Faces of war 

5 November 2015 tbs.pm/7887

The pre-war BBC had largely kept its nose out of news. The small news department at Broadcasting House concerned itself with repackaging agency reports and digesting the daily papers. News was read anonymously in a fixed and even tone, with section titles and paragraph headings, as if from a curiously neutral newspaper. This way, the BBC supposed, they would never appear biased in their tone or language and they wouldn’t be seen to be competing with the powerful press barons like Beaverbrook and Rothermere[1] for the nation’s news supply.

In this typical Radio Times entry for Monday 30 August 1937, you can see that there is no news until a 20-minute bulletin at 6pm on the National Programme. The next news is a half-hour news and sport round up at 7.30pm across the Regional Programmes, followed by a 20-minute, including the shipping forecast, bulletin at 9.40pm on the National and finally a 10 minute summary across the Regional at 11.30pm. This is a grand total of one hour and 10 minutes of news across the two networks broadcasting 13 hours and 45 minutes of programmes in total each. That’s 5½% of the BBC’s total domestic radio output being news. For comparison, BBC Radio 4 alone devoted 33⅔% of its standalone airtime to news today.

The outbreak of World War II changed all that. The BBC’s news department suddenly and dramatically grew. The public’s demand for war news, even during the ‘Phoney War’ of September 1939 to April 1940, was insatiable. Hourly bulletins were instituted, reporters hired and sent out with the British Expeditionary Force in France and Belgium, new portable recording equipment invented and put into use in tanks, aeroplanes and battleships. The BBC’s reputation for producing the best news coverage in the world was made very early into the war.

But the best news presentation? No. That remained fixed of tone and anonymous, the fear of bias still present even as death was about to rain down from Messerschmitts above.

But when the Phoney War ended and Germany marched through Luxembourg on their way to the English Channel and possible invasion, the enemy suddenly gained control of Europe’s most power radio transmitter at Junglinster in Luxembourg. And millions of British radios were tuned to Radio Luxembourg. If the Germans were wise, they could put a pretend news bulletin out in the style of the BBC, announcing invasion or death rays or mass gas attacks or that the government or the Royal Family had fled, causing panic and riots – all things the public were expecting and the politicians were fearful of.

In response, the BBC removed the anonymity of their announcer and newsreaders. The argument was that if listeners became used to the names as well as the voices of the people on the radio, the Germans couldn’t fake news bulletins and would have a hard job pretending to be the BBC. Whether or not Joseph Goebbels in the Nazi Ministry of Propaganda knew of this strategy is unknown, but the Germans never tried the tactic, preferring instead to launch American-born Irish fascist William Joyce – Lord Haw Haw – to spread discord in amongst the entertainment programmes on their British-aimed radio networks, to little effect at all.

The edition of the Radio Times dated 23 August 1940 went even further than BBC radio in removing the anonymity, providing pictures of the seven announcers and three main newsreaders used across the two BBC networks (the domestic Home Service [2] and the barracks-aimed Forces Programme;[3] there was also the Overseas Service in English and various other language services but these were not for domestic consumption). The magazine also supplied a brief biography for each person, and a rationale for naming and picturing the radio team.

Introducing all your announcers

 

For the first time here is a picture gallery of all of them at once, all the BBC Announcers and News-Readers now regularly on the air in the Home Service and Forces programme. The only exceptions are one or two who are liable to be called up for military service at any moment and whose voices you are therefore unlikely to hear long enough to become familiar with them.

With each portrait we print details of one occasion during the coming week when you will be able to hear that particular announcer.

In charge of announcers is John Snagge, renowned for his outside broadcasts before the war. His portrait, which has often appeared in the Radio Times, is not included here, because though he has announced or read the news now and again, he is one whose voice you do not hear regularly.

Remember that an announcer’s job does not consist in merely announcing. As long as a programme is on the air, the announcer is its unofficial ‘chairman’, ready at a moment to rise tactfully to any unforeseen emergency in order to keep the stream of programmes running smoothly to the advantage of every listener.

