A Century on Air


By David Hendy

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The first in-depth history of the iconic radio and TV network that has shaped our past and present.

Doctor Who; tennis from Wimbledon; the Beatles and the Stones; the coronation of Queen Elizabeth and the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales: for one hundred years, the British Broadcasting Corporation has been the preeminent broadcaster in the UK and around the world, a constant source of information, comfort, and entertainment through both war and peace, feast and famine.

The BBC has broadcast to over two hundred countries and in more than forty languages. Its history is a broad cultural panorama of the twentieth century itself, often, although not always, delivered in a mellifluous Oxford accent. With special access to the BBC’s archives, historian David Hendy presents a dazzling portrait of a unique institution whose cultural influence is greater than any other media organization. 

Mixing politics, espionage, the arts, social change, and everyday life, The BBC is a vivid social history of the organization that has provided both background commentary and screen-grabbing headlines—woven so deeply into the culture and politics of the past century that almost none of us has been left untouched by it.



We would like to extend our thanks and gratitude to all the copyrightholders for allowing us to include the images in this book, and in particular to the BBC Photo Library for their assistance in sourcing, re-scanning and digitally re-mastering many of the pictures within.

Alamy: here Loudspeaker in General Strike © PA Images/Alamy; V is for Victory © Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo/Alamy; here. Anthony Eden © PA Images/Alamy; here. Margaret Thatcher © PA Images/Alamy; here. Greg Dyke © PA Images/Alamy

BBC: here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here © BBC

C. A Lewis Broadcasting from Within (1923) frontispiece, here

Getty Images: here. Frank Gillard recording © Photo by Leonard McCombe/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images; here. Scene from Dick Barton © Keystone/Getty Images; here. Langston Hughes © Photo by Jan Persoon/Getty Images; here. John Birt. Photo by John Minihan/Evening Standard/Getty Images; here. Dame Janet Smith © Photo by Adrian Dennis – WPA Pool/Getty Images

National Portrait Gallery: here. Hilda Matheson, photograph by Howard Coster © National Portrait Gallery

While every effort has been made to contact copyright-holders of illustrations, the author and publishers would be grateful for information about any illustrations where they have been unable to trace them, and would be glad to make amendments in further editions.


Is a history of the BBC even possible?

At a hundred years old, the British Broadcasting Corporation has already transmitted somewhere between ten and twenty million programmes. The precise total is unknown simply because any attempt at an accurate count would be too vast and complex a task for anyone to undertake. Back in 1957, Asa Briggs started to write an ‘official’ history of the Corporation. He took thirty-five years, five volumes, and nearly 4,000 pages to complete his mission. Even this Herculean effort, he said, offered ‘a history and not the history’.1 In the years since the last volume of his magisterial study was published, broadcasting has become a round-the-clock, multi-channel phenomenon. The most dedicated listener or viewer in the world would stand no chance of catching more than a tiny slice of the BBC’s daily output. What hope for the historian wanting to make sense of a century’s worth of activity? The problem of selection is almost unbearable. Merely listing its programmes would occupy a shelf, doing justice to the story of their creation a whole library.

Still, the BBC demands our attention. We can’t hope to understand modern Britain – its politics, its culture, its sense of itself – without understanding the role of the BBC in the life of the nation. In large parts of the world, public service broadcasters survive in the margins of national life, while state-run or commercial companies dominate the scene. Yet here is an institution that almost every Briton uses in one way or another; the tiny minority who don’t will know about it – have views about it. Around the globe, it’s long been seen as the embodiment of public service broadcasting, a template to emulate. To use the advertisers’ favoured language, it is a powerful ‘brand’, conveying something about quality, reliability, accuracy. For listeners and viewers at home, the BBC is not just one broadcaster among many: it is the national broadcaster, possessing a quasi-mystical place in the national psyche. Public devotion can sometimes reach unnerving levels of intensity. The novelist Sebastian Faulks said of Radio 4 that its ‘humane upper-middlebrow seriousness has done more both to define British society and to hold it together than any political or artistic movement of the last 100 years’. Another writer suggested that it is the BBC’s historic position at the heart of our media ecology that has given Britain ‘possibly the greatest single system of diverse, quality communication the world has ever seen’. A poll of men and women listed in Who’s Who once found that the Corporation was regarded as more influential than Parliament or the Church of England. Although not actually a government-run broadcaster, it is a body so clearly aligned with the ‘Nation’ that it often feels to us like an organ of state, as if it were a creative arm of the civil service. It exists by Royal Charter, and the licence fee that funds it is set by ministers in Parliament. If nuclear war begins, the last voice of authority we will hear before Armageddon arrives is a Radio 4 announcer.2

