More By-ways of the Programmes 

1 June 2017

By-ways of the BBC


Where is the largest studio in Great Britain? Where do the electrical recordings in the Empire programmes come from? Where does the BBC Symphony Orchestra (of 119 players) play when it isn’t at Queen’s Hall?

Broadcasting House is not the answer. The answer is to be found three miles away from Portland Place, in Maida Vale, a north-west London suburb.

In 1935 — that is, just over three years after Broadcasting House replaced Savoy Hill as the BBC’s headquarters — it became very evident that the new building with all its twenty-one studios (there are two more now) was too small to meet the demands of an ever-growing service. The problem of studio accommodation became a sure source of headaches. The number of National and Regional transmissions each day, the rehearsals they required, increases in the activity of every programme department, the rapid development of oversea services, the inadequacy of available space for full-size orchestras, were witnesses to the fact that auxiliary studios would have to be found.

True, even in the Savoy Hill days a warehouse on the south bank of the Thames had been adapted to BBC needs, in order to relieve the congestion at headquarters, and “Studio 10” (as the warehouse had become) was retained after the move West. So, for several years, BBC Orchestras, dance bands (“No. 10” was one of the homes of the late BBC Dance Orchestra), and any other musical units for which the main headquarters had no room, made their melody in a neighbourhood that is identified more with the peremptory toot of tugs and the clamour of cranes than with the provision of broadcast music.

But Waterloo Bridge was coming down, and the warehouse was in the way. Another channel had to be found for the overflow from “B.H.”

The search ended in Maida Vale. For fifteen months over a hundred men worked to convert the chosen premises to the BBC’s needs, and so supply British broadcasting with five new studios.

The BBC’s largest studio. It is fitted with a gallery for a small audience and contains a fine organ

Then the Concert Hall at Broadcasting House had to yield pride of place — in order of size, at least — to a newcomer. No. 1 studio at Maida Vale, 126 ft. long and 72 ft. wide, became Britain’s largest studio, equipped with a permanent orchestral platform and an organ worthy of the attention of the most critical musical ear.

The construction of the Maida Vale studios gave the acoustic experts a grand opportunity to experiment in studio design. Each of the five studios is an entirely separate structure within the main building, with its own walls and ceiling.

Studios 2 and 3 are identical in size (70 ft. by 43 ft.) and shape, and both are used for fairly large orchestras, military bands, and the like. But only so far are they twins. Acoustically, they are not even related. No. 2 has flat walls and ceiling. In No. 3, the walls and ceiling look as if the builders had decided to have fun. The surfaces zig-zag, with the zig-zags increasing in width from the centre point of each wall to its ends. And similarly from the centre of the ceiling. Technically, the design is described as “serrated” and the engineers are well pleased with it.

Programmes of dance music and the like come from Studios 4 and 5. They are smaller than the others — roughly 45 ft. by 29 ft. — and again they are designed to tell the BBC more about the relative advantages of studios of the same size but with different acoustical characters. No. 4, for instance, is conventionally rectangular in shape; in No. 5 no two walls are parallel.

Around the studios are offices, the staff restaurant, a control room, and a suite of rooms in which the BBC records its programmes —or anything else that must be trapped “on the tape.” Here it is that, on steel ribbon, discs, or even film, the “live” performances of broadcasts are captured for retransmission to listeners who could not hear the original performances.

Which means that the lights are never out in the recording rooms.

The Marconi-Stille recording machine. This apparatus records the programme on a steel tape by a magnetic process, and it also acts as the reproducer, converting the recorded sounds back into audio-frequency impulses

In a nearby room are racks of neatly-labelled boxes. To read those labels is to be reminded of a hundred hours of good listening — of broadcasts that, one thought, had long since been lost in the ether.

But there they are — trapped. In the Recording Section’s store-room memories lie awaiting recall to life.

