More By-ways of Administration 

18 May 2017

By-ways of the BBC


The satisfying proportions of the room, its fine fireplace, the moulding of its picture-rail, and its three tall windows told one story — a story of the leisurely elegance, the social prettinesses, of a day gone by. Those stately walls, one felt, belonged to an age of chandeliers and mirrors and snuff, and echoed more willingly to fa-la-la than to hotch-cha-cha….

For to-day the “fa-la-las” echo only when an actress says them, and the room has had to adapt itself to an age of microphones, loudspeakers, and chain-smoking.

It has adapted itself admirably. The scholars of the BBC’s school — or, if you like, the students in the Staff Training Department — find it makes an excellent common room, where chain-smoking (if they indulge in it) is as good as anywhere else, and the opportunities for discussing the work that broadcasting gives them are better.

It is by no means the only room in that Georgian residence, tucked away behind Broadcasting House, where the old has given place to new: below stairs, a kitchen has made an excellent studio and a butler’s pantry does well as a control room.

All of which shows the lengths to which the BBC has gone in its arrangements for training its staff. For experience has proved that, however eminent in his own profession a man may be, broadcasting, itself a profession with its own technique, demands specialist knowledge for its practice. Experience elsewhere may qualify a man or woman for a job at the BBC, but the study of broadcasting — what it is, how it works, and how it should be used — must come after.

So the new official goes, sooner or later, to the Staff Training Department. And veterans in broadcasting, no less than probationers, may be found at the lecture-room tables, for though they may know very well what broadcasting is and how it works, its practice is constantly changing, and a “refresher” course may be as necessary for the broadcaster as it may be, say, for a doctor.

Room is gladly found, too, for guest students — members of the staffs of broadcasting organisations in the Dominions, on the Continent, in the U.S.A., who find it beneficial to study British technique and British methods of overcoming problems common to all.

The school at Duchess Street is a broadcasting centre in itself. It has five studios of various sizes and acoustical characteristics, a dramatic-control demonstration room, an engineering control room, and the inevitable lecture-room, complete with blackboard and easel.

Senior members of the staff at Head Office and Regional centres are the teachers, supplementing a permanent staff consisting of the Staff Training Director, the Chief Instructor, and the Technical Instructor. There are three self-contained courses a year, each attended by a different group of students, usually numbering twenty-five, and each course is divided into two parts of six weeks each.

And what isn’t taught about broadcasting and the BBC during those courses can hardly be worth knowing. The first part is devoted to lectures, usually inaugurated by the Director-General, who deals with the historical, political, and constitutional aspects of the subject. Then, during the next six weeks, students hear what experts in nearly sixty sections of BBC activity have to say about their work. Policy is discussed by the Controllers of Administration, Public Relations, Programmes, and Engineering; its interpretation is explained by their departmental heads. To describe in detail the lecture curriculum would be wearisome; it is simpler to record that the only thing it doesn’t include is how to build a wireless set.

When those six weeks of listening are over, the scholar begins to do his exercises. They are pretty thorough. He thinks of ideas for talks, plays, feature productions, and the like. Then he has to put his ideas into effect. He prepares his script, casts and books his artists; conducts rehearsals in the school’s studios, and, finally, produces his show exactly as he would for an actual broadcast. The only difference from an actual broadcast, in fact, is that the output, instead of going to a transmitter, goes through the school’s control room to the Recording Rooms at Maida Vale, where it is recorded on steel tape, and, later, played back to the entire school for criticism and discussion.

In every detail the student’s work is a replica of what is done at Broadcasting House, all the resources of which — the libraries, the mobile recording units, and so on — are at his disposal. But, the students themselves provide, in addition to the producer, the announcer, the effects staff, and even the cast of a play (though use is made, when necessary, of professional help).

So, during that last half of his course, the student’s average day is something like this :—

10.0-11.30 : Attend rehearsal of BBC Contemporary Concert (Balance exercise).

11.45-1.0 : Play-back of National broadcast, “Men Talking,” followed by discussion with the producer.

2.30-5.30 : Final rehearsal of student’s production, “Don’t Play That.”

7.0-7.30 : Closed-circuit performance of “Don’t Play That.”

Not all the students can be concerned in those particular events, of course; so, simultaneously, some may be out with the recording van, others may be engaged in balance and control work, others may be attached for instruction to another department. And all, at one time or another, visit one of the BBC’s Regional offices and one of the transmitting stations.