All of which makes the BBC part of what we have come to call ‘the establishment’. But in all sorts of meaningful ways it also belongs to us. This is not just about ‘owning’ the BBC because we pay for it directly through the licence fee. Public service broadcasting is always, in the most fundamental way, for us: its output has no value unless it’s heard or seen, and broadcasters always have some kind of listener or viewer in mind as they go about their work. Broadcasters and their audience, it has been said, are like twin stars: they revolve around and substantially determine each other. For decades, our domestic routines – getting up, preparing meals, sitting together as a family, going to bed – have been marked and measured by the passage of our favourite radio and television programmes. The television playwright Dennis Potter recalled the BBC of his childhood days as ‘paternalistic and often stuffily pompous’, presenting itself in an almost priestly role. Yet at a crucial moment in his life it also ‘threw open the “magical casement” on great sources of mindscape at a time when books were hard to come by, and when I had never stepped into a theatre or even a concert hall’. The images and sounds the BBC has brought into our homes have been the portal to other worlds, other ideas, other times, ‘the tissue of our dreams, the warp and weft of our memories, the staging posts of our lives’.3 Its status as a lofty national body in close embrace with the world of high politics has always co-existed with a cradle-to-grave role in our own domestic lives and emotional landscapes.

This dual identity is why the Corporation’s former Director-General, Tony Hall, claimed that ‘all the eddies and currents that make up Britain flow right through the BBC’, and why Asa Briggs said that ‘To write the history of broadcasting in the 20th century is in a sense to write the history of everything else’. It is also why the BBC has aroused not just intense devotion but fierce criticism. We expect so much of it that it always disappoints. The Corporation acts as a lightning rod, a place where some of our most fundamental anxieties about politics or taste or morality are displayed and fought over. Sebastian Faulks might revere Radio 4, but others have accused it of being no more than a mouthpiece for the middle-aged and the middle class, for ‘Middle England’ and everything that goes with such rhetorical terrain. Complaints over a particular programme or a particular channel are rarely parochial affairs. With a national press ever-ready to amplify the mildest of grumbles, they easily spin out of control. As the Guardian writer Charlotte Higgins puts it, ‘The BBC is a battlefield that can be grim and dark and strewn with human wreckage. It is where the British gather to fight their most vicious culture wars.’ The Corporation, she suggests, has always ricocheted from trouble to trouble – ‘it has crisis in its bones’.4

These headline-grabbing flare-ups are an inevitable feature of the pages that follow. But one reason why this is a ‘people’s history’ is that it attempts to trace the wider story of the BBC’s tangled relationship with the public. The Corporation has always had to be utterly alive to the feelings of its audience as well as to the prevailing political climate. Its programme makers see their job as measuring the mood of the times, restlessly turning over social issues, spotting trends, nurturing new talent. The television and radio that emerges from this labour tells us what these programme makers thought about their viewers and listeners – that is, what they thought about us.

This is also a ‘people’s history’ because it aims to bring into focus the men and woman who made the BBC what it is. It’s too easy to dismiss all modern media as formulaic and machine-tooled. Some of it certainly is. But for the past hundred years, most programmes have been handcrafted – made by thinking, feeling, and often fallible human beings. Behind every programme lies a world of thought and debate. Only by reaching deep inside the BBC, and by trying to discover the backgrounds, the tastes, the prejudices, the ideals of those who have worked there over the decades, can we understand why the radio we listen to and the television we watch has become what it is today.

