Main content

BBC History Research Blog


  • 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 Committees, files on individuals. Most valuable of all, there are files on composers. These are kept in date order, from the most recent to the oldest. Reading them is fascinating: first you find a letter from the composer to the Controller of BBC Music thanking them after the first performance of a Proms commission, and then the story unfolds, backwards, with letters and memos between senior staff at the Proms and Radio 3 (or the Third Programme), the composer and their publisher, staff at the BBC Orchestras, the Proms team, BBC publications, BBC contracts executives, BBC publicity officers…the…

    Read more

  • 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, possibly because she was not a BBC “staffer” but contracted to contribute to various programmes. Her journalism as the London correspondent for Time magazine- her main occupation, and for the Guardian and the Observer have also fallen into undeserved obscurity.

    In our conversations in the 1990s Honor spoke about her founding role at Picture Post magazine but said little about her broadcasting career; mentioning only two radio programmes from the later years, The Weekly World and Whatever you think, the latter chaired by Cliff Michelmore. Her archive in the Bodleian contained some clues:…

    Read more

  • Female Football Pioneers: Mary Raine and Patricia Gregory

    Charles Runcie

    Former Head of BBC Sport, BBC English Regions

    Tagged with:

    It’s 1969. Harold Wilson was Prime Minister, Apollo 11 prepared for its historic mission to land men on the moon, the Beatles were top of the charts for 6 weeks with “Get Back” and the average weekly wage was £32. At the end of a decade which changed the world forever, two women working at the BBC were also pioneering change in an area where change was long overdue – sport.

    Mary Raine and Patricia Gregory - two unsung heroes began blazing a trail that culminates at this year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup. But who were they, what did they do - and why?

    Mary Raine – an early passion for football

    Mary Raine was obsessed with football from her early days growing up in the North East. “I don't know how it all began, but I remember clearly my family took several newspapers. On Saturdays I would buy the Newcastle Evening Chronicle special "pink" (football) edition, and sometimes I was even able to get the Sunderland Evening Echo “pink'un”. Sunderland is my team because my elder brother supported Newcastle United. He told me I couldn't support the Magpies as that would be being a copycat. At my smart school my housekeeper banned me from having pictures of footballers on my desk and tried to…

    Read more

  • Researching Jazz 625

    Dr Nicolas Pillai

    Research Consultant for Jazz 625: For One Night Only.

    A misty morning in 2014 found me at the gates of the BBC Written Archive at Caversham. This was to be the first of many visits over the next few years as I explored the archive’s holdings relating to jazz programming during the 1960s. In this blog post, I detail my journey through the archives, how that experience led me to interview BBC staff who worked on the programmes, how I commandeered a TV studio in my university to recreate a 1960s jazz show and – most unexpectedly this year – how I ended up working on BBC4’s revival of Jazz 625 (Friday 3 May, 9pm).

    Jazz 625 (1964-1966) was BBC2’s…

    Read more

  • The Listener's Lost Literary History

    Michael J Abolafia

    Writer, editor & archivist

    The BBC Written Archives Centre, in the leafy suburb of Caversham, houses a long century’s worth of materials relating to the BBC’s endeavors in broadcasting, film, and print. Following a suggestion given to me by Professor Edward Mendelson, whose pioneering bibliographical and editorial work on W.H. Auden brought him to the Written Archives Centre in the 1970s, I spent two weeks during the summer of 2016 immersed in their collections.

    An exercise in listening: The Listener and the British Public

    One of the BBC’s enduring legacies was its fostering of the literary arts through the celebrated…

    Read more

  • The Road to Milk Wood

    Nerys Williams

    Associate Professor, University College Dublin, Ireland

    Dylan Thomas at the BBC, 1948

    Archives are seductive spaces to any researcher. They offer the possibility of a new scrap of knowledge, the challenge of deciphering marginalia, and in the case of some early BBC memos, an encounter with unvarnished opinion.

    Handling the Dylan Thomas Files in the BBC written archives at Caversham was a strangely emotive experience. I grew up near Laugharne, West Wales Thomas’s final residence…

    Read more

  • No Luggage, No Return

    Dr James Jordan

    University of Southampton

    The Written Archives at Caversham is a treasure trove for anyone interested in the history of the BBC, broadcasting and the twentieth century. The content and type of material is as varied as it is plentiful, with production folders and personnel files sitting alongside scrapbooks filled with newspaper clippings and special collections reflecting the work of important figures from the Corporation’s history. People such as Mary Adams, the BBC’s first woman television producer,whose papers include wonderfully evocative photographs from the pre-war days at Alexandra Palace, when her programming…

    Read more

  • All the World Over radio broadcast, Christmas 1932

    Steve Hocking

    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…

    Read more

  • The Pioneering Women of the BBC Foreign Department

    Dr Kate Murphy

    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…

    Read more

  • The Empire Scripts Back

    James Procter

    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,…

    Read more