The BBC school holds no examinations. There are sterner tests of ability. It is not at all unusual for an idea to come out of the school and go into the actual broadcast programmes, and the students working on it, though they may have the help of a more experienced producer, are entirely responsible for carrying the idea into effect. Listeners may remember the production of a delightful fantasy called “The Country Mouse Goes to Town” — it showed very successfully what the school can do.

There are no prizes, no certificates. Instead, the students receive the salary at which they were appointed (for all, of course, must already be members of the Corporation staff).

Nor have impots., gatings, or canes a place in this Academy of Air-casting. But there is an end-of-term report….




To get inside the skin of Cissie the Cow — an animal whose name is as familiar to British listeners as the names of her masters, comedians Clapham and Dwyer — must rank among the oddest jobs that members of the house staff at the BBC’s headquarters have ever been called upon to do. And it is among those specialists in service, the 600 members of the house staff, that one finds masters of the odd job.

Clapham and Dwyer were presenting their act at one of the Theatrical Garden Parties held annually in Regent’s Park (an event to the organisers of which the BBC occasionally lends assistance) and they needed the services of Cissie. As a result of the resource of two men from the Corporation’s house staff, Cissie duly appeared, and was a triumphant success until she ran amok, prancing with a remarkable variety of steps through crowds of astonished guests. The summer sun was the explanation of her uncowlike behaviour — once the act was over, the two men impersonating Cissie found the heat inside the skin unbearable, and went to find someone to help them out of it. Those who could extricate them were either too callous or too helpless with laughter to do so, and before they ultimately relented, Cissie, in her agonised search, was lost in the Park….

The incident is typical of the house staff’s unceasing, unobtrusive, indispensable service behind the microphone at Broadcasting House and elsewhere. Receptionists, the hostess, housekeeper, studio attendants, male cleaners, commissionaires, charwomen, pages, liftmen — each member of the house staff has an essential contribution to make to the smooth running of British broadcasting.

The charwomen, for instance — of whom there are about 250. They come on duty at 7 a.m. and finish at 9.30 a.m. Each has a set task, calculated to occupy her for exactly those two and a half hours. The women are organised into groups, each in charge of a forewoman. To ensure that absences cause no disorganisation, a relief pool is available, the members of which report for duty every day. The BBC has no need to advertise for charwomen — there is a waiting list of 3,000.

During the day a staff of men — all ex-Servicemen, as is every man on the house staff except those who began as boys — is continuously employed in attending to the building’s domestic needs. They polish brass-work (more than 1,000 tins of metal polish are ordered each year), wash walls, clean glass-fittings, sweep carpets, replenish office inkwells. Each week they change the hand-towels and dusters supplied to the staff and the 1,800 roller-towels in the cloakrooms, and use over 1,000 gallons of liquid soap in refilling containers. And those are only examples.

In the studios are the colleagues of the cleaners, the studio attendants — the men who do for broadcasting what the indispensable scene-shifter does for the theatre — and the orchestral porters, who carry from studio to studio or town to town (or even from country to country) collections of fragile instruments worth tens of thousands of pounds.

Then there are the pages — ninety-five of them. They join at the age of fourteen and a condition of their employment is that they attend evening school, the BBC paying two-thirds of the fees. They wear blue serge suits, stiff white collars, and a black tie (a white open-neck shirt is permissible in the summer), and receive, in addition to their wages, a dress-allowance of half-a-crown a week to enable them to do so. The conventional duties of the page are familiar enough, but these boys have an additional duty — from among them are recruited the building’s outside messengers, who are as likely to be sent to the Prime Minister’s house, the Houses of Parliament, or a foreign embassy as to the nearest Post Office. Sometimes they make as many as 1,200 special journeys a month, in addition to a multitude of routine calls.

In the office of the House Superintendent — to whom every member of the house staff is responsible — is a piece of electrical apparatus containing a number of little windows, each of which, when lit from behind, reveals the number of a Broadcasting House studio. It is by means of this apparatus that the amber light outside every studio may be switched on, to indicate that that studio has been booked for either a transmission or rehearsal. When lit, the windows in the apparatus show at a glance what studios have been so booked. Allocation of the various studios is done elsewhere, but the House Superintendent’s office is responsible for seeing that the recognised indication of a booked studio is given.