Seeing the broadcasters of the past as flesh and blood rather than as faceless functionaries, we can begin to see the BBC as one of the most extraordinary creative communities of the past century. David Attenborough remembers his induction as a young producer in the 1950s, and a colleague showing him a diagram of the Corporation’s structure. ‘It came as no surprise to me later to discover that he was also the author of an authoritative book on witchcraft in medieval England.’ It’s been said that one needs to understand medieval power politics to appreciate the Byzantine structure of the BBC and its proud tradition of territorial disputes. Over the years, the Corporation has attracted the attention of generations of sociologists, political scientists, anthropologists, historians and journalists. Few have been brave enough to summarise the BBC in a short sentence. After immersing herself in its life for many months, Charlotte Higgins decided that it was ‘ungraspable in its entirety: it was like a city whose streets I had only partially explored, a place whose streetscape was so circuitous and complex that a lifetime would be too short to map it’. Asa Briggs, who really did spend a large part of his lifetime trying to map the Corporation, certainly possessed an encyclopaedic knowledge of its inner workings by the time he retired. But according to his fellow historian, Raphael Samuel, policy-making, rather than broadcasting, was the true subject of his work: his five-volume history, Samuel suggested, was perhaps too ‘top-down’ to do justice to ‘radio’s penny-a-liners, the freelance playwrights and scriptwriters, scraping a living in the republic of letters, the foreign correspondents, the old soaks at Bush House, gathered from the four corners of the world, doing their all-night stints, and comforting themselves with the bottle’. These men and women are part of the BBC’s story as much as the high politics of government interference, official enquiries, administrative reorganisations, or the Olympian pronouncements of Governors and Director-Generals. This ‘people’s history’ is a belated attempt to give them their due.5

Fortunately, the testimonies of those who ‘made’ the BBC reach down to us from the past. As an organisation obsessed with monitoring its own performance, the Corporation minuted almost every stage in its decision-making processes. Its written archives therefore contain hundreds of thousands of documents in which the thinking of staff has been captured in print at a level of detail the most punctilious civil servant would celebrate. But there’s another, equally valuable resource – one of the Corporation’s most underused treasures: the collection of several hundred oral history interviews with former staff that it has been quietly accumulating over the past half-century. These feature people – Directors-General, yes, but also editors, producers, presenters, engineers, secretaries, even telephonists and lift attendants – who were asked to talk candidly about their life and times. Their accounts don’t just blow the dust off the written archives and bring them to life; they offer first-hand accounts that sometimes transform our understanding of key episodes in the BBC’s past. Even if dates or names or the precise sequence of events are occasionally misremembered, almost every testimony provides priceless evidence of what it felt like to be in the BBC at a given moment of time: the look and smell and sound of a place, the small but telling details of working life, the atmosphere in the studio, the arguments that got in the way of normal business, the friendships and alliances that made good things happen, how grand policy was really interpreted on the factory floor. As a ‘people’s history’, this book puts these accounts centre stage.

Everyone who has ever worked for the BBC will have a strong view as to its ‘true’ history. But what they thought of the BBC will have depended not only on their character, experience or outlook, as well as the precise date on which they entered the Corporation, but on the place that they occupied within the system. Their perspective would perhaps have changed as they moved upwards, across, or occasionally downwards. Which is why historians try to look at the scene from more than one angle. Getting to grips with ‘the BBC’ is like piecing together a vast jigsaw puzzle, and even then the final picture defies easy description. The distinguished critic Clive James once said that British television was ‘too various to be fully absorbed by one mind . . . The more you watched, the less likely you were to make wide-ranging statements’. Broadcasting, he suggested, could ‘be reduced to a socio-political formula only at the price of distortion’.6

