Announcing the changes 

6 October 2016

From the BBC Handbook for 1941

One of the minor effects of the outbreak of the war, but by no means the least spectacular in Broadcasting House, was the disappearance of the announcer’s dinner jacket. Up to the beginning of September 1939 the stiff shirt was seen — and heard by the microphone! — whenever a programme was announced before an audience, or whenever a distinguished speaker came to the studio. Still to be seen by the curious are two dinner jackets which hang in the cupboard of a dressing-room in the basement of Broadcasting House. They are the monuments to the change in the announcer’s job.

'... and this is Alvar Lidell reading it'

‘… and this is Alvar Lidell reading it’

When war came, the job changed overnight. Voices which for years had begun each announcement with ‘This is the National Programme’ or ‘This is the Regional Programme’ — and had often succeeded in getting them mixed — now had to adapt themselves to the unfamiliar statement, ‘This is the BBC Home Service’. Government announcements were read from the most unlikely places at the most unlikely times; the public were adjured at intervals to retune their receivers to 391 or 449 metres; secret instructions were learnt by heart and then forgotten because some wayward official changed his mind; keys which opened boxes containing keys which opened safes were secreted in every cranny; and on one never-to-be-forgotten day an announcer in a pair of shorts crossed the hall before the horrified eyes of the commissionaire.

In the early days we worked in shifts of two — and worked for twelve hours at a stretch. We were frequently up all night, prepared to give any further news in the small hours at one, three, and five o’clock — there never was any! — then we would fall into bed at seven o’clock and sleep until it was time to be on duty again in the afternoon. This manner of life, if it did nothing else, gave the home announcers a fellow-feeling with their colleagues, the overseas announcers, who form a separate staff and work, as a matter of course, in shifts all round the clock. Not only are news bulletins in English sent out to all parts of the world at all times, but as the war progressed the BBC began broadcasting in an increasing number of languages, and each new language brought with it its staff of trained announcers, some of whom combined the art of announcing with the task of translating the news into their own tongue.

To revert to the early months of the war, the announcers’ lot in those days often meant long periods of standing-by when they had to be ready at need, and the two men who were on duty together developed strange and individual hobbies while they waited. One of the nicest sights I remember was Joseph Macleod in one corner studying a Russian grammar, while in the other Edward Ward (then still an announcer) was drawing with great care and neatness exotic Chinese characters.

Gradually life became more settled, and the excitement of improvisation was lost. A new development was the division of announcers into news readers and programme announcers. The programme announcers specialized in the task of presenting programmes at the microphone adequately and attractively, leaving a number of their colleagues free to concentrate upon the news and to keep in closer touch with the News Department. In peacetime, apart from occasional ‘write-ups’ and sometimes libellous photographs in the press, the announcers were mainly anonymous; now, in wartime, all that is changed. No longer, I hope, does one hear those questions which are the bane of every announcer’s private life: ‘Are you the one who reads the news ?’, or even ‘Are there any announcers besides you and Mr. Hibberd?’ The voice now has a name; and to make identification more easy the news reader gives his own before each bulletin. The reason for this is not a hankering after self-advertisement — although at first some listeners unfairly took it to be so; in wartime listeners must be able to recognize instantly the authentic voice of British broadcasting, and then, in any possible emergency, they will be on their guard against some lying imitation by the voice of the enemy.

I left the department myself at the end of 1939, but am still in close enough touch with announcers to know what magnificent work they have done and are doing now. I can only speak with first-hand knowledge of the London announcers, but I know that those in other parts of Britain have had as many difficulties to contend with and have surmounted them as ably and as unobtrusively. Nobody, I think, would have known that on one occasion an announcer was unhurriedly reading the news while trying feverishly to ward off the attentions of a cat whose presence in the studio is still a mystery, or that on another a gramophone record which was being talked about by one announcer was being fetched by a colleague from five floors above.

Announcers are in the very front line of broadcasting and constantly under fire, both literally and metaphorically. No new country comes into the news but abusive letters are received which nearly all begin, ‘Are none of you announcers educated ?’ If, for instance, Lodz is pronounced in the correct Polish manner (which is strangely unlike its appearance on paper), the announcer is decried as a pedant; if he anglicizes, he is a stubborn ignoramus. Despite this barrage he manages to carry on a very specialized and difficult job with calmness and efficiency, knowing full well that every word is listened to by millions—millions who listen with closer attention than ever before and who can be elated or depressed by the very inflections of his voice.

To those who hear an announcer at work, it must appear a comparatively easy job. There seems to be nothing particularly difficult about the little bits with which an announcer intersperses a programme of gramophone records, nothing particularly difficult about the short introduction he gives before an orchestral concert, nothing particularly difficult in the few words he says before you hear Flanagan and Allen — yet each of these demands careful and methodical preparation. In fact, a lot of the announcer’s work is done before he ever goes near a microphone—the checking of the date of a musical comedy and of the stars who appeared in it; the consultation with some expert about a new musical work and the emphasis to be placed upon it; the pronunciation of an artist’s name; the knowledge that a certain eminent don likes to be called plain mister and not professor; the ability to make at least a passable shot at any place name — on sight; the cajoling of difficult artists and the sympathizing with shy ones; the technical knowledge without which he is useless; and, finally, the obsession with time. The clock must haunt him in his dreams, for when he is in the studio he is in charge of that programme, whatever it may be, and it is his responsibility to see that it finishes to time, neither leaving too long a gap before the next programme follows nor allowing another piece of music to start which is then ignominiously faded out. When he is not in the studio, his eye is constantly on the clock for fear he misses his next assignment. And during the greater part of the day one of the senior announcers is entirely responsible for the smooth running of broadcasting. It is up to him to cope with the situation when the Programme for the Forces is due to join the Home Service in four minutes and the latter is going to overrun by three, or when a gale has brought down the Post Office lines with the result that no programmes can come from north of the Trent for the next five hours. All this quite apart from the vocal training he must undergo if he is not to offend the Londoner with a trace of Lancashire accent nor antagonize the Scot because he can’t pronounce the -ch in Loch Rannoch.

He is, in short, a compound of actor, writer, engineer, linguist, musician, psychologist, and general ‘good mixer’, who knows that when he drops a brick the crash goes round the world.


  • Robert MacDermot was Programme Organiser (Home Service) at the BBC at the start of World War II.

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