From a novelty to part of the British way of life 

14 November 2022

BBC Chairman looks back



Ariel 60 BBC Years masthead

From Ariel special edition for August 1982

The story of the short history of public service broadcasting — less extensive, for example, than that of the car, air travel, or the cinema — is, perhaps more than anything else, the story of an unrelenting pursuit of excellence.

When the first General Manager of the British Broadcasting Company, John Reith (complete with three staff in a cramped second floor office in Kingsway), peered into the uncharted future of broadcasting in the last weeks of 1922, virtually only one thing was certain: the possibilities were as breathtakingly limitless as human imagination.

George Howard


As Reith himself said later, a good story could have been written about the birth of the Greenwich pips, Big Ben’s chimes, weather forecasts. The Week’s Good Cause and SOS messages.

It was on November 14,1922, that the BBC first went on the air (most people who were introduced to Reith used to ask him what the three initials stood for). The ten-shilling licence fee remained the same until 1946, when a television fee was introduced.

Reith grasped the opportunity to create a new institution and to build a broadcasting system neither Government-controlled nor commercially operated: a system created in Britain, but later copied by other countries. He saw that the BBC’s job was to give news and information impartially and honestly, because that was the only way a free and open society could be properly served.

Our role as a source of honest news and information was tested in 1926 at the time of the General Strike, when Churchill, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, wanted to commandeer the organisation. Reith’s view was that if the BBC had suppressed news about riots, rumour would have spread across Britain. Small riots would have become serious ones.

People knew what was happening in their own areas, he said. If they did not hear about it on the wireless, they would assume that similar suppression of news was taking place elsewhere.

It is interesting to reflect that Reith’s logic was echoed 55 years later after the BBC had been criticised by some for its coverage of the inner city riots.


Rowers carrying a boat

“The undoubted supremacy of BBC sports coverage is not, of course, a recent fact…” The winning Oxford crew bring in their boat after the first televised Boat Race in 1938.



Our independence was guaranteed by Royal Charter in 1927 when the original broadcasting company became the British Broadcasting Corporation. Then, during World War Two, the BBC indisputably became part of the British way of life. The radio set was no longer a novelty, but one of the prime necessities of wartime living and working.

It was then, too, that the BBC gained its world-wide reputation for reliable news and honest reporting. So, 40 years on, when Brian Hanrahan, on the aircraft carrier in the battle of the Falklands, declared: “I counted them all out and I counted them all back,” everyone believed him.

John Reith thought of broadcasting too as a means of increasing knowledge and understanding of the world about us and he determined that the BBC should always aim at the highest possible quality in music and entertainment.

Today. Radio One provides clear evidence of the BBC’s ability to serve a variety of interests, as it did, musically, in the 1930s, through the big-name dance bands: Geraldo, Ambrose, Billy Cotton, Roy Fox, Joe Loss, Jack Payne, Oscar Rabin, Harry Roy, Nat Gonella and Henry Hall.

Entertainment of every kind has left indelible memories in the minds of successive generations of the BBC viewers and listeners. The first situation comedy series on radio, Band Waggon, was an instant hit in 1937. In Town Tonight, The Kentucky Minstrels and Music Hall were all part of a tradition which led to a wartime surge of new programmes such as Workers’ Playtime, Music While You Work, Navy Mixture, Much Binding In The Marsh, ITMA, Hi Gang and Monday Night at Eight.

Other decades: other memories. The Goon Show, Hancock’s Half Hour, Take It From Here, Twenty Questions … Steptoe and Son, Til Death Us Do Part … The Two Ronnies, To The Manor Born.

Drama is another vibrant part of our tradition. Saturday Night Theatre created a sense of occasion for millions of families throughout Britain, grouped around their wireless sets, every weekend. The Wednesday Play and, more recently, Play for Today have brought the widest dramatic choice in the world to vast television audiences.




Two men read into a microphone

Richard Murdoch and Arthur Askey in Band Waggon – “an instant hit in 1937.”

We all have our own memories. The Forsyte Saga virtually stopped social life for a time in the 1960s. I, Claudius developed the same compelling relationship with its audience. And a totally different kind of dramatic genius touched the audience more recently with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

The celebration this year of the silver jubilee of BBC Bristol’s Natural History Unit has given us another opportunity to reflect on superb craftsmanship in wildlife programmes across 25 years. Programmes like Look and Armand and Michaela Denis’s On Safari, The World About Us and Life On Earth provide a remarkable tapestry of brilliant film-making internationally revered.

The journey across decades, of course, can be a deceptive one. What would Blue Peter’s audiences have made of Children’s Hour? How would Journey Into Space seem to those brought up on Dr Who?

In the end. I suspect, programmes of quality, the best of their kind, stand equal in the memory of their audiences.

The undoubted supremacy of BBC sports coverage is not, of course, a recent fact of broadcasting life. The early FA Cup Finals, Test Matches, Boat Races, and horse racing classics between them established our pursuit of excellence in yet another dimension of the world around us.

The unchanging derision of succeeding generations to turn to the BBC at times of significance has been reinforced in modern times. Our commentators, our production staffs, our engineers have ensured that not only are our programmes admired (whether it be Coronation or General Election, Royal Wedding or space shot) but they are, for so many people, instinctively part of the occasion itself.

Our news staffs round the world (from Beirut to Belfast, from the high seas of the South Atlantic to the streets of Warsaw) are continuing the high professionalism of their predecessors, notably during World War Two.

The BBC is sometimes mocked for being obsessed with anniversaries. I see them mainly as an opportunity to pause and ask ourselves whether we have lived up to the ideals of public service broadcasting; to ask how we should be adapting to a changing world and making sure that we continue to lead the field in new developments. as we did in 1936 when we introduced the Television Service; and to look for more efficiency without harm to creative programme-making.

That is why we look forward so enthusiastically to 1986, when the first BBC direct broadcasts from satellites are scheduled to start.

I hope others outside the BBC will give their thoughts. One of our resolves must be to extend our efforts — on which we already spend a great amount of time — to continue that essential dialogue with our viewers and listeners, at home and overseas.

I recall a letter from a listener in a remote village in China who discovered our radio broadcasts recently. Once, he said, he believed the world ended at the horizon beyond his village. Now, due to the BBC, he had a vision of its complexities and diversities. Fresh from this discovery, he exclaimed: “How wonderful is our world!”




The BBC’s wide responsibilities to the public were in my mind at the Service of Thanksgiving attended by the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh. During the service, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Runcie, quoted from St Paul:

“You, my friends, were called to be free men, only do not turn your freedom into self-indulgence, but serve one another in love.” And he added: “The BBC for 60 years has demonstrated great power for good — it has remained free and it has brought freedom to others.

“Like all other institutions with great power, it only thrives if it continues to respect those it serves … In the welter of distractions which abound in the life of any institution, it would be a disaster for us all if the BBC lost its vision of building up in our society ‘whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are lovely and whatsoever things are of good report’.”

These words, from Philippians iv.8, graced the entrance hall in Broadcasting House from its first day.

They still do.


You Say

1 response to this article

Franklin Harrison 27 November 2022 at 7:47 pm

Did anybody notice the typical BBC deception portrayed in the interlude film “Road Works”?

Viewers were led to believe from the title of the film that they would see work being carried out on a road.

However the contents of the film showed a carefully choreographied piece showing men performing various activities not working on building or resurfacing a road at all but staged activities on an area adjacent to a construction supplies storage yard courtesy of Wimpey. Some shots were replayed to pad out the prescribed length of the film.

No wonder discerning viewers gradually came to realize that you cannot trust the BBC.

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