Even so, some things can be said with reasonable certainty. The media historian Jean Seaton has suggested that the BBC’s story is one of men and women ‘trying to make programmes that people like and that also – not in a preachy way (well only occasionally in a preachy way) – do them good’.7 This deceptively simple description provides one helpful starting point for the tale that unfolds over the following pages. A history of broadcasting is always partly about that long and continuing effort behind the scenes to discover formats and styles that somehow ‘work’ for the vast and unseen audience. But in the case of the BBC, it has always been much more than a matter of delivering programmes to people’s homes as if they were electricity or gas or water: it has been about culture, morality, values, politics. Behind the Corporation’s famous mission statement to ‘inform, educate and entertain’ lies a complex tangle of ideas, though one united around a vision of humanity’s potential to change. That vision has been ferociously debated and continuously adapted. The struggle to hold on to some kind of guiding ethos while constantly bending under the strain of wider social forces lies at the heart of the BBC’s story. The struggle matters because it’s not just about the nature of the BBC itself; the Corporation’s fate can be seen as emblematic of the kind of society we wish to preserve or create.

That’s why it’s no coincidence the story of the BBC begins in the early 1920s – many years after wireless had been discovered but in the lingering aftermath of a traumatic world war. And it’s why, before we even begin to talk about the very first programmes that were broadcast, it’s good to stand for a little while alongside those who had fought in the conflict and who were looking to build from the rubble a new and better world for the generations to come. It is through trying to understand their fears, their hopes, their passions and their values that we might just get a clearer picture, not just of how the BBC emerged in 1922 but why.



Soon we began to explore the possibilities of peace. Where should we go? What should we do?

Cecil Lewis, pilot

London, early evening, Tuesday 19 December 1922.

The year is almost at an end, the working day nearly done, the light fading. The weather has been unseasonably kind recently, though it is getting colder and wetter just in time for Christmas. The windows of the big West End department stores – Selfridges, Whiteleys, Gamages, Swan and Edgar – are glowing invitingly, and a steady flow of customers wander inside. Those weary of shopping are searching for the comfort and warmth of the nearest Lyons Corner House – one of the city’s ‘palaces of pastry’, promising decently priced food and a touch of opulence. Later, they might go to the theatre, to see one of the multitude of musical comedies and Christmas shows on offer: Alice in Wonderland at the Court Theatre, The Lady of the Rose at Daly’s, ‘comedy duets’ from Muriel George and Ernest Butcher at the Coliseum. Those wanting to make a night of it might try to catch the Midnight Follies in a slightly risqué revue at the Hotel Metropole, or go dining and dancing into the small hours at the Hotel Cecil.

Yet, not everyone is embracing the pursuit of pleasure. Heads turned down, coats buttoned up, millions of Londoners are scurrying home for the night, whisked to the capital’s ever-expanding suburbs by motorised buses and the Underground. Through the windows there is just darkness – a chance, at least, to glance at the papers and catch up with the day’s events. A grenade dating from 1914 has been found in a dustcart at Buckingham Palace. The new Italian prime minister, Mussolini, has announced the creation of a fascist militia. Lord Balfour is due to give a lecture on the possibility of telepathic communication. Unemployment is still rising.1

Not everyone is planning an evening of entertainment or leaving for home. Just a short walk from the Aldwych, squatting between the imperial grandeur of the recently widened Strand and the river Thames, is the Savoy precinct – a slightly seedy rectangle of narrow, sloping streets where a series of undistinguished offices are clustered. Here, three men stand huddled together, deep in thought.

They linger for a moment on the steps of the Institution of Electrical Engineers. Upstairs is a suite of eight unused rooms. They might be exactly what they are looking for: offices for what they call ‘our enterprise’. They push through the heavy door and make their way up to the second and third floors. All three men are feeling distinctly jaded. They have spent the day scuttling around London visiting location after location, and this is their last hope. Now they are inside, it seems, alas, the worst of the lot: ‘a depressing place’ recently used for some mysterious medical activity. But they have to settle upon something, and have no option other than to take it. After all, time is of the essence. This new ‘enterprise’ is only a few weeks’ old and already turning out to be even bigger, even more demanding than they had ever imagined. It urgently needs a new home.2

The address is No. 2 Savoy Hill. In three months’ time they will have moved in and brought the building back to life. In a few years, they will have made it among the best-known addresses in Britain. For now, though, renting an office is just one of myriad concerns. They are feeling their way: setting out on ‘uncharted seas’; trying, in fact, to work out what this new enterprise of theirs actually is – and what, with good fortune and effort, it might one day become.3 For now, nothing is certain. Their work is startlingly novel, barely understood, precariously funded, and conducted with few people even knowing of its existence. Between them, the three men make up three-quarters of their company’s employees. Yet they barely know each other. Two have only just begun sharing a makeshift office nearby; the third is meeting them for the very first time today; none knows whether they will get along, let alone succeed.

