BBC History Research Blog

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  • BBC producer and academic

    File R19/2529/1, BBC Written Archives

    File R19/2529/1 in the BBC Written Archives is an unassuming battered blue notebook. Yet it contains one of the few remaining records of an extraordinary radio programme, the annotated script of ‘All the World Over’, broadcast on Christmas Day 1932. Although barely mentioned in histories of the BBC so breathtaking was its ambition that it was, for the Adelaide Chronicle at least, ‘one of the most amazing events ever conceived by man.’ That it should have been so completely forgotten is perhaps because the broadcast that followed it is so well remembered, the first Christmas message of King George V. Yet to hear the King’s speech without understanding what contemporary listeners heard before it is to miss much of the drama of the occasion. For it was the final thrill in a technical white-knuckle ride, as BBC producers attempted to span the globe in a live broadcast, uniting the British Empire.

    The sounds of ‘Home’

    A similar effort in 1931 had been a high-profile failure. The...

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  • Principal Lecturer, University of Bournemouth

    Recently, I have been trying to find out more about an extraordinary woman called Isa Benzie, who forged an illustrious career at the BBC in the male-dominated world of foreign affairs. Joining the BBC in December 1927 as a secretary in the Foreign Department, she then worked her way up to become Foreign Director in 1933, a position she held until she left the BBC in January 1938. Her ten years in the Foreign Department are not easy to pin down. The BBC’s Written Archives Centre (WAC) hold a handful of administrative files, but these give very little information about what Benzie actually did. And the Foreign Department itself is illusive. Much of what I know about it has been garnered from the newspaper articles that lauded Benzie for attaining such an eminent post.

    The rise and rise of Isa

    Her BBC staff file does give some clues. She had been recruited to work with Major Atkinson, the original Foreign Director of the BBC. Atkinson was quick to recognise her capabilities and she was soon acting as his Deputy (she was promoted to the salaried Assistant grade in 1930). Atkinson was heavily involved in the work of the IBU – the International Broadcasting Union. From the early...

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  • Professor of Literature, Newcastle University

    For the past ten years I’ve been researching the cultural history of West African and Caribbean radio writing at the BBC in order to try and better understand the critical mid-century decades of decolonization, shrinking British sovereignty and mass migration to the metropole.

    Between the 1930s and 1960s, the BBC commissioned radio scripts and broadcasts by around 300 African and Caribbean contributors, including an extraordinary series of then unknown authors: V.S. Naipaul, Derek Walcott, Una Marson, George Lamming, Louise Bennett, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Amos Tutuola. Yet surprisingly, given both the pedigree of its individual contributors and the sheer numerical scale of its output, relatively little is known of the actual content of the broadcasts.

    Most of the sound archive from this period has been wiped - destroyed decades ago when the tight budgetary constraints of the Overseas Service and the relative expense of recording technologies made the costs impossible to bear. But thankfully many of their scripts still survive, preserved in silence at the BBC Written Archives in Caversham.

    Caversham is quintessential suburbia. Just beyond the thronging commuter traffic of...

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  • Associate Professor, University of Exeter

    During the Second World War millions of people in Nazi Germany turned to the BBC’s German-language programmes for reliable information about everyday events. Here they could find out how many people had been killed in air raids. They could hear about the food that London restaurants offered on menus while they had only stale bread and Ersatz coffee to consume. They could listen to Thomas Mann pronouncing his views on the war over the ether from California. They could also be entertained by songs and features that ridiculed their Nazi leaders.

    The creation of the BBC German Service

    What...

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  • Professor of the Arts on Screen, University of Westminster

    Those of us privileged to undertake research at the BBC’s Written Archives Centre in Caversham regard its holdings with reverence. The repository of the organisation’s papers of all kinds since 1922, Caversham guards the details of innumerable interactions with the powerful, the talented and the outraged. Here too are countless legacies of the bureaucracy that kept the studios humming and the staff canteens stocked. Key to the delights of Caversham are the files that have to be newly checked for sensitive material before one is permitted access. Most often this means that the archivist and...

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