BBC at War – part 2: The Home Front 

25 March 2022

Celebrating 100 years of our BBC


BBC at War cover

From ‘BBC at War’ by Antonia White, published in 1946

On the Home Front the BBC’s main duty is still, as in peace time, to inform and to entertain. Since the outbreak of war, what listeners of all types want first and foremost from the BBC is news. The nine o’clock news has become a kind of ritual in practically every home and establishment that owns a radio set. Dart-players break off in the middle of a match, bridge-fiends stop their game, knitters forget to count the rows as the wireless is switched on and a familiar voice proclaims, ‘Here is the news and this is so-and-so reading it.’

‘Here is the news.’ In a moment you will be told a little of the complex and exciting work that lies behind that commonplace statement. But first let me clear up a fairly widespread misunderstanding. Many people, when they hear the words ‘And this is so-and-so reading it,’ are either irritated or bewildered. This new habit of giving their names is not a piece of exhibitionism on the part of the announcers: it is necessary for the following reason. When the Germans invade a country, the first thing they do is to seize the radio and disseminate false news. It is extremely important for you to know not only the voices but the names of your announcers. The mere fact of having a name tacked on to a voice makes it easier to recognize. Now you have become so familiar with the characteristic tones of, say, Alan Howland that if a German or a fifth-columnist announced that he was Howland you would not be deceived.

The men who prepare the BBC news bulletins have to consider two problems: what to say and how to say it. The whole story of how the raw material of a news bulletin is collected, sifted and checked cannot for reasons of security be given yet. What you are told in the news must be the literal, accurate truth; yet no word must slip through that would give the listening enemy the strategic clues he is straining his ears to catch. How you are told it, is an interesting technical problem and one to which an immense amount of thought has been given on your behalf.

It needs far more concentration to take in the spoken word than the written one — and more concentration still when the speaker is invisible. For that reason, a BBC news bulletin seldom runs longer than twenty minutes. In that time it is possible to speak only about 2,500 words — approximately the length of two columns of The Times. Compilers of news bulletins, therefore, have to compress all the essential news of the day into something like a fiftieth of the number of words at the disposal of a newspaper editor in peace-time.

Nor is compression the only problem. The bulletin is written not for the eye but for the microphone. One of the first things a journalist has to learn when he joins the BBC news staff is that newspaper presentation and wireless presentation are entirely different things. In a newspaper, with the help of headlines and variations of type, you can often tell your story most effectively backwards — putting the climax first and then filling in the details. On the radio this would be not merely confusing, but meaningless. The listener has to be told in the first sentence what the item is about; then led through the story step by step until he has a clear picture in his mind. It is a new art, more difficult than the art of the old storyteller who could help out his narrative by expression and gesture. Like other arts it develops by experiment. Two craters yawn on either side of the difficult path of the bulletin compiler: dullness and unintelligibility.

The text of a news bulletin is not written, but dictated. This technique was adopted to ensure that the sub-editor should think in terms of the spoken word and not in terms of print.. What might be a dramatic newspaper report is apt to become the flattest of announcements on the radio. A wireless bulletin cannot be as flexible as a newspaper article. There may be light and shade in the words themselves, but the listener becomes irritated if there is too much light and shade in the announcer’s voice. At the same time the bulletin has to be far clearer and more precise than the printed word. The listener cannot re-hear, as the reader can reread, an ambiguous passage.