Their names are Cecil Lewis, John Reith and Arthur Burrows. Three men so different in appearance and temperament it would be hard to imagine. But something has brought each of them to Savoy Hill this December evening. What, exactly? An impulse among individuals still youthful enough to make something of themselves, to experience the thrill of risking their livelihoods in an unknown venture? A more noble desire, perhaps, to make good a world that seems to them – as it seems to many others in 1922 – to be in crisis?

All three have experienced the Great War at first hand. It is now four years since the cataclysm ended, but it continues to cast a long shadow, its effects unfurling slowly, unpredictably. Thousands of those who fought, unable to put into words what they went through, are declared still ‘broken’. Thousands more still struggle to find a firm footing in adult life. And there is contagious talk of society sliding into barbarism, civilisation on the brink of collapse. Writers and thinkers, conjuring an idealised image of a rosy belle époque before the war, conclude sorrowfully that humanity’s relentless progress has been shattered once and for all.4

Not everyone feels the same sense of despair. In the bookshops this season, a new collection of poems, The Cud


  • “Much of this history has been told before but never in such well-researched depth and sparkling detail…An appropriately large-scale account of the media giant at the very heart of British life."—Kirkus
  • “[A] highly readable, at times gripping, history of the BBC…I found much that was striking and new… a fascinating and informative account of the BBC’s first 100 years.”—The Telegraph
  • “[E]ngaging and fair… It is very much the case for the BBC, but it is a case which, with things as they are, needs to be made; and Hendy makes it well.”—The Scotsman
  • “Hendy…set[s] the scene rather well of these three influential figures at the dawning of what would turn out to be this country’s biggest and most significant cultural institution.”—The Observer (UK)
  • “Hendy's lively new history is a reminder that the BBC 's present struggles—government rows, culture wars, foreign rivals and more—are modern manifestations of old problems. His account of the corporation also makes for an incisive history of Britain's 20th century.”—The Economist
  • "The author knows what he is doing, and has quietly and elegantly written a book which is nothing short of a nonfiction thriller. Hendy takes a controversial subject and with riveting anecdotes offers a forensic cross-examination of BBC executives and their political adversaries. There are enough showdowns in this account to satisfy any Gunsmoke aficionado, with firings and resignations taking the place of gunfights."—AirMail
  • “[A] deep and informative core reading of the BBC’s first 100 years. With bright thumbnails on key figures and entertaining vignettes on memorable moments, The BBC sheds considerable light on the history of a leading broadcaster.”—New York Journal of Books
  • “[T]horough and engaging.”—Dwight Garner, The New York Times
  • “David Hendy’s book has the strengths of an insider’s account, packed with detail and anecdotes, shrewd in its assessment of personalities, light on socioeconomic change.”—London Review of Books
  • “Hendy is the more gifted writer, with an eye for amusing details and an ear for the voices of performers and program-makers… Hendy’s more writerly instinct for a telling anecdote makes the BBC’s war the best section of his engaging book—but then the wartime material itself reflects a high point for the corporation.”—Matt Seaton, New York Review of Books, and Simon Potter, This is the BBC

On Sale
Mar 29, 2022
Page Count
656 pages

David Hendy

About the Author

David Hendy is a writer, broadcaster and Professor Emeritus of Media and Cultural History at the University of Sussex in England. His books include Life on Air: a History of Radio Four, which won the 2008 History Today-Longman Book of the Year Award and was nominated for the Orwell Prize.

Learn more about this author