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15 October 2014
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An Interview with Clare Lawson Dickicon for Recommended story

by WW2 People's War Team

Clare Lawson Dick gets ready for work after sleeping in one of the BBC's offices

Contributed by 
WW2 People's War Team
People in story: 
Clare Lawson Dick
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Contributed on: 
11 February 2005

(Clare spent 42 years on the staff at the BBC, joining before the war began. She joined the registry in 1935, went to work at Wood Norton in 1939, and eventually became controller of Radio 4 in 1975, the first female ever to become a network controller. Here are her recollections of what it was like to work at the BBC during the war years in an interview between her and the BBC in 1979.)

I joined the staff in 1935 and (due to the hunger and unemployment of the 30s) was delighted to be offered a job in the Registry, filing letters. Those were the primeval days at the BBC. No alcohol was allowed on the premises. There had been comparatively recent examples of persons involved in divorce cases being dismissed. And so were any of the girls who decided to get married.

When war did eventually break out I was with my parents at Dorking. We listened to Chamberlain's sorrowful voice telling us that we were now at war with Germany and to the air raid alert that followed immediately he had finished speaking — it was a false alarm, but impressive at the time. Then, pausing to be photographed in the garden with my gas mask slung over my shoulder, I set off by motor car with another BBC girl for Wood Norton, the secret establishment of the BBC near Evesham. At least we had thought it was secret, but within hours of our arrival, the detestable Lord Haw Haw had broadcast a message over the German radio 'Hello! The BBC at Evesham, are you settling in comfortably?'

After we arrived we were taken to our billets (accommodation for war evacuees — usually provided by local families who could accommodate) and mine was depressing — a cottage with the plumbing unchanged since the turn of the century, owned by two old ladies deeply suspicious of their guests. Fortunately I moved to a cheerful little house near the Evesham railway station. It was owned by Mr and Mrs Smedley and I remained friends with Mrs Smedley for years to follow.

The arrival of BBC evacuees had amazed the natives of Evesham but I think they rather enjoyed the shock. Val Gielgud (then head of Drama) had brought two Siamese cats with him and had asked if a tray of sand could be placed under his bed for them. Some of the most amusing departments in the BBC had been sent to Wood Norton on the outbreak of war; the Drama department, accompanied by the actors and actresses in the Drama Rep; the Theatre orchestra; a bevy of exotic foreigners who were in the Monitoring service; and the Features department who immediately set to work producing a series called 'The Shadow of the Swastika'. This series cast aside BBC inhibitions. Until we went to war there had been some decorum in the way in which the Nazi Government was referred to on the air, but now their story could be dramatised and told in all its sensational depravity — the BBC could be as rude as it liked.

I have always enjoyed the 'dotty' side of the BBC. We had a private siren at Wood Norton, not that we expected raids by enemy paratroopers or commandos but it is interesting to remember that the IRA had been bombing in London and elsewhere in 1939 and it was thought that they might have a go. I was delighted to receive an instruction which read, 'If the alert is sounded, staff must run into the woods immediately and lie down. Preferably in pairs'.

I loved Evesham but was delighted to be recalled to London in early 1940 having landed a new job in the Secretariat answering programme correspondence from listeners who wrote to the BBC, but I also did some research for the archives and for papers which were being prepared for the Board of Governors.

In the daytime we worked above ground. Then, as the sirens went at dusk, we descended to the basements, three floors of them, one below the other, and there we worked and played, ate and drank (there was an underground restaurant and a bar) and slept on the floor on pallets until the daytime. In those basements you would find Freedom Fighters from France still in the fisherman's blouses in which they had just rowed across the Channel; secretaries; producers; actors; writers; journalists; war correspondents and also senior BBC officials.

Early in the raids on London the corner of the Langham Hotel was hit, and Broadcasting House was damaged in the blast. The German radio immediately announced that Broadcasting House itself had been hit. I met a friend in the corridor who said 'Hurry along and you'll see a French Colonel. He's just going to broadcast and they believe they can rally France round him'. I hurried along and saw De Gaulle stalking ahead. He had been taking sherry before his broadcast when the building was blasted and my friend had carried off his glass with the bowl snapped off the stem as a souvenir.

The large Concert Hall in Broadcasting House was turned into a dormitory. The seats had been removed from the auditorium and the staff laid mattresses on the tiered steps, wriggled into sleeping bags made of sheets and drew a rough blanket over all. A washing line, with blankets hung over it, divided the men's section from the women's section. One night Mr Frederick Ogilvie, the Director General — appeared at the back of the hall and said 'Will the girls please get down amongst the men as there's a time bomb just behind them in the excavations'. In a second men were on their feet, dragging on their trousers and generally arranging themselves, whilst we girls whistled down amongst them without waiting for any decencies or courtesies.

One night, when Oxford street was being pounded, and Broadcasting House was rocking to the explosions, the staff became too nervous to sleep in their usual bedroom, for the concert hall was only semi-secure. They got up and several hundreds of them wandered about in the basements. This was the only night I knew of when this happened. Walking with three friends — all of us in pyjamas and dressing gowns — we met the Director General who said we could use his sub-basement room which was a bare brick room about the size of a bathroom. We were grateful and lay down on its concrete floor sharing the single available cushion between the four of us. There, through the wall from an adjoining studio we heard the voice of Ed Murrow beginning a broadcast to America with the words, 'This is England's zero hour' and we felt even more wretched than before.

It amuses me to think how often I have walked out of Broadcasting House in the morning in my pyjamas and dressing gown. I was making my way to Welbeck Street where a friend provided me with a bath. I thought nothing of it at the time for, walking with me in every sort of disarray were the crowds who had just come up from spending a night on the Oxford Circus Underground platforms.

Most of the staff who slept in BH volunteered for security services; in the Home Guard, in fire-fighting teams or plotting the course of enemy aircraft on a screen so that, when they came too near BH, a bell could be pressed to summon staff to the basement. I plotted aircraft and was also taught to fight fires, my instructor being a retired deep sea diver. He was elderly and from time to time his mind wandered and he would tell us how to manage if our air pipe was severed whilst we were at the bottom of the sea.

In the winter of 1942 I processed a message which was sent to the BBC to say the the navy in Scapa Flow were suffering from boredom, could the BBC do anything to amuse them? It was decided that the ITMA (It's That Man Again) programme cast should make the journey north and put on a programme before an audience of sailors. Just as they were about to start, a message came, 'Hold everything. Don't send them now'. The Navy then dashed out and sank the 'Scharnhorst' German battleship. Shortly after that a message came 'Send ITMA up now'. The recording of that show will always stay with me, the shouts of laughter of those triumphant young sailors makes them the most marvellous radio audience that I have ever heard. As Mrs Mopp said on the show, 'Bless their bellbottoms'.

Read more about the BBC's wartime history on the BBC HeritageAbout links site.

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