Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in Issue #9 of the Anglotopia Print Magazine in 2018. Support great long-form writing about British History, Culture, and travel by subscribing to the Anglotopia Magazine. Every subscription helps keep Anglotopia running and provides us to the opportunity to produce articles like this. You can subscribe here.
While no longer alone amongst Britain’s media powerhouses, at one time, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) was the only game in town. Since its incorporation in 1922, the corporation has been responsible for informing and entertaining the British public, tasks for which it continues to excel at 95 years later. Over this time, the BBC has provided not only the United Kingdom but the world, with reliable news and some of mankind’s most legendary programmes from “Doctor Who” to “Monty Python’s Flying Circus.” Its personnel have influenced radio and television, and its buildings are some of the most famous in Britain. As we delve into the near-century long broadcasting history of the BBC, we invite you, dear reader, to join us on a journey from the first radio signal to the present and discover what a fascinating chronicle this media giant possesses.
The United Kingdom’s first radio broadcast took place in June 1920 at the Marconi factory, and from there, radio became so prolific a communication tool that the General Post Office had to step in as the licensing official to control the growth of the medium. By 1922, the GPO had more than 100 requests for licenses from manufacturers and other organizations, and so to ensure a measured development of radio broadcasts, the GPO recommended issuing only one license to a consortium of manufacturers (including Marconi) under the title of the British Broadcasting Company, Ltd. The company formed officially on 18 October 1922, and made its first broadcast on channel 2LO from the seventh floor of Marconi House on 14 November that year.
To head this new broadcasting conglomerate, the government appointed John Reith as the first General Manager for the BBC in mid-December 1922. Mr. Reith had served in the army during World War I and had had no experience in broadcasting before applying for the manager post on seeing a newspaper advertisement for the position. He was admittedly out of his depth for the position, having to deal with copyrights, patents, music publishers, artists’ associations, performance rights, and more, though he felt he had the credentials to “manage any company” given his military background. Despite this lack of prior experience, he proved to be an immensely capable manager who helped shape the BBC during its formative years and remained in charge until 1938. Making up the rules as he went along, Reith proved an innovative leader who had to use his army engineer’s background to craft standards and practices that the corporation would follow for decades.
In September 1923, one of the BBC’s most influential documents began publication with the first issue of the Radio Times. The periodical provided a schedule of the corporation’s limited programmes, but also served as an educational resource for budding amateur enthusiasts as well as carrying the manufacturers’ advertisements for the newest radio equipment. The RT was also the only place to find the radio schedule, as newspapers viewed it as a competing medium and thus refused to publish it. The magazine began as a joint effort between the BBC and publisher George Newnes, and the latter type-set, printed and distributed the RT himself until the corporation bought the publication fully under its control in 1925.
Anglotopia’s Top 10 BBC Comedies
- Yes, Minister
- Monty Python
- ‘Allo ‘Allo
- As Time Goes By
- Dad’s Army
- Fawlty Towers
- Keeping Up Appearances
- Only Fools And Horses
- Red Dwarf
The BBC’s first major test came during the General Strike in 1926. At the time, the BBC was in renegotiations with the GPO over its license, an issue that was left up to the Crawford Committee. Several of the manufacturers wanted out due to the unprofitable nature of the consortium, while Reith wanted the BBC to become a public service. Reith wanted the BBC to maintain its monopoly and serve the public interest, feeling its expansion should be funded by the government for the general welfare.
Meanwhile, the General Council of the Trades Union Congress was trying to get the British government to stop wage reduction and improve the conditions for the nation’s coal miners. Negotiations between the TUC and the government broke down, and the strike began on 3 May 1926. The strike had an effect of temporarily halting newspaper production, rendering the BBC the only source of regular news.
