Twenty millions put the B.B.C. in the dock 

19 May 2023

How powerful is Broadcasting House? How unwieldy? How competent to face Coronation year? ILLUSTRATED begins a piercing survey


Attending the first command radio performance

The Queen shakes hands with a man

A smile and a handshake from the Queen for Sir Alexander Cadogan, chairman of the governors, at B.B.C. headquarters. The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh were to see a special variety show


Cover of Illustrated magazine

From ‘Illustrated’ for 21 March 1953

IF every theatre in the West End of London played to capacity audiences every day for a year, twenty million people would be entertained in that year and they would pay £9 million [£193m in today’s money, allowing for inflation – Ed]. The B.B.C. can entertain twenty million people in one night — and the cost of running from six thirty in the morning until midnight is £40,000 [£855,000] all in.

The television audience alone for the Coronation of the Queen is expected by B.B.C. officials to be 25,000,000. Millions more in Britain, and hundreds of millions overseas, will depend on B.B.C. technique and even B.B.C. microphones to catch the savour of this unique ceremony. Measured only in terms of the goodwill that can be earned for Britain in 1953, this is the B.B.C.’s biggest year. But how well equipped is this monster corporation to face such a formidable task? Listeners have a right to know.

Even the normal daily burden that the B.B.C. carries is a fearful responsibility. Forty-four hours of sound are put out every day by the B.B.C’s Home, Light, Third and TV services. Half of the output is music, which can be played again. But the other half, twenty-two hours, consists of words, words, words — dramatic, informative, comic — read from scripts which must be thrown away as soon as their pages are turned. Every day the writers for the B.B.C. must pound out another 200,000 words to be tossed once and for all into the ears of the nation. Every day 650,000 words more must be prepared for broadcasting overseas.

John Reith

Lord Reith, father of British broadcasting, believed he had to save it from the “prostitution” of entertainment

The B.B.C. is the Colossus of show business. Above all, it is a monopoly. If your face does not fit at Broadcasting House there is no other place in Britain to go and broadcast. When Ethel Revnell had a disagreement over a variety programme, Michael Standing, then Director of Variety, could write, and did write: “I must make it clear to you that in our view your present attitude precludes the possibility of any further broadcasting for you, and unless and until you are prepared to change it I can see no chance of our inviting you to take part in our programmes again.” … Ethel Revnell did not broadcast again for twenty-three months.

But for those who click with the B.B.C. and the public, fame and fortune are unlimited. For five years, the Wilfred Pickles Have A Go! programme was broadcast to a listening audience of up to 18,000,000 adults, and Pickles’s earning power in all fields soared like a rocket.

A corporation possessing this gigantic power stands or falls by the perception and drive of its directors and controllers – the permanent civil servants of broadcasting — and of its governors, who are its policy-making “cabinet ministers.”

The chairman of the governors of the B.B.C., receiving £3,000 a year [£64,000], is Sir Alexander Cadogan, aged sixty-eight, retired from the Foreign Office. He said, on his appointment last year, that his listening was mainly confined to the Third, and he had been waiting for TV programmes to get better before buying a set. “Before I start saying what the programmes should be like I had better find out what they are like,” he told reporters with jovial but undiplomatic candour.

Ian Jacob

Sir Ian Jacob, the B.B.C.’s Director-General, develops – on a Prime Minister’s salary – Reith’s early policies

The vice-chairman is Marshal of the Royal Air Force Lord Tedder, aged sixty-two, and the rest of the board comprises a former regional fuel controller and Governor of Newfoundland, an expert in juvenile delinquency, an ex-Governor of Bombay, a Liberal publicist, a company director, an educationist, and Sir Henry Mulholland, a linen manufacturer who was for twenty-six years Speaker of the Northern Ireland House of Commons.

The Director-General, with a salary of Prime Ministerial proportions, is Maj.-Gen. Sir Ian Jacob, aged fifty-three, who has had experience as Director of Overseas Services. His departmental directors are a team who have made B.B.C. administration their career. They inherit and develop a continuity of policy which was originally laid down by Lord Reith. This remarkable personality began an extremely purposeful connection with British broadcasting in 1923 as general manager of a programme-purveying company formed by an association of manufacturers of wireless sets.


Archie Rehearses For Laughter

Performers and a band on stage

Here is Variety, the most popular type of programme the B.B.C. presents (though limited to nine percent of air-time), and this is Educating Archie representing it after gaining the national award for the most entertaining variety programme – 19,000,000 people heard it in one week.

