20 September 2021

ELIOT WATROUS, Head of African Service, describes how the Service reacted to Mr Smith’s seizure of independence in Rhodesia.



Cover of Ariel

From Ariel, the BBC staff magazine, for January 1966

‘What’s it like to have a rebellion on your hands?’ someone asked on the morning after Mr Smith had seized independence in Rhodesia. The sixty European and thirty African members of the African Service working on the third floor of Bush House have had more than enough to cope with during the last few months. Within four days of UDI a Rhodesian Unit was formed to build new daily programmes. The World and Rhodesia tells the people of the Colony, living under press and radio censorship, how Britain and the world are reacting to the crisis which threatens the peace of Southern Africa.

Times like this bring the best out of people: producers, programme assistants, secretaries, and staff in all parts of the Corporation on whose help an output department depends, have responded automatically to the fresh and urgent requirements placed on a Service under pressure. Producers with current affairs experience were offered for attachment without any initial request. Members of Appointments Department proposed individuals for immediate attachment and spent hours of their working day trying to trace people with the required current affairs experience; one was found on leave in the snows of Scotland. Meetings in Bush House to deal with accommodation, estimates, planning, and co-ordination, came to rapid agreement with an unusual crispness.

In order to provide space for incoming staff, office partitions were torn down in a matter of days. Not an inch of room was wasted. A regular news bulletin was introduced at twenty-four hours’ notice, and Hugh Venables, H.X.P.Ops, talked about manning a shift himself because of the shortage of announcers.

Tannoys linked directly with the Newsroom brought the latest developments. Wilson to Salisbury — Cabinet meets — sanctions announced in the House of Commons — Security Council votes ten to zero — Bottomley to Zambia — Kariba mined — planes to Lusaka — oil embargo. At least two or three fresh developments a day.

News from foreign capitals tended to break at night and Prime Ministerial broadcasts were made at 9 p.m. when most of Africa was already asleep. So dawn transmissions, normally carrying recorded material from the previous evening, had to be manned at each point in the crisis, with staff from different parts of the Service working on a rota basis. Many programmes were built during the night and press reviews were written at midnight as soon as the papers appeared. On one occasion a team of interviewers spent five hours in No. 10, anticipating an interview which never materialized.

The newly appointed Senior Topical Talks Assistant, Keith Carter, with his expanded team of six producers and talks writers, looked after five daily current affairs programmes and three daily commentaries, seven days a week. When the Rhodesian Unit was formed Frank Barber, the West African Programme Organizer, was transferred to take charge of the daily Rhodesian programmes.


A large group of men sit in a studio, seen through the control room window

Rehearsing Roundabout broadcast by the African Service to East, West, and Central Africa. Bill Everingham, East and Central African Programme Organizer (standing, in white shirt) is now in charge of the BBC presentation team at the Central African Relay Station in Bechuanaland.


No ‘Haw-Haw’

Bill Everingham, East and Central African Programme Organizer, with Eddie King and Peter Hunt from X.Prog.Ops, were jabbed, briefed, and flown nearly 7,000 miles to Francistown in Bechuanaland [now Botswana – Ed] all within seven days to look after the presentation of the new 50-kW. medium-wave relay station, which transmits the World and African Services to the Europeans and Africans owning transistors in the homes, farms, and locations in Rhodesia. The whole operation is controlled by the BBC from London. There will be no ‘Haw-Haw’. Ten news bulletins daily, as many commentaries, British and world press reviews, discussion programmes, parliamentary and foreign radio reviews; and programmes such as People and Politics and The World Today are planned into a rounded schedule, including entertainment with the Australian Test Match, drama productions, and the latest beat from the Hollies and the Seekers — in all, a schedule of ten hours a day. John Wilkinson, Assistant Head of African Service, with nine years in Africa behind him, and a short stint with Panorama, takes on this new job in addition to his normal duties. He hopes to have an assistant!