Behind closed doors, Reith was firmly on the side of the government with regards to the strike, even letting the Prime Minister broadcast from his own home. This helped to keep the government out of the BBC’s business insofar as it did not attempt to use the radio service as its mouthpiece. The BBC then presented some of the most even coverage of the strike, representing the viewpoints of both the workers and the government during the work stoppage. This cemented the BBC’s audience as well as establishing its reputation for fair and balanced reporting. The company came out of 1926 in a strong position, and the Government accepted the Crawford Committee’s recommendation that the BBC have a new status as a non-commercial, Crown-chartered organization in 1927, then becoming the British Broadcasting Corporation. The original 1927 charter established objectives, powers, and obligations of the BBC, entrusting John Reith as its Director-General to execute the document’s provisions.
1928 would see another leap for the BBC as construction began on Broadcasting House. The corporation had operated its radio broadcasts out of Marconi House and buildings in the Strand and Savoy Hill, but Broadcasting House would be its first purpose-built headquarters for radio broadcasting. G. Val Mayer designed it in an Art Deco style for the exterior, while Raymond McGrath designed the interior in a similar vein. Its Portland stone structure contained all the studios, and the building’s steel shell provided acoustic “buffering.” For a time, its construction was held up as nearby residents were concerned about it blocking the natural light for their homes on Langham Street. It took four years to complete, and programmes slowly began moving over in 1932, with the first broadcast being that of Henry Hall and the BBC Dance Orchestra on 15 March. That same year, King George V would become the first monarch to use radio as a broadcast medium to reach his subjects.
Meanwhile, as Broadcasting House was going up, something else revolutionary was being born. Scottish engineer John Logie Baird had been experimenting with television since 1924, beaming the first images across a room and later demonstrated his experiments at Selfridge’s and the Royal Institution. He also used BBC frequencies to broadcast some of his images from studios at Covent Garden in 1929. In 1930, he would broadcast the BBC’s first televised drama, “The Man with the Flower in His Mouth,” ushering in the television era for the broadcaster. Baird’s technology could only broadcast thirty lines of resolution, as opposed to 2,160 lines of resolution by the latest 4K televisions. Limited regular broadcasts then began in 1934, and the BBC established its first television studio at Alexandra Palace in 1936 along with starting the BBC Television Service.
Anglotopia’s Top 10 BBC Dramas
- Doctor Who
- Pride & Prejudice
- Upstairs Downstairs
- Life on Mars
- House of Cards
- Call the Midwife
- The Forsyte Saga
- Bleak House
- All Creatures Great and Small
- Our Friends in the North
By 1937, technology advanced enough that televisions had 405 lines of resolution. 1937 would also see the BBC’s first outside television broadcast as the corporation filmed the coronation of King George VI. Unfortunately, the outbreak of World War II in 1939 would see a suspension of the television service for the duration of the conflict. In response to the danger presented by the London Blitz, the BBC would move much its radio broadcasting out of London to Bristol and then Bedford. St. Paul’s Church in Bedford actually became the home studio for the daily service until 1945. The BBC Television Service would resume on 7 June 1946 with Jasmine Bligh as the first presenter back on the air. October 1946 would see the beginning of television programming dedicated solely to children, with shows such as “Muffin the Mule” being broadcast from the corporation’s new television studios at Lime Grove.
One of the biggest changes to the BBC to occur post-war was the introduction of the television license. As mentioned earlier, at the advent of the company back in 1922, the General Post Office was responsible for issuing licenses to amateur and professional radio operators. Besides broadcasting, those who wanted to receive radio broadcasts paid a fee of 10 shillings. With the resumption of the BBC Television Service in 1946, the Post Office merged the receiving radio broadcast license with television reception, and the cost for both was a mere £2 (roughly £76 today). With the advent of color television in the 1960s (more on that later), a surcharge was added to cover the new technology. The cost has subsequently risen nearly every year, though the license fee was frozen in 2016 at £145.50 while the BBC’s Charter was renegotiated and now sits at £147 as of April 2017. While some try to get by without the license, the penalty for owning a television and not having a license is roughly £1,000 plus any incidental legal costs and compensation.