Odd jobs are the normal routine of that office. They include the day-to-day arrangements with the police about matters such as traffic control during the visits of important personalities; first-aid when the staff matron is off duty; the care of lost property; the provision of pens, paper, cigarettes, matches, for conferences; the organisation of accommodation moves; the provision of water-filled vases for the flower-decorations; the supervision of the work of the window-cleaning contractors; and dealing with the applications of listeners to watch broadcasts (there are 50,000 a year: 50,000 have already been met, 25,000 are on the waiting list — and the normal “wait” is twenty months, though special consideration is given to oversea and provincial applications).

Caught in the act – a BBC fireman exercises his authority

It supervises, too, the work of the contractors who see that BBC buildings are kept free from vermin. Strange insects from far parts of the world sometimes gatecrash Broadcasting House — they come in parcels and packages, in a dozen unpreventable ways. And every month the occupants of each room in the BBC’s London buildings hear the query, “Any complaints of rats or mice?”

More strange tasks were revealed to me by the BBC’s Housekeeper, an assistant of the House Superintendent. He recalled, for example, the efforts of one of his men to entice a parrot out of a tree into which it had escaped, the bird having been in the BBC’s possession for the purposes of a Children’s Hour broadcast. In far from pleasant terms the Housekeeper’s assistant beseeched the parrot to “come out o’ that”; the parrot, perched in the topmost branches, replied with a flow of defiant screeches. Eventually hunger succeeded where BBC blandishment failed.

But the execution of odd jobs is not the headache of the House Staff only. In the House Engineer’s establishment one finds two of the most picturesque figures to be seen at Broadcasting House. They are fully-fledged firemen, clad in red and blue uniforms and bearing shoulder-cords of glittering brass. Both are ex-members of the London Fire Brigade, with more than twenty years’ fire-fighting experience behind them. There are about 120 fire-fighting appliances and a “sprinkler” system in Broadcasting House, and many more appliances in surrounding offices. The care of these; tours of inspection through the studios and the various buildings; attendance at every broadcast to which the public is admitted; the daily testing of the telephones that link the BBC directly with the nearest Fire Brigade station, are the firemen’s routine duties.

Fortunately, the BBC has suffered little from fire — the most serious outbreak was in a publications store, remote from the studios, and was soon quelled.

Anti-fire measures in the BBC are necessarily elaborate. Alarms and indicators are everywhere; members of the staff are appointed as Fire Directors of each floor; a house brigade is provided by members of the House Engineer’s staff on duty. But I was disappointed to discover that, well-equipped as the BBC’s firemen are, there isn’t a brass helmet in the building.




When, a couple of years ago, the ex-Director-General of the BBC, Sir John Reith, publicly and convincingly spat on the stage of the Fortune Theatre, London, the world’s Press, regarding the event as news, not only ensured histrionic fame for Sir John — he was playing the part of the butler in a BBC staff production of Ian Hay’s The Sport of Kings — but gave the public a clue to the lighter side of life in the BBC.

The amateur dramatic society for which Sir John became a butler is just one of the ways in which the BBC’s staff can have fun and games. It is a section of the BBC Club, an organisation so flourishing that a secretary and a staff of six are permanently employed in running it. It caters for every grade of the staff, and ninety per cent, of the people at Broadcasting House and other London offices are members. Regional offices and transmitters necessarily have their own local clubs, but the resources of the Head Office organisation are as much available to the staff in the provinces as to their colleagues in London.

The pavilion at Motspur Park, Surrey, headquarters of the BBC Club

Practically every form of outdoor sport — cricket, soccer and rugger, golf, lawn tennis, hockey, netball, motoring, dinghy sailing, swimming, even flying — is represented by a section; indoors, members can take their pick of dancing, chess, bridge, table tennis, badminton, and shove-ha’penny (though it’s true there isn’t a Shove-ha’penny Section yet). If these fail to thrill, a rifle range, squash rackets, and ice skating are available. For those who would exercise their voices, there is a Club Choir of over a hundred members; for the stamp-collector, the Club provides a happy hunting ground. (Oversea listeners would probably be astonished to see how eagerly their envelopes, as well as their letters, are scrutinised at Broadcasting House. It is a rule there that all foreign stamps must be sent to the Secretary of the Stamp Section.)

Though the administrative affairs of the Club are dealt with at the London offices, its headquarters are eleven miles away at Motspur Park, in Surrey. There, on a Saturday afternoon, the staff comes out to play on a twenty-acre sports ground. In winter, those who prefer to watch usually have a choice of two rugger, two soccer, hockey, and netball matches. They are attractive fixtures, too: the first soccer eleven is in a popular London football league, and well-known rugger clubs from London hospitals and banks are visitors to the ground.