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The news-room at Broadcasting House an hour or two before a bulletin goes on the air is as hectic as anything you see on American films. The nine o’clock news is prepared in a small hot underground room; half office, half dormitory. The sub-editors who start work between 5 and 6 a.m., getting out the seven o’clock morning news, sleep in bunks at one end of it. In spite of an optimistic notice ‘Silence please’ there is plenty of noise. Tape-machines click, wooden boxes of torn-off tape bump down the chute, typewriters rattle and telephones ring. Intermittent shrieks and buzzes from the engineering control panel in the gallery overhead add to the din. The staff works on shifts. Each shift includes a shift leader, at least five or six sub-editors and a number of news typists. Several of the sub-editors are specialists on various subjects such as foreign affairs, war fronts, air affairs and Parliament. Each is responsible to the Senior News Editor, R. T. Clark. A news typist needs a quick, accurate brain and lightning fingers, for the bulletin is dictated straight on to the machine. One girl’s job is to sit for several hours at a time listening through earphones to dictated reports of parliamentary debates and taking them down verbatim on the typewriter. On the night of Broadcasting House’s worst blitzing, the midnight news was prepared just as usual though the building had been heavily blasted and parts of it were on fire. Much to their annoyance, the news staff was evacuated to another building—but the bulletin came out just the same. The men and girls who worked on the first morning news shift got no sleep that night after driving, choked with smoke and dust, through bombed and burning streets. Soon after they left, the news-room was deep in water.


People huddled at desks

The nine o’clock news in preparation. Sub-editors and news typists get busy making up a 2000-word bulletin from the mass of material that pours in from all sources. Telephones, typewriters and tape-machines defy the ‘Quiet please’ notice. The men who go on duty round about 5.0 a.m. to prepare the 7.0 a.m. news sleep in this office-cum-dormitory.


There are BBC news-rooms scattered all over the country to ensure that, whatever happens, the news service goes on. One of them is incongruously housed in a large room that was once a children’s nursery and still has pictures of little Bo-Peep and Little Red Riding-Hood on its walls. The department exiled to it curses its peaceful surroundings and would, like all the forced evacuees of the BBC, much sooner be back in London. In fact I have yet to meet any member of any department of the BBC staff who is properly grateful for being banished to what is (often euphemistically) described as a ‘ safe area.’ They grudgingly admit that it is of national importance that some units should be protected as far as possible. But, though many of them have been bombed not once but several times out of their homes, the usual cry is, ‘ For heaven’s sake don’t send me out of London if you can find anyone else to go instead.’

Often an important piece of news will come in only a minute or two before the bulletin goes on the air. While the reader is making his preliminary announcements, the fresh item is being sub-edited, dictated and censored. While he reads, it is slipped quietly on his desk. That is what has happened when you hear ‘ A message has just been received.’

R. T. Clark, the Senior News Editor, is a man of remarkable personality. He is also a man passionately in love with his job. As a subject of news, he finds war considerably less interesting than peace. Probably the bitterest period of his life was that stretch of ten weeks, early in the war, when there was no news at all. He spends nearly all his days and nights in his tiny, stuffy, artificially lit basement room in Broadcasting House and can hardly bear to tear himself away even to go out to lunch, let alone take a couple ofdays’ leave. His room, a mere slice partitioned off a larger one, is about half the size of the average ship’s cabin, and contains two sleeping bunks, a table, a typewriter, two wooden chairs and a couple of shelves sagging under the weight of books in English French, Latin and Greek.


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But the BBC does not only edit news; it also goes out and gets it. Just as a newspaper it has its own reporters in all parts of the British Isles who chase off, on the least hint of a good story, to capture it on the wing. Here the News Talks Unit comes into its own. News talks and postscripts are like the feature articles, eyewitness reports and illustrations which give a newspaper life and colour.

In gathering these special stories, in bringing men or women to the microphone who have seen or done something remarkable, the radio reporters of the BBC’s eight ‘Regions’ are invaluable. It was the BBC reporter for Scotland who interviewed the survivors of the Athenia, the crew of the Altmark, the farmer who captured Hess, and recorded their stories. Each Region has contributed excellent material and each co-operates with London, putting staff, studios and equipment at its disposal. Thus the BBC is able to spread a nation-wide net in which so many shy but interesting fish are caught.