Television would only grow as a medium with Newsreel beginning in January 1948 and the first televised Olympic Games in the summer. While only 100,000 British homes had televisions by this time, the BBC still broadcast 68.5 hours of live coverage during the games. The next year would see the return of live weather broadcasts that had been pursued tepidly before the war. Things were relatively quiet until ITV came along in 1955 to challenge the BBC’s monopoly on the television airwaves. The new company was a direct result of the Television Act 1954, which created the Independent Television Authority (later the Independent Broadcast Authority) to regulate the growing medium and license franchises. More insight into the government was provided during the 1950s as the first live broadcast proceedings of the House of Commons were made in 1950 and the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II was transmitted in 1953.
One major event that took place in 1956 was the establishment of the Radiophonic Workshop. The workshop was established because the BBC wanted to develop its own music and sound effects for the radio and television programmes it produced. The workshop would craft some of the most innovative sounds over the next few decades, including Doctor Who’s famous TARDIS dematerialization sound effect and the programme’s theme tune. The Radiophonic Workshop would not close up shop until 1993 when the corporation determined the department was no longer viable. In 1958, one of the BBC’s most important children’s programmes would be born when “Blue Peter” premiered on 16 October. Head of Children’s Television at the time, Owen Reed, wanted a programme that catered to children ages 5 to 8 and represented a “voyage of adventure.” Still running today, it would have a major influence with lines such as “And now for something completely different” and the famed Blue Peter Badge becoming established parts of British culture.
Blue Peter would also become one of the first television programmes to move into the famed BBC Television Centre when it opened in 1960. Much like Broadcasting House before it, Television Centre was purpose-built for TV broadcasting. The building was designed by Graham Dawborn, who was initially stumped by having to design a building for the triangular property. The story goes that he went to a local pub where he drew the boundaries of the land on an envelope with a big question mark over it. This ended up becoming the basis for his design that would permit eight tv studios, offices, production galleries, recording studios, and separate entrances for guests and delivery trucks.
Construction on Television Centre actually began in 1950, but government restrictions on the building made the process a lengthy one. The sanctions on building and the licensing of materials stopped the construction until 1953, and in the meantime, the BBC opted to renovate its studios at Lime Grove, Hammersmith, and Shepard’s Bush Empire. Stage One including the TVC scenery block was the first part of the center built, while Stage 2 and the canteen block followed in 1954. The next year would see work begin on the circular office block that composed Stage 3. By the time the building opened in 1960, studio TC3 was the first to be completed. The studio would become home to many of the BBC’s most famous programmes from “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” to “Strictly Come Dancing.”
When the Independent Television Authority determined that ITV didn’t have enough quality programming, it gave the license for a new television station to the BBC, ultimately creating BBC Two in 1964. The new station caused the name of BBC Television Service to change to BBC One. BBC One would become the home to most of the mainstream and popular programmes over the years, while BBC Two was populated with the more intellectual programmes and films, including documentaries such as “The Ascent of Man,” and eventually automotive magazine “Top Gear.” BBC Two would also become a testing ground for other shows that would eventually move to BBC One such as “Have I Got News for You” and “The Great British Bakeoff.” The channel later broadcast the corporation’s first dedicated block of morning children’s programming, which would eventually evolve into CBBC and CBeebies.
Science-Fiction television programming would change forever in 1963. The BBC’s then Head of Drama, Sydney Newman, wanted a new programme that would help teach kids about history by using time travel. The programme that he eventually developed with the corporation’s first female producer, Verity Lambert, would become the worldwide phenomenon that is “Doctor Who.” Featuring the alien known as The Doctor, his granddaughter Susan, and her teachers Ian and Barbara, the first episode hit a stumbling block as it was overshadowed by news concerning the death of US President John F. Kennedy when it premiered the same week. The first episode was rebroadcast a week later, but the programme really took off with the introduction of the Doctor’s most famous enemies, the Daleks. After leading actor William Hartnell was forced to leave the show in 1966 due to ill health, the writers came up with the concept of regeneration so that Doctor Who could continue with a new actor as the Doctor. This plot device kept the original version of the show going until 1987, coming back for a 1996 television pilot film and the current programme that began in 2005.
