White Noise
Made in White City

Stealing Through Walls of Stone

It's hard to imagine now either the wonder or the horror that accompanied radio's rapid progression from anorak hobby to national obsession, pioneered by our neighbours in White City, the BBC. 

Robert Seatter, the head of BBC history, evokes its sensational rise and examines its enduring power. Of all the sounds of the city, this is the only one that no wall can keep out.

WORDS - Robert Seatter

In Hullo Boys!, a hobby magazine of the early 1920s, ‘Uncle Clarence’ wrote, “Boys generally love radio, and I regard it as psychologically true that this hobby is not only the latest, but the best! It is far deeper in its interest than the simpler things boys did when I was young and, by the fact that it requires more thought, it is a mind-trainer and a thought-builder.”

In the early 1920s, nascent UK radio was very much the preserve of boys and men, and was all about the technology. Countless cartoons of the day depict men in sheds surrounded by a paraphernalia of wires and flashing bulbs, while wives in the kitchen ponder what their husbands are at. Indeed, the editor of Wireless boasted in the magazine that if he were wrecked on a desert island “with nothing more than a keg of nails and a few empty biscuit boxes, he would establish wireless communication within a day.” Desert Island Discs was still over twenty years away, but desert islands were already in the British psyche.

‘Listening in’: the passion of the decade.

Early radio was very much the internet of its day and, like the internet, it quickly transformed from a technical oddity into a social phenomenon. Once liberated from the garden shed, radio and the pastime of ‘listening in’, as it was called, quickly became the preoccupation of the decade. There was even a popular song of the day that punned weakly in its honour:

I'll B.B.C-in' you, it's the latest craze,
I'll B.B.C-in' you, it's quite the craze.
I'll B.B.C-in' you, that's what they say,
I'll B.B.C-in' you, most any day.

In 1922, the first year of broadcasting, the BBC chalked up the following milestones: first general news bulletin, first talks programme, first Children’s Hour and first religious address. By the end of 1923, they had added everything from the first outside broadcast (The Magic Flute at Covent Garden), first dance music programme and first weather forecast to the first broadcast of an election result.

BBC radio history
A family listening to the radio in the early 1930s. Photo: BBC.

But radio in the beginning wasn’t just listened to, it was marvelled at. The crackling voices that passed over the waves were magic. How could this be made to happen? A Yorkshire woman recalled to writer and broadcaster Alasdair Clayre the first time she heard the radio: “I went round to my next-door-neighbour’s house, and I saw this round cone on the wall. And I went in to my mother and I said, ‘Mother, Mrs Buckle’s wall is singing.' ‘Don’t talk so silly,’ she says. So I says, ‘There is, there’s some music coming out of the wall.’ So she went to have a look and she said, ‘Oh, it’s amazing!’”

Fittingly, when the BBC constructed its first purpose-built radio centre in 1932, the Art Deco Broadcasting House in central London, it chose Ariel, the spirit of the air from Shakespeare’s last play, The Tempest, as an appropriate metaphor for this new wonder of radio. “This isle is full of strange noises, sounds and sweet airs, that give delight and hurt not,” says Caliban of Ariel’s shape-shifting and ubiquitous presence.

BBC broadcasting house history
Left: Broadcasting House in 1932, the first purpose-built broadcast centre in the UK. Right: The statue of Ariel and Prospero (Eric Gill) on the front facade was notorious at the time for its nudity. Photos: BBC.

In 1925, the construction of the Daventry Long Wave transmitter gave the UK almost universal radio coverage. Poet Alfred Noyes, of The Highwayman poem fame, was commissioned to write the celebratory ode:

Daventry calling… wind and rain 
against my voices fight in vain…
You shall hear their lightest tone 
stealing through your walls of stone.

The cello and the nightingale.

Radio’s magic was infectious, and buoyed by its growing popularity, the radio producers fast expanded their ranks and their ambitions. They moved out of the studios to record outside. The first broadcast hit of this type was the famous recording of the cello and the nightingale, recently celebrated on Radio 4’s Today programme and still beguiling listeners over 90 years on. In the spring of 1924, the renowned cellist Beatrice Harrison was playing her cello at dusk in her Oxted garden and a nightingale began to sing along. This was repeated on subsequent nights, so Harrison decided the musical conversation should be captured on the radio for all the nation to hear. 