Each Regional reporter keeps in touch with the naval, military and civil authorities in his part of the world. His eyes and ears are constantly on the alert to catch a hint of anything exciting listeners want — and may be allowed — to hear. As soon as he is on a trail, he rushes to the spot. If possible, he brings the men or women concerned back to the studio to tell their story in their own words direct to you on the air. Or he may record it to be broadcast later. Very often the microphone has to go to the man who may be a sailor or airman unable to leave his base. Then the recording van comes into action. Usually the hero or heroine of the adventure is both modest and tongue-tied. It is the BBC man’s difficult job to coax them to say ‘a few words’ into the microphone, knowing that you would rather hear a halting version from their own lips than the most lucid account from a skilled broadcaster. Occasionally a ‘natural’ broadcaster like ‘Seaman Frank’ is discovered. Laskier is not only a good story-teller — hundreds of sailors are just as good — but he has that rare gift, a perfect voice for the microphone.


In silhouette, a man with a microphone and a low-flying aeroplane

A Halifax bomber introduces itself through the microphone.


A day in the life of a news talks editor is both exciting and arduous. Here is Donald Boyd’s account of part of a typical one. ‘There’s word that a pilot is coming in who has just made a successful raid on Munich … We ask Robin Duff if he can arrange to go out on a destroyer in the North Sea. Scotland telephones that they are sending a recording car to interview a life-boatman who has just rescued some pilots. A suggestion comes from the newsroom that big news may come about — let’s say Timbuctoo. Can we find anyone to talk about it?’ It is not only, of course, from Great Britain that these first-hand war stories come. They come by beam radio from Cairo and Ankara; from Cape Town and Singapore. The story of the battle of the River Plate and the scuttling of the Graf Spee was picked up from Buenos Aires. When the South Africans recorded on the spot the magnificent flying advance of their ‘Steel Commandos,’ the discs were rushed back hundreds of miles by despatch riders to Nairobi. From Nairobi they were picked up by the BBC in England, re-recorded and broadcast to listeners at home.


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You probably realize that the BBC war correspondents often risk their lives for a broadcast. In order that you could hear the actual thunder of guns near Tobruk, Dimbleby lay for three hours on an exposed plateau with shells falling all round. Often he has taken his microphone into action under the very noses of German and Italian snipers. Ward in Finland and Libya, Gardner in France and later in the Battle of Britain — both have worked under shellfire, bombs and machine-gun bullets. And do not forget that, wherever a recording car is used, the BBC engineer and the technicians risk their lives as much as the war correspondent.

What you probably do not realize is that BBC reporters go out in destroyers, corvettes and minesweepers, taking the same chances as the crew. They go up in aeroplanes or down in submarines — wherever the authorities can be persuaded to let them go. This applies not only to reporters but to script writers, producers and programme compilers. A man may be having a drink in the Café Royal one night and a few days later be on a BBC ‘assignment’ in the middle of the Atlantic. The other day a chief was heard saying to a writer who was going off in a destroyer to get local colour for a ‘feature’: ‘Just sign this paper will you? It says you go at your own risk. And … I don’t want to be tactless … but would you mind finishing that other script you have on hand before you go?’

Ever since Great Britain became a target for the Luftwaffe, broadcasting under fire has become a commonplace. There is a certain section of the BBC’s work known as ‘Outside Broadcasts’ or O.B.s. Before the war it was concerned with describing sporting and public events. Its crowning achievement before the war was the full-length broadcast of the Coronation which lasted six and a half hours and involved fifty-eight microphones. It was relayed all over the world, reaching a potential audience of 2,000,000,000.

During the last eighteen months O.B.s have made ‘actuality’ broadcasts of almost every aspect of the war effort from fire-fighting to digging for victory. Since no picture of Britain in war-time would be complete without its after-dark life, a great deal of their work has been done during blitzes. Sometimes they deliberately go out in a blitz to get sound-pictures of it; more often the blitz catches them when they are on another job. They are allowed to carry on, but they have to keep a number of security ‘don’ts’ in their heads. You need to be remarkably cool to stand in a street, with shrapnel tinkling on the microphone, and bombs dropping all round to remember only to give impressions of the scene. The O.B. commentator must not exclaim, as he so naturally might, ‘That was a big one. Five-hundred pounder, I should say,’ or ‘They’ve shot down a barrage balloon,’ or ‘There’s a huge fire behind St. Paul’s.’ He must describe vividly, from second to second, yet give nothing away.