1966 would also see another major innovation for the BBC with the advent of color television. The corporation announced that it would soon bring color to television screens in 1966, though it would be another year before its first colorized broadcast to the public. The BBC had actually experimented with color transmissions for the first time in 1957 with broadcasts made to both houses of Parliament, but would not bring the technology to the masses for another nine years. BBC Two was the first to experiment with color broadcasts when it televised Wimbledon with the new technology on 1 July 1967. BBC Two Controller David Attenborough said at the time that at least five hours of programming per week would be dedicated to color, but by December, 80% of the channels shows were in color. At the time, a color receiver cost about £250 along with the supplemental license fee. Color would be extended to BBC One in 1969 and was completely in effect by 1976.
Local radio stations such as Radio London also began to appear at the time, spurred on by the existence of pirate radio ships. These maverick stations, such as Radio Caroline, were headquartered on ships anchored in the North Sea and broadcast popular music that wasn’t as widely available on BBC Radio. As they weren’t government sponsored, they also featured copious amounts of advertising that eventually forced the BBC to permit nationally based advertising services. The corporation was also encouraged to diversify its broadcasts across multiple stations, having Radio 1 play popular music to compete with the pirates, Radio 2 featured “easy listening,” Radio 3 had classical music and cultural programming, and Radio 4 focused primarily on news and information.
The 1970s continued to push innovation as the BBC partnered with Open University to bring higher education to the masses through early morning and late-night educational programmes. Even today, Open University and the BBC’s partnership continues to bring new ways of learning to the public through online videos that cover everything from the color spectrum to how cars are built. 1972 saw the introduction of news programming aimed at children and young people called “Newsround.” With John Craven at the helm, “Newsround” brought kids current events from all over the world and even broke news stories such as Pope John Paul I’s assassination and the Challenger explosion. 1974 then saw the introduction of Ceefax. Ceefax was a Teletext service that originally begun as a captioning system for the corporation’s programmes but grew to provide full pages of information on news, sports, and more. It ceased to be used in 2012 when the information service switched over the being completely digital.
Many of the BBC’s most endearing television programmes also got their start in the 1970s. Leaving Monty Python to follow his own path, John Cleese started the show “Fawlty Towers” with his then-wife Connie Booth. Other comedies such as “Are You Being Served?”, “Last of the Summer Wine” and “Porridge” also kept audiences laughing. However, comedy wasn’t the only new programming that got viewers attention. Now known the world over for his exceptional nature documentaries, David Attenborough began broadcasting his “Life of Earth” series in 1979, which led to decades of bringing the true majesty of nature to the public.
The 1980s marked new challenges for the United Kingdom and the BBC. With the premiership of Margaret Thatcher beginning in 1979, her Conservative government brought a wave of deregulation that further loosened the BBC’s grip on the radio and television industries in Britain. Under the Broadcasting Act 1980, the Independent Broadcasting Authority became further empowered to create another TV license. Competitor ITV was joined by the commercially-sponsored Channel 4 in 1982 and its Welsh counterpart, S4C. However, audiences were still tuning into the BBC in droves thanks to new programmes such as “Eastenders” and “Breakfast Time”, as well as major events including the Falklands War, Live Aid, and the Wedding of Prince Charles to Diana Spencer, the non-royal who became beloved as the “People’s Princess.”