The usual services necessary to the daylight-deprived, fresh-air-denied broadcasting studio are, of course, installed at Maida Vale: plant to supply washed and conditioned air, to regulate heat, to provide emergency lighting. There is half-a-mile of ventilating ducting weighing 50 tons; each hour one hundred tons of air are delivered to and extracted from the studios. There are 1,520 electric lamps, 58 electric clocks, a mile of hot-water mains.

Drawing in figures a picture of the making of “Maida Vale,” the BBC reveals that inside the shell of the existing building and into the space created by the excavation of 3,000 tons of material, were put a million-and-a-half bricks, 200 tons of steelwork, 1,500 tons of concrete.

Statistics are eloquent, of course. But even they cannot reveal just how successfully the BBC has made a miniature edition of Broadcasting House out of a building that was originally intended to house one of the largest skating rinks in the world.




To listen to a “Music-Hall” programme is to be introduced to one of the most interesting of BBC programme sources, as well as entertained. For “Music-Hall,” operetta productions, recitals on the BBC Theatre Organ, and many other programmes of a light nature come from a studio that has all the elements of a theatre—that, in fact, is a theatre.

This studio is not in Broadcasting House — it is a hundred paces away, next door to the famous Queen’s Hall, and is the principal feature of a building that, though it is now the headquarters of the BBC’s Variety Department, retains its eighty-four-year-old name of St. George’s Hall.

In the history of the Hall can be found much of the history of the development of entertainment. It is a place that was known to recreation-seekers long before entertainment could be plucked out of the air. People in search of amusement or knowledge have trodden its ground for the past hundred years.

St. George’s Hall – a hundred paces from Broadcasting House and next door to the celebrated Queen’s Hall

First to occupy the site was the “German Fair,” built in 1835, and opened in 1839 as a bazaar. Fourteen years later, the “Fair” caught fire. Its ashes were cleared away to make room for a new building with a new name. For a time, people went to St. George’s Hall to skate, but the rink failed to make good, and an ascent was made to a loftier art. A contemporary writer has recorded the facts, and proves that the growth of the Hall’s traditions of entertainment was uninterrupted :—

“The building contains a spacious room which is occasionally used for balls, concerts, and other entertainments; and likewise for public meetings and lectures, both on weekdays and Sundays. Here are the offices of the London Academy of Music … open to amateur as well as professional students … instruction in the various branches of musical education is given by some of the first professors of the day.”

In 1905 came a remarkable change in usage, but tradition was still maintained. Musicians yielded possession to magicians, and St. George’s Hall became the home of Maskelyne’s Theatre of Mystery. The magic of the Maskelynes has mystified London audiences for over sixty years, and for twenty-eight of them those who loved mystery went to St. George’s Hall to find it.

But they had to look elsewhere in the autumn of 1933 — the Maskelynes moved out and the Variety Department of the BBC moved in.

A broadcast in progress on the stage of St. George’s Hall

The Corporation’s occupation of the premises did not mean, however, that St. George’s Hall was lost to the British public — as listeners to “Music-Hall” will have realised long since, an audience can be accommodated. There is seating capacity for 382, admittance being by invitation of the BBC. As I have already said, about twenty months will have passed before existing applications are satisfied.

Activity inside the producers’ cubicle (the exterior of which may be seen on the right in the picture above)

Those who are privileged to attend a performance in this unorthodox studio can sit in either balcony or stalls. The balcony’s sides and boxes have been converted into the pipe-chambers of the BBC Theatre Organ. Over the proscenium arch are three loudspeakers, part of the equipment of the organ’s unique accessory, the “Electrone.” The organ console, being portable, may be found on any part of the stage or even on the floor of the Hall.

When a “Music-Hall” broadcast is in progress, the BBC Variety Orchestra occupies the space where the orchestra stalls used to be, but for broadcasts of a different nature, this space may be filled with an extension of the stage.

Safety-curtain and draw-curtains conceal the stage. Behind them are more curtains and conventional back-cloths. There are number frames — and the numbers go up. There are footlights, one lamp in three being red. There are limelights and spotlights. The artists appear in their accustomed theatre garb and make-up.

But the audiences are in no danger of losing sight of the broadcasting wood because of the theatre trees. Rightly, no attempt is made to hide the microphones, of which up to seven may be in use. They are to be seen on the stage, suspended over the orchestra and over the audience, slung near the first row of stalls for the announcer. He, by the way, performs his office during “Music-Hall” broadcasts in full view of everyone except the artists whom he announces. Prominent on either side of the proscenium, too, are the red lights that tell when the microphones are alive.

That is the scene in front. Entering through the stage-door (guarded, of course, by a door-keeper’s box — in which, surprisingly, is the most diminutive kitchen-range), one steps straight into the machinery of the theatre. Artists find five dressing rooms, complete with make-up table, long illuminated mirrors, and wash-basins; orchestral musicians go to a large band-room.

It is an adventure to climb up the winding iron staircase to the “flies.” To peer through the ropes — a seemingly hopeless tangle of ropes — at the stage below is to obtain an unanticipated sense of height and of remoteness. On the stage itself, theatre and broadcasting are fused. One turns from examining the spotlights to look at microphone stands. The stage electricians’ platform on one side, where switch-stabbed panels control the 540 stage lamps, is balanced on the other by the producers’ cubicle, wherein are telephone cue-lights (no bells may ring here), loudspeaker, microphone, and the microphone-control facilities. A green mat, permanently marked into fifty-three numbered sections, leads to the footlights. In various positions are portable platforms, for the proper staging of orchestras and grand pianofortes, including the one attached to the Theatre Organ. Over them all the curtains that give the stage settings their variety hang stolidly.

I asked whether the stage itself revealed evidence of the BBC’s predecessors on its boards. The Corporation, I was told, has installed a new stage, but it replaced one that was a honeycomb of trap-doors. Eleven of them were found, and, below each, a conveniently placed platform. For all that, the old stage could still bear without complaint a weight of a ton and a half. But some of the old boards are still left, and in one of them is a small, round hole. It explains “The Mystery of the Vanishing Walking-stick.”

Many changes in the original accommodation have been made by the BBC. Room has been found for offices, and the property-man’s room behind the stage has become an auxiliary studio.

But the theatre itself is still much as it was. Broadcast Variety has found a fitting home, and St. George’s Hall has found tenants uniquely equipped to crown its tradition.




“… to hear a running commentary on the event. And so, over to … ”

Over to Wimbledon or Wembley or Twickenham, to Croydon Airport, a London street, a provincial railway station – over to anywhere that has offered the BBC an event promising good listening. And in hearing it, you hear what may be the climax of a few hours, intensive activity or the result of months of preliminary preparation.

Many commentaries, of course — like those on the Derby or the Boat Race — are annual features of the programmes, and their arrangement (always allowing for uncontrollable factors like the weather and time) is just routine. But scores of the running commentaries that the BBC’s Outside Broadcasts Department arranges in the twelve months are so many challenges to the Department’s resource. From the start, many seem hopeless undertakings, but in practice prove to be among the Department’s best efforts. Do you remember the first broadcast of a commentary on a darts match? Gloomy prophecies of “an awful flop” accompanied the preparations for it; enthusiastic applause and encores from the listening audience ultimately confounded the prophets. Other proposals for commentaries glow with the promise of good things to come, only to slip away from the hungry hands of the O.B. people to join the ranks of commentaries that might have been.

Commentaries are hatched from many different eggs. Listeners’ suggestions (always warmly welcomed) — news items in the Press —proposals from the organisers of events — the researches and chance discoveries of BBC officials — are standard sources of supply for the O.B. incubator.

Hatching, once an embryo idea has been passed as good, is a complicated process. The close co-operation of the event’s organisers must be sought; a survey made of the scene of activity in collaboration with the responsible engineering department; microphone and local control-room positions must be decided, and telephone lines to link the point with the nearest BBC studio centre ordered from the Post Office. An estimate of the total costs involved is essential. Questions of copyright may crop up; the timing of the event may be so inconvenient that special flexibility in the preceding and succeeding programmes must be arranged.

And always there is the question: Who shall the commentator be? “A pleasant voice, a quick wit, an eye for the significant, and a vocabulary with which to describe it” is how the BBC’s Director of Outside Broadcasts defines the good commentator. The species is rare. To find men — and women, for that matter — in whom mastery of the spoken word is blended with a sense of expert discrimination is the object of a perpetual task that is ninety per cent, discouragement.

Thus, if the forthcoming commentary is to be on an event new to the programmes, a new commentator may be highly desirable but impossible to find. So the O.B. Department calls on experience — turns to those who have proved themselves qualified to paint word-pictures of pretty well anything. The names of many of those personalities are listening-household words: Howard Marshall, Lionel Seccombe, Capt. H.B.T. Wakelam, for example; and officials of the O.B. Department such as its Director, S.J. de Lotbiniere, F.H. Grisewood, John Snagge, T.B.R. Woodroffe.

But even when all the preliminary problems have been solved, there is still the actual broadcast. And during a running commentary anything may happen.

Wakelam, for instance, once had to continue a lawn-tennis commentary from Wimbledon with his trousers on fire! Alone in the commentator’s hut, he had carelessly dropped a match near some loose paper on the floor, and, unable to call for help without revealing his unhappy predicament to all his audience, he had to stamp and press out the flames while keeping his eyes on the game and his tongue on the move.

Then Howard Marshall has good reason for remembering one of his Test-match accounts. He was speaking from a semi-basement room in a private house near Lord’s, and his broadcast began to an accompaniment of five-finger piano exercises played somewhere above. At last, an engineer had to go upstairs to beseech silence. The five-finger exercises stopped, but a minute or two later Marshall’s account was interrupted by a bang on the window in front of him. On the other side of the glass was a lady clutching an umbrella in ominous manner, and through the window came an irate voice : “Hi, there! How much longer are you going on for? My little girl’s wasting her music lesson!”

The commentator’s box above the heads of the crowd at a Test Match at the Oval, London

Sometimes it is impossible for the commentator to have a fixed microphone position. Then come experiences like that of Thomas Woodroffe and an engineer at the Aldershot Tattoo a few years ago. They had to crawl about the Arena with microphones in their hands, and they had to wear borrowed uniforms so that spectators would think they were part of the show.

Col. Brand, in the middle of one of his broadcasts from Wimbledon, suddenly found himself unable to continue: for no apparent reason, his voice had completely left him. Perspiring and helpless, he had to watch the play going remorselessly on. Fortunately, the truant voice returned as suddenly as it had gone and, after explaining what had happened, Brand had to catch up with the game as best he could.

Unexpected delays, however, are the principal dread of any commentator.

George Allison (noted specialist in Association-football commentaries) faced the problem in its direst form when he attempted to give a word-picture of Kaye Don’s effort on Loch Lomond to establish a world’s speed record with Miss England III. For nearly three-quarters of an hour Allison talked about bonnie banks and braes, sylvan glades, world speed records — talked about anything — while waiting for Miss England to flash round a bend into his view. But no Miss England came, and, forced to realise that an unexpected postponement must have become necessary, Allison gave the cue for the return to the studio, and so ended what must have been the only broadcast commentary on nothing-in-particular.




They tell you at Broadcasting House that Christmas Day, to them, means “business as usual.” On that of all days, they say, the service must go on. So it must, of course — like electric light, entertainment must come at the touch of a switch, and that “must” brings BBC announcers, waitresses, engineers, liftmen, boiler hands, sub-editors, pages, to work as usual on Christmas Day. If that were all, the unrelenting efficiency of it would have a repelling, vaguely depressing flavour….

If that were all — if a sprig of holly were not stuck in the microphone of an Empire-Service studio — if there were no Christmas cards from all over the world decorating every office — if there were no festoons relieving the grey-and-chromium austerity of the control room and bringing to the smart modernity of the restaurant an old-fashioned, ever-new brightness — if there were no Christmas dinner….