 

Stuart Hibberd

The BBC’s Senior Announcer has been at the job for sixteen years, having joined the British Broadcasting Company[4] on its second birthday. He has announced many great events in his time; his reading of the final bulletin preceding the death of King George V will long be remembered.[5] He was a choral exhibitioner at Cambridge and a member of the Cambridge University Musical Society. Last war service: Gallipoli, Mesopotamia. Later, on North-West Frontier. Now platoon commander in the Home Guard.

(Jacques String Orchestra – Sunday Home, 7.0pm)

 

Kay Cavendish

Classical pianist and crooner, she was once one of the Radio Three. Later she organised the Cavendish Three, who distinguished themselves as the singing secretaries in ITMA and still shine in Harmony in A Flat. For the Cavendish Three she writes all the musical arrangements. Versatility is her outstanding characteristic. She has appeared as a pianist at Queen’s Hall; she has played championship tennis and lacrosse. First announcing was done for television just before the war. Ordinary announcing began in May. Born in Hong Kong, by the way, her real name is Kathleen Murray.

(‘Once in a While’ – Saturday Forces, 7.30pm)

 

Wilfred Pickles

announces programmes with a strong Northern interest. A native of Halifax, he was intended for the family trade of building, but took far more interest in amateur acting. Became a fully-fledged radio actor in 1937, taking part in all DG Bridston’s feature programmes, playing as many as five parts in one Children’s Hour broadcast, and doing ‘straight’ acting, singing, and compèring in evening programmes for the North. Sings and compères all the ‘Songs that Father Sang’ series. Is a first-class exponent of Northern dialect. Appointed announcer in 1938.

(Colne Orpheus Glee Union – Saturday Home, 3.30pm)

 

Lionel Gamlin

is now exclusively a compère. Born in Birkenhead, he was for a time in the Liverpool Rep, then became a schoolmaster. At Cambridge he was president of the Union, President of the ADC, the Editor of Granta, all at once. During six years of broadcasting before joining the BBC in 1936, he became well known under the name of Lionel James as an actor in the Children’s Hour. Rapidly became celebrated for his personal touch in announcing and compèring – in ‘In Town Tonight’, ‘Puzzle Corner’, ‘Music Hall’, and so on.

(‘Ack-Ack, Beer-Beer’ – Monday Forces 5.15pm)

 

Frederick Grisewood

is known to everybody as Freddie. He became a BBC announcer in 1929, changed to Outside Broadcasts in 1937, but since the war went back to announcing, though this time only in the Overseas service. But home listeners still hear him every week as the friendly compère putting everyone at his ease in ‘The World Goes By’. Was originally a singer. Sang bass solo part in Henschel’s Requiem at Queen’s Hall, 1913. Creator of the radio character ‘Our Bill’, based on the rustics of his native Cotswolds.

(‘The World Goes By’ – Wednesday Home and Forces, 6.45pm)

 

Roy Rich

was connected all his life with the theatre until he became a BBC announcer in March, first appearing as a child in Hassan at His Majesty’s. During eight years at the London Hippodrome was everything from chorus boy to manager. At the age of 28 was productions manager for GTC and Moss Empires Ltd. Produced the stage version of ‘Band Waggon’. After four months of announcing, was appointed Assistant Presentation Director, and now compères such programmes as his own ‘Record Time’.

(‘Record Time’ – Tuesday Forces, 7.45pm)

 

Raymond Raikes

comes from the same family as the great Robert Raikes, founder of Sunday Schools. Was an actor before he left Oxford, appearing during long vacations with Leeds Rep. Later experience: Lyric, Hammersmith… While Parents Sleep (his one and only experience of a long London run)… Birmingham Rep… films… Stratford-upon-Avon. At the outbreak of war joined London Auxiliary Ambulance Service as driver. He saw an advertisement for BBC announcer, applied, and was one of two selected from over 3,000 applicants.

