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‘When They Have Their Cup of Tea’: Making Programmes for Women

In January 1938 Elise Sprott, the BBC’s Women’s Press Representative, gave a lecture to an international audience on ‘Planning Broadcasts for Women in Great Britain’.[1] Here she spoke about the regular talks on cookery, child welfare, fashion and politics that were aired each week. However, she chose not to reveal that at one time she had herself been a producer of women’s programmes. Four women in succession, Ella Fitzgerald (1923-1926), Elise Sprott (1926-1931), Margery Wace (1930-1936) and Janet Quigley (1936-1945), would have responsibility for the BBC’s ‘talks aimed at women’ in the interwar years.[2] Hilda Matheson, during her tenure as Talks Director (1927-1932), would significantly develop and enhance the output, producing many of the talks herself. This chapter is about these five women and how their perception of what the BBC’s female audience might want, coupled with their own interests and temperaments, would influence and shape the programmes they made.

Talks were a mainstay of the BBC schedules in the interwar years. Because production technologies were so rudimentary, a scripted and rehearsed ‘live’ broadcast was the cheapest and most straightforward way to deliver the spoken word. Florence Roberts had delivered the first talk aimed at women when she spoke on ‘The Trends of Fashion’ on 3 March 1923. Two months later, Women’s Hour (not to be confused with the current Woman’s Hour) was introduced. With the vast majority of married women based in the home, the fledgling BBC had quickly become aware of this captive daytime audience. Indeed, as Maggie Andrews has argued, the domestic setting of wireless and its association with the female sphere shaped a feminised form of address.[3] Although short-lived, Women’s Hour would identify many of the conundrums that would beset the BBC’s women’s output into the 1920s and beyond. Should the talks be primarily domestic, or should they be a means of ‘brightening their leisure hours’ taking women outside the home?[4] Who was the woman listener? What time could she most easily listen? Should, actually, talks aimed only at women even exist?

The issue of tone was another challenge for the producers of women’s talks, their audience might be predominantly housewives, but what was their level of education and sophistication? What sort of homes did they inhabit? What income might be assumed? Around 80 per cent of the UK’s population in the interwar years were working-class and it was ultimately this audience that was principally addressed.[5] Yet, the lived experience of these women (which varied considerably) was largely alien to the programme makers themselves, all of whom were middle-class with a metropolitan outlook. The notion of ‘uplift’ dominated the interwar BBC—that middle-class culture and values were the stuff of radio and that this was what predominantly should be broadcast.[6]

The BBC’s programmes for women exemplified its public service ethos. They were largely intended to inform and enrich women’s lives, tapping into the enthusiasm for self-improvement and adult education that marked the interwar years. Whereas popular culture in terms of novels and the cinema might construct a dream world of wealthy Americans, rags-to- riches celebrities, Eastern sheiks and house parties, talks aimed at women on the BBC were either practical or edifying; there was little in the way of fantasy or frivolous entertainment. In the USA, where commercial radio was driven by consumerism, the most popular daytime fare for female audiences was the soap opera.[7] The daily instalment of a gripping family- based drama ensured US women were hooked on sponsored programmes. From the mid-1930s, British audiences also had a new listening choice with the advent of continental-based commercial radio and during 1938 and 1939, for example, Radio Luxembourg and Radio Normandy broadcast English remakes of American soaps in the afternoons.[8] But despite this competition, the BBC continued to attract a large and growing female daytime listenership and, throughout the interwar years, there was determination that they should be well served.

  • [1] The lecture, organised by the Associated Country Women of the World, was laterincluded in a book. Elise Sprott, ‘Planning Broadcasts for Women in Great Britain’ inInstitute for Education by Radio (1938) Education on the Air (Columbus, OH: Ohio StateUniversity Press). My thanks to Michele Hilmes for sending me a copy of the article.
  • [2] Women’s talks were occasionally produced by male Talks Assistants, for instance GeorgeLuker.
  • [3] Maggie Andrews (2012) Domesticating the Airwaves: Broadcasting, Domesticity andFemininity (London: Continuum) pp. 3-7. See also, Kate Lacey (2013) Listening Publics:The Politics of Listening in the Media Age (Cambridge: Polity) pp. 113-26.
  • [4] Radio Times, 17 October 1924.
  • [5] Ross McKibbin (1998) Classes and Cultures: England 1918—1951 (Oxford: OxfordUniversity Press) p. 106.
  • [6] See for example David Hendy (2013) Public Service Broadcasting (Basingstoke: PalgraveMacmillan) pp. 7, 58-9.
  • [7] Michele Hilmes (1997) Radio Voices: American Broadcasting, 1922-1952 (Minneapolis:University of Minnesota Press) pp. 154-75.
  • [8] Sean Street (2006) Crossing the Ether: British Public Radio and Commercial Competition1922-1945 (Eastleigh: John Libby) p. 249.
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