Ninety years of BBC radio – listening back through time

On 14 November 1922, the first ever BBC radio broadcast went out. At troubled time for the corporation, remind yourself of all the great things it has done in the last 90 years.

It’s easy to forget that there was once a time when there was no BBC. But 90 years ago today, the British Broadcasting Company (it became the Corporation in 1927) made its very first radio broadcast, from the 2LO station based at Marconi House on the Strand.

The very first words uttered on air were “This is 2LO calling, the London station of the British Broadcasting Company calling. This is 2LO calling”. Listen here:

It’s beautiful, isn’t it? It’s the very epitome of what we think of when we think about the BBC in the early twentieth century, right down to the clipped tones of that oh-so-BBC accent.

In case you’re worried that the BBC is facing an unprecedented barrage of criticism, put your mind at ease. As this article from 1927 by G D H Cole, published in the New Statesman shows, the corporation has always been at the centre of the debate about “standards” – he wrote:

Whatever the British Broadcasting Corporation does is, of course, wrong. At least, it is bound to appear wrong to a body of listeners large enough to deserve consideration. For broadcasting has hitherto been conducted on the basis of a false and impossible assumption – the assumption of the standard or average listener. The BBC has tried to devise programmes suitable and pleasing to this standard listener, and naturally it has failed. For the standard listener does not in reality exist.

If that’s whetted your appetite for BBC talk radio nostalgia, there’s plenty more you can enjoy. BBC Radio 4 Extra has put together a series called 90 by 90, which is made up of 90 90-second programmes dropping in on a particular moment each year that BBC radio has been broadcasting. As producer Nick Baker has explained here, selecting which moments to pick was incredibly difficult – made even more so by the decision to limit each mini-programme itself to 90 seconds.

To kick off then, let’s have the first live outside broadcast – cellist Beatrice Harrison playing “Danny Boy” in a Surrey garden in 1924, accompanied by a chirruping nightingale.

Bip, bip, bip, bip, biiiiiiip. Five little sounds that can startle you out of a doze, shoo you out of the house if you’re running late, or taunt you if you’re willing time to pass.

You probably know where I’m going next - 1925, and the story behind the pips.

They’re so much part of the aural furniture of BBC radio that we barely think about them, yet we would feel like something was profoundly wrong if they suddenly disappeared or mysteriously multiplied.

On 18 April 1930, the BBC infamously announced that there was no news and then played some piano music instead:

In 1943 George Orwell resigned from his job as a talks producer at the World Service over his frustration at the censorship of his pieces – he said “I’m just an orange that’s being trodden on by a very dirty boot”.

You can’t survey Radio 4 without mentioning the Shipping Forecast. Whether you’ve listened to it in the customary state of slight bafflement as an insomniac desperate for sleep, when drunk having just crashed through the door, or on a small boat in the middle of the North Sea with no land in sight (I’ve done all three), it's a constant source of reassurance that everything will be just fine. Here, former coastguard Ian Stephen recalls how important it was for him:

In 1963, The Beatles were interviewed on BBC radio – they actually said “if we do as well as Cliff and The Shadows we’ll be doing ok”, by the way – and responded to Ted Heath’s recent disparagement of their Liverpudlian accents by attempting to “talk posh” like the BBC.

“I’m five feet six inches tall, and when he died I think I grew another five feet six inches.” In 1968, Nina Simone spoke and sang about the death of Martin Luther King. I challenge you not to want to cry during this one:

The Great Storm of 1987 plunged BBC radio into the dark. Sue MacGregor recalls trying to present the Today programme with only a torch, a typewriter and John Humphrys for company:

In 1990, the BBC World Service broadcast special messages of support for Terry Waite, who was being held hostage in Lebanon:

Finally, it’s worth hearing from Brian Roberts, the man who tried to futureproof BBC radio at the end of 1999 to make sure the Millenium Bug didn’t take it off air.

For me, this remark somehow encapsulates all that is best about the BBC:

“We were there, we were ready. It got to midnight, and nothing happened. So we looked at each other and we said ‘we’ll give it five minutes’.”

 

Two singers singing at a microphone during a recording session for a BBC radio programme in 1940. Photograph: Getty Images

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

It's easy to see where Berlin is being rebuilt – just hit the streets

My week, from walking the streets of Berlin to class snobbery and the right kind of gentrification.

Brick by brick, block by block, the people are rebuilding the city once called Faust’s Metropolis. To see it clearly, put your boots on. One of the most bracing walks starts by the Gethsemane Church, which served as a haven for dissenters in the last days of the GDR and takes you down ­towards the Hackescher Markt.

