Across the Threshold 

27 April 2017

By-ways of the BBC


All that come to Broadcasting House must go in by the front door. Though there is a back door, where, of course, goods are delivered, and side doors that are used as emergency exits, there is only one official way of entrance. The long mat inside the front doors is trodden by kings, messenger boys, staff, artists, and Cabinet Ministers alike.

But before you tread on the mat, while you are still in the space that separates the two sets of doors, Broadcasting House begins to tell you its story. On your right is a bronze reproduction of the Royal Coat-of-Arms, enamelled in colours, that tells how “Their Majesties, King George and Queen Mary, honoured this building with their presence on July 7, 1932”; opposite, names representative of the men who made the building are chiselled in the stone: the master builder and his foreman, W. Hasseldine and E. Staples; the clerk of works, G. R. Britchford; the sculptor, Eric Gill; the BBC’s Civil Engineer, M. T. Tudsbery; the architect and his partner, G. Val Myer and F. J. Watson-Hart.

When you stand on the mat, your eye may rove over the curving spaciousness of the Entrance Hall, contemplating the reception desks to left and to right, the doors of the staff lifts, the door over which is inscribed the significant word “Studios”; but it will return, as the architect meant it to do, to the central feature of the Entrance Hall — the now-famous statue of “The Sower.” “The Sower” stands 8 ft. 7 in. high in a niche flanked on one side by the doors of the lifts, and on the other by the studio doors (which open, by the way, on to the corridor leading to the artists’ foyer). Eric Gill, D.I., carved “The Sower” (the letters indicate Designer for Industry, the honour recently established by the Royal Society of Arts of which Gill was one of the first ten recipients). In this figure of a broadcaster pausing in the work of scattering the seed he symbolised the work of the BBC. A pedestal 3 ft. 8 in. high supports the statue, and bears its eloquent inscription, Deus Incrementum Dat.

It was Eric Gill, also, who engraved in the stone of the central arch of the hall the eight-line inscription that, in Latin words chosen by Dr. Montagu Rendall, a former Governor of the BBC, is the dedication of Broadcasting House. The BBC has published a translation of the dedication — a thoughtful act, for many, many times is heard the question “And what does it mean?” Here is the English version: “This Temple of the Arts and Muses is dedicated to Almighty God by the first Governors of Broadcasting in the year 1931, Sir John Reith being Director General. It is their prayer that good seed sown may bring forth a good harvest, that all things hostile to peace or purity may be banished from this house, and that the people, inclining their ear to whatsoever things are beautiful and honest and of good report, may tread the path of wisdom and uprightness.”

The Entrance Hall is never empty, day or night. Receptionists or commissionaires, or both, are always there and, except for a few hours in the middle of the night, are always busy.

On the pavement outside a commissionaire waits to open the doors of the arriving visitor’s car. Inside the hall, other commissionaires separate visitors from staff; and the accuracy with which they make that distinction is a tribute to their memories: there are nearly 2,000 people working at Broadcasting House and its associated offices. These commissionaires also sort out the visitors, diverting to the reception desk on the east side of the hall those who come to keep appointments, and directing the remainder to the west desk. And at the desks the receptionists — skilled in the mastery of the unexpected — satisfy the demands of all who have business with broadcasting.

Some of these leave behind them evidence of their visit: they are invited to sign the BBC’s Visitor’s Book, a volume that must represent the autograph hunter’s ideal. Its contents are the contributions of eminence at Home and in the Empire.

But it can record the names of only the few. A library would be necessary to hold the names of the many, for in 1937 those who used the Entrance Hall of Broadcasting House numbered more than three-quarters of a million.




