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Ray Strachey, Daytime All-Rounder

It is not surprising that the feminist campaigner and writer, Ray Strachey, spoke about politics and citizenship in her BBC talks, but she also spoke about books, travel, careers for girls and even construction work.4 1 Her broadcasting career, which spanned 12 years, was launched by Matheson. The two women undoubtedly knew each other as both had been employed as political advisors by Nancy Astor.[1] [2] Matheson first contacted Strachey about the possibility of broadcasting in April 1927 although her first actual talk for the BBC was in December, an evening talk in which she looked back 100 years to ‘The Flapper of 1827’.[3] In January 1928 Strachey chaired the 9.15 pm topical debate on ‘Need We Envy our Grandchildren?’ (Strachey would become a grandmother in 1934) and three months later she gave her first afternoon talk on Southern Italy in the series ‘Holidays Abroad’.

A Woman’s Commentary, broadcast from January 1929, would bring Strachey to far greater prominence. This was a regular series, part of the new look Morning Talks. In October 1928 she and Matheson had lunched together at The Lady Golfers’ Club of which Matheson was a member.[4] [5] It was here that the idea of the ‘purely experimental ... weekly budget of events’ of special interest to women was discussed.4 5 Women aged over 21 had recently been enfranchised and, with a General Election looming, Matheson was keen to introduce more talks on citizenship. The first A Woman’s Commentary was scheduled for 9 January. The arrival of the manuscript only the day before (Strachey had been away in Vienna), caused some consternation as the potentially controversial subject matter—on public affairs—meant it had to be checked through by the Director of Programmes, Roger Eckersley. Strachey described spinning it ‘out of hot air’ and nothing untoward was found.[6]

Strachey, who was paid the standard five guineas for each broadcast, was often self-deprecating about the quality of her talks, referring to them as ‘drivelling’, ‘light and frivolous’ and ‘very harmless’.[7] Matheson however, was delighted, describing the new feature as ‘an excellent one’, with Strachey setting the standard high to produce ‘an absolutely impartial and yet lively commentary’ and one that had found a very appreciative audience.[8] The few surviving scripts (from the 1930s) show them to be both informative and personal. Mrs ‘A.B’, a housewife from Manchester, was patently pleased. In a letter to Radio Times in February 1929, she expressed her thanks to Mrs Oliver Strachey for her recent morning talk. ‘To one, at least’ she wrote, ‘the task of cleaning a kitchen went down a little better whilst listening to the intelligent observations of an intelligent woman’.[9] [10] The success of A Woman’s Commentary gave Matheson the idea of similar talks by women MPs, paving the way for The Week in Parliament which was broadcast from November 1929.

Strachey had been an active member of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS) and wrote, The Cause, a history of the fight for the vote published in 1928. s 0 Millicent Garrett Fawcett, the President of the NUWSS, died the following year and Matheson invited Strachey to broadcast a description of the Memorial Service held at Westminster Abbey.[11] Matheson was always keen to bring elements of culture to her daytime audience and from September 1930, Strachey presented a six-part morning series on ‘Reading for Fun’ which included talks on romantic books, crime and short stories. This was followed by a second series ‘Books about People’ in early 1931 which introduced listeners to the joys of biography. There was to be a final series of A Woman’s Commentary that year after which Strachey’s broadcasts become far more sporadic. Once Matheson was no longer in command, it seems the connection with the Talks Department weakened.

Margery Wace, who assumed responsibility for Morning Talks after Matheson’s departure, was dismissive of Strachey, informing the new Director of Talks Charles Siepmann that although useful for an occasional talk, she was ‘inclined to be rather heavy and monotonous week after week’.[12] Yet Siepmann liked Strachey’s ideas and, aware that she had a strong track record with the Talks Department, arranged to meet her.[13] Although her proposed script on ‘Family Life’ was dismissed, Strachey was invited, in 1934, to broadcast a short series of morning reports about ‘Whitehall’, a subject she knew well.[14] [15] During 1935, she made two broadcasts: an appeal for Open-Air Nurseries as part of The Week’s Good Cause, and a short talk on ‘The Census and Women’s Occupations’ for At Home Today.55 It was Janet Quigley who returned her to prominence and the two women worked closely on Careers for Girls. As Secretary of the Women’s Employment Federation, this was Strachey’s mission, although it took almost two years before the six-part series finally came to fruition in April 1939.[16] Strachey also persuaded Quigley of the merits of a talk on housebuilding. She was then in the process of building, by hand, her Mud House at Fernhurst in Sussex which, as an amateur engineer, she had designed herself.[17] ‘Building a House’ which included descriptions of laying pipes, transporting bricks and fitting windows, was broadcast as a Teatime Talk in December 1937.[18]