One ‘London after Dark’ programme made a great sensation in America. (For obvious reasons, the most dramatic of these broadcasts are put out in the Overseas Service and not in the Home.) A round-up of various points in London had to be arranged, including shelters and railway stations. The siren sounded just as the broadcast was timed to begin and listeners heard whistling bombs, gunfire, shrapnel and all the actual noises of a bad raid. Michael Standing had an unenviable job broadcasting under the glass roof of a station with bombs dropping nearer and nearer; Vaughan Thomas stood on the steps of a church, quietly chatting into the microphone while buildings crashed, bombs screamed and guns roared all round him. Robin Duff was on the spot on the night that Big Ben rocked and the Houses of Parliament were damaged.


A man points a microphone at a boat

A BBC observer lets a ship speak for itself.


As always, the engineers take the same risks as observers and commentators. When recording cars are used during blitzes, as they frequently are, the drivers and the men who cut the discs can have an extremely uncomfortable time. Once a recording car somewhere in England found itself the target of a diving German plane that had just missed a balloon. ‘We got down pretty quickly,’ said the observer later, ‘and I just remembered to hold the mike above my head – or whatever bit of my was uppermost then. When we played the record later, the machine-gun bullets sounded unpleasantly close.’

To give the authentic news, to illustrate it with despatches, commentaries and first-hand stories is only one part of the BBC’s informative activity in war-time. In 1914-18, if a statesman made a great speech, only a few people could hear him. The rest could only read it cold in the next day’s papers. Now thanks to wireless, oratory has come into its own again. Churchill can sway, not merely the House of Commons, but a whole empire with his fighting speeches. The words of His Majesty the King, of the Prime Minister, of President Roosevelt, impinge with full force on the listener’s mind, reviving, fortifying and stimulating. The spoken word has become as powerful a political factor in the vast new Commonwealth of Nations as in the old Greek city-state.


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In war-time people need more than ever to keep in touch with the world of thought, imagination and ideas. There is no question of ‘escapism’: on the contrary it is a psychological necessity if they are to keep their heads clear and their feet firm in the world of facts. A nation straining every nerve to win an arduous war needs food for its intellect and its soul as well as its body. Religion, art and science are not luxuries, but basic needs.

The BBC can and does play a part in keeping these values alive when so many people are cut off by the war from libraries, churches, concert halls, lecture-rooms and theatres. In spite of restrictions in time, due to having only two programmes instead of eight, good plays and good music are frequently broadcast, good poetry – old and new – is read, and writers, scientists, historians and social philosophers still talk and debate over the microphone.

The effect of war on religious broadcasting has been extremely interesting. First and foremost it has tended to break down the barriers between the many different forms of Christian worship in this country. Members of the many different Churches are more concerned to find their common ground of unity than to emphasize their differences. On a national day of prayer the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Archbishop of Wales and the Primate of All Ireland address the whole nation side by side with the Moderators of the Church of Scotland and the Federal Council of Free Churches and the Catholic Cardinal-Archbishop of Westminster. A Lutheran pastor, a French protestant, an Anglican clergyman and a member of the Orthodox Church broadcast in turn in a programme of ‘Christian Unity.’ Before the war it might have seemed strange to hear an Anglican archbishop and a congregationalist speaking in praise of a papal encyclical. To-day it seems no stranger than a conservative and a liberal uniting in admiration of the magnificent war effort of Soviet Russia. Hitler has declared war on Christianity as emphatically as on democracy and liberty of thought. It is only right and natural that Christians of all denominations should feel their solidarity in the face of their common enemy. And they can express that solidarity through the medium of the wireless more effectively than in any other way. As Dr. Welch, the Director of Religious Broadcasting, has said, ‘The religious services of all denominations are heard by all; each denomination learns from the others. Listeners feel they are sharing in a Christian, not merely a denominational service; suspicions and misunderstandings are removed … and there is a growing sense that, though some differences are great, yet the things we have in common are far greater.’

