Simanaitis Says

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HERE’S YET MORE on BBC’s hundredth anniversary. Indeed, back in mid-April, I gleaned tidbits from Sam Knight’s piece in The New Yorker. Here in Take 2, I so enjoy Stefan Collini’s “Beebology,” in The London Review of Books, April 21, 2022, that I want to share several of his comments. Collini reviews two books on the BBC, David Hendy’s The BBC: A People’s History and Simon J. Potter’s This Is The BBC: Entertaining the Nation, Speaking for Britain? 1922-2022.

Briefly reviewing Collini’s review of the two, Hardy’s “has the strengths of an insider’s account, packed with detail and anecdotes, shrewd in its assessment of personalities, light on socioeconomic change. Simon Potter’s is more academic and astringent. Potter tends to be critical where Hendy is indulgent, but Hendy’s volume is more fun, while Potter’s occasionally dips into right-minded solemnity. They both more than earn their place on the ever lengthening shelf of Beebology.”

And Collini’s LRB article is replete with tidbits.

BBC at War. “The Second World War,” Collini writes, “is often regarded as the BBC’s finest hour. It certainly strengthened the position of ‘the wireless’ in national life.”

Collini continues, “Many of its activities were moved out of London in 1939, the bulk of them to Wood Norton Hall near Evesham. Soon, around a thousand items a week were being produced from the depths of rural Worcestershire, though announcers continued to say ‘This is London calling’ (clearly, ‘This is Wood Norton calling’ just wouldn’t cut it).”

“Even in this sylvan retreat,” Collini observes, “safety procedures had to be followed in the event of an air raid. ‘The warning signal that went off at Wood Norton consisted of “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic” blasted through loudspeakers. As soon as it was heard, all the producers, actors, administrators, secretaries and engineers promptly did as they were told and ran into the nearby woods to lie down in pairs.’ I suppose it’s what you’d most want to do if you thought you were about to die.” 

Collini notes that author Hendy “does justice to, among other things, the romance of sending coded messages to resistance groups in occupied Europe, not least with the following astonishing statistic: the evening before D-Day, ‘the BBC started transmitting an unusually long list of messages across the English Channel. Within 24 hours, 1050 acts of railway sabotage had been initiated via the BBC, 950 of which were successful.’ ”

The Archers. By way of background, Wikipedia notes that “The Archers is a BBC radio drama on BBC Radio 4, their main spoken-word channel. Broadcast since 1951, it was initially billed as ‘an everyday story of country folk’ and is now promoted as ‘a contemporary drama in a rural setting.’ Having aired over 19,500 episodes, it is the world’s longest-running drama by number of episodes, and will become so by duration in 2023.”

A sample of The Archers.

Collini reports that “The Archers, first broadcast in 1951, soon had an audience of almost ten million; it has been calculated that a quarter of the adult population were listening when Grace Archer was killed off in 1955. (Some listeners could take things rather literally: the actor who played Phil Archer reported that, after a scene of snogging in the back of a car, he was sent contraceptives through the post.)”

BBC TV and Queen Elizabeth’s Coronation. Collini writes, “Television had made a faltering start in the 1930s, with its signal only available to those in the Greater London area and very few people owning or renting sets. The fledgling service was closed down for the duration of the war, but when it restarted it was still thought a minor affair, obviously secondary to radio. In 1952, the year before the coronation, there were eight times as many radio-only licences as TV licences, but things rapidly changed.”

“It’s still remarkable,” Collini says, “that more than half the adult population of the country (20.4 million people) are supposed to have watched the coronation on TV, if not always in their own homes.”

“By 1958,” Collini cites, “the number of households with television sets exceeded, for the first time, those with sound-only licences. That year BBC expenditure on television also exceeded its budget for radio for the first time.”

Political Satire. Wikipedia writes, “That Was the Week That Was, informally TWTWTW or  TW3, was a satirical television comedy programme on BBC Television in 1962 and 1963…. The programme is considered a significant element of the satire boom in the UK in the early 1960s, as it broke ground in comedy by lampooning political figures.”

Collini remembers TW3 fondly: “My epiphany occurred late on a Saturday evening in November 1962. I was a spotty 15-year-old with an unsteady grasp of the difference between girls and Martians, and a literary urge whose expression in my homework wasn’t appreciated by my teachers. But by the time I went to bed that evening I had been given a glimpse of the kind of person I thought I wanted to become.”

Collini continues, “That Was the Week That Was entranced me. It was clever, irreverent, funny, and at the time there were to my mind no higher values (it was all helped by my having an instant crush on Millicent Martin). I’m now more aware of the programme’s limitations: driven by overconfident young men such as David Frost and Bernard Levin, much of its content might generously be called ‘undergraduate humour.’ ”

A YouTube sample. (And I agree with Collini about Millicent Martin.)

Being as I remain something of an undergraduate at heart, I still find such humor er… humour funny. And I continue to find London Review of Books entertaining—and quotable. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2022   

2 comments on “BBC TAKE 2

  1. Mike B
    May 2, 2022

    How do you listen to (can’t actually view) BBC n California? I’ve found that there are ways … BBC 3 works in VLC Player. Then, there’s the BBC web site, which refuses to dispense some video and audio to non-UK users (probably that license thing), but is otherwise interesting – but is best leavened with a bit of Reuters for breadth of viewpoint on the news.

    For “overnight” music (which appears in prime time on the US West Coast), I prefer RTE Lyric FM, also available online, though not directly from RTE. I know it’s time to go to bed when “Marty In The Morning” appears, with traffic reports from Dublin and Cork.

    • simanaitissays
      May 2, 2022

      BBC World Service is part of my Sirius XM. And, by the way, my DirecTV has BBC America, which has lots of great BBC shows. I haven’t tried much Internet streaming, though I have and a couple of European art tv.

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