Under siege: the BBC in a time of national emergency

David Hendy, Professor of Media and Cultural History, University of Sussex, examines moments of crisis in UK history when the BBC came into its own.
Professor David Hendy
Professor of Media and Cultural History, University of Sussex
Radio Times September 4, 1939
Image: Radio Times Supplementary Issue, September 4, 1939, detailing a major re-allocation of programmes at the outbreak of World War Two.

For the families gathered around their radio sets on Sunday 3 September 1939, when Neville Chamberlain announced that ‘this country is at war’, the words that followed from the BBC’s own announcer, Alvar Liddel, were just as chilling as the Prime Minister’s own.

They spoke of the dangers of large public gatherings, the immediate closure of cinemas and theatres, the cancelling of sports events:

A Special Announcement. Alvar Liddel, BBC Home Service, 3 September 1939.

With every expectation of an imminent and overwhelming air attack, people were glued to their radio sets for updates. With many people staying at home, the burden of keeping a fretful nation entertained now also fell squarely on the BBC.

Contemporary parallels


We are in the early stages of the Coronavirus pandemic. But both the dramatic change in daily life and broadcasting’s role as a vital public service during a period of national emergency are already palpable. In recent days, the BBC has set out a raft of programme changes: news specials on TV, local radio teaming-up with local volunteer groups, health and cooking tips, educational material for children, keeping the Arts alive through 'Culture in Quarantine'.

The whole battle against Covid-19 has the smack of wartime about it. And the parallels with World War Two are especially striking - right down to deserted town centres and empty supermarket shelves. When it comes to broadcasting - to keeping a nation under siege ‘informed, educated, and entertained’ - the BBC will be looking back to its wartime record for inspiration and warnings.

In September 1939, things started badly. There was no sudden and devastating air-attack, and, for a while, little military news coming from the Continent. But, anticipating a torrent of reports, the BBC had introduced a schedule stuffed with extra news bulletins and, in between, 'filler' items such as Sandy McPherson playing on the organ - endlessly, it felt - so that breaking news could be accommodated at any moment.

Behind-the-scenes, programme-makers had been dispersed from the capital, to spend the war working in Bristol, Bangor, Bedford, and a secret country hideaway near Evesham: they were making do with ad hoc studios and dodgy phone-lines, and for a while, it was simply not possible to produce polished, full-scale drama productions or outside broadcasts as normal.

The British public was unimpressed, though they could not be told the reasons for the deterioration in programme quality. Instead, they blamed the BBC for making the tedium of the ‘Bore War’ worse rather than better.

Scarce wonder that many Britons started tuning-in nightly to enemy radio, and in particular to the broadcasts of William Joyce - Lord Haw-Haw - coming from Hamburg, with his memorable opening incantation, ‘Germany calling, Germany calling, Germany calling’.

What made his broadcasts so compelling was that he jumbled together rumours that were hilariously incredible with others that were horribly convincing. Many listeners reckoned that only by following Lord Haw-Haw would they be ‘in the swim’ when it came to conversations with friends and relatives the next day.

Tell them the truth

BBC War Correspondents Richard Dimbleby, David Howarth and Harvey Sarney
BBC War Correspondents Richard Dimbleby, David Howarth and Harvey Sarney, with Chief News Editor R.T. Clark (sitting).

The BBC was as anxious as the Government over the spread of such disinformation, but it wanted to avoid being sucked into a nightly dialogue with Nazi propagandists. Instead, the BBC attempted to stick by a principle set-out by one of its senior news editors, R.T. Clark one the eve of the conflict:

The only way to strengthen the morale of the people whose morale is worth strengthening is to tell them the truth and nothing but the truth, even if the truth is horrible.

The BBC was not always able to keep to these high ideals. Most BBC journalists accepted some censorship on the grounds of security, in this the first ever broadcast war when broadcaster/government relations were still being tested - even though it left many news reports alarmingly vague about, for instance, the numbers of casualties or the locations of incidents such as bombings.

But official information was also controlled by a new Ministry of Information, and neither the Government nor the armed services were averse to behind-the-scenes briefings that could lead the Corporation astray. Winston Churchill was one of the worst offenders.

In May 1940, when he was at the Admiralty, he issued to the BBC a deliberately exaggerated account of British military successes in Norway. When, barely a week later, the BBC had to report that Allied forces were being evacuated, the British public’s disbelief in its news service rose to an all-time high. The BBC complained bitterly – and justifiably: it had been used ‘as a blind tool’.