The then director-general of the BBC, John Reith, was a man not known for his lyrical sensibilities. Surprisingly, he agreed, and the complex and cumbersome apparatus of broadcasting was transplanted with difficulty into the garden and the sound engineers waited rapt for the bird to sing (this was live, and extremely precarious, broadcasting). Finally, sing the bird did, and thousands of fan letters poured through the BBC’s letterbox praising the moment.

Beatrice Harrision BBC history radio
Beatrice Harrison plays her cello in her Surrey garden in the 1920s. Photo: BBC.

Even John Reith became atypically emotive, writing in the Radio Times: “A glamour of romance has flashed across the prosaic round of many a life.” It's interesting that the language he used was all about transformative magic. Radio had indeed enchanted us, connecting us back to a lost world where man and nature could have an Edenic dialogue. The contemporary Springwatch, with its films of fledgling chicks, perhaps continues to give us something of the same shared thrill via its secret access to the natural world.

It was not just via the cello and the nightingale that radio created a sense of community. Countless radio moments helped to give the UK population a common timetable. The shipping forecast woke us up and put us to bed; the pips universalised our timekeeping; weather forecasts extended the national conversation; comedy catchphrases and dance music diverted us after work. And when the king died, we collectively drew our living rooms curtains and mourned.

Broadcasting of good report.

The BBC mandarins, under the moral guidance of John Reith, had more than popularity and togetherness in mind. They wanted radio to be taken seriously. The BBC began only four years after the end of the Great War, and the gilded inscription above the entrance to Broadcasting House reception welcomed visitors to “a temple of the arts and muses,” offering its broadcasts like the Biblical good seed to grow wherever it could, fostering “whatsoever is of good report.” Broadcasting was absolutely part of that post-WWI impulse to create a better world “fit for heroes.”

More comically, at least for a contemporary radio consumer, the BBC Year Book of 1930 provided the following instructions to its users:

“Listen as carefully at home as you do in a theatre or concert hall. You can’t get the best out of a programme if your mind is wandering or if you are playing bridge or reading... Try turning off the lights so that your eye is not caught by familiar objects in the room. Your imagination will be twice as vivid... Think of your favourite occupation. Don’t you like a change sometimes? Give the wireless a rest now and then.”

BBC radio history
Recording radio drama in Broadcasting House, 1934. Photo: BBC

This sense of radio as a serious medium was enhanced by the precipitate arrival of television in 1936. Reith famously hated it; “No good will come of it,” he grumbled. For him, TV was too eager to please and be popular; radio would continue to do the serious job of broadcasting. The debate continues to this day. Note the fracas last year over Strictly Come Dancing, with various media critics demanding that the BBC avoid what the market can deliver and give us only what is distinctive and highly different. 

A dream about the future.

But while the men at the top debated purpose, some commentators adopted gloomier tones. Civilisation itself was under threat. Theatres would close, newspapers would no longer be read, families would cease to converse. The world would go to hell in a handcart, and all because of the demonic terror of broadcasting.

Perhaps it was the dim memory of dark Satanic mills, the march of industrialisation that overcame Britain so quickly, that provoked these sorts of protestations against technology in the British psyche. Others were more accepting. They knew that technology was unstoppable: “How many changes will broadcasting have undergone by 1946?” wrote one journalist on the tenth anniversary of the BBC in 1932.

Others were even more visionary: instead of fear they predicted only wonder. Here is Peter Eckersley, the BBC’s first chief engineer, foreseeing a connected broadcast service (along with double glazing and air conditioning) in The Power behind the Microphone in 1941: “I have a dream about the future. I see the interior of a living room. The wide windows are formed from double panes of glass, fixed and immovable. The conditioned air is fresh and warm... flush against the wall there is a translucent screen with numbered strips of lettering running across it... These are the titles describing the many different ‘broadcasting’ programmes which can be heard by just pressing the corresponding button.”

Radio changed the world forever. As did television. As did the internet. And the world continues to be as divided as ever over its technological assault, but let us hope somewhere still a nightingale will sing.

Photo on homepage: Gregory Wrona / Alamy Stock Photo. Photo at top: THEPALMER / iStock.

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