December 29th-30th 1922: General Manager John Reith begins work! The good ship Broadcasting finally gets its captain.
On Episode 35 of The British Broadcasting Century, we bring you the complete tale of not only Reith's first day - the liftsman, the lone office, the "Dr Livingstone, I presume" moment - but also his commute to work, from Scotland to London via Newcastle. Here he investigates/interviews/interrogates poor Tom Payne, director of Newcastle 5NO, a BBC station that's only five days old, temporarily running from the back of a lorry in a stable-yard.
We'll hear from Reith, Payne (who claims to be the only person to bank-roll a British radio station), Birmingham director Percy Edgar, early BBC governor Mary Agnes Hamitlon.
Plus we'll hear from Mark Carter of BBC Radio Sussex, BBC Radio Surrey, Susy Radio, Wey Valley Radio, across which he's been presenter, producer and now Executive Editor.
There's also a treasure trove of radio memoribilia including 'the green book' of what you can and can't say on the radio - in 1948 - courtesy of the collection of former BBC Head of Heritage Justin Phillips. We're ever so grateful to his family for sharing that with us.
- This episode leans on several books, the chief of which is probably Garry Alligan's 1938 book Sir John Reith, but also Asa Briggs' various books, Brian Hennessy's The Emergence of Broadcasting in Britain, and The Reith Diaries edited by Charles Stuart. Plus about a dozen others.
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Previously on the BBCentury...
The 6-week-old BBC now has 4 plucky stations! Yes, the Geordies have joined the Cockneys the Brummies and the Mancunians... Except 5NO Newcastle has had a few teething troubles. No one there’s run a radio station before! So on Christmas Eve Eve 1922, their first is broadcast from the back of a lorry in a stableyard.
But fear not, with Christmas behind us, Head Office are on the case! And the BBC’s first and only General Manager John Reith is well-rested, he’s even asked a friend what broadcasting is, and he reckons he’s ok to take control. He’s always liked fishing. That’s what broadcasting is... isn’t it?
Still puzzling out what his job is, John Reith begins work! We’ve got all the info on his legendary first day, his ‘Dr Livingstone I presume’ moment... and his first task of running the Beeb: fixing Newcastle. He seeks to inform, educate and entertain, but first troubleshoot.
Plus bang up to date, we’ll hear from a man with radio in his very fibre... local radio executive editor and presenter, from BBC Radio Sussex and BBC Radio Surrey, and Susy Radio, and Wey Valley Radio... Mark Carter
As we mark the start of the Reith era, buckle up, it’s going to be a bumpy ride. Here on the BBCentury
We’ve seen a few eps ago, how Reith, and Burrows, and Anderson and Lewis were all hired as the first 4 founding fathers at the BBC. But they start work at New Year. Of course, we know that those of them who were broadcasters, Burrows and Lewis – they were already workig super-hard, planning and presenting almost 7 days a week, even through Christmas.
But the start of the BBC’s new era, with a head office at Magnet House, till Savoy Hill opened, all of this happens after Christmas 1922, going into New Year 1923.
So this ep, I’ll tell you about Reith’s first day, Dec 29th. Next episode, we’ll round off with a rather sweet New Year’s Eve bit of programming. Then I think we’ll have a bit of a recap and a breather, before starting 1923 proper, when the BBC exploded into life, with a booming staff, the first proper live concerts from the royal opera house, and so much more.
What a tale! What an era! I wish I was there. I can’t be, so next best thing, I’ll spend a pandemic researching and recording this... The BBCe, now with the first day of work from John Reith!
But before he starts in London, we’re going super-geeky, super0detailed, and I’ll actually tell you about Reith’s JOURNEY to London. Because that’s really notable too.
Having been appointed, and spent a day or two with Burrows and co, scouting for offices, puzzling out what broadcasting is, Reith has spent Christmas in Scotland, staying with his mum...
“I told her that I wanted her to live to see me a knight anyhow. I feel if this job succeeds and I am given grace to succeed in it, I might nt be so far off this. I do want a title for dear mother’s sake, and Muriel’s...”
That from Reith’s diary, Dec 28th 1922. So he’s keen on this job, for the authoritative position it gives him, it seems, to begin with, at least. He’s turned down good deputy jobs before this point. He wanted to lead something. Anything. Even a thing he doesn’t understand.
Here’s a snapshot what Reith would have been completely unaware was on that Christmas, on each of the BBC’s stations:
- We told you all about the London Christmas last time, but from Boxing Day, you’d hear more from the brand new 2LO Orchestra, and a triumphant Boxing Day Peter Pan, Uncle Jeff and Uncle Arthur holding the fort, rewarded with many gifts from the listeners. Demand for radio sets outstripped supply. The radio boom was booming.
- In Brum: Percy Edgar gives his Dickens, artistes don’t turn up. Callout on air. Frederick Warrander turned up, with his pianist!
- Manc: Christmas stories for kids, then grownups, Handel’s Messiah, ghost stories
- Newcastle: Hawaiian band
Then there’s 2MT Writtle, who’ve had the week off for Christmas – that’s not a BBC station, but they’ve done the groundwork earlier in the year, and now Peter Eckersley is there pondering whether he should keep going, in this Marconi station out in Essex, now that proper broadcasting has begun – and the big boss is on his way to start work.
So Friday 29th December, Reith says bye mum, I’ll come back when I’m knighted, and leaves Dunardoch for London – raring to start work the next day, a Saturday, but he wanted to get in before his small staff turns up after the weekend.
