took increasing account of working-class and minority audiences, and of audiences who simply wanted to laugh.
The broadcaster was created by a Royal Charter; it has never been government-run, yet it must answer to government. Mr Hendy recounts attempts to limit his editorial independence. Churchill and Thatcher were especially vocal critics: They felt there was something a bit pinko about the whole enterprise.
the BBC‘s scrupulous reporting during World War II gave it lasting prestige across the world. It largely lived up to the motto of RT Clark, his senior news editor: to tell “the truth and nothing but the truth, even if the truth is horrible. During wartime, the company occasionally broadcast from a safer perch. When announcers intoned “This is London,” with British phlegm, they were often in a countryside manor. The London headquarters took a direct hit from a bomb in October 1940; the reader of the evening news “paused for a split second to blow the plaster and soot off the script in front of him before carrying on with the rest of the bulletin.” Seven people were killed in the attack. After the war, the BBC‘s foreign services became a prop to the Commonwealth, the new euphemism for “empire.”
One of this book’s best set pieces is of the BBC‘s wall-to-wall televised coverage of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953. One reporter referred to it as “C-Day.” This sort of thing had never been on TV before. the hard part
Mr Hendy writes what “persuading royal officials that mere subjects had a right to witness the ceremony in the first place.”
Over time the BBC‘s tentacles grew longer and more varied: clusters of radio and television stations catered to different demographics. Competitors crept in.
Language battles fought at the company are never dull to read about. For decades, “bloody” could be used only rarely and “bugger” not at all. One internal stylebook, Mr Hendy writes, “included a ban on jokes about lavatories or ‘effeminacy in men’ as well as any ‘suggestive references’ to Subjects such as ‘Honeymoon Couples, Chambermaids, Fig leaves, Prostitution, Ladies’ underwear, eg winter draws on, Animal habits, eg rabbits, Lodgers, Commercial travelers.”
the BBC‘s nature documentaries were pathbreaking, and big hits. Mr Hendy walks us through how, under David Attenborough, these things got made. Mr Attenborough was told, early on, that he couldn’t appear on screen because his teeth were too big.
The right has retained its distrust of the BBC, including up-to-date complaints about weekness; it would like to see it become smaller and more “distinctive,” in the manner of PBS and NPR.
Mr Hendy can be critical of the company, but at heart he’s a fan. He reports that across any given week, more than 91 per cent of British households use one BBC service or another. the BBC can still be snoozy. I’m not the only person I know who, at least before Putin rattled the world’s cage, listened to the BBC World Service app at bedtime because it’s an aural sleeping pill.
I deserve to lose style points for borrowing Mr Hendy’s last lines for my own, but he puts it simply about the BBC‘s precarious position: “We sometimes never know just how much we need or want something until it is gone.”
©2022 The New York Times News Service