(Kenneth Sydney Bayes prog – Wednesday Forces, 5pm)

 

Here are the news-readers

 

Alvar Lidell

is second senior announcer, and since war began has been responsible for arranging announcers’ duty rosters. He was born of Swedish parents, and speaks Swedish as clearly and fluently as he does English – or French or German, for that matter. After trying various careers – stage, films, a job in a bank – he joined the BBC as an announcer at Birmingham in 1932, being transferred to London the following year. His chief hobby is the singing of lieder, but he is also an expert dart-thrower.

(9pm News – Monday)

 

Frank Phillips

Born in Devon, he was formerly a professional singer, and agrees with Stuart Hibberd and Frederick Allen that such experience was the finest training for his present job. His first broadcast was as a singer in 1928. Toured 17,000 miles in South Africa, then to Canada for a Toronto music festival. Has sung at Three Choirs Festivals and Royal Choral Society and Bach Choir concerts. Became a BBC announcer in 1935. Often does ‘BBC Observer’ work for the News Department, as as MC for many of Neil Munro’s parlour games, and presents gramophone programmes. He begins a new gramophone series on Wednesday, called ‘Apropos’.

(9pm News – Wednesday)

 

Frederick Allen

is not a regular news-reader, but is first reserve if anyone is ill or on holiday. His background is the concert hall and Variety stage. He has been a teacher of singing and elocution, and a professional and educational manager to a leading firm of music-publishers. He had also done a considerable amount of radio acting before becoming a BBC announcer in 1938. He is, as you see, grey-haired and genial, with a great sense of humour. His great interest is cricket, and has been since his father taught him how to hold a bat at the age of six. Was for years an ardent follower of Middlesex, and is himself an expert behind the stumps.

(9pm News – Tuesday)

 


 

John Snagge

In 1973, the Radio Times’s 50th anniversary book invited wartime Chief Announcer John Snagge (1904-1996) to explain the decision to name newsreaders. His recollections of the time don’t fit with the facts found elsewhere in the BBC archives, but still make fascinating reading.

openquote100Until 1940 newsreaders had remained anonymous. As I’d been working for outside broadcasts for years I realised how much people like to be able to fit a name to a voice. So, when I took control of newsreaders at the beginning of the war, I decided it was time for names. The simplest thing to do was to just get on with it, and wait for a reaction. The next day, the bulletin began: “Here is the news, read by Alvar Liddell.”The reaction came weeks later – and not the one I had expected. The Management suggested it would be better to say “here is the news, and this is Alvar Lidell reading it” because “read by…” might make people think there was a second voice involved.

But I knew that sometime, someone would want a solid reason for naming the readers. I had my answer ready. When the Germans invaded Poland they tricked the Poles by putting out phoney news broadcasts in Polish. By establishing a name with a voice in Britain it could foil the same ruse if we were invaded. And that was the official explanation given – and unquestioningly accepted.

We weren’t always successful with our voices. With Northerners putting so much into the war effort the Minister of Information decided we should have a “northern voice”. Wilfred Pickles was brought in, and it wasn’t his fault that the exercise failed dismally – because people listened to how he was reading the news and not what he was saying.closequote100

 


 

Reaction

The Radio Times’s 50th anniversary book also prints two reactions to the naming and showing of the faces of the announcers and newsreaders on the home services.

openquote100‘Matey’ Atmosphere
I appreciate the publication of the photographs of the news-readers. To know them by name and be able to visualise them gives the news an agreeable ‘matey’ atmosphere. It is also a great relief to know that, after all, despite our fears, there is no news-reader named ‘Al Bolidell’! – C Dove, Colchesterclosequote100

 

openquote100Shattering Blow
The Radio Times has delivered a shattering blow. Why publish photos of your announcers and so disillusion our ‘mind’s eye’ pictures to fit the BBC voices over the air? – Two disappointed ‘Betty Bouncers’,[6] Essexclosequote100

 


