The Conservatives’ birthday gift to the BBC, which is 100 this year, turns out to be culture secretary Nadine Dorries’s promise to abolish the licence fee, the funding mechanism that has allowed it to flourish as an independent institution beloved, trusted and envied across the world. Reading David Hendy’s The BBC: A People’s History in light of this latest attack on the corporation is a sobering experience. The author himself clearly feels the clouds gathering, and at times cannot banish an elegiac tone from his prose.
Hendy’s stated aim is a kind of history from below: a counterpoint to Asa Briggs’s magisterial five-volume account of British broadcasting history to 1974, which occasionally gave the impression that the story of radio and TV consisted largely in calm, besuited bigwigs gliding through boardrooms and Whitehall, setting policies and initiating parliamentary committees. Hendy, rather, wants to give a place to the people who actually did the work: what historian Raphael Samuel called “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”.
At times, Hendy succeeds magnificently. The picture he draws of the BBC during the second world war, for example, is full of the atmospheres that make Penelope Fitzgerald’s Human Voices, her novel of the blitz-struck Broadcasting House, so compelling. He brings the reader an unforgettable vignette, for example, concerning one Mary Lewis of the “duplicating section” – an all-female department in charge of typing and Roneoing all manner of paperwork.
As it happens, Lewis spent 38 years at the BBC, finishing up in a senior position as head of pay policy. Here she is, though, as a young woman, on fire-watching duty with her pals, passing the time by doing a bit of stapling. It’s about 10pm, but the phone rings. A senior colleague asks if anyone’s free to do some work. She tells him the department’s closed, but if he wants, she can probably oblige. Understanding that the job is confidential, she extracts herself with difficulty from her friends, and is handed a document to type and run off. It turns out to be “the actual instructions for D-Day”. The landings will take place the very next morning. She is rewarded for her work with two eggs.
And there must be a BBC drama – in tone somewhere between Operation Mincemeat, The Hour and W1A – in the extraordinary story of the coded messages that were slipped into wartime foreign-language services. If some kind of communication had to be got through to occupied Poland, for example, an officer from the Polish army-in-exile would turn up at the BBC just before the news, using the name “Peter Peterkin” and brandishing a record to be played on that’s night bulletin.
It was not an infallible system. Once, the producer simply forgot to play the record. On another occasion, a BBC worker unfamiliar with the importance of the system lectured the Polish officer on the frivolity of playing music when there was so much news to report. Sometimes, programme assistants would decide the track specified was too scratchy to be played, and choose another. Thus “the wrong bridge would get blown up in Poland”, as one BBC employee recalled.
There are some sobering sections on the BBC’s early attempts to include Black and Asian perspectives, including the melancholy tale of the Black poet and literary publisher Una Marson, who became a BBC producer in the 1930s. She clearly withstood terrible racism. (“Quite frankly I wouldn’t let anybody speak to me in the way Una does, and certainly not a coloured woman,” one colleague complained.) Eventually, suffering from what were described as “delusions” of persecution, Marson was diagnosed with schizophrenia and the BBC paid for her passage back to Jamaica.
Hendy does not hesitate to meditate, either, on what now seems like an unthinkably cloth-eared, not to say cruel, position on The Black and White Minstrel Show, which, with its blacked-up performers, ran for two decades until 1978 – a fact that seems incredible until one considers just how racist a country Britain was, and how counterintuitive it would have seemed to the BBC to cancel what was a hugely popular programme, despite the petition against it organised by the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination. “Coloured people”, wrote the director general’s chief assistant, should “for Heaven’s sake shut up”. He was replying to a 1967 letter from the BBC’s chief accountant Barrie Thorne, one of the very few internal voices who showed strong opposition to what he described as an “underlyingly offensive” show.
Hendy’s bottom-up approach stutters slightly when he tackles the postwar era. It is as if the BBC becomes so big, so inchoate, and so various in its competing cultures and multifarious activities that he seems slightly to lose sight of Samuel’s “penny-a-liners”. The brief time we spend with foreign correspondent Allan Little in the first Iraq war, for example, or Bridget Kendall in Moscow in 1991, is tantalising rather than especially revealing. He is so eager to show us the depth of the opposition to the corporation under Margaret Thatcher, and to run us through the scandals that have beset the BBC in recent years, that the granular texture of the earlier part of the book is somewhat smoothed out. Nevertheless, these sections do much to demonstrate the strength of the forces ranged against the BBC – and to show what an incredibly fragile position this much loved, much criticised organisation occupies in Britain’s divided polity.
Charlotte Higgins’s This New Noise: The Extraordinary Birth and Troubled Life of the BBC is published by Faber. The BBC by David Hendy is published by Profile (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply.