The BBC since 1958 

19 March 2018

Editor’s note: Sir Hugh Carleton Greene KCMG OBE (1910-1987) was Director-General of the BBC from 1960 to 1968, at a time of immense social and political change in both the BBC itself and the United Kingdom as a whole. He put the BBC in the forefront of those changes, which made him enemies on both side of politics and amongst rent-a-gobs like Cyril Black and Mary Whitehouse.

In 1967, Prime Minister Harold Wilson kicked his Secretary of State for Commonwealth Affairs upstairs, turning plain Herbert Bowden MP into Baron Aylestone of Aylestone in the City of Leicester, and parachuted him into the chairmanship of the Independent Television Authority. He then moved the ITA’s chairman, Lord (Charles) Hill of Luton over to become chairman of the governors of the BBC. Hill had been hands-on at the ITA; Wilson gambled he would be the same at the BBC. He was.

Within a year, Greene had resigned as Director-General – achieving Wilson’s aim – and was himself booted upstairs to become a governor, a job he hated.

This is his valedictory message, published in the BBC Handbook for 1969, which was published in late 1968.

I am glad to have this opportunity of reviewing the last ten years – the period during which first as Director of News and Current Affairs and then as Director-General I have been most closely concerned with the direction of the BBC.

In 1958 there were still about seven million families in Britain with a radio but without a television set. ITV, still a novelty, held the lion’s share of the television audience, and the BBC, with not much more than a quarter of it, was beginning to fight back, and to realise that competition could be stimulating.

Mr Hugh Carlton Greene, as he then was, left, with Sir Arthur fforde, right, the then-chairman of the Board of Governors, upon the former’s appointment in 1960

Not everyone – inside or outside the BBC – relished the idea of change or saw the need for it. But changes came, as they had to, and none caused more heartburn at the time than the passing of the Nine O’Clock News, which, by 1959, was a shadow of its former self. The bulk of its old audience was elsewhere – watching television. So we placed the main radio bulletin of the evening at 10pm and followed it with discussion and comment on the day’s events. There was a great uproar, which eventually died down as people faced the fact that the golden age of radio was over.

One of my first tasks as Director of News and Current Affairs had been to break down the barrier between News Division and the people who worked in Current Affairs. The two groups had been living in watertight compartments for many years in an atmosphere of mutual distrust and even hostility. To me as an old journalist the system was incredible. So we changed it, and events have proved over and over again the value of unified editorial control in the BBC.

Another big change came in 1959. The General Election Campaign of that year was the first to be reported by the BBC in its news bulletins, and the first in which there was questioning of representatives of the parties and some discussion of the issues in current affairs programmes. Previously the only time given to a General Election in broadcasting – apart from news of the results – had been the official series of party political broadcasts before the event. By 1959, of course, politicians had begun to wake up to the impact of television. Mr Harold Macmillan, in 1959, had become the first Prime Minister to answer questions in a popular television programme – ‘Press Conference’. Ten years later some politicians still treat television warily and tend to blame the broadcasters when television exposes shortcomings. It was richly ironic to be accused in 1968 – by a member of the House that bred Disraeli and Gladstone, Lloyd George and Balfour, Churchill and Bevan – of emphasising the gladiatorial aspects of British politics.

Satire boom: Alan Bennett with John Sergeant in BBC-2’s ‘On the Margin’, which later got a BBC-1 repeat.

By the early 1960s the BBC’s response to the commercial challenge was beginning to make itself felt in many ways. A new and younger generation was in control, and there was a remarkable flowering of production and writing talent. Radio stopped losing ground and began to regain it. It has addressed itself to new audiences – serious and not so serious – with conspicuous success. The Television Service, meanwhile, was embarked on a course which raised the BBC’S reputation to new heights throughout the world. I need only mention such series as ‘Z Cars’ and ‘The Age of Kings’, ‘Steptoe and Son’, ‘The Wednesday Play’ and ‘That Was The Week That Was’ to evoke memories of that period.

‘That Was The Week That Was’ was in many ways the symbol of the BBC’s new attitude. It proved that an intelligent programme of sharp humorous comment on current affairs could hold an audience of many millions. It was frank, close to life, analytical, impatient of taboos and cant and often very funny. At the same time it was resolutely on the side of the angels. In refusing to talk in reverential whispers or to make ritual bows at every mention of certain sacrosanct subjects it did not lose sight of the things that mattered. It never threw the baby out with the bathwater. It dropped the occasional brick, of course, but that was an occupational hazard.

