The old BBC: the beginning 

6 January 2017

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Reprinted from the BBC Year-Book 1930, published in November 1929

oldbbc-yearbook19301922-1923Although the licence was not issued to the Company until January 18th, 1923, matters were sufficiently settled and in order for a service to be started on November 15th, 1922. The London, Birmingham and Manchester stations were already in existence, and programmes on a regular basis were arranged by three bands of pioneers, one in each city, who worked under conditions of great difficulty and incredible discomfort. The hours were long and without limit, there was no existing precedent or experience for support, and the accommodation was limited to what could be found at short notice. In London, for instance, the combined headquarter and London Station staffs crowded into one office, with a small annexe, in Magnet House, Kingsway, and bore with fortitude the noise and press which increased with each newcomer. The studio was what would now be called a “lash-up” in Marconi House, and being some hundreds of yards distant from the offices, provided the staff, who were mostly executants as well as administrators, with many an enlivening sprint when the programme hour drew near. One survivor of this age tells us that he lived entirely—in the evenings at any rate—on beer and meringues, this exotic diet being presumably the only one available which could both be obtained and consumed in an extremity of haste. These earliest programmes started at five o’clock in the afternoon with a children’s hour, started again after an interval with a news bulletin at seven o’clock, and ran with usually an interval of a quarter of an hour after the news, until 9.30, when a second bulletin was read. The second part of the programme concluded at 10.30. The times, with the exception of the two News Bulletins, were not in the first two or three months at all definitely fixed, but it is to the great credit of those responsible that, on an average, four and half hours of programmes were broadcast daily without failure.

The simultaneous broadcasting of a programme from several stations, by means of connecting land-lines, although contemplated from the earliest days, was not achieved in regular practice until May 1923, when the News Bulletins were read in London and simultaneously broadcast (“S.B.”) from all stations. Experimental S.B. transmissions had, however, been undertaken from the end of January. Until simultaneous broadcasting was possible, it had been the practice to dictate the Bulletins by ordinary trunk telephone calls, and all stations had therefore been quite isolated and the programmes independent of each other in a way which it is nowadays difficult to realise. Musical S.B. transmissions were undertaken during the summer, the technical difficulties being considerably greater than in the case of speech alone.

A GROUP OF THE ORIGINAL "AUNTS" AND "UNCLES". Auntie "Sophie" and Uncles "Jeff," "Rex," "Arthur" and "Caractacus"

A GROUP OF THE ORIGINAL “AUNTS” AND “UNCLES”. Auntie “Sophie” and Uncles “Jeff,” “Rex,” “Arthur” and “Caractacus”

Orchestras were assembled at each station as far as considerations of space allowed. Thus in the case of London, until the new studio at Savoy Hill was opened on May 1st, the orchestra consisted of six or seven players only, and at Manchester also nothing more could be managed until a move was made to the Dickinson Street premises in the summer. The programmes in the studio were, therefore, from the orchestral point of view, strictly limited during the first six months, perhaps the most ambitious work attempted in London being Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony, which appears in programmes in December, January and April. Played by such a small orchestra there can be little doubt that it lived up to its name.

Chamber music combinations and solo artists were not affected so adversely by the cramped surroundings, and were therefore free to do justice to their subjects as far as their own microphone technique and the technical advance of the period would allow. In spite of the size of the studio in Marconi House, the Band of the Irish Guards appears to have fitted in, though if the number of musicians present was that of even the smallest military band, their playing must have been extremely cramped. It may be interesting to note here that when an instrumental combination was employed, the balance between the various instruments or sets of instruments was obtained by distributing to each set a microphone, and varying the sensitivity. A few months later the present practice was adopted of placing the different instruments at suitable distances from one common microphone.

"HOW TO CATCH A TIGER". The somewhat unexpected title of the second talk broadcast in this country

“HOW TO CATCH A TIGER”. The somewhat unexpected title of the second talk broadcast in this country

The first talk appears to have been given on December 23rd, 1922, but the subject is not recorded. The second talk, however, on January 27th, from its character of everyday utility, was obviously the forerunner of the modern Household Talks and Agricultural Bulletins; it was entitled “How to Catch a Tiger.” The Musical, Dramatic, Literary and Film Criticisms were started in February, these talks then being weekly. Other talks were arranged, averaging one every two days at 7.15, and between January and the beginning of May the names of Admiral of the Fleet Sir Henry Jackson, Mr. J. C. Squire, Professor J. A. Fleming, Sir Oliver Lodge, Lord Robert Cecil, the Bishop of London, Major-General Sir Sefton Brancker, Mr. Heath Robinson, Lord Curzon, Lord Birkenhead, and Princess Alice, Duchess of Athlone appear.


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