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Sunday Post: The BBC in World War Two

Andrew Martin

BBC Genome

Prime Minister Winston Churchill, in trademark 'siren suit', broadcasts to the nation during World War Two

The Second World War was one of the single greatest defining events of the 20th century, and so it is no surprise that it had a fundamental effect on the BBC.

In many ways, the war made the BBC what it is today, and closed the chapter of the BBC’s early years under its first Director General, Sir John Reith.

The BBC’s bosses became less commanding than Reith, although they sufficiently powerful allies to prevent the Corporation from being taken over directly by the government, which would have been a disaster for its reputation.  In fact, the institution was taken to the heart of the British public during the six years of conflict far more than it had been before, and internationally it became a byword for truthful news reporting.

But the BBC’s war started shakily, when initial plans to simplify output and relocate its staff to avoid the expected mass bombing of London resulted in early wartime programmes of such stultifying boredom that the Corporation came in for heavy criticism, and listeners turned to other European broadcasters for light relief.

As war had been more or less expected since the Munich crisis in late 1938, the BBC had its plans well prepared.  In order that its transmissions should not provide a beacon for enemy aircraft to home in on, the various Regional and National programmes were to be amalgamated into one Home Service, and the fledgling television service would be shut down. 

This all duly occurred on 1 September 1939, when Germany had invaded Poland and war was clearly imminent, although the declaration – carried live on the BBC – did not come for another two days. The Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, spoke the famous words at just after 11 am, following Britain's ultimatum to the Nazis to withdraw their troops:

I have to tell you now that no such undertaking has been received, and that consequently this country is at war with Germany.

With all places of public entertainment shut down, the public looked to the BBC for news, government announcements and light relief - but they found very little of it.  The BBC’s drama and Variety departments were busily being relocated to various parts of the country away from expected attacks, and the entertainment output was virtually restricted to endless organ recitals by the BBC’s stalwart Sandy MacPherson.  

Radio Times keeps spirits up at Christmas 1940 with a cheerful festive cover

It was actually at this time that the BBC’s nickname of ‘Auntie’ came into use, reflecting people’s dissatisfaction with being given what they were expected to like and need rather than what they actually did, as if by a disapproving maiden aunt.

Gradually things improved, but there was still a discrepancy between what the BBC was putting out on its single channel and what the audience wanted.  By early 1940, the war that had been expected was not showing any signs of materialising, and the armies facing the Germans in France wanted something more to their taste – and that meant dance music and variety shows.

After some direct consultation with the troops, the BBC started trials of a Forces Programme in January, which was formally launched the following month, and had more room for more popular fare than the Home Service.

Wartime turned out to be a period of great expansion for the BBC.  Its staff more than doubled over the period, despite many of its peace-time complement being called up for military service or other war work.  As well as the Forces Programme, there was a great expansion in overseas services, both in English and in foreign languages.  The first foreign language service had been in Arabic in 1938, to counter Italian Fascist propaganda in North Africa and the Middle East in the wake of Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia and rule over Libya.

With the European war starting, the BBC began German broadcasts, and as serious hostilities began on the Western Front in spring 1940 with invasions of Scandinavia, the Low Countries and France, a whole raft of language services sprang up to deliver an alternative to the Nazi propaganda message – even if anyone listening to these services in occupied countries risked dire consequences.

The war also shook up the mindset of programme makers, whether in drama, variety or in the news division.  Pre-war news had relied on news agencies for information, and there had been an agreement not to broadcast bulletins before 6pm to avoid affecting the sales of evening papers.  Now with the need and ability to broadcast all day with the latest war news, the BBC upped its number of bulletins considerably.

With other production departments scattered around the country, it took some time for them to catch up and re-establish themselves.  Variety moved first to Bristol then later to Bangor in Wales, where some of the best remembered wartime shows came from.  

Mrs Mopp (Dorothy Summers) and Tommy Handley with another madcap scheme in ITMA

Some pre-war comic stars carried on, such as Arthur Askey and Richard Murdoch in the earliest regular comedy series, Band Waggon.  This was one of the first sitcoms, albeit of a surreal sort, with the two stars supposedly living in a penthouse apartment in Broadcasting House, although this was only one section of a longer variety show.

There were other popular comedy shows in the war period including Happidrome, and later shows like Merry-Go-Round, which featured a rotation of shows provided by Army, Navy and RAF talent.  The RAF programme became Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh, which survived long after the war and united Richard Murdoch with Kenneth Horne, the latter going on to great success in the 50s and 60s with Beyond Our Ken and Round the Horne.