Another effect of the war is that, in spite of restricted programme space, religious broadcasting has increased in response to the needs of the people. More significantly still, it has broken away from the old ‘Sundays only’ tradition and made contact with people’s ordinary daily lives. One symptom is the large and interested audience of all types which followed the ‘Three Men and a Parson’ discussions. Another is the constant and growing number of listeners to the five-minute ‘Lift up your Hearts’ talk every morning before the eight o’clock news. The idea came from Scotland and it revives in modern form the age-old Christian practice of a few minutes’ meditation or spiritual reading to orientate the new day.


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At the beginning of the war, lovers of serious music were apprehensive. It looked as if they were going to be given a mere mouse’s share in the BBC programmes compared to the lion-sized helpings of variety, dance bands and theatre organ. But during the last year their situation has considerably improved. There have been very real difficulties for the BBC in the matter of arranging good music programmes. Few international artists are available and many British ones have been called up. Nevertheless, Sir Adrian Boult has kept the BBC Symphony Orchestra up to a high standard, and the Theatre Orchestra, the Salon Orchestra and the Scottish and Northern Orchestras are all doing excellent work of different types. Certainly there have been less ‘connoisseur’ programmes. That was inevitable. Yet, as a result of the war, probably more people all over the country have come to take a real interest in the great masters of music. For months Bristol became a new musical centre of England, giving a series of BBC symphony concerts that were enthusiastically welcomed. The Symphony Orchestra has now moved to a town nearer London where it is giving a series of twelve public concerts, and visiting other towns in the neighbourhood.

Another good result is that we have been rediscovering our own national music. The British ‘are rather heedless of their rich musical heritage and need to be reminded of it.’ Since the war one quarter of the broadcasting time for serious music has been devoted to British composers old and new. Listeners have heard many works by Byrd, Purcell and Gibbons as well as by Elgar, Vaughan Williams, Peter Warlock and William Walton. Walton’s new violin concerto was broadcast on its first performance in this country by the London Philharmonic Orchestra, and again, a few days later, when the BBC Symphony Orchestra played it.

One very interesting new development is the work Sir Adrian is doing on British folk-music. From Scotland, Ireland, Wales and all parts of England he has been collecting local and traditional music and presenting it on the wireless. These programmes, given by folk-singers, choirs, fiddlers, pipers and accordion players, are among the most interesting of musical broadcasts since the war.

The Music Department, like practically every other BBC unit, has had to cope with blitz troubles. The lorry which carries the orchestra’s instruments was saved by the courage of its driver, J. W. Birch. Incendiaries were falling through the garage roof as he was putting the lorry away. He promptly reversed and drove furiously through the blitz, and parked the lorry several miles away on some downs. Quantities of printed and manuscript music, precious manuscript paper and hundreds of gramophone records were rescued from a bombed building by the staff who worked for a day and a half among the debris — with the walls threatening to collapse at any moment. Three men were working on musical scores one night when a building was hit. Severely shaken and covered with debris they were dug out and taken to other BBC premises nearby. After a wash, a cup of tea and a visit to the first-aid post, they went down to the refuge and laid out their work once more. One said to another, ‘Where were we before we were interrupted?’


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In so brief a sketch it is impossible to dwell on all the manifold activities of the BBC on the Home Front. The work of the Talks Department, for instance, has greatly increased in scope. Besides continuing its normal flow of stimulating talks and discussions, it now reflects all phases of the war by land, sea and air. Great ingenuity has been shown by the men and women of the department in giving a human form to the dry bones of government advice and instructions. Drama has done more than maintain its pre-war level; it has risen above it. The ‘listener research’ survey shows that radio plays have a wider and more enthusiastic audience than ever before. Talks, features and drama each deserve a section to themselves, but I have only space here to note some new and important developments which deal constructively with special problems created by the war.

First comes the entirely new educational problem created by evacuation. Here the BBC has been able to do work which would have been physically impossible by any other means.

In the very first stages of evacuation, a programme for school-children was asked for in order to interest and amuse them and to help them find their new bearings. Members of the BBC School Broadcasting Department hurried back from their holidays to the emergency base where a library of scripts and recorded programmes had been prepared in case of need.