 

Footnotes

  1. Owners of the Daily Express and the Daily Mail, both of which were fiercely critical of the BBC, then as now, for competing with them.
  2. The pre-war Regional Programme and National Programme had been collapsed down into a single network on 1 September 1939, adopting the name of its parent department – the Home Service. The station was regionalised in 1945 and survived until 1967, when it was renamed BBC Radio 4.
  3. The Forces Programme (the ‘P’ was sometimes capitalised and sometimes not) was introduced in 1940 in response to pleas from the armed services for a lighter, entertainment-based network for troops waiting in barracks. It was superseded by the General Forces Programme when US fighters arrived in 1944, and that station became the template for the post-war Light Programme, later divided into BBC Radio 1 and BBC Radio 2.
  4. Commercial predecessor the non-commercial British Broadcasting Corporation, existing from 1922 to 1926.
  5. “The King’s life is moving peacefully towards its close.”
  6. A reference to the 1927 popular song Little Betty Bouncer by Mr Flotsam and Mr Jetsam (Bentley Collingwood Hilliam (1890–1968) and Malcolm McEachern (1883–1945) respectively), which contains the lines:“For she’s quite mad about a man she’s never met/And it’s all through an innocent crystal set/Little Miss Bouncer/Loves an announcer/Down at the BBC/She doesn’t know his name, but how she rejoices/When she hears that voice of voices/Absolutely tireless/Sitting at the wireless/Poor little Miss B!/It’s the man who announces, with such a lot of passion in it/”The Daventry shipping forecast will follow in a minute”/Little Miss Bouncer/Loves an announcer/Down at the BBC.”

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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5 responses to this article

Jeremy Rogers 5 November 2015 at 2:35 pm

There is a myth perpetuated that Wilfred Pickles read the news in a really strong northern or Yorkshire accent. It was repeated only in the last week on QI. Although his ‘news reading’ voice contained northern features such as the ‘short a’ it seems fairly neutral to a modern ear (maybe more so than some of his colleagues that today sound so affected) and nothing like say how he presented ‘Have a Go’. It was undoubtedly sufficiently different to how everyone else sounded for it to be noticeable.

A contemporary review in The Spectator:

“The voice of Mr. Wilfred Pickles, the latest débutante among news announcers, seemed at first too fidgety and over expressive, with tiresome pauses and emphasis; but now I rather like its northern rasp and short, sharp a’s. Most of our announcers’ voices are pleasant in tone and delivery (when they do not pause before their words); but why do so many of them rhyme combat with wombat? Surely it has always been “cumbat”?

Nigel Stapley 5 November 2015 at 8:12 pm

As bad as “For The Love Of Ada” (1972) might have been, I think Pickles was still alive to do it, as opposed to popping his clogs in 1967 as suggested by your caption (Wiki says he was born in ’04 rather than ’03 as well).

Russ J Graham 5 November 2015 at 8:15 pm

Sorry – the dates for Pickles and Gamlin were transposed. Corrected now, with thanks.

Kevin 10 April 2017 at 1:09 pm

Love that Spectator writer’s exasperation with “commbat” for “cummbat”, Jeremy. I can just picture him choking on his kedgeree! Reminds me of the posh Cuvventry for Coventry.

Re W. Pickles as newsreader, I seem to remember that one of his biggest faux pas was the way he pronounced the words “aircraft carrier”. While listeners of the privileged class were prepared to live with the “picturesque” short northern a of “aircrafft” (for “aircrahft”), they apparently found “carrier” (for their preferred “kerrier”) a step too far…

Jeremy Rogers 15 June 2017 at 8:34 pm

The BBC Pronunciation Guide for newsreaders from the 1928 is quite explicit that combat should be pronounced as cumbat – and for that matter that pristine should rhyme with wine and respite as if there is no e on the end.

Things change although ‘combatant’ is still pronounced as ‘cumbatant’ by a few, as well as ‘respite’ being ‘respit’.

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