Goodbye to Savoy Hill 

19 March 2021 tbs.pm/72450

THE OLD ORDER CHANGETH

 

The setting sun, and music at the close,
As the last taste of sweets, is sweetest last.

 

 

BBC Yearbook 1932 cover

From the BBC Yearbook 1932, covering 1 November 1930 to 31 October 1931

IN THE FIRST FEW WEEKS of 1932 the B.B.C. will have moved to Broadcasting House and an association of nearly nine years with the Strand, Savoy Hill, the Embankment and the River, will have come to an end.

The new prospects are good, but the older members of the staff will find it difficult to forget the happy and strenuous times spent in the friendly environment of the old offices and studios, now to be exchanged for the cold dignity of Portland Place.

The B.B.C. came to Savoy Hill in March 1923. In the previous December, only a month after the formation of the B.B.C. when the studios and offices were in Marconi House and Magnet House respectively, it became necessary to look for new premises where they might be in the same building. One of the directors of the B.B.C., who was also a member of the Institution of Electrical Engineers, had mentioned the possibility of there being some room in their building on the Embankment. The General Manager went there, and after much difficulty in finding the caretaker, and still more in meeting him at a particular side door, found himself surveying a most unpromising set of rooms which had been previously used as L.C.C. medical offices of some kind. He saw the possibilities, however, and immediately decided to take the whole of the empty west wing, with an option on space about eight times greater.

The first studio to be built was a small one on the top floor, unnumbered at first, but later for some occult reason known as No. 3. It was heavily draped and acoustically oppressive, and damped the ardour of singers and speakers alike; in fact speaking in it was almost like hearing a voice disembodied from one’s self. This studio was opened on May 1st and, incredible though it may seem to a later generation of broadcasters, large orchestras used to be squashed into it, and at times a chorus and soloists would be added for the performance of operas.

 

 

Some of the offices were very pleasant, that of the Managing Director enjoying a leafy outlook over the afterwards familiar Embankment Gardens across the River towards Waterloo Bridge. Later on one of the show features of the premises, at least in working hours, was an enormous general office, also fronting the Thames, and full of so many bright young ladies tapping typewriters that a visiting engineer was inspired to ask whether the B.B.C. had ever estimated the total attraction in “millivamps”!

The studio known as No. 1, 45 ✕ 30 ft. [13.7 x 9.1m], was put into service in the autumn of the same year, and was then regarded as really enormous. It was a large studio as they went then, and it was always a popular one, but even in it there were times when the crowd of performers and the consequent heat and stale atmosphere prompted jokes about the Black Hole of Calcutta. In those days, of course, everything happened more or less in the same studio, and, in looking back, one can see the orchestra or military band filing [sic] out rather noisily at the door while an imperturbable announcer kicks a few chairs away and arranges his table before sitting down to read the news in a studio littered with music-stands, drums, and trombones.

 

 

Those were inevitably the days of “Just one moment, please,” and “There will be an interval of three minutes,” though sometimes the reason was given, “while we move the piano.” Occasionally there would be obscure, but always tactful, references to a “technical hitch,” and often at the news period people living in a certain road in a certain town would be entreated to “look to their sets, as they are causing disturbance to their neighbours.”

Children spent their time looking “under the sofa” and “in the sideboard”; aged couples were congratulated on golden weddings; greetings were broadcast to fetes and carnivals; “To-day’s Anniversary” followed “To-day’s chess move” and it was still “London calling the British Isles.”

The new offices and the two studios were not sufficient for more than a few months, and in 1924, after a certain amount of infiltration, the B.B.C. took over the northern wing, the offices looking on to the historic Savoy Chapel, with a privileged view of many picturesque weddings.

The north-west corner of the block had been demolished by a Zeppelin bomb in the [First World] War and the B.B.C. was the first to rebuild it. Another part of the site had been occupied by flats, in one of which the tragic death of Billie Carleton had occurred. The B.B.C. took over this part of the building and practically gutted the interior before turning it into offices and several studios of different sizes. In the course of time there came to be seven more studios in the new wing, of which the two oldest were No. 5, a small studio in which the news used to be read, and No. 4, a long narrow studio memorable for the programme of thanksgiving after the finish of the General Strike.

 

 

The Military Band studio, No. 7, was the most unusual of the new studios, as it was a double-decker, two floors high, with a distinctive type of decoration which led to its being known affectionately as “The Corner House.”

