The iconic home of BBC World Service
Bush House, for audiences around the world the name is synonymous with broadcasts from the BBC World Service. The name has become embedded in the mind, thanks to the frequent on air reminders of its presence by announcers and presenters over the years, creating something of a fan base of its own. For the dedicated follower, trips to London always included a mandatory visit to the main entrance at Centre Block, and photographs taken in front of a discreet brass sign, the only actual indication of the BBC's presence in the building.
Now a slow process of withdrawal has begun. By the summer of 2012 the last BBC programme will be broadcast from Bush House, and new tenants will be found.
There are solid practical reasons why the BBC is leaving. Never designed as a centre for broadcasting, the building is increasingly expensive to maintain, awkward to use, and there's a constant battle against a determined mouse population! Yet despite the difficulties, many staff as well as listeners, remain wedded to the place.
The building was designed with multi-occupancy in mind. The American architect Harvey Corbett undertook the commission in the early 1920s, creating a luxurious trade centre where companies could show off their products and services to potential clients. Finance came from an Anglo-American trading organisation headed by Irving T. Bush, hence the name. Later that decade Bush House was declared the 'most expensive building in the world', having cost around $10 million.
The developers found a prime site, and for the few that don't know it, Bush House occupies a dramatic position at the bottom of Kingsway, in central London, connected to the Strand on its southern façade. The portico is impressive, flanked by two male statues symbolising Anglo-American friendship, sculpted by the American artist Malvina Hoffman.
Over a Celtic altar at the centre of the portico is the inscription 'To the friendship of English-speaking peoples'. The inscription mystifies people. The BBC motto is 'Nation Shall Speak Peace Unto Nation', yet for the World Service one might be forgiven for thinking that its purpose is to keep up chummy relations with our friends across the Atlantic. For an Anglo-American trading centre the inscription fits, for an international broadcaster, renowned for its impartiality it's awkward.
The words remain, and are even expressed in the form of a statue over the entrance to Centre Block. Initially, Malvina Hoffman, made two life-size models out of three-ply wood which were set into the stone plinth at the front of the building. These were left in position for a couple of days to see what the statues would look like. They were then carved in the U.S.A. and shipped to London.
The two male figures, representing Great Britain and America hold a flaming torch and a shield decorated with the British lion and the American eagle. The statues are made of Indiana stone, as it was difficult to find large enough pieces of Portland stone. There was concern at the time as to whether the Indiana stone would resist the corrosive London atmosphere. Experts cautiously predicted a lifespan of two centuries.
The official opening of Bush House was a major event, and took place on July 4th 1925 - American Independence Day. The Ceremony was performed by Lord Balfour (British Prime Minister, 1902-1905) and included the unveiling of the two statues at the entrance. The traffic on Kingsway and the Aldwych was stopped for half an hour for the ceremony, and Malvina Hoffman broke down at what was, to her, an intensely emotional event.
English Heritage seems to like the building too, as some areas of Bush House are Grade II listed. Centre Block, the main reception area, the Arcade at the rear of the building and the staircase and lobbies in the Centre Block are listed, meaning that nothing can be done to them without approval first.
The BBC moves in
Following an international trade slump, and the retreat of companies from London because of World War Two, Bush House needed tenants. When the Empire Service (as BBC World Service was formerly known) was bombed out of its original home at 200 Oxford Street, Bush House, with its large offices and expansive landings was the obvious candidate. European services were re-located there in 1940. (The rest of the BBC Overseas Service arrived in the late 1950s).
But Bush House wasn't immune from the bombers, suffering a hit to the front of the building. The statue representing America lost its left arm. It was only in 1970 that there was a plan for restoration, when an American, visiting his daughter at the London School of Economics, saw the damaged statue. He worked for the Indiana Limestone Company and persuaded the company to send a new arm and a stonemason to attach it, in time for the Silver Jubilee celebrations of Elizabeth II in 1977.
Over the years all the BBC's foreign language services gradually invaded Bush House, penetrating each wing in turn. It has covered events that have changed and shaped the world. De Gaulle's broadcasts to the Free French (some originating from Broadcasting House), famous speeches by Churchill, Hungary's desperate call for help as Russian tanks rolled into Budapest, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the genocide in Rwanda, the war in Kosova, and 9/11 are just a few.
Working in Bush House
By 1941 there was more than 1400 staff working on international broadcasts, many of whom moved to the new building. They found it cosmopolitan, with a layout that improved collaboration between the different language services. Journalists had an exclusive link to BBC Monitoring, and, consequently were first in the BBC with news from the war front. The pace of war began to affect the style of on air delivery too, and newsreaders began deviating from scripts, conducting live interviews on air.
The sense of mission and purpose was palpable during these years, and there were notable firsts. One came from the service directed to Belgium. In January 1941, former Belgian politician and director of the 'Belgian French Service', Victor de Laveleye, suggested that Belgians use a 'V for Victory' sign as a rallying emblem. A Morse code 'V' and Beethoven's Fifth Symphony (rhythmically similar to the Morse code), were broadcast as a call sign in BBC language services. Churchill also took up the sign for the first time in his 'V for Victory' speech of 19 July 1941.
