The old BBC: early progress and expansion 

20 January 2017

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Reprinted from the BBC Year-Book 1930, published in November 1929

oldbbc-yearbook19301923In April 1923, the new Headquarter Offices were brought into use at Savoy Hill, and on May 1st the new studio was completed, so that for the first time the offices and the studio and amplifying gear were housed in the same building. The first Symphony Concert was broadcast in June, and the first long play, “Twelfth Night,” in May, both being the beginnings of a long chain of development.

With adequate office space, organisation grew apace, though the strain of the early months began to tell on the original staff during the autumn and winter.

The Music Department set about building up a library, now one of the most extensive libraries of music in the world, and to enable the provincial stations to have a fair choice of orchestral music, began to circulate large hampers of orchestral scores. These hampers looked uncommonly like washing baskets, and it is said that on one occasion when a hamper was due at a station the day before an important programme and was urgently required for rehearsals, an extremely assorted collection of towels, sheets, underclothing and a naval white cap cover was revealed to the anxious eyes of the musical director. Artists were also toured round the stations, and the Music Department became expert in the use of time tables.

Plays were handled for the most part by outside producers, and sound effects in this first year of broadcasting were still in a rudimentary stage. The microphone was rather baffling at this time, for to produce certain of the effects, something so totally unexpected had to be done that for a long time many had to be left to the imagination of the listener. Noises like the shovelling of coal on steel floors when the scene was laid in a forest with a breeze swaying the trees, or the continuous crash of broken glass when two statesmen were conversing near a fountain, were, to say the least, confusing. The best sound effect in 1923 was at Glasgow, when during a play a dog was heard to bark.

JOHN HENRY.The first successful wireless comedian

The first successful wireless comedian

It was decided that, as any artificial dog bark would sound grotesque through the microphone, and as no live dog could be induced to bark just once and at precisely the right moment, the script should be altered slightly to suggest to the listener that a dog had barked. The weather was extremely hot, and the studio windows were wide open, so that, at the crucial moment, when the words “Listen, isn’t that a dog barking?” were coming, the deep-throated bay of an obliging but unknown fox terrier in the square outside fitted exactly into the play and was distinctly heard all over Scotland.

In the autumn of 1923 a second studio was opened in London, which was considerably larger than the first, and thus made easier, and acoustically better, the transmissions involving large orchestras and a chorus. Ambitious programmes were now being regularly arranged, notable among which were a dramatised version of Scott’s novel “Rob Roy” at Glasgow, which, as a combined reading and play, was something quite new, and unique to broadcasting, a series of operas at Birmingham, some long plays at Manchester, and the first broadcast performance of Mendelssohn’s oratorio, “The Hymn of Praise,” at Newcastle.

The need of some means of stating the Company’s policy and announcing news of forthcoming events, in addition to publishing full details of the weekly programmes, had for some time been felt, and the result was The Radio Times, the official organ of the B.B.C., which was first published in conjunction with Messrs. George Newnes in September.


1924While the first year of broadcasting was one of pioneering, the second year was one of consolidation, further development and definite expansion.

The Relay Station programme, started on November 16th, 1923, with the opening of Sheffield, was completed in 1924 with the opening of nine further stations as follows:—

Plymouth March 28th.
Edinburgh May 1st.
Liverpool June 11th.
Leeds-Bradford July 8th.
Hull August 15th.
Nottingham September 16th.
Stoke-on-Trent November 21st.
Dundee November 12th.
Swansea December 12th.

These stations worked on a power of 200 watts as compared with the power of 1½ kilowatts (1,500 watts) of the main stations, and relayed the London, Glasgow or Cardiff programmes, except in the afternoons and on one evening a week.

A ninth main station started at Belfast on September 14th, and was officially opened by the Governor of Northern Ireland on October 24th.
On a purely experimental basis, a high-power, 25 kilowatt, station was started at Chelmsford on July 21st, soon famous as 5XX, from which London programmes were broadcast.



For approximately the first half of 1924 the programme development was a continuation of that of 1923. The actual hours of transmission per day per station averaged 6½. Programmes of importance include two broadcasts by His Majesty the King, the first on the occasion of the opening of the British Empire Exhibition, Wembley, on April 23rd, and the second at Liverpool on July 19th, at the consecration of the Cathedral, a series of Symphony concerts arranged at the Central Hall, Westminster, starting in February, the first service relayed from St. Martin-in-the-Fields on April 13th, and a succession of Shakespeare’s plays (at the Cardiff station). A type of programme which began to be developed, and for want of a better name was called a “Feature Programme,” was one which can only be described as an unseen but heard moving picture. With descriptive narrative, dialogues and episodes, with sound effects and music, the listener was taken through historic events and strange lands with a realism that was quite extraordinary. The Empire Day Programme was of this type, for listeners were not only taken round the Empire, but heard it built up. The nightingale also made its debut, and for the first time its song was carried from its natural surroundings in Surrey to the lands north of the Trent, and appealed enormously to everybody’s imagination.