It was not only the daytime output aimed at women that Strachey took part in. Quigley made use of her for the evening debate series Men Talking, as we shall see, and she also put her forward as the presenter of a new series in 1938 about the news.[19] Quigley, however, was absent from the meeting at which this was discussed and the idea was scuppered by Wace who reiterated her view that Strachey was too dull.[20] In the event, it was another seasoned broadcaster, Mary Agnes Hamilton, who presented Have You Been Following the News? Strachey was to broadcast once more in 1940, commemorating the twenty-first anniversary of women being granted the vote. Later that year, it was Quigley who informed the Director of Talks, Maconachie, about Strachey’s sudden death on 17 July 1940; she had been due to appear on Calling All Women the next day.[21] It was Hamilton who broadcast an appreciation of her close friend on the programme the following week.

Ray Strachey was an example of a composite broadcaster with an ability to talk eloquently on an assortment of topics. Although largely confined to the daytime schedules, she occasionally appeared in the evening representing ‘the woman’s point of view’. The contrary opinions about Strachey’s voice and abilities reveal the subjective nature of the relationship between broadcaster and producer. Beatrice Webb was treated very differently, her great renown as a leading social scientist confined her talks to the evenings, her voice and suitability never questioned.

  • [1] Radio Times, 20 December 1927.
  • [2] Barbara Caine (2005) Bombay to Bloomsbury: A Biography of the Strachey Family (Oxford:Oxford University Press) pp. 242, 316.
  • [3] BBC/WAC:LE(E)1A: Contributors: Mrs Ray Strachey:1a (hereafter RST:1a), Mathesonto Strachey, 6 April 1927; Radio Times, 20 December 1927.
  • [4] RST:1a, Matheson to Strachey, 8 October 1928.
  • [5] RST:1a, Matheson to Strachey, 23 November 1928.
  • [6] RST:1a, Strachey to Matheson, letter wrongly dated 7 December 1927.
  • [7] RST:1a, March 12 1929, May 21 1929, 27 May 1929.
  • [8] BBC/WAC: RCONT 1: Mrs Ray Strachey, Talks, Matheson to ?, 3 July 1929.
  • [9] Radio Times, 1 February 1929.
  • [10] Caine, Bombay to Bloomsbury, pp. 310-20.
  • [11] Radio Times, 19 December 1929.
  • [12] BBC/WAC:LE(E)1b: Contributors: Mrs Ray Strachey:1b (hereafter RST:1b), Wace toSiepmann, 20 September 1933.
  • [13] RST:1b, Siepmann to Strachey, 14 December 1933.
  • [14] BBC/WAC:LE(E)1c: Contributors: Mrs Ray Strachey:1c (hereafter RST:1c), Wace toStrachey, 13 February 1934.
  • [15] Broadcast on 9 June 1935, 7 February 1935.
  • [16] RST:1c, Strachey to Quigley, 23 August 1937.
  • [17] Mary Agnes Hamilton gives a vivid description of the house. Mary Agnes Hamilton(1944) Remembering my Good Friends (London: Jonathan Cape) pp. 265-6.
  • [18] The Listener, 12 January 1938.
  • [19] BBC/WAC:R51/115/1: The Week in Westminster:1a, Wace to Maconachie, 12 April1938.
  • [20] BBC/WAC:R51/115/1, Maconachie to Quigley, 21 April 1938.
  • [21] RST:1c, Quigley to Maconachie.
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