Forces of Light 

15 August 2001

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It is well known that World War II was the making of the BBC. The pre-war BBC had been easily accused of being staid and overly educative, not least by Associated-British Picture Corporation’s film “Radio Parade of 1935” satirising the BBC as the ‘NBG’ and deriding its experiments in television and dull programming.

The original radio service had early on been divided into the National Programme and the Regional Programme, turning the disadvantages of attempting complete coverage of a geographically varied country using medium and long wave transmissions. The Regional Programme, which despite its name retained a London-based feel in many ways as soon as networking of the transmitters became practical, was home to news programmes, features and talks. The National Programme was the base from which news, features and talks were also distributed, but with music, drama and variety making more of an appearance than on the Regional.

Before the first siren had sounded over London, the BBC reacted with what now looks like panic to the situation in Poland but was then the only sensible action. It closed the Regional and the National took its frequencies, taking the name “Home Service”, though this was officially a ‘merger’ of the two services into one networked station.

Practically, this could not last. The population of the UK were suddenly left with their cinemas closed ‘for the duration’, their sports fixtures abandoned, curfews on pubs and nightclubs and a limit on capacity for such diverse entertainments as dance halls and museums. Death from the skies was expected – boredom was the reality.

On 7 January 1940 the former home of the National – 5XX from Daventry on 1500 metres supplemented by local fillers – was given over to a new station, the Forces Programme. In reality, this was a lighter version of the old National, with the BBC taking the excuse of ‘officially’ serving the Forces only to provide a service it could not have brought itself to consider a year before.

The Forces instantly became the most popular service in the United Kingdom, and amongst English-speakers in soon-to-be Occupied Europe. Its mixture of drama, comedy, popular music, features, quiz shows and variety was richer and more varied than the National, ostensibly designed to cheer and console lonely servicemen in the UK and beyond.

The phenomenal success of the Forces Programme was nothing, however, to the effect that its replacement would have.

With the build-up toward D-Day and the Normandy landings, the British Isles began to fill up with American servicemen. Even those from the Middle West of the US – hometown boys with little or no experience of the wider world – found the UK to be dull. The people were poor, hungry and threadbare after almost 5 years of total war. The beer was dire, the sausages inedible, the sport absent or just plain odd, the music almost a decade out of date and the blackout caused more trouble than the excitement that may have been expected.

In reaction to this, the BBC took the bold step of abolishing the Forces Programme. In its place began, on 27 February 1944, the General Forces Programme. This new station retained the most popular features of the old Forces network, but replaced some of the, shall we say, less populist features of the network with material that was for the times relentlessly popular.

More comedy, drama and variety stars were imported from the States – and most importantly the style of presentation and speed of action so noticeable in American commercial network radio made its first appearance in the UK. The British population – already largely hooked on the strapping American rescuers – were enamoured and impressed by the new ‘Americanized’ service. Hungry for genuine entertainment when the economic and social situation was at its lowest, the GFP provided a steady diet of popularism that is still remembered fondly by that generation today.

When the final all-clear sounded, the American forces in the UK began to immediately drain away. The factory workers – mostly women by this point – began to return home to produce the generation that now holds political power both here and in the US. Yet the GFP continued. It provided a valuable service while Britain began the slow crawl back to normality.

But its raison d’être – the General Forces themselves – also disappeared from the barrack rooms and mess halls across northern Europe, demobbed back to the homes, lives and jobs they had missed for many long years. The BBC announced its new pattern of broadcasting not too long after VE-Day. The Home Service, using the former Regional Programme transmitters, would itself be regionalised back to the approximate pre-war boundaries with a middle-class mandate. The GFP’s frequency would revert to the National Programme – but this would tellingly be renamed the Light Programme. A third network would be born to take the highly educated listeners away from the Light and the Home. The Television Service was to be relaunched from Ally Pally.

The Light Programme began on 29 July 1945, aimed at a specifically domestic audience. The GFP began to fade away before finally expiring on 31 December 1946. But the Light Programme born from the GFP had something that the former National Programme did not – the experience of those war years, Americanised popular entertainment styles and an ethos of presentation far removed from Reith’s original plans. WW2 was the making of the BBC reputation. And the General Forces Programme was the making of the BBC’s longevity.

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