The outstanding feature of British broadcasting’s home is that it is a “building within a building” — that all the studios and rooms concerned in the actual business of broadcasting are situated in a central tower, separated by thick walls and corridors from the administrative offices surrounding it. In other words, once artists have passed into the central studio block from the Entrance Hall, they cross no administrative portion of the building. They have their own cloakrooms, retiring rooms, waiting rooms, and their own Foyer. The sightseer who peers curiously through the doors of Broadcasting House and watches people pass across the entrance hall to the door labelled “Studios” must wonder “where they go.” Because the door, constantly swinging though it is, allows no more than a glimpse of the short corridor behind it that leads to the Artists’ Foyer. The visitor who is actually in the Entrance Hall may see for a brief moment that the corridor serves purposes other than that of a mere passage. But the artist, for whose convenience the corridor is there, knows that if he wants to make a telephone call, three of the half-dozen telephone boxes in that corridor are connected directly to the Welbeck Exchange and are at his service; he knows that if he wants to post a letter, stamp machines and a postal box complete with collection time-plate and duly cleared by postmen, are opposite the telephone booth. (That box, by the way, is not used for the BBC’s official mail: the red vans of the Post Office call for that, and they take away anything from eight to sixteen sacks of letters a day.) And if the artist, or anybody else who passes along the corridor, wishes to contribute to “The Week’s Good Cause” — the appeal on behalf of a charity that is broadcast from the Home stations each Sunday — a collecting-box is on the wall alongside the stamp machines.

Drawing Room

A few strides take the artist from the Entrance Hall to the Foyer, and here he must stop to find out where he is going. In other words, he must look at the Foyer’s most important feature: the boards that tell him what studio has been allotted to his transmission or rehearsal, and the hour at which it takes place.

Four of these boards — “Programme Display Boards,” the BBC calls them — speak of the day’s activity: three are devoted respectively to the National and Regional programmes and the broadcasts in the oversea service, while rehearsal details occupy the whole of the fourth. At the beginning of each day a member of the House Superintendent’s staff changes the information relating to the Home programmes and the rehearsals; at midnight the oversea programme details are changed. These boards are not only a guide; they are a vivid illustration of the extent of British broadcasting activity. On one day recently they showed details of sixty-five actual transmissions and fifty-three rehearsals, balance tests, and auditions.

Claude Dampier, Billy Carlyle, and “Piddy” in the Artists’ Foyer.

Then the artist turns from the boards to ring for one of the two lifts that serve the studio tower. Luxurious conveyances, these —
eighteen persons can travel in one at the speed of 400 ft. a minute. The landing doors have two-speed operation to ensure silence and to facilitate speediness.

That is the utilitarian side of the Foyer — a place that, unlike the foyers familiar to theatre-goers, is softly lit, and very quiet. But it has its show place as well. On its east side, and accessible from either the Foyer or direct from the Entrance Hall, is the Drawing Room where distinguished visitors are received and may rest. Like the majority of rooms in the studio tower, it represents the result of a union between the art of the designer and the technique of the broadcaster. It is pleasingly reassuring, pleasantly restful. That most accommodating of colours, green, is the predominant hue: the walls are panelled in a wood that has been treated to suggest green rather than to display it; there is a pale green carpet. Built into the panelling of the walls are the originals of two colourful pictures, by Paul Nash and Adrian Daintrey respectively. The armchairs and settees, placed in satisfying disorder, are upholstered to match the carpet; the several tables (including a writing-desk) are of Padauk, an Indian wood reddish in colour and with a grain that reminds one of mahogany.

The Artists’ Foyer at Broadcasting House is designed to perform a severely practical function. It does, of course — so well that one feels the romantic speculations of the sightseer at the entrance doors are best left undisturbed.



About the author

Wilfred Goatman began working at the British Broadcasting Company’s station 5WA in Swansea, where his was the first voice heard on air. He later worked in the Public Relations Department at Broadcasting House in London. These articles were originally written as features for BBC Empire Broadcasting magazine under the pen-name “J. C. MacLennan”, and all nine were collected into the book By-ways of the BBC, published in late 1938 by P.S. King & Son.

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