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Being a Woman Broadcaster on the BBC

Lionel Fielden, who joined the BBC as a Talks Assistant in 1927 (and who was viewed as a progressive) made the stark claim that women were ‘almost never good broadcasters’ declaring ‘I don’t know why this should be, but it is a fact’.[1] Fielden acknowledged that famous women were not neglected by the BBC but in the area of Talks he asserted, ‘you can reel off lists of men who have been, or who are, stars of the microphone: but you will have a job to find any women who equal them’. And, with the most popular voices quickly established as regulars, it is the likes of Sir Walford Davies, S.P.B. Mais, Commander Stephen King-Hall, Desmond MacCarthy, A.J. Alan, John Hilton, C.H. Middleton and Harold Nicolson who are best remembered, and who made their mark in the evening schedules of the BBC.

The BBC always prized its evening talks most highly because not only was the audience large but this was when men predominantly listened. Alongside lighter and more general talks, this was where the big social and political issues of the day were vented, always under intense scrutiny from politicians, notables and the press.[2] Unsurprisingly, it was male broadcasters who dominated these talks. Most required authority and expertise and it was men who held the vast majority of Britain’s senior positions. In addition, most BBC’s Talks Assistants were male and when drawing on personal networks to find speakers, they tended to choose men. There were some notable exceptions. For example in March 1929 the economist Barbara Wootton presented the series ‘Some Modern Utopias’ while the industrialist and newspaper editor Viscountess Rhondda was invited to speak as part of the ‘Wither Britain’ series in 1934 alongside such luminaries as Churchill, Ernest Bevin, George Bernard Shaw and Lloyd George.9

As early as 1924, Reith had made clear his view that ‘a man should be of pre-eminent and recognised position if he is to speak to the whole country’.10 The BBC’s mission to improve the nation—‘uplift’ as it was frequently referred to—entailed the presentation of middle-class cultural values as well as a middle-class voice. As LeMahieu has pointed out, the individuals of social standing or intellectual eminence who were invited to the microphone were perhaps more important for who they were than what they said.11 It was largely Matheson’s ability to persuade the cultural and political elites of the virtues of broadcasting that cemented her position of eminence at the BBC. Her daytime programming also made wide use of high-powered and expert women who imparted the cream of their knowledge and experience into the home. The notion that authority might lie in experience as well as expertise was gradually appreciated by the BBC. The use of the ‘plain man’ (‘or plain woman!’ as Matheson declared) was first considered in 1929.12 By the mid-1930s, Margery Wace was taking great pains to find ordinary women to take part in her Morning Talks and Olive Shapley also pioneered social documentaries that, for example, included miners’ wives.13 Almost without exception, however, those who

United Kingdom Vol. 1 (London: Oxford University Press) pp. 253-75; Asa Briggs (1965) The Golden Age of Wireless: The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom, Vol. 2 (London: Oxford University Press) pp. 124-60.

  • 9 Lady Rhondda complained about the lack of women broadcasters in the 1930s. Angela V. John (2013) Turning the Tide: The Life of Lady Rhondda (Cardigan: Parthian) p. 525.
  • 10 John Reith (1924) Broadcast over Britain (London: Hodder and Stoughton) p. 148.
  • 11 D.L. LeMahieu (1988) A Culture for Democracy: Mass Communications and the Cultivated Mind in Britain between the Wars (Oxford: Oxford University Press) pp. 182-3.
  • 12 BBC/WAC:R51/118:1a: Talks: Debates and Discussions 1926-36, Matheson to Eckersley, 20 August 1929.
  • 13 Olive Shapley (1996) Broadcasting: A Life (London: Scarlet Press) p. 53.

gave regular talks on the BBC had Received Pronunciation. In 1926, the BBC established its Advisory Committee on the Spoken Word with an expert in phonetics as its chair. The BBC’s potentially important role in the standardisation of speech meant that the norm agreed on was ‘educated English’ and the predominant voice would be that of the Southern English middle and upper class.[3]

The quality of a woman’s voice could, however, be viewed as problematic, one of the supposed difficulties being pitch. Speaking at a conference in January 1938, the BBC’s Women’s Press Representative, Elise Sprott delivered the ‘sad truth’ that women’s voices ‘on the whole are not awfully good over the microphone’. The reason, she explained, was the vibration of the voice, ‘the soprano voice does not broadcast very well, and unfortunately most women are soprano’.[4] Matheson was also aware of this practical problem, observing in 1933 that it was ‘true that most women’s voices do not yet transmit as well as men’s with their lower register’.[5] A letter to Radio Times in 1939 berated the BBC for not giving women broadcasters a fair hearing, the present microphone built on the experience of men. ‘Engineers, give the women a microphone that will respond to the lighter and more rapid vibrations of their voices’ the writer implored, ‘and we shall find what they have to say interesting and instructive’.[6] Whether microphone technology in the late 1930s was still causing issues is a debatable point, but it was seen to be an issue.