1941 was also significant for Bush House, when George Orwell joined the staff of the Eastern Service. Hired as a Talks Producer he did not enjoy the work. 'By some time in 1944' he wrote, 'I might be near-human again, and able to write something serious. At present I'm just an orange that's been trodden on, by a very dirty boot.'
However, Orwell's time in Bush House wasn't wasted. The canteen featured in his Ministry of Truth in the book '1984', was said to be based on the one at Bush House. Part of Orwell's work at the BBC involved lengthy meetings at Broadcasting House, and his infamous Room 101 is thought to relate to a room there.
Post-war, austerity hit Bush House hard. Funding (from a Foreign Office Grant-In-Aid) was cut from £5.3 million to £4.75 million. The Conservative Party opposed the cuts, but did not reverse the position once in power. On air producers adapted, but hours on the service in English were cut from 24 to 21 hours a day, and Latin American services were heavily reduced .
By the 1950s, memories of the successful alliance between the Overseas Service and the wartime Coalition Government were still fresh when Britain sent troops to recapture the Suez Canal. Britain was bitterly divided over the issue. There was even an attempt by Prime Minister Sir Anthony Eden to impose censorship on the BBC's broadcasts, trying to stop journalists, critical of the government's Suez policy from broadcasting, domestically and internationally. Bush House remained resolute throughout all its output, impartiality winning the day.
Bush House and the Cold War
During the Cold War, transmissions were regularly jammed by the Communist bloc and in response, the BBC increased its transmitter power. Millions behind the 'iron curtain' did what they could to listen to the BBC, often their only source of balanced information. Leonid Finklestein, a political prisoner, remembered listening to the BBC Russian Service in 1948 from a radio constructed by a fellow prisoner out of scraps of metal. Later, he used to drive his car outside Moscow to escape the 100 km jamming radius, and listen to shortwave BBC broadcasts on another specially adapted set. Leonid eventually worked for the BBC Russian Service in London.
By 1972 more than 750 hours of programming a week in 40 languages were being broadcast from Bush House, 200 hours more than during the mid-1950s. Languages from French to Somali came from the various wings of the building, but it was not a happy time for some services. Staff themselves were becoming targets simply for telling the truth.
In 1978, Bulgarian Service journalist Georgi Markov was waiting for a bus on a crowded pavement on Waterloo Bridge during his lunch hour. He felt a pain in his thigh, and turned round to see a man picking up an umbrella. Markov returned to Bush House for the afternoon and told colleagues about the rather odd incident. He thought nothing of it until he became severely ill. He died three days later, assassinated by a poisoned umbrella. It is assumed the KGB arranged the murder.
Decolonisation in Africa and Asia meant the tone of the BBC External Services began to change by the late 1950s. There was a shift away from the 'interests of expatriates and listeners of British stock', to 'the listener who understands English but is not of British descent.' By May 1965 the name BBC World Service came into being too, replacing its predecessors, the General Overseas Service, and the Empire Service, in acknowledgement of how it was generally known and referred to publicly.
Other changes soon followed, with The African, Caribbean, and Colonial Service merging into the new African English Service in 1961. European language services were re-focussed in the light of the intensifying Cold War, and massive exports of recorded programmes started to be sent to radio stations around the world. In 1960 alone, The Transcription Service exported 70,000 records, and the ever popular English by Radio and Television began its first international television English teaching course in 1963.
There were some peculiarities too. Four days after Ian Smith's Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI) in 1965, the BBC Rhodesia Unit was established. It was never listed as an official BBC service, but it had a dedicated production office and budget nonetheless. The aim was to produce programmes intended to show that independence for Rhodesia would result in the country's isolation from the world. This 'ghost service' was criticised for effectively broadcasting propaganda, but was favourably viewed by some of the British press. Other lesser known services included Welsh For Patagonia, The Galician Service, and Portuguese for The Channel Islands.
A change of direction
By the 1980s the World Service was to face another round of cuts. Despite this, much of the transmitter network was renewed, with broadcasts on medium wave to the rest of Europe coming from new transmitters at Orford Ness in Suffolk. The signal to Eastern Europe was improved with ten new transmitters at Rampisham in Dorset.
However, soon after the upgrade, World Service came face-to-face with its listeners behind the Iron Curtain for the first time as the communist block began to crumble. Management in Bush House had to think long and hard about its role in the post-communist world, and realised it was not the lifeline it once was in the region. Many European language services faced closure and by the mid-2000s, 14 European language services had closed.
World Service on TV
Radio listening on shortwave was in decline by the mid-1990s, and there was pent up demand for a version of the World Service on television. After much planning the first World Service Television news was broadcast across Europe in March 1991. It had only taken 24 years to get there. In 1968 the then BBC Director-General, Sir Charles Curran had considered using satellites to carry BBC programmes worldwide. BBC Persian and video streams in Turkish, Urdo, Spanish, Portuguese and Russian have since joined the fold. But it was the launch of BBC Arabic TV from a new wing of Broadcasting House, that signalled the start of a long process of withdrawal of BBC operations from Bush House.
2012 marks the end of broadcasting from Bush House in The Strand. Over the spring and summer the building will gradually be cleared, as all BBC staff begin to take up take up new offices in Broadcasting House, working alongside colleagues from the rest of the Corporation. The World Service news in English will be the last programme to be broadcast from Bush House in the summer. The broadcast ends a long, and very much treasured association between the BBC and a building that has captured the imagination of the world.