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Radio Times in the 1940s - War and Peace

Andrew Martin

BBC Genome

Radio Times marked the extension of broadcasting hours on the Forces Programme in February 1940 with this artwork cover

Following the release of the 1920s and 1930s Radio Times magazines, BBC Genome is now pleased to be able to share the pages of the Radio Times from the 1940s with its readers.

It was a traumatic decade, with World War Two spanning the first half and the start of the Cold War dominating the rest. While Radio Times reflects some aspects of these events, it is of course as ever a record of scheduled BBC radio and television programmes. There are fewer pages to release this time compared with other decades, as wartime rationing and post-war austerity saw Radio Times, like other newspapers and magazines, reduced to a fraction of its previous page count. There was also a reduction in the amount of broadcast content, with all domestic radio services combined into the Home Service at the outbreak of war, and television closing down for the duration – although a new radio service, the Forces Programme, began in January 1940.

Despite the privations and perils of wartime, the first half of the 1940s was a golden age for radio. The BBC’s programme departments were scattered about the country to avoid the danger of bombing wiping out the heart of the Corporation in one fell swoop, but the BBC soon settled down again, and some production continued at various sites in London, despite the bombs: though Broadcasting House was twice damaged by bombs, with some members of staff killed.

Tommy Handley of ITMA (or in this case, ITSA - It's That Sand Again - for the summer 1941 series) was the biggest radio star of the 1940s

Wartime also meant censorship, in case anything broadcast could deliberately or accidentally be of use to the enemy. Outside broadcast programmes were usually billed as coming from “somewhere in England”, so there would be no chance of the propaganda coup of targeting their location during a broadcast. Radio news became a vital service, with the old embargo on bulletins before the evening papers were published being dropped, and many more bulletins were broadcast through the day. Mobile recording came into its own so that actual battlefield conditions could be reported, and BBC news was careful to report defeats as well as victories, so that when there was good news it would be believed.

It was a time of great broadcasting personalities – singers like Vera Lynn, the “Forces’ Sweetheart”, Anne Shelton and the young Petula Clark, comedians such as Tommy Handley (whose series ITMA came into its own during the war), Jack Warner in Garrison Theatre, and his sisters Elsie and Doris Waters (as Gert and Daisy). Some performers had been called up into the forces, like Richard Murdoch, formerly Arthur Askey’s sidekick in Band Waggon, who became the lead in Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh, alongside future star Kenneth Horne.

Other prominent programmes in the war years included Music While You Work, Workers’ Playtime, ITMA, Happidrome, Navy Mixture and Desert Island Discs. In the series The Kitchen Front, celebrities gave talks on food and how to cook it – it later broadened to other subjects, including talks by the Radio Doctor (Charles Hill, future chairman of both the ITA and the BBC). Keeping fit was encouraged by programmes like Up in the Morning Early and The Daily Dozen, while gardening programmes helped with the government's Dig for Victory campaign. In The Brains Trust (originally, confusingly, called Any Questions) academics and graduates of the “University of Life” discussed questions sent in by the public, from the meaning of life to how flies walk on the ceiling.

In 1941 this Radio Times cover highlighted a programme in which children evacuated to America talked to their families at home

Drama ranged from the classics to thrillers, and such groundbreaking pieces as Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Man Born to Be King, about the life of Jesus, which was first heard in Children’s Hour. A new feature followed the evening news, the Postscripts, including writer J.B. Priestley’s famous tribute to the “little ships” of Dunkirk in 1940. The BBC’s worldwide reach meant that as well as providing a network of broadcasts to forces and civilian populations, including those in enemy and occupied countries, those abroad could communicate back to their loved ones. This included children who had been evacuated, not just to the countryside but to other countries such as Canada and Australia.

The new Forces Programme provided a diet of lighter fare, and although it was mainly aimed at those in uniform it was a welcome addition for the general audience. In 1944 it merged with the General Overseas Service to become the General Forces Programme. In 1945, between VE Day and VJ Day, its domestic wavelength became the Light Programme, ancestor of Radio 2. That continued the spirit of the Forces Programme by offering less demanding fare than the Home Service, while the most “highbrow” forms of culture were given their own outlet in the Third Programme from 1946.

Radio Times marked Victory Day in 1946, which comprised a parade of fighting forces through London, which was also televised, and a firework display

There was a surge in new programmes, many of which would become famous, and some lasting for decades, even to the present day:  Ray’s a Laugh, Take It from Here, Housewives’ Choice, Woman’s Hour, Dick Barton – Special Agent, Any Questions… Many new talents emerged from the forces: Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe, Tony Hancock and Jimmy Edwards all began to broadcast regularly in the 40s, leading to their domination of radio comedy in the next decade.

Television resumed in time to show the Victory Parade as an outside broadcast in June 1946, though the actual opening programmes included a repeat of the Mickey Mouse cartoon that had been the last pre-war transmission. Other outside broadcasts included the wedding of Princess Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh in November 1947 and the London Olympic Games in 1948. BBC experiments in recording television began in 1947, and another innovation the following January was the Television Newsreel. In 1949, a second transmitter opened at Sutton Coldfield, starting the wider coverage of television that would continue in the 1950s.

The 1940s were a time of crisis and change for the BBC as for the nation. The original listings, articles, photographs and illustrations, letters and adverts and all the other elements that make up the complete issues of Radio Times, now make it possible for everyone to get a greater insight into the United Kingdom at war and in peace time during this momentous decade. 

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