Another great early hit was Garrison Theatre, where cabaret artist Jack Warner compered in the persona of a soldier, memorably asking people to ‘Mind My Bike’ and reading comic letters from his brother, suitable censored with ‘blue pencil’ to provide double entrendres.  Warner’s sisters, Elsie and Doris Waters, who featured as their characters Gert and Daisy, were later enlisted to deliver useful advice from government ministries.

But the paramount comedy series of the war years was It’s That Man Again – ITMA.  It had begun in a small way earlier in 1939, but it was not until cast changes were enforced by the start of the war that it really started to take off.  Built round the central character of Tommy Handley, ITMA was famous for its roster of eccentric guest characters, each with their distinctive and obligatory catchphrase, including Mrs Mopp – ‘Can I do you now sir’, Colonel Chinstrap – ‘I don’t mind if I do’, and Funf, the German spy – ‘Zis is Funf speaking’. 

With its incredibly quick-fire delivery, satires of wartime bureaucracy and painful puns, ITMA became one of those shows truly loved by the public, who carried its jokes and references over into real life.  It was to last 10 years until Tommy Handley’s untimely death in 1949.

Drama too had its part to play in wartime.  The department had had something of a culture shock initially, swapping state-of-the-art equipment in Broadcasting House for more rudimentary facilities in regional studios following evacuation.

Sounds of battle

Some of the dramatic highlights included the drama documentary series The Shadow of the Swastika, which detailed the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany, and Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Man Born to Be King, controversially depicting the life of Jesus, with an actor playing that part for the first time in a modern drama.  First broadcast in Children’s Hour, it was later repeated for adult listeners. 

Radio continued the tradition of bringing classic drama to the bulk of people who had never experienced it in the theatre, but also featured lighter fare such as Paul Temple thriller stories, and the spine-chilling horror of Appointment with Fear, featuring Valentine Dyall as the narrator, the 'Man in Black'.

As expected, news came into its own during the war.  Gradually the role of the news correspondent developed, going to war zones and starting to record the actual sounds of battle, and bringing the reality of the conflict into people’s homes. 

The innovation of worldwide broadcasting also reminded troops of what they were missing at home, and what they were fighting for.  War correspondents such as Richard Dimbleby, Chester Wilmot, Frank Gillard and many others risked life and limb to report from the battle front.  New recording technology such as portable disc-recorders, was primitive by today’s standards, but the very idea of recording real events overrode quality considerations.

The BBC had long feared the unscripted programme, as people might say things that were libellous or would offend decency, or just not get to the point.  It was an innovation when one of the great hits of the war, The Brains Trust, was inaugurated. 

Originally under the title Any Questions?, the idea was that people could send in questions on virtually any topic and a wide-ranging panel of experts would discuss them and give an answer. The heightened circumstances of wartime meant people were looking beyond narrow margins of what they were expected to like.

One area that reflected this was music.  While there had always been a mixture of classical works and lighter music, and dance bands had proliferated with the coming of the Forces Programme, there was a greater cross-over now.  Classical pianists like Myra Hess proved popular, while native British dance band talent like Lew Stone, Roy Fox and Henry Hall were augmented by American bands, once that country entered the war and US troops were stationed in the UK. 

Most loved of all though were the singers – from the likes of Al Bowlly, sadly killed during an air raid in 1941 (as was the band leader Ken ‘Snake-Hips’ Johnson in a separate incident a few weeks before), to the great female singers such as Anne Shelton and the legendary Vera Lynn.

Broadcasting House on VE Day, 1945 - battle-scarred but unbowed

As the war drew to a close, the place of the BBC in the national consciousness had definitely changed forever.  It had adapted to the needs of the time and provided shows that got people through bombing raids, rationing, the loss of loved ones, and the sheer stress and uncertainty of the times.  Auntie had become a term of affection rather than disdain. 

The BBC sustained its own losses:  when Broadcasting House was hit by a bomb in October 1940, seven staff members were killed.  Covered in plaster dust and soot, newsreader Bruce Belfrage continued with the bulletin he was reading at the time with barely a pause audible. Another later bomb severely damaged the building, while adjacent St George’s Hall and Queen’s Hall, used for musical concerts including the Proms, were damaged beyond repair.  Other staff were killed in bombing raids at home, or on duty with the services overseas.

The BBC came out of World War Two with its reputation enhanced both at home, and to an even greater extent abroad.  With the replacement of the Forces networks with the Light Programme, and plans underway for a new high-culture Third Programme and the revival of the television service in 1946, the BBC looked to the future.

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