The series has recently gone off the air, but a special run is being prepared for the Coronation festivities. This is a picture of a Sunday evening rehearsal in the Paris Cinema, London, before the recording of the show. Archie Andrews and the Awful Child, Monica (Beryl Reid), are ending another attempt to wheedle money from Peter Brough, and Ronald Chesney is starting a harmonica interlude with the B.B.C. Revue Orchestra under its guest conductor, Charles Shadwell.

Peter Madden, one of the cast, sits in the empty stalls, and the rest of the tightly-knit team, Max Bygraves, Harry Secombe and Hattie Jacques, have temporarily left the studio to tell their regular scriptwriter, Eric Sykes over a cup of canteen tea… well, the sort of tales show people tell. Roy Speer, producer of the show, is in his control cubicle.


Occasional peals of thunder from the House of Lords still remind the B.B.C. directors of the God-given mission that Reith believed he had — the task of saving radio from the “prostitution” of providing mere entertainment, the mission of using “the brute force of monopoly … to ignore the yappings and the chatter of the irresponsible halfwits who would have the service developed only in terms of their own prejudices and preconceptions; to announce that the B.B.C. would not ‘give the public what it wants’ (that cheap claptrap phrase) but rather what it would come to want.”

Echoes of Reith still roll in Broadcasting House. A dry comment was made on his influence by the Beveridge Committee which reported on the B.B.C. in 1951. “When a sense of mission,” the committee said, “such as animates the B.B.C. is combined with security of office it may grow into a sense of Divine Right.” But the starkest characteristic of the older regime — the joyless Sunday which sent the British public to Radio Luxembourg — vanished in the war. The main abiding legacy is the insistence on the Old Charter’s definition of the purposes of broadcasting: information, education, entertainment — in that order.

On any normal night, eight million Britons use B.B.C. services. On peak occasions it will attract twenty-five millions. How galling for the educators to know that the last two broadcasts to reach this number were the prize fights involving Bruce Woodcock and Randolph Turpin.

Given this power, assured of this audience, it is the duty of the top brass at the B.B.C. to decide what programmes the public shall have. Much thought must at some time have been devoted to compiling the proportions of air-time allocated to different types of broadcast. No subversive brain appears to challenge these proportions now, for they have hardly changed by one per cent in three years. The most revolutionary trend that can be discerned in British broadcasting since 1949 is an increase of talks and discussions by 1.7 per cent, mainly at the expense of dance music. If we are not to suspect the higher thought at Portland Place of inertia, we must assume it to be self-satisfied.

Too many self-satisfied administrators

The B.B.C. believes that it keeps an accurate check on the popularity of individual programmes by means of Audience Research figures. Audience Research says it interviews three thousand people a day, or more than a million a year, and since it has been in operation since 1939 nearly half of the adult population should now have been covered. Of a random sample of one hundred adults questioned for the purpose of this article, however, only three had ever been interviewed by Audience Research, but one of them had been buttonholed on two successive days and detailed his likes and dislikes to two different canvassers.

The B.B.C. aim is not exclusively to produce “best-sellers.” An average of a million people hear a symphony concert, and the B.B.C. is rightly pleased. But five million tuned in to The Great Gilhooly, Ted Kavanagh’s successor to Itma, and it was taken off. Eleven million hear Saturday Night Theatre.

Whatever programme suggestions syphon, upwards to the B.B.C.’s higher administration, and whatever instructions percolate down, the persons mainly responsible for the impact of a show on the public are the 250 sound and TV producers. Once they embark on an individual presentation they must control it rigorously. The Beveridge Committee noted that these key men and women were lamentably remote from their controllers. They were not extravagantly paid, and could make more money only by ceasing to be creators and becoming administrators.

The committee urged that they should be given far greater editorial responsibility. Conditions vary in each department — a variety producer has more independence than his drama colleague — but the problem is crystallized in the woolly, neutral, hedging effusions that so often go out in the guise of talks.

A Topic For Tonight has to be presented five days a week at 10.15 p.m. The broadcaster prepares his script, amends it after the nine o’clock news has brought it up to date, and then has to endure a tussle with his producer. “I’m not sure that they’ll let us say that,” observes the producer. “I’ll have to get in touch with my head.” The head is not in the building and cannot be reached by telephone. “When in doubt, leave out,” says the producer, blue-pencils the script, and ushers another emasculated commentary on to the air.