While there were evidently troubles with the ‘mike’, the character of a woman’s voice could also cause concern. An article in Radio Pictorial in April 1937 took women to task for sounding ‘swanky and condescending’.[7] Filson Young, the BBC’s official programme advisor, was also critical of women broadcasters who ‘seem to err on the side of over-assertiveness’.[8] An exasperated letter-writer to Radio Times in 1932 pinpointed two women broadcasters for particular opprobrium: ‘one had what I should call a serpent complex, and the other is surely a reincarnated buccaneer’.[9] BBC Talks Assistants, both male and female, were often dissatisfied with the performance of the women they enticed to broadcast. The novelists Rose Macaulay and E. Arnot Robinson were ‘extremely disappointing’; the journalist Vera Brittain ‘weak and ineffective’, although dissatisfaction was also extended to men.[10]

Yet dozens of women broadcasters did gain approval from the listening public. Vita Sackville-West, Maude Royden, E.M. Delafield, Mary Bagot Stack and Ann Driver (the creator of Music and Movement) are just a few who were praised in letters to Radio Times. Olga Collett, the BBC’s first woman Outside Commentator, was also held up for acclaim, as will be explored. Mary Agnes Hamilton, another popular speaker who broadcast regularly on books, politics and current affairs, took umbrage with those who did not like women’s voices. In her forward to the Radio Times ‘Women’s Broadcasting Number’ in November 1934, she felt confident that this would soon change, citing the ‘sound sense’ of Lady Reading, Professor Winifred Cullis and Eileen Power.[11]

The experience of broadcasting changed as wireless and studio technology advanced and production methods matured. Looking back on her appearances at Savoy Hill in the mid-1920s, Elise Sprott conjured up an era when the microphone was hung on a moveable stand ‘neatly covered with a blue or pink shade’ and when ‘comfortable chairs and desks were still things of the future’. She had stood to broadcast, allowing ‘each leaf of the script to flutter gently to the ground’.[12] Lady Cynthia Asquith was less relaxed, ‘My Ordeal at the Microphone: How it Feels to Broadcast’ was how Radio Times headlined an article by her in November 1924.[13] Here she recalled the trepidation of walking down Savoy Hill, the lozenge swallowed too hastily in the lift, the arrival in the ‘torture chamber’ of the vast studio where she was asked to sit and wait her turn. Finally summoned to the microphone, she tried desperately to remember the guidance given as to the speed she should read her script, fearful that if this should be either too fast or too slow, the schedule would be thrown into disarray.

Fortunately she managed her ten-minute allocation exactly before she was politely thanked and directed out into the street.

Cynthia Asquith’s fee is not recorded but the usual fee for an evening talk was ten guineas. Daytime speakers were paid less (five guineas for a standard talk, two to three guineas for a short talk in At Home Today) although individual rates were sometimes agreed. The MP Margaret Bondfield, for example, agreed a sum of eight guineas for an afternoon talk, the contracts executive certain that she would appreciate that the BBC ‘were unable to offer fees for talks in the afternoon as high as those for talks in the evening’.[14] [15] From 1929, The Listener included edited versions of talks for which broadcasters were paid an extra fee, although only occasionally were these selected from the daytime output. Matheson, who that year arranged for her lover Vita Sackville-West to take over the fortnightly ‘New Novels’ talks from Mary Agnes Hamilton, was brazen about the poor BBC rates, doubting that she could ‘screw more out of the old misers’.2 6 By Vita’s standards, the ?370 a year it was calculated she could earn (which included the reprinting fee for The Listener) may have seemed paltry but it was evidently possible for those who appeared regularly to earn a sizeable sum.[16] In Matheson’s defence, she did believe that Vita would be a superb broadcaster. One woman who was identified very early on as having a gift for enchanting and inspiring the listener was Marion Cran.

  • [1] Lionel Fielden (1960) The Natural Bent (London: Andre Deutsch) p. 111.
  • [2] For impartiality and controversy in Talks see Paddy Scannell and David Cardiff (1991)A Social History of British Broadcasting, 1922-1939 (London: Basil Blackwood) pp. 23-38,153-78; Asa Briggs (1961) The Birth of Broadcasting: The History of Broadcasting in the
  • [3] See Scannell and Cardiff, A Social History of British Broadcasting, pp. 176-7; Mark Pegg(1983) Broadcasting and Society 1918-1939 (London: Croom Helm) pp. 160-2. Hendyargues that Received Pronunciation was viewed as an equalising force, David Hendy (2013)Public Service Broadcasting (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan) p. 24.
  • [4] News Chronicle, 29 January 1938, The Conference was organised by the AssociatedCountry Women of the World.
  • [5] Hilda Matheson (1933) Broadcasting (London: Thornton Butterworth) p. 56.
  • [6] Radio Times, 23 June 1939.
  • [7] Radio Pictorial, 2 April 1937.
  • [8] Radio Times, 16 November 1934, ‘Women’s Broadcasting Number’.
  • [9] Radio Times, 5 February 1932.
  • [10] BBC/WAC:R51/118: 1a, 13 March 1936, Adams to Rose-Troup; Vera Britain Talks,23 August 1940.
  • [11] Radio Times, 16 November 1934.
  • [12] Evening News, 30 June 1936.
  • [13] Radio Times, 21 November 1924.
  • [14] BBC/WAC: Margaret Bondfield Talks:1, Programme Contracts Executive to Bondfield,21 January 1938.
  • [15] Hilda Matheson Letters (hereafter HML), 18 January 1929.
  • [16] HML, 17 February 1929.
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