During summer week-ends, when cricket rules, teams representing the M.C.C., Eton Ramblers, the Staff of Lord’s Cricket Ground, and the Aldershot Command are among the first eleven’s opponents — among whom, by the way, have been sides captained by those famous giants of the game, A.P.F. Chapman and C.B. Fry. Though, come to that, the BBC has a giant of its own: A. Sellick, the head-groundsman and a valued member of the first eleven, was a well-known county professional, playing for Gloucestershire and Wiltshire. Incidentally, Motspur offers tempting bait to the batsman (and batswoman, for there is a flourishing women’s team): as at a more famous ground, a huge gasometer all but casts its shadow across the pitch….

Throughout the year, the ground caters for the lawn-tennis man and woman. At present there are five hard courts; in a few months’ time there will be two more.

The sports pavilion is a most palatial place, providing not only changing-rooms, with baths and showers, but a hall for dancing, a restaurant, lounge, billiard room, and bar. It has its own staff of two stewards and a cook, so that, with the administrative personnel and Groundsman Sellick and his four assistants, the BBC’s recreational facilities provide permanent employment for fifteen people.

In 1939, Motspur Park will celebrate its tenth anniversary: it was on July 6, 1929, that the pavilion (a less elaborate place, then) and the ground were opened by Lord Clarendon, at that time Chairman of the BBC Board of Governors.

If Motspur Park were all that members got for their subscriptions — which vary, according to the individual’s grade, from twopence a week upwards — it would be pretty good value for money. But the subscription buys more than that.

If a member, going, say, on holiday, wants a railway ticket, the Club will get it for him: if, for his holiday, he chooses a cruise or a visit to the Continent, the Club will make the necessary arrangements. If, returning home, he brings news of a comfortable guest-house, of a worth-while holiday camp, of pleasant “digs,” the Club (which has space allotted to it on all the Corporation’s official notice-boards) will advertise the “finds” for the benefit of other members.

And if a member has a house or flat to let, a car, cat, dog, or white mouse to sell, the Club will advertise them. It will obtain sports gear and anything else within reason for its members; once, at the time of the Coronation, it was asked to arrange for the supply of a flag-pole.

The Club acts as a collecting and despatch agency for “BBC House” — a social and occupational centre for the unemployed that the BBC staff maintains at Gateshead. Each week in the Club office, time is found to sort, pack, and despatch parcels of books, toys, and clothing.

Every quarter the Club issues the staff magazine, produced and edited by members of the staff, and known, as I have already said, as Ariel after the sculptured sprite over the main entrance to Broadcasting House.

The BBC Club’s colours are blue, black, gold, and silver, intended to represent the sky, earth, sun, and moon; its badge is the crest of the Corporation’s coat-of-arms. Its motto — it hasn’t a motto. “All things to all men” might do — but expressed, of course, in Latin.




Those who pass the notice-boards on the corridor walls at any of the BBC’s London offices will find thereon a series of menus headed “Luncheon Menu,” “Restaurant Tariff,” “Breakfast Menu,” “Dinner Menu,” “All-night Menu,” and so on. Considered collectively, they are a signpost indicating one of the most interesting by-ways of the BBC — the elaborate catering service that the business of broadcasting has brought into being.

Run on the now-familiar cafeteria system, the Broadcasting House restaurant is three floors below street level

As listeners to the broadcasts from Daventry know, the hours at which the Empire Service operates mean that the doors of Broadcasting House are never shut. But the doors of adjacent restaurants are, and so provision must be made to meet the demands of hungry artists, engineers, and programme officials at any hour of the night. During the day, when 1,500 or more human beings are in the building, the Broadcasting House catering service must be ready to supply breakfasts, morning coffee, lunch, afternoon tea, and evening meals, and though, of course, the peak demands come at the customary times, there is still a constant demand from the many artists and officials who must sacrifice conventional meal-times to meet the demands of the microphone.

Run on the now-familiar cafeteria system, the Broadcasting House restaurant is three floors below street level. Restaurant and kitchen occupy a floor-space of approximately 5,750 super feet, there being seating capacity for 210. On the floor above there are another 2,000 super feet devoted to the “cold” service, responsible for the provision of snacks.

