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BBC History Research Blog


  • Celebrating the First British Television Drama

    Dr Jamie Medhurst

    Reader in Film, TV & Media, Aberystwyth University

    In my last blog I was in Wales in the 1970s, the decade of my childhood, thinking about children’s programmes and the Welsh version of Camberwick Green. This time, I want to travel back further in time, to 14 July 1930 in fact. 90 years ago, the Baird Television Company and the BBC broadcast the first television drama on British television, a remarkable feat, given that ‘true’ television had been demonstrated publicly for the first time only four years earlier.

    There is very little documentation in the BBC written archives in the file on the play itself – R5/7/1 if you’re interested – and only a prompt copy remains. That said, it was a collaboration between the Corporation and the Baird Television Company and many of the Baird written records were destroyed in a fire that ravaged the company’s studios in the Crystal Palace in 1936. Nevertheless, there are references to the play in other BBC files (eg the BBC Control Board).

    John Logie Baird, 1932



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  • Camberwick Green … or Nant-y-Pant?

    Windy Miller, one of the characters from Camberwick Green, the highly popular children's series of the 1970s

    Having been a ‘regular’ at the BBC Written Archives in Caversham for around 20 years, I’ve come to regard it – as do so many other academic researchers - as broadcasting historian’s heaven.

    I first visited when I was researching for my PhD thesis on a little known Welsh ITV company, Teledu Cymru/WWN, which operated between 1962 and 1963. I was looking for information on the BBC’s perspective on commercial television in Wales. I returned some years later as I was turning the thesis into a book and needed further information. It was during my final visit for that project that I stumbled across information on the early years of television in the 1920s and 1930s … which led to my book, The Early Years of Television and the BBC which is being published by Edinburgh University Press next year.

    Wales in the 1970s

    But that’s not the end of my association with WAC. I am currently working on another book project, this time called Programmes, Politics and Protest: television and society in Wales…

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  • Creating a Broadcast Forum for post war UK Secondary Education

    Dr Lottie Hoare

    Teaching Associate, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge

    Creating a broadcast forum for post war UK Secondary Education

    I first became aware of the BBC Written Archives (BBC WAC) in 2011 while I was sitting in Nuffield College Library Archive reading the papers of the Socialist politician and champion of comprehensive schools, Margaret Cole (1893-1980). Amongst the collection was a radio script from the 1950s neatly printed on rather high quality paper compared to the scraps of note paper Cole used in her correspondence. This script presented the typed words of Margaret Miles, amongst others, in a 1950s BBC radio programme, which drew on a discussion about mass secondary education. Miles was the headmistress of the then newly-opened Mayfield Comprehensive in Putney, London, but she was also very well-connected through decades of teaching and through her work on the McNair report in the early 1940s which examined the supply of teachers and youth leaders. Never having seen a BBC radio script before I found myself thinking that there must be more of these, and that they could shed a light on post war UK schooling.

    The All Souls Group

    From 2013–2016 I had AHRC PhD funding to explore more of such scripts at BBC WAC, the purpose of my…

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  • Playing Gay

    Stephen Bourne

    Writer and Hon Fellow of South Bank University

    Rope continuity announcement, 8 March 1939

    When Patrick Hamilton’s stage play Rope was first adapted for BBC television in 1939 the on-screen announcer Jasmine Bligh warned viewers: “We think it is our duty to inform you that this play may not be considered suitable for children or for those who are of a particularly nervous or sensitive disposition.” It is likely that the BBC was warning its viewers about the main subject of the play – a…

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  • Listening through the Iron Curtain

    Dr Emily Oliver

    University of Oxford

    Berlin Wall, 9 November 1989 (photographer, Sue Ream)

    Thirty years ago, on 9th November 1989, the Berlin Wall came down, an event which took everyone by surprise – protesters, politicians, and indeed the BBC German Service’s Berlin representative. Having spent months reporting on the growing protest movement in East Germany, Ben Bradshaw (today a Labour MP) had just embarked on a long-delayed holiday in Cornwall, and so was unable to describe for…

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  • Black History Hidden Treasures

    Stephen Bourne

    Writer and Hon Fellow of South Bank University

    In Black History Month, it’s worth remembering that a surprising 30 years ago, in 1989, a black British television history vastly different from what was known was unearthed by a small research team. First, Michael Grade, then Controller of BBC1, and subsequently Will Wyatt, then BBC Television’s Deputy Managing Director, saw the potential of the project and readily agreed to finance the research together with the BFI. The project aimed, through archival research, to look at the involvement of people of African and Caribbean heritage in British television, both on and off the screen. The…

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  • Just William is Magic with Words

    Jane McVeigh

    Hon Research Fellow, University of Roehampton

    Just William, Richmal Crompton and cast, 1948

    Aesop wrote gables

    In February 1947, a comparison between the recording of the BBC radio play, “The Mystery of the Elms” by Richmal Crompton, and the only available copy of this script, which is taken by David Schutte from Crompton’s original manuscript, illustrates a change that may have been made by the BBC editors, or more likely by Crompton herself. William Brown decides that a local murderer…

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  • BBC School Broadcasting Vs Margaret Thatcher

    Steven Barclay

    PhD student, University of Westminster

    Inform, entertain, and… as the school year begins again, it’s a good time to delve into the history of the BBC as an educator.

    BBC School Broadcasting was the part of the BBC that produced television and radio programmes for use in school classrooms. Many will remember dancing to Music and Movement, or the television trolley being wheeled in for Look and Read. In fact, broadcasting formed a vital part of the national education system, and by 1970 the BBC was producing 114 separate series for schools, and over 90% of schools were tuning in.

    Margaret Thatcher became Secretary of State for…

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  • Commissioning Music for the BBC Proms

    chris marshall

    Hd of Development, Royal Birmingham Conservatoire

    How many people does it take to compose a Proms piece?

    My research focuses on the music the BBC commissioned especially for the Proms, and to look at how the BBC went about it: the relationships between the composers commissioned, the executives and staff at the BBC who had a hand in the process, and other interested parties, including publishers and performers, as well as the audiences at the concerts and on the radio and TV.

    This is where the material held at the BBC’s Written Archive Centre is so extraordinarily valuable and illuminating. There are files on the Proms, files on New Music…

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  • Honor Balfour: the first significant woman in BBC Current Affairs

    Helen Langley

    Historian, writer and former manuscript curator

    How can arguably the first significant woman current affairs broadcaster in the decade or so after the Second World War be virtually unknown today? All too easily. Were it not for the files in the BBC Written Archives Centre (WAC); the back issues of the Radio Times held by the British Library, and a personal archive in Oxford, the full extent of the contribution by Honor Balfour (1912-2001) would slip through the historical narrative. Except for a passing reference in the memoir of the formidable BBC producer, Grace Wyndham Goldie, Honor’s name is missing from published accounts of the time,…

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