New technology drove innovation in the 1990s. The 24-hour news stations that had become popular in the United States convinced the BBC to launch its own constant news channel in 1997. While the BBC was only second to get into the game in Britain, BBC News 24 immediately made its impact in a world where constant-access to the news was becoming necessary to keep the public informed. BBC Radio also expanded itself to BBC Radio 5, which also covered news, opinion, and sports in 1994. 1997 saw the advent of the BBC’s website, bbc.co.uk, and the corporation provided its first digital channel the next year with BBC Choice. Choice not only offered news and information on demand but also played host to many “behind the scenes” shows that let audiences in on how they’re favorite programmes were made. This station became BBC Three in 2003, airing more innovative programmes such as “The Mighty Boosh” and “Being Human” until it was finally closed in 2016, becoming a web-only service.
As the British government instituted a devolution of its powers at the beginning of the millennium to national assemblies in Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland, so the BBC split off some of its responsibilities to regional branches in Cardiff, Glasgow, and Belfast. This meant that the regional headquarters had more ability to produce their own programmes not only for local audiences but for national consumption as well. This was perhaps best exemplified by the revival of “Doctor Who” in 2005, which was produced and largely filmed at BBC Broadcasting House Cardiff. Meanwhile, much of the original drama and comedy production moved to Broadcasting House Belfast and much of the national television production, including many beloved panel shows, started to be done out of BBC Pacific Quay, which opened in 2007. BBC North also gained expansive responsibilities in the mid-2000s at New Broadcasting House in Manchester. Other regions under the corporation purview include BBC West, BBC North West, and BBC Yorkshire, amongst others.
The digital frontier was even more firmly embraced come the 2000s as iPlayer was launched so that anyone could view BBC programmes on the computers and electronic devices, that way they wouldn’t miss a moment of the revived “Strictly Come Dancing.” The “Red Button” was introduced the next year that permitted viewers to get more information on the programme they were watching, answer quiz questions, and interact with their shows in an all-new way. All these innovations were put to use in 2012 for the Summer Olympic Games in London and part of the revamping of Broadcasting House, which underwent a major renovation from 2003 to 2013. The new wings and renovations brought everything under one roof after Television Centre had closed in 2012. One of the best programmes that really shows off the revamped Broadcasting Centre is “W1A”, which features Hugh Bonneville as the new Head of Values, tasked with promoting the core purpose of the BBC while constantly flummoxed by his subordinates.
In 2016, another chapter in the ongoing saga between the BBC and the Conservative Party began as the corporation’s charter was due to be renewed. The BBC’s Royal Charter only lasts for ten years, thus requiring it to be renewed periodically, which naturally has a tendency towards some executive meddling by Her Majesty’s government. When the charter came up for renewal most recently, some ministers desired to move the corporation away from reliance on the government, while others wanted more monitoring of the BBC’s programming and approval of the charter by both the Lords and the Commons. The approved charter, while championing diversity in programming and presenters that should please regional audiences, has also been criticized for allowing communications regulator Ofcom to have more say over how the news is presented. The new charter also closed the loophole that let people watch BBC programmes through iPlayer without a television license and a “unitary board” replacing the BBC Trust as the governing body of the corporation. In a further attempt to privatize the BBC’s production, the charter permits private companies to have the opportunity to produce BBC programmes, taking some of the shows out of the house. In one good move, the new charter will last for eleven years instead of ten to make it less likely that it will become a political football for parties to use in election years.
Even as the new charter changes the workings of broadcasting, the BBC continues on its purpose, established by John Reith at the corporation’s outset, to: “Inform, educate, and entertain.” Since its creation in 1932, the BBC has sought to excel in all three areas amidst vesting improving technology and increasing competition. Today, it continues to give audiences the very best in programming with “BBC News,” “Doctor Who,” “EastEnders,” “QI,” and more. Joining forces with ITV to create Britbox, the BBC ensures that its reach continues not only across the United Kingdom but the whole world. Always embracing new technology and methods to meet its core mission, one can only imagine how the BBC will evolve to meet the needs of the future amidst its new charter.