A producer who can, after some time on the job, be sure of £20 a week [£430] may not be badly paid by sausage-making standards, but is decidedly worse off than a man or woman who holds a comparable key job in the parallel crafts of the theatre and journalism. It is true that, if on the established staff, he can expect a pension and security — only two of 7,743 established staff have been sacked for inefficiency over three years. Producers are reminded that their second-class salary is a consequence of the security that goes with monopoly.

“Under a competitive system,” says one memo, from the administrators, “staff might be dealt with as summarily and as arbitrarily as they sometimes are in Fleet Street.” But what the memo, omits to say is that, with its sheer dead weight of higher-paid administrators, the B.B.C. is as expensive to run from the staff side as any Fleet Street enterprise.


The Third? Yes! Sometimes

Two women, one presenting the other with a survey

She was out shopping. Then along came Audience Research, taking the pulse of the public. This was, the B.B.C. logs the likes and dislikes of more than a million people a year and claims an accurate knowledge of listeners’ tastes


The London Express Newspaper group, publishing four papers, is about the same financial weight as the B.B.C. In the financial year of 1951 both took about £13 million gross, the one from sales and advertising, the other from licences. Both enterprises have office and catering staff, a large mechanical staff (very highly paid in Fleet Street), a creative staff (highly paid in Fleet Street) and administrators. The 7,446 employees of the newspaper group earned an average salary of £478 a year [£10,215]. The 12,413 at the B.B.C., whose engineering and creative staff earn less than their counterparts, and whose office and catering staff do not earn more, also averaged £478.

What was the weighting that raised the B.B.C. average? Could it be the disproportionate number of administrators? In March, 1950, there were 1,459 B.B.C. staff classed as administration and services (excluding secretarial and clerical). How expensive are 1,459 administrators? Lumped together, the high-salaried and the lower, they would come cheap at a million pounds a year.

The B.B.C.’s gross income from licences this year, with two million TV permits already sold, will be at least £144 million [£3.1bn]. From this the Treasury will deduct at source £4 million [£85.5m] — enough to run an alternative Television Service and another Third Programme, too. First the Post Office will take more than a million [£21.4m] for collection and technical charges. The government will deduct more than another two million [£42.8m] as a fifteen per cent forced levy or, in Downing Street jargon, “contribution to the general revenue.” Then the Inland Revenue will demand £900,000 [£2m] income tax already assessed on last year’s profits. These would never have accrued if the money had been spent on programmes. It could, too, have been well spent on extending TV to Britain’s forgotten twenty per cent — but the government refused to allow the B.B.C. to invest it as capital.

The Post Office’s million is got by curious accountancy. The G.P.O. claims that it uses 7d. [3p in decimal, 65p allowing for inflation] in every £1 [£21.50] paid for a licence on tracing radio interference and “making representations” about suppressing it. The G.P.O. says it costs 11d. [5p/£1.10] to issue a £1 licence, and when TV owners get a piece of paper for £2 [£43] instead of £1 the G.P.O. says the cost of collections has doubled to 1s. 10d. [£1.50/£32] and the interference fee to 1s. 2d. [6p/£1.30] And the B.B.C. meekly pays. But the Customs and Revenue in country can collect £3,600 million [£77bn] in taxes at a cost of 2½d. [~1p/55p] in £1, not 11d. A switch in collectors might save over £500,000 [£11m], besides tapping the 200,000 TV owners and the 100,000 car-radio owners whom the Postmaster-General casually mentioned a year ago as dodgers. There is a million pounds to be picked up — which is enough to hire another 1,459 administrators.

Write to the B.B.C. about it, or about anything else that takes your fancy, and your letter will be batched with the five hundred others that arrive every day, praising, blaming or making a request for a record. …Every day the round begins again, the 200,000 words are written, the twenty-two hours of music rehearsed. For the work they do on the B.B.C. a legion of outsiders, freelances, artists, writers, speakers, musicians, take £3½ million [£75m] a year. Who are they? How do they break through? Is this a private share-out or is anyone able to join in? These are questions which must be answered.


A pie chart showing the amounts from each broadcast subject


Figure for listeners

The following table shows the percentage air-time devoted to the B.B.C. to various subjects.

Serious music 20 per cent News 8 per cent
Light music 20 per cent Dance music 7 percent
Features and drama 12 per cent Schools, children, religion, outside broadcasts each 3 per cent
Talks and discussions 10 per cent Miscellaneous 2 per cent
Variety 9 per cent  


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