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‘You Feel Their Personal Touch’: Women Broadcasters

To listen to some of the women who have broadcast is to forget immediate limitations ... it seems, as you sit listening, that what is spoken into the transmitting microphone is a message sent specially to you. The millions of other hearers are forgotten. The voice just whispers to you. It is a little tete- a-tete in the company of the great.[1]

This extract from ‘What Women Listeners Gain’, a 1926 Radio Times article by Lady Alexander, evokes an essential quality of radio, its intimacy.[2] The ‘private’ way in which wireless was consumed in the home, in the parlour, in the living room, in the kitchen, raised many issues about how the audience should be addressed.[3] At first the significant difference between radio and public speaking and the written word was not fully appreciated by the BBC. ‘Anyone who sounded as if they had done something colourful in their lives’ was plucked from Who’s Who and given ‘almost unrestricted freedom of the ether’.[4] But gradually it was realised that to be successful at the microphone required not only an engaging topic and a certain level of authority but also an understanding of the personal nature of the medium, the knack of an appropriate script and the facility to deliver it convincingly. Women would form an important part of this pool of adept speakers. However, issues about their voice and questions about when, and on what, it was acceptable for them to talk would create tensions both for the women themselves and for the programme makers who worked with them.

Mary Somerville, newly recruited to the BBC, is credited as the first person to have requested changes to a script and insisted on a rehearsal.[5] This was in December 1925 for which Somerville was berated for impertinence by her manager J.C. Stobart (the broadcaster in question was the ‘distinguished Professor of Literature’, Oliver Elton). Hilda Matheson as Talks Director streamlined the process creating the leaflet ‘Broadcast Talks and Lectures: Suggestions to Speakers’ in December 1927.[6] Here, both ‘The Manuscript’ and ‘The Voice’ were considered, with advice to speak slowly and to avoid monotony; to write as you would talk to a friend; to refrain from using long sentences and difficult words; to grab with the opening phrase an audience of ‘every kind of mentality and every degree of education’ and above all, not to declaim. ‘The note of intimacy, as in conversation with a friend, is the note to adopt’, the leaflet stressed. To be a broadcaster in the interwar years required not only the ability to speak appropriately but also, for the BBC, the certainty that the individual would not offend, that what they said was accurate and true (or was clearly their opinion) and that they were tasteful and respectful in their manner.

It was Matheson who changed the culture of broadcasting at the BBC, enticing the nation’s political, cultural and social grandees to Savoy Hill. Many were women and her tenure as Talks Director was a comparatively rich one for female broadcasters, as this chapter will show. Thousands of women would come before the microphone in the interwar years and while this was predominantly in the daytime—on School Broadcasts, on Children’s Hour and on the output aimed at women—they were also a small but influential presence in the evening schedules. Most of those who spoke on the radio did so just once or perhaps occasionally; it was only those who were invited to Savoy Hill and Broadcasting House on a regular basis who gained the title ‘broadcaster’, a new career created by the BBC. Their recognition was reliant not simply on their ability to write a strong script and to engage the audience but was also dependent on their ‘expertise’ as well as on the relationship they developed with their producer, as a focus on four women—Marion Cran, Ray Strachey, Beatrice Webb and Edna Thorpe—will reveal. Cran’s garden expertise, Strachey’s wide-ranging cultural experiences, Webb’s status as a pre-eminent social scientist and Thorpe’s ‘ordinariness’ as a housewife gave each woman a particular authority to speak. The voice that personified the BBC in the interwar years was that of the announcer, and also that of the eye-witness commentator, roles held almost exclusively by men. Two women, however, would make their mark in these areas: Sheila Borrett who became infamous for her failure and Olga Collett who became famous for her success as this chapter will show.

  • [1] Radio Times, 1 January 1926.
  • [2] See, for example, Martin Shingler and Cindy Wieringa (1998) On Air: Methods andMeanings of Radio (London: Arnold); David Hendy (2000) Radio in the Global Age(Cambridge: Polity Press); Hugh Chignell (2009) Key Concepts in Radio Studies (London:Page).
  • [3] See, for example, Maggie Andrews (2012) Domesticating the Airwaves: Broadcasting,Domesticity and Femininity (London: Continuum) pp. 3-26.
  • [4] Ralph Wade (undated) Early Life at the BBC (Unpublished memoir) p. 3. Wade was thefirst Programme Assistant employed by the BBC, joining a few days before Ella Fitzgerald.
  • [5] Mary Somerville’s BBC Swansong, Governors Dinner, 20 December 1955.
  • [6] BBC/WAC:R13/419/1: Talks Department, ‘Broadcast Talks and Lectures: Suggestionsto Speakers’, 22 December 1927.
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