Tonight’s BBC radio… in 1939 

14 September 2016 tbs.pm/9485

The Radio Times tells us what was on the Home Service on Thursday 14 September 1939. Things worth noting include:

  • Eleven days into World War 2 and two weeks into the new single channel pattern of broadcasting and everything is still in disarray.
  • The old 10.15am “don’t distract the workers from getting to work” start time has been abolished and the Home Service now comes on at 7am.
  • The first programme is the news. Until the outbreak of war, the BBC was prevented, by newspaper lobbying, from broadcasting any news until the public had had every chance to buy a morning and an evening newspaper. There’s now a war on, so the newspapers can go to hell.
  • Opening the transmitters to broadcast headlines at 1am, 3am and 5am wouldn’t last as there were rarely any headlines worth broadcasting until the German army overran Norway in April and Belgian and French defences in May of 1940.
  • This paucity of news is reflected across the first two hours of broadcasting today, which are filled with gramophone records; the Musicians’ Union’s previously very strict allocation of time for recorded music suspended for the duration. It would return when peace did.
  • Hello “a doctor” at 10.30am. Doctors at this time were not allowed, by the British Medical Association, to advertise; being named on the radio was considered advertising, so all doctors who appeared on air were anonymous. This doctor is Charles Hill, later a National Liberal (Conservative) MP and later still Lord Hill of Luton, chairman of the ITA and then the BBC governors.
  • The schools in the big cities had been dissolved and the children and teachers evacuated to safer areas – in theory. In practice, many children didn’t go; those that did go often drifted back pretty quickly. Without schools to attend, the only education available was often the 11am hour on the BBC. With so many children kicking their heels, incidents of petty vandalism and minor theft in the cities skyrocketed.
  • 1.30pm sees our first visit of the day to Sandy MacPherson, sat at the BBC Theatre Organ belting out whatever sheet music came to hand. In the first week of the war, MacPherson and fellow organist Reginald Foort had filled hours and hours of air time, to loud howls of complaints from listeners. As the disarray began to settle, there was a reduction in the amount of organ thumping broadcast; but the BBC kept MacPherson on hand as a useful standby should a programme be interrupted or an interlude required.
  • Yes, the Children’s Hour at 5pm is half an hour long. The BBC’s definition of “an hour” has never been all that crash hot.
  • Regional broadcasting was abolished on 1 September, but the BBC still needed to give important items of regional news, local Air Raid Precaution advice and various Home Front information that only applied in certain areas. The solution was to give 15 minutes of each hour in the evening to each region, with the announcer in London telling the local listeners what the authorities thought they should know.
  • There’s fifteen minutes of local news and information at 6.15pm, split between London and Scotland. Since, as always, London was pretty dominant in the main national news at 6pm, its time is taken up largely with just the ARP and London County Council instructions and information, leaving Scotland to have all its news and information for all 33 counties crammed in.
  • 7pm sees Wales and the West of England get their announcements. Wales and West had been one region from the establishment of the Regional Scheme until mid-1937; two years of independence and here they are reunited.
  • At 7.45pm, it’s 15 minutes of news and information for the north. This region is the biggest of the BBC’s regions (London/South East was never really considered a ‘region’) and it alone gets a whole 15 minutes to itself.
  • The Midland and Northern Ireland announcements go out at 10.45pm – very late for Midland factory workers, who commonly went to bed earlier than their counterparts in the north (having got up for work earlier in the 2-shift system most seen in the Midlands compared to the 3-shift pattern in the mills).
  • Nothing seems to survive of At the Billet Doux, which ran weekly up until the the end of the year. From the scant description, it looks like it was a comedy-sketch-variety show.
  • The play at 11pm was written for NBC in the United States. While the Val Gielgud version does not survive, the original Arch Obler NBC programme does. It’s quite spooky.


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