It was at this period that the Press paid the B.B.C. the compliment of making it responsible for the weather, and for quite a long time some people believed that the infinitesimal power radiated by the B.B.C. transmitters was responsible for producing rain and thunderstorms by some secret process of electrifying the clouds. On this assumption the areas immediately surrounding the B.B.C. stations should have been the wettest; but before this point was absorbed by the public a fine summer came along and the memory of the standard summers of the previous years was evaporated in (presumably electrified) sunshine. In real fact the only electrification for which the B.B.C. can be held responsible was that of a crane on some new flats under construction in Orchard Street, which, at one time, got charged with electricity from the London transmitter a couple of hundred yards away.

In one sense, those were halcyon days for programmes — perhaps too much so, because public enthusiasm and appreciation were apt to be indiscriminate. Many listeners of the present day have no idea of those early enthusiasms; have never heard of, say, Arthur Burrows or Philemon; and in the staid B.B.C. of to-day cannot recognise the B.B.C. which used to hold Radio Revels and wireless manhunts and all manner of Guess, Query, Request, and Lucky Dip programmes.

 

 

It was the period before “Valencia” had succeeded in ousting “Yes, we have no Bananas”; when a broadcast by “Veterans of Variety” produced several thousand letters of appreciation; when John Henry was a household name, and the Roosters were almost still an army concert party. Programmes sometimes had funny names (as indeed they do still), but headings like “Singbad the Wailer” were perpetrated quite often, and there is record of one musical programme simply entitled “–ation,” the names of all the items in which boasted that unenlightening termin-ation.

In those days A. J. Alan strolled into the studio in response to a request for people who could tell stories, and staggered the ether with his Adventure in Jermyn Street, to be followed by the cataclysmic “B.B.I.” (British Burglars’ Institute), which moved some dear old things to protest that the B.B.C. was encouraging crime. Then there was another of the name, a Mr. Allen Walker, who gave a talk on the architecture of the Houses of Parliament and casually at the end of it said, “If any of you like to be there at ten o’clock to-morrow I will show you round.” Long before that time a queue of 7000 people stretched down Westminster Bridge Road, and the B.B.C. was reluctantly compelled to advise greater caution in his future talks.

Then Philemon must not be forgotten, with his weekly moralisings, and Ruby Helder, the Lady Tenor, who sang with a vocal passion few men could compass. De Groot and Sandler, too, really belong to this period, and it will never be possible to recapture the enthusiasm of their first broadcasts from the Piccadilly Hotel and the Grand Hotel, Eastbourne, respectively. Perhaps it was the contrast with the then very dead conditions of the studio which made those early hotel broadcasts so thrilling, but whatever the cause, psychological or physical, their popularity was unlimited, and has rarely been equalled since.

 

A church

The view of Savoy Chapel from the northern wing of “Savoy Hill”

 

Then there were the musical comedy programmes called “Winners,” and the series of “Radio Radiance Revues” with a chorus of rather small young ladies (known in programme circles as the Miniature Suite), dancing on boards in the actual studio. The “Gather Rounds” were an early effort at a Saturday evening informality in the studio, and to the same period belongs the £50 [about £3,000 today, allowing for inflation] play competition won by “Hunt the Tiger,” and various mystery plays broadcast in three or four weekly instalments with a substantial prize at the end. The Savoy Bands were a household word, and Santos Casani used to broadcast dancing lessons, illustrated by an unwilling but invisible announcer.

Few of the B.B.C. staff will ever forget the General Strike of 1926, a milestone in the history of broadcasting, when the B.B.C. grew up as it were in a night and the public at large realised that broadcasting could no longer be considered an eccentric toy but had proved itself a force of national importance. Savoy Hill presented a queer appearance during the strike. First came the revelation that almost every member of the orchestra had a car and they were parked all round the building. Then there were casual policemen here and there, who were fortunately never faced with the desperate duty of drawing their truncheons to defend the microphone. Within the building, the studios and corridors seemed to be one long succession of news bulletins and time-tables, and no doubt the announcers, some of whom slept on the premises, had nightmare sequences of perpetual trains leaving Waterloo at 2.22 p.m. and calling at so-and-so and so-and-so and so-and-so.

Hull Daily Mail cutting

Cutting from the Hull Daily Mail for 18 January 1926

The General Strike was almost a spiritual successor to the sack of London as described by Father Ronald Knox in an imaginary news bulletin broadcast in the previous January. Such is the power of wireless that listeners who switched on their sets to hear a solemn voice saying, “The crowd is now burning Savoy Hill… it is now advancing up Whitehall looting the Government offices,” never paused to reflect on the various quite obvious improbabilities, but rang up the B.B.C. or friends in town in frenzied inquiry, or in some cases jumped into their cars and drove in to see what was happening.