In the late summer and autumn, the tendency to specialisation, inevitable in any concern with so wide a field, began to have its effect.

Firstly, in August an Education Department was formed to co-ordinate the talks and lectures already being arranged at all stations both in the afternoons and evenings, and to arrange special transmissions for elementary and secondary schools. For some time past series of talks had been included by such authorities as Sir William Bragg and Sir Oliver Lodge, and on April 4th the first special school transmission, as an experiment, had been given by Sir Walford Davies.

The formation of the department had been foreshadowed as early as February 1924, when an Advisory Committee consisting of a number of experts from the various quarters of the educational world was formed in London. Similar committees were subsequently formed by the other stations, so that expression was given to opinions held in all parts of the country, and local requirements met.

The Dramatic Department was started about the same time, and was literally heralded with the thunder of guns. The new Dramatic Director, who was no stranger to the Company, having for some time been in charge at Aberdeen, was seized with a desire to make the report of a gun sound convincingly real when heard through the microphone. To the dismay of the staff, he filled in much of his time, with an accomplice, firing a shot-gun over the banisters into the well of the staircase. The microphone was, we were told, stubborn, and the resultant noise suggestive of flat champagne. In addition to this feu de joie, however, considerable research work was carried out in connection with the microphone technique, the finding of suitable types of plays, and sound effects. A nucleus of experienced players was collected, resulting in the formation early in the next year of the London Radio Repertory Players.

PREPARING FOR THE FIRST BROADCAST OF THE NIGHTINGALE. An event that captured the imagination of the country

PREPARING FOR THE FIRST BROADCAST OF THE NIGHTINGALE. An event that captured the imagination of the country

Negotiations entered into during the summer with various great concert societies were brought to a successful conclusion in the autumn, and one of the strong sources of opposition thus withdrawn. The programmes included regularly the concerts of the Halle Society, relayed from Manchester, of the Scottish Orchestral and Choral Union, from Glasgow, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the Liverpool Philharmonic Society, and the Belfast Philharmonic Society, from the Ulster Hall. These concerts were an important addition to the broadcast programmes, and in those days of heavily damped studios and no artificial echo, the musical quality was often rather markedly better than that of the studio programmes.

Politics entered into the programmes for the second time in October, when the leaders of the three parties broadcast election speeches, the Prime Minister, Mr. Ramsay MacDonald from Glasgow on October 10th, Mr. Baldwin from the London Studio on October 16th, and the late Lord Asquith and Oxford, or Mr. Asquith as he then was, from Paisley on October 17th. The results of the election were subsequently broadcast, until 1.15 a.m. on October 29th.

Other programmes of importance during this half-year were various speeches at public dinners, including that of the Prime Minister at the Lord Mayor’s Banquet, the relay to 5XX by land-line of the opera “Le Prince Igor,” from the Theatre de la Monaie, Brussels, and the reading of his play, “O’Flaherty V.C.,” by George Bernard Shaw.

The new departments already referred to had to be housed apart, and rooms in the present north wing of the building at Savoy Hill were taken. Entry could only be effected by going out of the front door (now the West Entrance) and walking right round to the present East Entrance. Here, after braving the caretaker’s dog, and getting rather a fright from the head of a bison which was inexplicably hung on the wall in a dark passage and gave an impression of a nightmare cowshed, one found the dramatists and educationists aloof in their secluded quarters. They were followed in a few months by various details from the other departments.





1922-1923In addition to the many concerts relayed from outside 1924-sources, such as those of the Halle Society, already referred !925 to, and symphony concerts in the Company’s studios, the B.B.G. arranged a series of International Symphony Concerts at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. The B.B.C. Symphony Orchestra at the first four of these concerts numbered eighty, consisting of the London Wireless Orchestra as a nucleus, augmented by players from other leading London orchestras. The conductors were Pierre Monteux, Ernest Ansermet, and Bruno Walter, on December 10th, January 15th and February 12th respectively. The fifth concert was a choral performance of the musical Miracle Play, “The Pilgrim’s Progress,” by Edgar Stillman Kelley, conducted by Joseph Lewis, the Musical Director of the Birmingham Station. Combined with the concerts arranged at the Central Hall, Westminster, in February and March, these concerts were the first which the B.B.G. undertook with the policy of giving, in addition to the works regularly included in concert programmes, performances of works which ordinarily were not often heard, and which were beyond the compass of the studio.

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