While the concentration of effort in the first weeks following rebellion has been centred on providing a service for news, comment, and reaction for the people of Rhodesia, the most important task of broadcasting to the rest of Africa where political temperature at this time runs high, has not been neglected. Public Affairs programmes in English are under Dorothy Grenfell Williams, acting West African Programme Organizer, and entertainment, education, and arts productions under Veronica Manoukian, acting East and Central African Programme Organizer, until Bill Everingham returns from Bechuanaland. These regular programmes include Men and Their Money, for the African business world; African Theatre, original plays with African casts; Roundabout, the Good Morning Africa show with Pete Myers; World Horizons, Writers’ Club, and Adventures of Industry. These are just some of the programmes in the forty-four-hour weekly schedule which are bringing, with the many repeat broadcasts on relay stations, an increasing response from Africans whose first language is English. When the Ascension Island relay comes into operation the added strength of signal will bring many new listeners.

While we are waiting for this development the Radio Tape service has a special significance. Each week some two hours of programmes, mainly taken from transmission, are dispatched by air to twenty-two broadcasting services in all parts of the African continent. The stations are charged for this service, so we know the programmes are used (sometimes twice), and as a result we add a significant sum of money each year to the Service programme allowance.

Many senior African broadcasters

Eliot Watrous

Eliot Watrous

In the daily work of the African Service we are greatly helped by the many senior African broadcasters, who spend six months to a year on working attachments with us, normally five at a time. Professionals like James Kangwana (ex-Swahili staff), now Deputy Director of Broadcasting in Kenya; Joe Findlay, Head of the English Service in Sierra Leone; Aleke Banda, Director-General in Malawi; Mohamed Hashi (ex-Somali staff). Director of Press and Broadcasting in Somalia, Michael Olumide, Western Region Controller of the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation; Benny Kanyang-yeyo, Head of Programmes, Uganda (now with us); Sylvester Masiye, Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Zambia; Henry Neba-Fabs, Head of Programmes in Cameroons; Dingaan Mokaila, Director of Broadcasting in Bechuanaland, to mention a few of the most recent attachments. They come to learn our methods and techniques before returning to take charge in their own broadcasting services. They bring to Bush House the warmth and gaiety of Africa without which our programmes would have little meaning and the life of producers would be much duller. Perhaps as important in the long run, they help to create that lasting friendship which only comes from working together.

Many millions of Africans do not speak English but the Rhodesian rebellion is headlined in their vernacular newspapers. During November some thirty commentaries and interviews on different aspects of the crisis were broadcast by the language sections of the Service. The Swahili Section, with Geoffrey Woodland, Programme Organizer and his Swahili Programme Assistants have a Maarifa (Knowledge) Listeners’ Club with 2,500 signed-up members in East Africa and their own football team which plays regularly in Ussoke, Tanzania. Bob Martin, Somali Programme Organizer, with ten years in both East and West Africa and his team of Somali Programme Assistants, have some unusual problems. There is no Somali written language. News readers and commentators, working from English texts, rely on their own hieroglyphics and their trained retentive memories. Britain does not recognize Somalia, so the Somali Service is one of the few links with the Horn of Africa today. The Hausa Section under Christopher Farmer, Programme Organizer, receives some 8,000 letters a year, including some from students in Prague, Moscow, and Peking. The Service is regularly rebroadcast in Northern Nigeria.


A man and a woman look at letters

Zena deals with the many letters received from Maarifa Club members helped by her husband Mohamed Bakhressa, of the Swahili Service.


Struggle by the major nations

The major nations of the world are already joined in the struggle to influence the minds of the 220 million people who live in the thirty-six independent and still largely uncommitted new nations of Africa. It is not so much the thought of acquiring some of the copper, oil, coffee, and uranium which causes Russia and China to transmit to Africa south of the Sahara a total of 220 hours a week (the Voice of America seventy-two and the BBC sixty-two), but more the determination to win friends and to capture new markets for their exports as living standards in Africa continue to rise.

The success of the BBC in continuing to adhere to its traditions in broadcasting to Africa is proved by the special position that the BBC has won among African listeners. The main task before the African Service is to hold and to build on the long British association with Africa in every field of interest and endeavour. Rebellion in Rhodesia will continue to occupy a lot of our attention for some time to come. When it’s all over and Mr Smith is forgotten, it will be the friendship remaining with the peoples of Africa that will matter.


▶︎ Eliot Watrous (died 1984) was head of the BBC African Service.


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