Long before, the BBC had agreed with the Central Council for School Broadcasting that they should continue their broadcasts to schools as long as circumstances permitted. The idea had been that such broadcasts should not begin until at least a fortnight after war was declared. What actually happened was that special broadcasts — six items a day — began on 5th September 1939.

Those first programmes had to be very simple. As Miss Mary Somerville, Director of School Broadcasting, wrote: ‘Instead of a travel talk being used to provide a “memorable interruption” in a classroom lesson in geography, it would be listened to by individual children at home or in billets or by groups of children gathered in halls or barns. While the good weather lasted you might even have seen some listening going on out-of-doors with the loudspeaker perched on a window-sill.’

During those first three weeks, the Schools Department worked in a perpetual crisis. Two small rooms housed twenty-two people and six typewriters. ‘Some 1,500 scripts had to be frenziedly searched through, on the floor, to find suitable material for adaptation. Not only had the daily programme of six items to be improvised, edited, typed out, cast, rehearsed and broadcast while everything material to success in normal circumstances was also in a state of improvisation, but advance planning too had to be done, against the day (25th September) when the schools not affected by evacuation would expect a normal Autumn Term programme to begin.’

The work of those first few weeks was strenuous and nerve-racking, but it was well worth doing. As a headmistress wrote later: ‘The short broadcasts to scholars were like lifebuoys in a queer turbulent scholastic sea.’

Very soon, a ‘modified peace-time routine’ of school broadcasts was established. Many features had to be simplified and revised, and new ones added. The admirable pamphlets which illustrated the talks so that the children could see the things they were hearing about had to be abandoned because of paper restrictions. To overcome this, more and more use was made of dramatization and narrative to fix the children’s attention and print a more vivid image on their minds. Here the BBC schools repertory company is doing admirable work.

Schoolchildren take an insatiable interest in the war. A weekly talk on current affairs and a daily five-minute news commentary are new features which have had immense success.

The difficulties to be faced were innumerable for every town had its own problems. Some schools were running more or less normally, apart from the interruptions of ‘alerts.’ Others were wWorking on the double-shift system. As more and more towns were evacuated and schools bombed out, the local schools could not accommodate the flood of newcomers. Church halls and public libraries became classrooms. In one place the village pub was transformed into a school during closing hours. School broadcasting, which has to work to a fixed time schedule, was hard put to devise, ways by which it could be useful in as many types of school as possible in these extraordinary Conditions. Yet somehow it managed it, and children and mothers up and down the country blessed it.

In the winter of 1940, in some of the cities where schools were not allowed to open, teachers went round visiting small groups of children in private houses and broadcasts were used in the most enterprising ways. One school, unable to obtain enough text books, used five series of school broadcasts as the basis of its syllabus and cleverly linked up every subject taught with them. The BBC arranged special programmes for children who were unable to go to school at all, so that their education should not be entirely disrupted.

Figures prove the value of school broadcasting in war-time. At the beginning of the school year 1938-9 about 8,500 schools used the BBC service. At the beginning of the current school year (September 1941), 10,000 schools in England and Wales and 1,000 in Scotland registered as listeners. In spite of the closing if town school buildings, the bombing and requisitioning of school buildings, and other shocks to education, school broadcasting has to-day the biggest classroom audience of its history.

The result is that children from five to fifteen have now a complete BBC service of their own, ranging from musical games to orchestral concerts, from physical training to dramatized history, science and commentaries on current affairs. They have their own news broadcasts, their own religious services and their own feature programmes. There are special series for Scottish and Welsh children, for children in the town and children in the country. The children’s hour has become a children’s day.

It is not only children who learn by radio. To-day the BBC contributes to both military and civil adult education by programmes designed for group listening and discussion. Since the war there has been increased activity in yet a third educational category—the important group of young people between 14-18 who now have their own special series and organize their own study and discussion circles.