Here, in what is still the eastern half of a divided city that wears its division more lightly, is a Berlin experience both old and new. In three decades of frequent visits, it has been fascinating to note how much this part of town has changed. Even a decade ago these streets were rundown. With crumbling buildings showing bulletholes, it wasn’t hard to imagine what the place looked like in 1945. Now there are lilacs, blues, and yellows. Cafés, bars and restaurants abound, serving the young professionals attracted to the city by cheap rents and a renewed sense of community.

 

Breaking the fourth wall

Looking north along Schliemannstraße, you’ll find a delightful vista of well-tended balconies. It’s a pleasant place to live, notwithstanding the gaggle of grotesques who gather round the corner in the square. On Kastanienallee, which forms the second leg of the walk, an old city feels young. It’s a kind of gentrification but the right kind. There’s more to eat, to drink, to buy, for all.

Berlin, where Bertolt Brecht staged his unwatchable plays, was supposed to have been transformed by a proletarian revolution. Instead, it has been restored to health by a very middle-class one. Germany has always had a well-educated middle class, and the nation’s restoration would have impossible without such people. The irony is delicious – not that irony buttered many parsnips for “dirty Bertie”.

 

The new snobbery

The British Museum’s survey of German history “Memories of a Nation” is being presented at the Martin-Gropius-Bau as “The British View”. Germans, natürlich, are curious to see how we observe them. But how do they see us?

A German friend recently in England  said that the images that struck him most forcibly were the tins of food and cheap booze people piled up in supermarkets, and the number of teenage girls pushing prams. Perhaps Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum who will shortly take up a similar role here at the new Humboldt Forum, may turn his attention to a “German View” of the United Kingdom.

There’s no shortage of material. In Schlawinchen, a bar that typifies Kreuzberg’s hobohemia, a college-educated English girl was trying to explain northern England to an American she had just met. Speaking in an ugly modern Mancunian voice that can only be acquired through years of practice (sugar pronounced as “sug-oar”), she refer­red to Durham and York as “middle class, you know, posh”, because those cities had magnificent cathedrals.

When it comes to inverted snobbery, no nation can match us. To be middle class in Germany is an indication of civic value. In modern England, it can mark you as a leper.

 

Culture vultures

The Humboldt Forum, taking shape by the banks of the Spree, reconsecrates the former site of the GDR’s Palace of the Republic. When it opens in 2018 it will be a “living exhibition”, dedicated to all the cultures of the world. Alexander von Humboldt, the naturalist and explorer, was the brother of Wilhelm, the diplomat and philosopher, whose name lives on in the nearby university.

In Potsdamerplatz there are plans to build a modern art museum, crammed in between the Neue Nationalgalerie and the Philharmonie, home to the Berlin Philharmonic. Meanwhile, the overhaul of the Deutsche Staatsoper, where Daniel Barenboim is music director for life, is likely to be completed, fingers crossed, next autumn.

Culture everywhere! Or perhaps that should be Kultur, which has a slightly different meaning in Germany. They take these things more seriously, and there is no hint of bogus populism. In London, plans for a new concert hall have been shelved. Sir Peter Hall’s words remain true: “England is a philistine country that loves the arts.”

 

European neighbours

When Germans speak of freedom, wrote A J P Taylor, a historian who seems to have fallen from favour, they mean the freedom to be German. No longer. When modern Germans speak of freedom, they observe it through the filter of the European Union.

But nation states are shaped by different forces. “We are educated to be obedient,” a Berlin friend who spent a year at an English school once told me. “You are educated to be independent.” To turn around Taylor’s dictum: when the English speak of freedom,
they mean the freedom to be English.

No matter what you may have heard, the Germans have always admired our independence of spirit. We shall, however, always see “Europe” in different ways. Europe, good: we can all agree on that. The European Union, not so good. It doesn’t mean we have to fall out, and the Germans are good friends to have.

 

Hook, line and sinker

There are fine walks to be had in the west, too. In Charlottenburg, the Kensington of Berlin, the mood is gentler, yet you can still feel the city humming. Here, there are some classic places to eat and drink – the Literaturhauscafé for breakfast and, for dinner, Marjellchen, a treasure trove of east Prussian forest delights. Anything that can be shot and put in a pot!

For a real Berlin experience, though, head at nightfall for Zwiebelfisch, the great tavern on Savignyplatz, and watch the trains glide by on the other side of Kantstraße. Hartmut Volmerhaus, a most amusing host, has been the guvnor here for more than 30 years and there are no signs that his race is run. The “Fisch” at twilight: there’s nowhere better to feel the pulse of this remarkable city. 

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage