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School Broadcaster

Rhoda Power is acknowledged as one of the outstanding talents of School Broadcasting. From her initial talk on ‘Boys and Girls of the Middle Ages’ in September 1927 she displayed an extraordinary gift for storytelling and the knack of bringing ‘History’ alive. Prior to the Second World War she was the most widely used daytime speaker on the BBC. She delivered more than 400 talks for the Schools Department and she continued to work with the department both broadcasting and later, writing scripts for broadcasting, until her death in 1957. Although not an academic historian, prior to her arrival at the BBC she had written several history books for children with her sister Eileen Power, Professor of Economic History at the LSE.[1] These provided much of the source material for her early history talks. However, Power’s broadcasting career had actually begun in January 1927 when she presented a series of afternoon talks for Hilda Matheson. At some point that year, Mary Somerville approached Power about broadcasting for schools. Like all those who gave talks on the BBC, this was to be on a contract basis but Power’s unique association with the Schools Department would ultimately see her become an established member of staff.[2]

Without doubt, Power’s writing and presentation style were ‘vivid’.[3] At first her talks were straight reads with ‘one eye on the clock’ to ensure she finished exactly on time.[4] From February 1928 dialogue, sounds and music were added to conjure up the atmosphere of the times. The ‘eureka’ moment was a broadcast about the Elizabethan Lord Mayor of London,

Edward Osborne. At the rehearsal, as Power described the crowds crossing London Bridge ‘the hubbub, the jostling, the singing’, her producer George Dixon suggested the songs be sung, approaching and receding from the microphone to create a sense of realness.[5] By 1931, these sound- scapes had developed into full-blown ‘dramatic interludes’ using actors (and staff members) to recreate historical scenes. As well as expansive series on British history, Power also conceived original talks on mythology and legends. From 1929 ‘Stories for Younger Pupils’ were added to her repertoire and in September 1931, she broadcast her first ‘World History’ talk.[6] From 1933, these would be presented in collaboration with her sister: Eileen Power was contracted to deliver the ‘straight’ talk which alternated with a corresponding ‘dramatic interlude’ from Rhoda.

Power’s output was staggering, on many occasions she presented two talks consecutively, with just a five-minute break in between. In February 1935, Radio Times included a ‘message to schools’ in which she outlined that her part at the microphone was ‘to try to make the history in these lessons come to life’. The pupils’ part at the loudspeaker was ‘not only to listen, but to try to see with your ears’. In this way history, Power explained, ‘instead of being the “dry bones of the past”, has become a living thing’ revealing her deep understanding of the empathic nature of radio.[7] However, the ‘interlude’ technique she pioneered was to prove problematic. As she explained to Mary Somerville in May 1936, whereas the straight lesson (fee: six guineas) and the story for younger children (fee: two guineas) was material that could be turned into books, the ‘interludes’ (fee: nine guineas), whether illustrated lessons or dramatisations were ‘so radiogenic’ they could not be used for any other purpose.[8] With her earnings from the BBC no longer sufficient she asked to be employed on a more solid basis and from July 1937 she was engaged on a fixed programme contract by the Schools Department, her salary estimated at ?600 a year.[9]

Power was probably the only individual in the interwar years for whom broadcasting became their primary occupation. She was passionate about her educational work and it was acknowledged that she undersold herself in order to ensure a constant flow of BBC work. For Somerville, Power’s was the ‘most outstanding contribution’ to the Department’s programmes for elementary schools, going far beyond what was usually required of broadcasters, not only scriptwriting and delivering her talks, but planning, researching, teaching and editing them too.[10]

  • [1] For example, Boys and Girls of History; Twenty Centuries of Travel: A Simple Survey ofBritish History and Cities and their Stories: An Introduction to the Study of European Historywere all published between 1926 and 1927.
  • [2] This had severe repercussions later for her pension.
  • [3] Radio Times, 16 January 1928.
  • [4] BBC Year Book, 1950.
  • [5] ‘Faith, Hope and Clarity’, broadcast on 4 April 1934.
  • [6] Radio Times, 28 September 1931.
  • [7] Radio Times, 6 February 1935.
  • [8] BBC/WAC:R94/2,962: Rhoda Power Talks File 1 (hereafter RPF:1), Power to Somerville,30 May 1936.
  • [9] юз RPF:1, Cruttwell to Somerville, 16 July 1937.
  • [10] Rhoda Power Talks File 2, Somerville to Mallon, 16 March 1943.
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