Eventually the so-called satire boom came to an end, but the vein opened up by ‘TW3’ has been worked by many other writers since then, in plays, some of our light entertainment and in some facets of the BBC’s approach to current affairs. I doubt whether we should have had Alf Garnett without ‘TW3’.

Lord Hill of Luton, appointed Chairman of the Board of Governors on 1 September 1967, becoming Greene’s nemesis.

I have mentioned only a few of the changes of emphasis and mood in our broadcasting since 1958. Alongside them, and others like them, there were changes and challenges which stemmed from the Pilkington Report, published in 1962. That report was a gratifying vindication of all that we had been trying to do. We had hoped for an endorsement of the aims of public service broadcasting based on a licence fee system and we got it; we had hoped for an endorsement of one BBC, of the advantages of a unified system covering Radio, Television and External Services, and we got it; we had hoped for a second television channel, which would provide viewers with a genuine choice of programmes, and we got it. We had hoped also for extensions of radio broadcasting, including local radio, and we got some immediately and the prospect of more later. We had to wait for permission to start broadcasting in colour and for an increase in the licence fee to pay for new services. In the end our patience was rewarded, and now we have a colour television service which was the first to be launched in Europe and which many people consider to be the best in the world. We did not waste the years waiting for the go-ahead. BBC-2, meanwhile, has come a long way since its early days. It is still very much an alternative network for the more discriminating viewer, but now the alternative is available to nearly 80 per cent of the population of the United Kingdom.

No account of broadcasting during the ten years would be complete without a reference to the rapid development of international communications. This made possible superb ‘live’ coverage of the Olympics in colour from Mexico; and one telephone call from London to Vienna was all that was needed to give the signal for the relay of television pictures from Czechoslovakia during the Soviet invasion last August. And yet it was as recently as June 1959 that we gave the first public demonstration of the transmission of films for television by trans-atlantic cable! Telstar was new in 1962, and now we take transatlantic satellite communications for granted.

Carol White as the title character in ‘Cathy Come Home’, a ‘Wednesday Play’ that changed society and forced politicians to take note of homelessness for the first time since World War II.

In my time as Director-General I have attended four Commonwealth Broadcasting Conferences, and I firmly believe that they and the work that stems from them are an important Commonwealth link. We have helped Commonwealth countries to develop new broadcasting services and have trained many of their broadcasters. I came back from last year’s Conference with the knowledge that other Commonwealth broadcasters, and not only those in the developing countries, continue to look to us for a lead. They want to learn from us, they have an insatiable appetite for our programmes, and they have a big stake in our future. To many of them the BBC is a beacon from which the light of independent public service broadcasting shines out across a world where commercial and political pressures all too often blot out the public service and smother the independence.

I have enjoyed this decade of change, I am proud of having helped to stimulate new ideas and to keep the BBC strong and independent. Above all, I am deeply grateful for the loyalty and hard work of the men and women who have been responsible for so much exciting broadcasting in the last ten years. I look forward to continuing my association with them when I join the Board of Governors in July.

You Say

3 responses to this article

Paul Mason 28 March 2018 at 1:19 am

To his lasting credit, HCG refused to meet or even pander to the obnoxious Mary Whitehouse (1910-2001), something which Lord Hill backtracked on. Mrs Whitehouse complained that HCG regarded her as not so much “persona non grata” as “persona non existent*.

Glenn Aylett 19 April 2018 at 9:48 pm

Greene also revolutionised BBC Radio, which was becoming staid and old fashioned by the mid sixties, and the Light Programme was losing millions of listeners to the pop pirates. Fair enough, the Marine Offences Act forced the pirates off air in 1967, but Greene was clever enough to realise the BBC needed to create a dedicated pop station and probably didn’t see pop music as a passing fad, or something to be barely tolerated, like his predecessors. Radio 1 was typical of Greene’s modernisation at the BBC, and like the improvements to BBC Television, proved to be a huge success.

Glenn Aylett 20 April 2018 at 6:07 pm

I should have added, the Greene years turned the BBC from a staid, stuffy organisation in 1960 which had fallen way behind ITV, and was soon to a see new threat from pirate radio, into a great broadcaster again. By 1969 the BBC had 50 per cent of the television audience and its entertainment, sport and drama was considered better than ITV, and Radio 1 had won back the younger radio audience, while the other BBC Radio networks saw a big improvement after the reorganisation in 1967.

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