One of the hundred jolly moments of the Variety Department’s Christmas Day Party. You can see only the backs of those responsible for this burst of merriment – the Western Brothers

But there are these things, and they prove that Broadcasting House is no more immune from the infectious fun of the season than you or I. The Christmas dinner, for instance. Every member of the staff on duty is the BBC’s guest: the cash register is silent under its dust cover. The menu is exactly what it ought to be: oxtail soup; boiled cod and egg sauce; roast turkey and cranberry sauce (there is roast beef for the diehards); Christmas pudding; mince pies. And crackers — certainly there are crackers, and if you were on the basement floor on Christmas afternoon you might see an artist making the most of a toy trumpet, an announcer displaying the latest thing in bon-bon millinery. (But I was disappointed to find that paper-caps are not considered the correct wear for reading the news.)

If the menu didn’t point to the day, the groups that make the restaurant a place of Yule-tide whoopee would be an infallible clue. Their fun-and-games is a reflection of what you and I are probably doing on the other side of the loudspeaker, and they, too, make a lot of noise. But it doesn’t matter: studios are well insulated from sound, there is nobody to disturb, and all that they bring down on their heads are bunches of holly and paper decorations (provided by the Corporation; erected by the catering staff).

Ten floors above them in the engineering control room are more paper decorations, but no noise. The control room is a place transformed on Christmas Day. Engineers to whom Christmas at home is a rare event want more than knobs and meters and log-books around them, so they put their heads and their money together and in proper fashion “A Merry Christmas” is bid to all-comers by “the room that never sleeps.”

The Christmas tree in the Entrance Hall of Broadcasting House

Like the engineers, many of the announcers have to search their memories to recall the last time that they spent the day at home. On every Christmas Day since the Empire Service began, for example, listeners abroad have heard the voice of the Senior Empire Announcer. “To a certain extent,” he told me, “the spirit of the day is bound to infect our work — one’s mental picture of listeners is even more vivid than usual. We had a reminder of the day constantly before our eyes last year — someone had decorated the microphone of our news studio with a sprig of holly. And that reminds me — I accidentally put my hand on it during the reading of one bulletin and hissed like a snake. I’ve often wondered whether anyone noticed that hiss!”

The Chief Announcer of the Home programmes, whose memories go back a long way, associates Christmas with work and with ham — work because he has had to co-operate closely in the preparations for complicated broadcasts of the “round-the-world” type, and ham because he once won a whole one in a staff competition, and no one has ever allowed him to forget it.

It is always necessary, of course, for the people concerned with the programmes of the day to spend the morning at work, and on recent Christmas days St. George’s Hall, home of the BBC’s Variety Department, has been the scene of feverish activity. The cause has been, as a rule, the Department’s Christmas Party, lasting for two hours, and probably the most spontaneous and most informal production of the year.

When, soon after their Christmas breakfast, the comedians, singers, entertainers, and musicians who have been invited to the Party (and the invitation is one that they never refuse if they can help it) get together with the staff to decide what they are all going to do that night, their raw material consists of a charade, a few lyrics, and a host of ideas. A few hours later all the accepted suggestions have been welded into a whole, and the Party is planned. But it’s a very flexible plan.

As true to type as ingenuity plus enthusiasm can make it, the event takes place around not only a microphone but an illuminated and gift-laden Christmas-tree (the gifts being those sent to members of the Variety Department by kind-hearted listeners). There are crackers and streamers and paper hats; everyone in St. George’s Hall — artists, announcer, staff — join in playing musical chairs and games that are the inspiration of the moment. There are songs and infectious hilarity. It is a broadcast that has no parallel, and for most of those on duty at Broadcasting House, no less than for listeners, it is the high spot of the day.

A Christmas tree stood in the Entrance Hall of Broadcasting House last December. Coloured lights glowed against the warm green of its branches — lights that were its only decoration. There were no candles or sparkling tinsel, no interesting packages, no fairy perched on top. The BBC said that the tree was there as part of the building’s floral decoration.

But whether the BBC intended it or not, the tree did more than symbolise the season. It proved that “the service” is not the only thing maintained at “B.H.” on Christmas Day — they maintain as well the greatest tradition of all.



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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