Desktop version

Home arrow History arrow Behind the Wireless: A History of Early Women at the BBC

Margery Wace, ‘At Home Today’

Twenty-five-year-old Margery Wace was Matheson’s perfect appointee. Not only was she Oxbridge educated but, prior to her arrival at the BBC, she had been secretary to the Oxford branch of the League of Nations and to the classicist and internationalist, Professor Gilbert Murray. Unlike cheerful Miss Sprott who could be unsophisticated in her dealings with contributors, Miss Wace was earnest and politically astute. For the first 18 months she worked alongside Matheson, who retained her interest in women’s talks. However, after Matheson left the BBC in early 1932, Charles Siepmann, the new Director of Talks, handed over responsibility for Morning Talks to Wace, reporting the following year that they were ‘developing rapidly into a service for women-in-the-home of great social importance’.[1]

Now sanctioned to impart her own vision, she refocused on the domestic in a manner she believed would both empower women and benefit wider society. Writing in Radio Times in 1935, Wace stressed her conviction that the mother in the home was crucial to social cohesion:

The nation’s health, both physical and mental, is in the housewife’s hands. By her skill and knowledge she must often make a very small sum provide adequate food; by sharing her family’s interests, and by keeping her mind alert, she must provide a happy atmosphere in the home. We want to help her.[2]

The series in which this new conviction and approach can first be seen is A Doctor to a Mother broadcast from October 1932. Writing to Siepmann earlier that year Wace had suggested new arrangements for the child welfare talks which were ‘potentially among the most important ... capable, in time, of a real and lasting effect on the nation’s health’.88 Wace insisted that, because of this, not only should the most authoritative material be obtained but also the best speakers. She urged a change in the way they were chosen maintaining that, rather than depending on doctors in administrative positions, GPs should be used as not only did they have personal experience with child patients, but also used less jargon. The BBC had a ‘better chance of being of value and help in these troubled times’, she insisted, if it were free ‘to approach the people who are doing work amongst children, and choose from them the best broadcasters’. The first talk of the series, ‘Before Birth’, given by an obstetric physician, tackled the worrying issue of maternal mortality which had remained stationary even though infant mortality had dropped.89 In its billing Radio Times explained how ‘It is hoped to improve this serious state of affairs, revealed by a recent Ministry of Health Report, by broadcasting the latest and best specialist information.9 0 A Doctor to a Mother was soon augmented by other Friday morning series on child and maternal health such as Common Sense and the Child and The Mother’s Health?1

In planning these programmes, Wace showed meticulous care. For example, in January 1934, for a series on the health of the school child, she wrote to the Matron-in-Chief of the London County Council requesting a meeting to discuss the problems facing school nurses.92 Wace wanted her child welfare talks to tackle difficult issues such as stammering, shyness and obstinacy as well as more established subjects such as baby care. Her aim was to suggest to mothers how to build up healthy, happy children.93 The Friday morning talks by doctors continued up until the Second World War. Hilda Jennings and Winifred Gill, in their 1939 report on listening habits in Bristol, made specific reference to them, believing they had a positive effect on the working-class housewives who listened.94 [3] [4] [5] [6] [7] [8] [9]

Wace’s greatest innovation was to bring the voice of the housewife to the BBC. To hear ‘real’ people on air was not brand new. Since 1933, the variety show In Town Tonight had been presenting ‘characters’ (as had Women’s Hour ten years’ earlier) but in the context of Talks it was exceedingly unusual. In April 1934, the Talks Department, after receiving mixed reviews for two series on unemployment, had taken what was considered to be the brave step of inviting people who were out of work to come before the microphone.9 5 The use of individuals with actual experience was an approach adopted to great effect by Wace, beginning with her series How I Keep House in which housewives themselves spoke about their domestic routine.96 The programme was significantly different to previous Morning Talks series, such as Planning a Household Budget, which relied on the expert voice. In September 1934, Radio Pictorial ran an article headlined ‘The Housewife’s Friend’ in which they wrote excitedly about Wace’s journey around the country to meet potential contributors, ‘So far, her search has taken her to Norfolk to see a farm worker’s wife, to Scotland to visit a fisherman’s and to Reigate to visit a policeman’s home’.97 The series was also enthusiastically previewed in Radio Times.98

To find her contributors, Margery Wace had indeed been conscientious, approaching organisations as diverse as the Amalgamated Union of Building Trade Workers and the Ministry of Agriculture. Writing to the General Secretary of the National Union of Railwaymen, Wace indicated that, in order to fit the series, the railwayman’s wife she was seeking should have young children, family earnings of not more than ?2 a week and the reputation of being a good housewife.99 The notes sent to potential speakers show the very specific and personal nature of the talks, with the women being asked to portray the intricacies of their family setup, the lay out of their flat or house and the amenities available to them. They were also to describe exactly what they spent their housekeeping on as well as the daily routine of their lives: what time they got up; how they approached the tasks of washing, ironing and sewing; where they shopped; how the arrangements for their children were made. Wace personally met all the contributors beforehand in their own homes, to assess [10] [11] [12] [13] [14]

their suitability. This was important because, by definition, a working-class housewife would not be used to public speaking. Wace also oversaw their scripts and before each broadcast (which was live) the individual woman was extensively rehearsed. In her analysis of How I Keep House, Maggie Andrews suggests that through these broadcasts the women were given, momentarily, a national voice, their experience of domesticity the one that was defining.100 Undoubtedly to allow ordinary women to broadcast, rather than experts, was a bold departure for the BBC and the series appears to have been well received. A congratulatory letter from a Scottish miner’s wife, for instance, recounted that, despite running a home for nearly 19 years, the talks had taught her many useful hints.101

Using ‘real’ people as contributors was to become a characteristic of Wace’s programmes, valuing the ordinary person’s point of view as well as that of the expert. Things I Remember broadcast from September 1934 and Would You Change? from January 1935 were predicated on the memories and stories of women—and men—such as a kitchen maid from the 1880s, a window cleaner and an African Settler’s Wife. Reflecting on the success of these programmes, Wace surmised it was because they had important psychological value for the listener. It made them feel that broadcasters ‘were not only restricted to Prime Ministers and people of newspaper fame, but they themselves are also contributing to the pro- grammes’.102 Her championing of broadcasters such as Mrs Edna Thorpe, as Chapter 8 will show, was part of this innovative approach.

It was reflected also in a further development to the morning schedules in Autumn 1934, the introduction of At Home Today. Wace was keen to try something ‘fresher’ than the ‘good works’ that were characteristic of Morning Talks.103 At Home Today was the BBC’s first magazine-style programme, incorporating four short, diverse talks from both professional and amateur speakers; a new attempt to circumvent the constant dilemma of how to appeal to the breadth of audience. Topical with ‘an element of surprise’, was how the Radio Times billed the new programme, claiming that it would exclude ‘nothing as inappropriate’. 1 04 An enthusiastic [15] [16] [17] [18] [19]

reviewer in Radio Pictorial described how, in 20 minutes, they had heard ‘the head of the Women’s Police at Scotland Yard, a Spanish journalist, an ironmonger and an announcer reading an extract from [the Chief Medical Officer] Sir George Newman’s report’.[20] The informal style of the programme may have contributed to its success. At Home Today was broadcast every Thursday until 1942.

One audience Wace believed was neglected when it came to the domestic was professional working women, and men, who could not listen in the mornings. In September 1935 she suggested a series of early evening talks, aimed unashamedly at the middle class, which could include more elaborate cookery recipes as well as tackling subjects such as house decorations, planning a labour-saving kitchen and choosing a prep school.[21] Mainly Indoors was given the go-ahead and from January 1936 the 12 talks, broadcast at 6.50 pm, included a varied mix of topics such as Children’s Pets, Legal Problems of the Householder, Salads and Sandwiches from America, Understanding the Cars Complaints and a discussion on the One Maid Problem. The series appears not to have been a success, as it was not recommissioned, but it does indicate Wace’s commitment to enhancing the domestic agenda regardless of the social status, or gender, of the listener.

In the spring of 1936, Margery Wace, along with Elise Sprott, organised the BBC Women’s Conference, convened for ‘an exchange of views on the subject of the BBC’s Morning Talks’.[22] [23] [24] This was a major undertaking for the BBC, the first time it had ever arranged to meet with its listeners face to face. 1 08 Hosted by Sir Stephen Tallents, the newly appointed Controller of Public Relations, the Conference on 24 April 1936 was attended by almost 400 women representing more than 60 different organisations that included the Six Point Group, the Central Committee on Women’s Training and Employment, the Mother’s Union, the Women’s Co-operative Guild and the Over Thirty Association. Twenty-six county federations of the NFWI were also present as were a number of eminent individuals. 1 09 Mary Agnes Hamilton and Lady

Caroline Bridgeman, the BBC’s two female Governors, opened the proceedings which were also attended by senior executives from the Talks Department, as well as by Reith.[25]

The Conference, which was positively reviewed in the press, posed five questions: the timing of Morning Talks and whether there was a more suitable hour; whether the cookery and child welfare talks were of value; whether listeners liked regular talks on current affairs, in particular The Week in Westminster; whether there was a woman’s point of view on subjects such as books and music and, if so, what approach was suggested and how the attending organisations might encourage their members to make more use of the talks. The timing of Morning Talb took up the greater part of the discussions, emphasising the differences and complexities of women’s daily routines and demonstrating the insolubility of the conundrum of finding a period in the day that would suit everyone. When Sir Stephen Tallents, as chairman, asked for a show of hands, the audience were almost equally divided between 10.45 am and 2.00 pm.

Cookery and child welfare were affirmed as topics of interest and The Week in Westminster was also widely enjoyed, nevertheless almost every delegate pinpointed an improvement to the talks be it regional rather than London prices for ingredients, closer ties with welfare centres or a desire for speakers on local, as well as national, government. The discussion on ‘Books and Music’ also drew no consensus on ‘a woman’s point of view’, instead broad issues were raised such as the listening needs of business women and a desire for talks on fashion and beauty culture that would interest the younger generation. Introducing the final session, Caroline Haslett, Secretary of the Electrical Association for Women, implored the BBC to continue the dialogue with women’s groups that the Conference had instigated. In her closing remarks, Margery Wace made clear that a number of the suggestions had already been adopted by the BBC, a point emphasised by an exasperated Elise Sprott in the 1938 lecture which opened this chapter. Sprott acknowledged being startled to discover ‘how little these good ladies ... knew about what was already being broadcast’.[26] BBC executives were undoubtedly delighted with the Conference, reporting to the Board of Governors that it had been ‘definitely a success’. But while it highlighted the Corporation’s commitment to women’s programmes, there is little to indicate that many of the propositions put forward were formally taken up. Rather, the Conference underlined the impossibility of pleasing the diaspora of women who had vastly differing routines, habits and tastes.

The Women’s Conference was one of Wace’s last roles in the Talks Department. In August 1936 she was moved to the Empire Service, as Empire Talks Organiser, and was promoted to Empire Talks Director in

1941. Margery Wace died in 1944. She had married a BBC colleague, Ormond Wilson, in 1940; their daughter was born in 1942. Following the birth of a second daughter (who was stillborn) in 1944, she became mortally ill and died shortly afterwards.[27] The BBC Tear Book included an obituary to her in which it emphasised how ‘she [ensured] that in every broadcast talk for which she was responsible whether the speaker was great in reputation of a humble unknown, the virtue of the microphone should be exploited to the utmost’.

  • [1] BBC/WAC:R13/419/2: Talks Department, Siepmann to Dawnay, 9 September 1933.
  • [2] Radio Times, 1 November 1935.
  • [3] BBC/WAC:R51/75: Talks: Child Welfare, Wace to Siepmann, 26 January 1932.
  • [4] Maternal mortality remained a worrying issue throughout the interwar years. See Lewis,The Politics of Motherhood, pp. 35-50, 121-5.
  • [5] Radio Times, 7 October 1932.
  • [6] Michael Bailey suggests these talks accorded women a new role as medical auxiliaries.Bailey, Angel in the Ether, p. 58.
  • [7] BBC/WAC:R13/419/2: Child Welfare Talks, Wace to Matron-in-Chief, County Hall,30 January 1934.
  • [8] HT, Wace to Quigley, 7 April 1932.
  • [9] Hilda Jennings and Winifred Gill (1939) Broadcasting in Everyday Life: A Survey of theSocial Effects of the Coming of Broadcasting (London: BBC) p. 17.
  • [10] See Scannell and Cardiff, A Social History of British Broadcasting, pp. 57-71.
  • [11] See also Andrews, Domesticating the Airwaves, pp. 46-50.
  • [12] Radio Pictorial, 21 September 1934.
  • [13] Radio Times, 17 August 1934.
  • [14] BBC/WAC:R51/240: Housekeeping, Wace to Marchback, 30 October 1934.
  • [15] Andrews, Domesticating the Airwaves, pp. 48-9.
  • [16] BBC/WAC:R51/240, Letter from Mrs M Henry, 5 October 1934.
  • [17] BBB/WAC/R51/9/1: Adolescent Talks/Young Ideas, Wace to Siepmann, 22 March1935.
  • [18] BBC/WAC:LE(E)1b: Mrs Ray Strachey Lectures: 1b, Wace to Siepmann, 20 September1933.
  • [19] Radio Times, 6 September 1934.
  • [20] Radio Pictorial, 4 January 1935.
  • [21] HT, Wace to Rose Troup, 18 September 1935.
  • [22] BBC/WAC:R44/86/1: Women’s Conference 1936.
  • [23] In 1937 a similar event was staged for farmers who, like women, were identified as adiscrete audience for whom specialist programmes should be made.
  • [24] The Conference Report stated that 397 women attended the morning session, 375attended in the afternoon. In addition were special guests, press representatives and staff.
  • [25] Reith apparently sat with his head in his hands for much of the time. Andrews,Domesticating the Airwaves, p. 51.
  • [26] Sprott, ‘Planning Broadcasts for Women’.
  • [27] The Times, 14 January 1944. Wace was awarded an OBE for services to broadcasting in 1942.
 
Source
< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >

Related topics