But, his Director of Progs Arthur Burrows, who knows more than almost anyone about how all this runs, he’s asked his boss to make a stopover en route to Magnet House in London. Burrows wants Reith to get off the train at Newcastle, and check in on the baby station, 5NO. We talked about their launch last time – so at this point it’s only 5 days old, and it’s the first BBC station to be built from scratch.
Burrows has his doubts about the Newcastle staff. New station director Payne is out on a limb, setting up this new station in the northeast – with the smallest, most abandoned staff....
Probably adding to Burrows’ doubts were Tom Payne’s announcing habits: he kept repeating the callsign over and over: ‘This is 5NO calling, this is 5NO calling, this is 5NO calling...”
Payne was popular locally already in amateur radio circles – but would he have the chops to broadcast nationally, on radio? To fit in, with what Burrows had set in motion?
Reith’s a bit reluctant to break his journey in Newcastle. Doesn’t quite see why. Doesn’t quite know what a radio station is. But he’s quite keen to see one in action – although Newcastle’s version is a stableyard, so not really your typical radio station...
‘Newcastle at 12:30. Here I really began my BBC responsibility. Saw transmitting station and studio place and landlords. It was very interesting. Away at 4:28, London at 10:10, bed at 12:00. I am trying to keep in close touch with Christ in all I do and I pray he may keep close to me. I have a great work to do.’
Reith is dumbfounded. He’s got off the train, and found Tom Payne alternating between announcing what’s on the radio, playing some live musical instruments, and trying to shut up a howling dog in a nearby kennel. So did he let Mr Payne off the hook?
“As the temporary Station Director knew more than I did, as he had produced programmes of some kind or another for 5 days already... I rather naturally left him in possession for the time being.”
As for the tech setup in Newcastle, that doesn’t improve too quickly. Reith will be shocked in the New Year of ’23 to discover their new control room is in fact a standard public phone box installed in the middle of the studio. Forget the engineer through the glass. This was an engineer in the glass, in a glass box, closed in from before the programme started till after it finished, no ventilation, no seat, no dignity.
Come January, Reith would personally seek new premises for those provincial stations that were lacking. Eventually.
For now though, on Dec 29th, Reith leaves Newcastle, after a stopover of less than 4hrs, and continues to London.
So Reith has arrived in London, slept off his train journey, and awoken ready for his first day at the BBC.
London at 10:10, bed at 12:00. I am trying to keep in close touch with Christ in all I do and I pray he may keep close to me. I have a great work to do.’
At 9am that Saturday, Reith arrives at the GEC offices in Kingsway, London. “where I had been informed temporary accommodation had been at our disposal.” This is Magnet House., first offices of the BBC.
He has doubts what he’ll find, but is pleased to see a large notice in the foyer: “Brit Broad Company, 2nd floor”
“This was rather reassuring. One was therefore not altogether unexpected and there really was such a thing as the BBC. Before I was permitted to enter the elevator, an enquiry was naturally made regarding my business. ‘BBC’, I said deliberately. “Nobody there yet, sir,” he replied. So I told him that this was it, or part of it, one quarter approximately.”
How delightfully drole, of both Reith and the liftsman.
“A room about 30fr by 15, furnished with 3 long tables and some chairs. A door at one end invited examination: a tiny compartment 6ft sq, here a table and a chair, also a telephone. ‘This,’ I thought, ‘is the general manager’s office’. The door swung to behind me. I wedged it open; sat down, surveyed the emptiness of the outer office. Though various papers had accumulated in the past fortnight, I had read them all before. No point in pretending to be busy with no one to see.”
It’s an unusual start for Reith then, still a little clueless as to what’s required of him. He needs his staff to arrive before he can quite figure out what to do, how to run this BBC. So he picks up the phone, a bit like Manuel when he briefly takes charge of Fawlty Towers. “Manuel Towers! How are you today!” Or Alan Partridge picking up the hotel phone to find he’s reached reception.
In Reith’s case, he’s delighted a female voice answers. Yes? “Having been unexpectedly answered, I trued hurriedly to think of a number which at 9:15am I might be properly expected to call up, on BBC business. Naturally without success. As there was no BBC business to anything with. So I enquired, somewhat fatuously, and with some embarrassment, if she had had any intrusctions about calls for the BBC or from them, and that if so, the BBC was there.” Now. Just.
This receptionist would connect many calls to R over the coming months, and years, Miss Isobel Shields.
Reith was a fan of Mr Gamage of the GEC. He was not a fan of Major Anderson, his new, brief secretary.
1/2hr later, Major Anderson, Sec, arrived 9:30am, “with some manifestation of authority”.
Silk hat, two attache cases, legal-looking books under his arm. Reith described it as a bit “Livingstone and Stanley”, each presumed the other was the Secretary or General Manager.
‘I hadn’t seen him before. It was an awful shock. I saw at once that he would never do... Conversation was not brisk...”
Then Mr Gamage, Secretary of the GEC, lovely welcoming fella. For 10 weeks, Gamage sees to their every need, and refuses all offer of payment for the room, lunch, tea, phone calls. GEC’s guest.
That night Major Anderson the Sec goes home to type a letter, to invite Miss Isobel Shields to stop working for General Electric, be poached by the BBC, and become one of the first six staff members, and the first female employee.
Next time: New Year 1922!