A glimpse of the service counter. Some listeners may recognise the side views of Sir Noel Ashbridge, BBC Controller of Engineering, and L.W. Hayes, Head of the Overseas and Engineering Information Department

The records of the BBC’s catering manager speak eloquently of the unceasing activity that goes on there: in one month, 15,000 lunches were served, 8,000 evening meals, 2,000 meals during the night, 22,000 morning refreshments, and 30,000 afternoon teas. A staff of 86, working in three shifts during the day (there being, in addition, a special night staff), is necessary to maintain that output. There are ten chefs, working in a kitchen that contains, among other equipment, four electric ovens, two large grills, pastry oven, steamer, four fryers, a large electric carver, and refrigeration plant.

At the Maida Vale studios, some three and a half miles away, four more chefs with similar equipment cater for the needs of orchestras, artists, recording staffs, and engineers who rehearse and broadcast from this additional centre. Here a staff of twenty maintains an eighteen-hour-a-day service.

The successful feeding of broadcasters, apparently, is by no means a business of so many pounds of meat, so many hundredweights of potatoes, so many gallons of milk. One must, I discovered, be prepared to study temperament intensively, to become an amateur meteorologist, to keep a close eye on rehearsal and programme timings.

Studying temperament has revealed to the BBC’s catering manager, for example, that members of the Symphony Orchestra (despite the heavy demand on their energy) find satisfaction in tomatoes and lettuce, but that members of a dance orchestra turn to more solid fare like roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. He has learned that feeding comedians involves no difficulties because “they take what’s going”; that broadcasting engineers ask only that cooking and service be good — the menu can be what it may; that the most critical of all broadcasters are the women artists (and he has found, by the way, that girls eat more than men do!).

Menus anywhere are dictated by the weather, and in the BBC they watch it not by the season or by the day, but by the hour — they must even try to forecast what it is going to do. Its state when artists are leaving a long rehearsal to seek refreshment will have a pronounced effect upon their orders.

So, too, will the rehearsal itself. If it has been a good rehearsal, the restaurant staff must have ready plenty of substantial food like rump steak and chips; but a rehearsal at which everything has gone wrong will have killed appetite and salads will be wanted.

Those are experiences gained principally at Broadcasting House, London, but the catering manager finds them confirmed when he visits the centres of refreshment at other BBC establishments — at the Television Station at Alexandra Palace, at the other London studios in Maida Vale, at the offices of the Regional stations.

And from the Regions come clues to the pleasures of the national palate. At Cardiff they had a passion — enduring for months — for sausages and mash; now it is kidneys and bacon. Manchester, too, likes sausages, but they must be red sausages; and there is a marked preference there for aspic dishes — thus contrasting with London’s taste, where they all but ignore the chicken in aspic, prawns in aspic, that the menus announce. Soup and pies, I learned, are the delights of Scotland’s broadcasters — pie of any kind is sure of a welcome up North. Haggis? Let the catering manager speak :—

“Once,” he said, “I offered haggis to London Scotsmen. The offer was accompanied by a stipulation: that they ate or consumed it —
whichever happens to a haggis — in a room by themselves! An official place in the menu? Well…! Of course, what they do up North is their concern!” (It should be said that the every-day fixing of menus at the BBC’s Regional offices is a local affair.)

They have one great ideal in the BBC catering service, in importance greater than the satisfaction of thousands of different appetites, greater, even, than the maintenance of a high standard of cooking: everything is subordinate to cleanliness.

It was pleasing to find that, in designing the kitchens, the BBC does not forget that consideration of those who work there makes for efficient service. At one kitchen to which I was taken the equipment was so designed that unnecessary movement by the staff has been reduced to a minimum : drying table and plate racks are immediately adjacent to the dish-washing sinks and the service lift to the restaurant; the three vegetable-washing sinks are as near to the tradesmen’s door (and, incidentally, as far from the dish-washing sinks) as possible.

Pleasing, too, was the discovery at Broadcasting House of a little room where the waitresses have their meals in comfort and are themselves waited upon by a girl employed solely for the purpose.

Many members of the BBC’s staff, even, know nothing of that little room — an efficient service, of course, is unobtrusive. So that, outside the restaurant, the visitor’s only clue to a large and complex organisation may be the menus on the boards and a glimpse of a waitress, in her neat uniform of black and white, carrying one of the afternoon teas that, every day, are served to members of the staff in their rooms.



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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