The educational department of the BBC has its special war work in broadcasts to the forces. The ‘Radio Reconnaissance’ series on ‘The Commonwealth at War’ and ‘The United States and Ourselves’ are part of the army education scheme and are listened to in training time. In many training centres, soldiers also follow, in their own time, the other adult education series and form their own listening and discussion groups.

One interesting sideline on these educational broadcasts is that they often change the mental habits of people who may never hear them. By providing themes for general discussion they stimulate conversation, not only among the listening groups themselves but among their friends. As a nation we are shy of talking on general topics. Family conversation is too often limited to a recital of the day’s personal worries and gossip about one’s acquaintances. Now that so many families are broken up and redistributed and people are making friends in all sorts of unfamiliar walks of life in the new grouping of the services, the A.R.P. posts, the air-raid shelters and the hostels, this isolationism is disappearing. The private family topics will no longer do; something of general interest to which everyone can contribute is needed. The instantaneous success of the ‘Brains Trust’ — originally designed as a kind of education without tears for the forces and now one of the most popular programmes with all types of listeners — proves the demand for stimulating themes for talk. When the ‘Brains Trust’ started, its fan-mail was twelve letters a week. It has already reached 2,500 letters and is increasing weekly. It is estimated that 8,000,000 to 10,000,000 people listen to it — nearly a quarter of the population. A programme planned for the minority was avidly taken up by the majority of the listening public.


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Now we come to some of the most important people on the Home Front to-day — the men and women working in the factories. Can the BBC do anything to relieve the strain and monotony of their lives? And can it contribute in any concrete way to increased production? The answer in both cases is definitely ‘Yes.’ It is expressed in two programmes — ‘Workers’ Playtime’ and ‘Music while you work.’

Ernest Bevin, Minister of Labour and National Service, devoted a special message to the value of these two programmes. ‘The BBC,’ he said, ‘is a factory for entertainment and education, and must be regarded as one of the vital services. It represents a necessary link and contribution to production.’

‘Workers’ Playtime’ is a lunch-time entertainment given ‘live’ three times a week in factories and broadcast to others all over the country. It provides a stimulus of gaiety in the lunch-time break which sends the worker back to bench or machine with new heart to work harder than ever. Shakespeare showed that he was a good industrial psychologist when he wrote:

A merry heart goes all the day,
Your sad tires in a mile-a.*

For ‘Workers’ Playtime,’ BBC engineers and artistes go, at the factory’s request, to the works itself. World-famous stars trapes [sic] miles in buses to factories in the heart of the country. A small wooden stage is put up in the canteen, the microphone slung from the roof, and the audience consists of as many workers as can jam themselves into the room; clustering at the foot of the platform till the front row is almost touching the singer. ‘Often the singer or comedian is propped up between two grand pianos on a tiny platform about a foot high, the size of the average dining-table, in a converted hangar or a half-completed machine shop,’ said John Watt, describing the shows in a broadcast. ‘On the other hand there may be lights and curtains and all that in one of those enormous green and chromium-plated canteens that you find in some of the factories with a proper stage. But whatever the setting, the audience is the same — an enthusiastic bunch of workers — anything between 500 and 4,000 of them.’

With ‘Music while you work’ the BBC comes not merely into the canteen as with ‘Workers’ Playtime’ but right into the workshop while production is in full swing. This new and highly constructive activity of the BBC began some eighteen months ago. Wynford Reynolds, who has run many bands, has made a study of music in industry and is now organizing two half-hours of special music to be broadcast in factories during working hours.

‘Music while you work’ is not in itself a new idea. It is as old as history. The sailors’ shanty, the soldiers’ band, the songs women sang as they turned their spinning-wheels, are all proofs that work goes better and more easily to music. In the last war, in the market-place of St. Quentin, Sir Tom Bridges roused the men who were lying all round in the last stages of exhaustion by improvising a band with a toy drum and a penny whistle. In a few minutes they were on the march again.