It was perhaps the experience of broadcasting to millions of people in occupied Europe which had reinforced how reporting Allied failures would bear fruit when it came, later in the war, to reporting Allied successes. Listeners in Germany, for instance, found it easier to believe BBC reports in 1945 that Nazi forces were on the retreat precisely because broadcasts from Britain had been so candid about Allied retreats in the years before.

For most of the war, what was reported on air by the BBC became a by-word for reliability - especially abroad, where the BBC’s different approach was more easily recognised.

A rich mix

Wynford Reynolds, the Music While You Work organiser
Wynford Reynolds, the Music While You Work organiser, collecting the opinions of managers and workers about the show.

But few wanted a diet of news alone. What helped sustain morale on the home front more than anything was that the BBC could provide a range of programmes wide enough to reflect the complex and shifting moods of the British people: fear, anger, fatigue, stoicism, dark humour, exhilaration, mischief, scepticism. It was its ability, its size, its resources, its commitment, that ensured a ‘rich mix’ was available for everyone: not news alone, or entertainment alone - but both.

Series such as The Kitchen Front dispensed useful advice on cooking on the rations – making cheese from sour milk or how to cook radish tops and bracken fronds. The ‘Radio Doctor’, Charles Hill, offered breezy, no-nonsense health tips. Music While You Work offered a twice-daily dose of cheery, rhythmical music - originally designed to provide a morale boost for those toiling away on Britain’s factory production-lines, but also finding an appreciative audience among the many millions stuck at home.

Saturday Night Theatre and Brains Trust had huge audiences, demonstrating a public appetite for chewy drama and conversation.

It’s That Man Again - or ITMA as it was better known - had 40 per cent of the country tuning-in. Far from avoiding the subject of war, it was a comedy series which made war the backdrop to every scene, and then set out to lampoon all the petty regulations that had been unleashed: ministry announcements, rationing, restrictions on careless talk. For millions of its fans, it provided a common reference point and a common vocabulary - a chance to share punchlines in the street and revel in the collective joy of pricking pomposity.

Ordinary heroism

It was perhaps J.B. Priestley, in his most famous Postscript talk, broadcast immediately after the shattering experience of Dunkirk, who revealed the BBC’s single most important role in a national emergency.

In his mellow, Yorkshire accent, he contrasted the soulless efficiency of the enemy war machine with the plucky British improvising their way to safety:

Priestley’s Postscripts, BBC Home Service, Wednesday 5 June 1940.

Priestley painted a picture of ordinary heroism rather than of official success. It helped make it a ‘People’s War’, a collective effort for collective gain. And it was a story which offered reasons for hope even in the midst of despair.

There were, of course, large dollops of folksy myth-making in all this. But it was what people wanted - and perhaps, in the circumstances it was what people needed - to hear. The shared experience of listening - and the sense of being ‘held’ - was a powerful ingredient in getting people through the years of siege.

No-one liked everything the BBC did, but the British people’s complaints generally co-existed with a realisation of how disconnected and ill-informed they would feel without the BBC’s presence.

A diary, held at the Mass Observation Archive at Sussex University, of one particular wartime listener, a retired nurse living on her own in Sussex, is revealing - and not untypical. On Thursday 14 September 1939, she recorded that she had turned her radio off ‘in despair’: she loathed almost everything she heard, she said. Yet two months later she was writing that her radio set had been broken for three weeks and that she had been ‘lost’ ever since. ‘I feel as though a friend has gone from the house, and I can hardly bear the silence’.

She would, she decided, ‘never grumble again’ about the BBC’s programmes.

As for listeners in occupied Europe, who had risked their lives to tune-in, they too were clear about what the BBC’s transmissions had meant to them through the years. As one Frenchman put it, the world had been ‘in agony’, but the BBC had played its ‘life-giving music’.

In the current pandemic crisis, the BBC - now nearly 100 years old - has some precious advantages over its other media rivals. Hard won experience is perhaps the greatest of these.

Simply put, it has been here before. And, with any luck, that means it stands a good chance of helping us through demanding, frightening, and extraordinary times.

David Hendy, Professor of Media and Cultural History, University of Sussex, is currently writing a history of the BBC in its centenary year, 2022, published by Profile Books.