Savoy Hill has had its own excitements. There have been one or two fires, luckily nothing serious, and from time to time minor alarms, as when bombs were exploded in the basement, without warning, as one of the effects for “R.U.R.,” or the occasion when a producer ran up and down the corridor ringing a firebell for a similar purpose.

Strange objects like lawn-mowers have also been trundled about the passages to get a required effect; but in the matter of noises the tour de force was undoubtedly the Radio Military Tattoo put together entirely in the studio at the time of the first tattoo at Wembley. Barrel-organs, Punch and Judy shows, and the paraphernalia of street entertainers have been taken into Savoy Hill from time to time; and honourable mention must be made of the tremendous feats of sleight-of-hand performed with grand pianos in the days before a goods lift was installed for the purpose.

Something might be said of the fauna of Savoy Hill. Historically first (and last) were the rats, the villains in the piece of many ferocious tales about heroic nightwatchmen, or B.B.C. engineers lingering late into the night for the 2 a.m. dance music or the broadcasts to America in the early days. Then there was Uncle Jeff’s dog, whose bark was certainly better known than his bite — not that there was any evidence as to the latter. Then the starlings in the trees in the churchyard, who could be expected to arrive in thousands out of the blue at about 5 p.m. on October 5th each year, and whose twitterings (broadcast in the Children’s Hour) were considered deafening by the occupants of offices on the north side until the pneumatic drill taught them better. Finally, there was the parrot, a dignified grey bird of guaranteed loquacity solemnly purchased by the B.B.C. for conversation in the Children’s Hour. But alas! with its view limited to aunts and uncles, mounds of silver paper, and the tower of the Savoy Chapel, it pined in its gilded cage. For a long time it resisted all blandishments, and then when an evening paper announced that it had not spoken for three weeks and was going to be appointed to high office in the B.B.C., it turned its face to the wall and died.

 

Somerset House

SOMERSET HOUSE FROM THE OFFICE OF THE “RADIO TIMES”. The demolition of buildings over the Kingsway tram tunnel temporarily disclosed this view.

 

Front of the buiilding

THE WEST WING OF “SAVOY HOUSE” to which the B.B.C. came in March 1923

There have been many distinguished visitors in the eight years. His Majesty the King has often broadcast, but never from Savoy Hill. The Prince of Wales has been to the studios several times, as have other members of the Royal Family. Among the more picturesque visitors have been King Feisal of Irak, Prince Tamatsu of Korea and his consort, and Ras Tafari, the present King of Abyssinia.

Amongst the visitors who might be considered unusual were the West Africans, who came to play tom-tom music for the broadcast of the play “Congo Night,” the Red Indian chiefs in full war-paint, complete with gaudy blankets, beads, and feathers, and llamas from Tibet who made music on long horns; to say nothing of the mosquito and the ticking beetle, the canaries and other animals which turned up at various times to make their contributions to the programmes.

The last phase at Savoy Hill has been one of dust from demolitions and staccato noises from pneumatic drills. No sooner had the buildings over the Kingsway tram tunnel been pulled down than the housebreakers got to work on the Hotel Cecil, and the dust from the latter settled on office tables and chairs to the accompaniment of riveting machines at work on the steel structure of the former. There has been a certain sporting interest to the staff in the rivalry of noise and rubble, and consolation in the thought that the B.B.C.’s contractors were doing the same to other people at Portland Place: but, taken as a whole, the old-world slopes of Savoy Hill have been an inferno of ferro-concrete frightfulness in the last two years.

In October 1931, when these lines are written, the end has not yet come, but some of the departments, which had overflowed into scattered offices in the Strand, have already crossed the Rubicon; and for the rest the passage is booked for early in 1932. However splendid the new quarters, the B.B.C. will always remember its years at Savoy Hill with pride and affection, as the home in which it spent its childhood and grew up to man’s estate.

You Say

1 response to this article

Joseph Gallant 10 April 2021 at 8:11 pm

Father Ronald Knox’s fake newscast is something I’ve never heard about until now.

Here in America, we had Orson Welles’ adaptation of “War Of The Worlds” in October of 1938 over CBS, which caused a national panic as it was likewise done in the style of a fake newscast.

I suspect even most British citizens are more familiar with the Orson Welles broadcast than the Father Ronald Knox one.

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