The music that has been proved to allay fatigue and boredom and definitely to speed up production is not necessarily the loudest or liveliest. It is a tonic, not a stimulant, and its effects must carry on right through the day. Too strongly marked a rhythm clashes with the workers’ actual movements and only makes them nervous and irritable. Too dreamy a rhythm slows down movement and increases monotony. Songs, unless they are familiar, are unsatisfactory. The worker unconsciously strains his ears to catch the words. In practice, Wynford Reynolds finds the most satisfactory ‘working music’ to be light rhythmical dance music with a clear melodic line, such as that played by Victor Sylvester and his band.

If music went on all day as a background to work, it would lose its effect. The BBC has found by research in the factories that two half-hours in the mid-morning and mid-afternoon periods, when boredom is greatest and workers tend to slack off and chat, has the best results on production. That it does increase production has been conclusively proved. I have only room to quote three typical reports from factory chiefs.

‘A programme of dance music daily stepped up production thirty per cent in our factory.’

‘You will be interested to know that production figures for the period covered by the “Music while you work” programmes are consistently higher than those for other periods of the working day.’

‘Our planning engineer said that, if he could have a programme like that every time, he would be able to cut the overtime by half.’

‘A programme like that.’ Those words prove the importance of finding exactly the right type of music for this vital work. The BBC is constantly visiting factories, questioning managers, foremen and operatives, to get fresh information so as to give workers the maximum help in their tremendous task.


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The BBC does not only conduct research in factories. More than ever to-day it wants to know what listeners want to hear; what pleases, stimulates and helps them most. The war has created a whole new set of conditions for listeners, and aroused new needs and new interests. The Listener Research Department investigates these in a practical and scientific way.

Every day a ‘cross section’ of the public, consisting of 800 people, is interviewed by a staff of part-time field workers. The fieldwork of the survey is organized on behalf of the BBC by the British Institute of Public Opinion. The daily sample is carefully graded so as to ensure that all types of listener are included in their proper proportions. At each interview the ‘contact’s’ listening on the previous day is carefully recorded. Nearly 600,000 interviews have been made in the first two years of the survey’s existence. Rebuffs are rare. As always, the public has co-operated readily when it has seen that its help contributes to the common interest.


A woman works at a tabulating machine

Compiling the statistics of the ‘Listener Research’ survey. Every day 800 listeners, representing a cross-section of the whole public, are interviewed. Every day their answers to questions as to what programmes they listened to, what they liked and what they disliked are carefully recorded and filed. The BBC want to find out what you want to hear and when you want to hear it. All your criticisms are welcomed, and tabulated under various headings.


But it is not enough to know how many people listen to a programme. It is equally important to know whether those who listened to it liked it. And if not, why they did not. Listener Research supplies this need with the help of volunteer listeners — both civilians and listeners in the forces — who are organized into a number of listening panels. The panels are questioned about the programmes they heard. Their answers reflect the mood of the audience as surely as, and perhaps more surely than, the rustle of boredom or the burst of applause reflect the mood of the concert-or theatre-goers.

Recently R. J. E. Silvey, the Listener Research Director, asked for 3,500 volunteers to make up ‘listening panels.’ No less than 12,000 immediately offered their services. The local correspondents at present include parsons, milk roundsmen, housewives, trade union branch secretaries, postmen and many more. They do their voluntary work with the greatest keenness. One remark, typical of many, deserves to be quoted as an example both of their splendid co-operation and the inimitable spirit of the British at war. A woman, a shop assistant in a north-east town, wrote:

‘I am extremely sorry not to be able to complete this form this time. As a result of enemy action I have been unable to make the usual inquiries, but will begin again next week, when we open a new shop.’


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Before the war, most people thought of the BBC as an aloof and impenetrable organization. Since the war it has become physically more impenetrable, for armed sentries meet you at every corner of Broadcasting House and your pass becomes dog-eared from being shown several times a day. But, psychologically, the barriers are breaking down. It is becoming more and more alive to people’s needs and it is no longer a background, but an integral part of their lives. On the one hand, an influx of men and women from all walks of life has brought new freshness and vigour into it; on the other, it has gone out itself into the factory, the camp and the air-raid shelter and shared the perils and discomforts of the people whose life in war-time it is its privilege to reflect.


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Liverpool, Wednesday 10 April 2024