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Beatrice Webb, Evening Grandee

‘I was in a devil of a funk as I walked along the Embankment to Savoy Hill’, Beatrice Webb entrusted to her diary in February 1928.[1] Webb was on her way to deliver her first BBC talk; her reminiscences of the philosopher Herbert Spencer, whom she had known when she was young. Matheson had first approached Webb with the idea for the talk in November 1927, part of a wider series of recollections of notable Britons. Webb had undergone a voice test, a rehearsal and been provided with the leaflet of hints about broadcasting, but she need not have been apprehensive about the actual broadcast; alone in the studio her nerves fell away and she actually enjoyed herself. ‘I had hardly any consciousness of being listened to, so private and quiet was the place one was in’ she confided, finishing her talk ‘with a pleasant sense of successful achievement’. Matheson was clearly thrilled, describing the talk as ‘one of the best we have ever had’ and that Webb had shown herself to be ‘a born broadcaster’.[2] Matheson was always on the lookout for erudite talent and saw great potential in Webb, inviting her to do poetry readings. Webb, understandably, was more interested in promoting her own interests and suggested instead a series on studying social facts, a subject that could draw on her ‘forty years’ experience’ in social research and which could introduce listeners to the new discipline of Social Science.[3] With Matheson keen on the idea, Webb drove a hard bargain for her fee, pointing out that the preparation of the ‘short tabloid lectures’, the rehearsals involved and the adaptation to a new technique were an arduous task for a woman of her age (Webb was almost 71). A payment of ?50 was agreed for the four talks.

Described in the BBC’s ‘Talks and Lectures’ brochure as being ‘of outstanding importance’, the series, How to Study Social Questions came to air in March 1929. Webb’s views on oral evidence, the use of statistics and the possibility of a ‘science of society’ were also published in the newly launched, The Listener.[4] Webb’s future broadcasts would continue to be on topics connected with her work and beliefs. ‘Looking Backwards: The World of Politics’ broadcast in January 1930 (part of a 17-part series of reminiscences), reflected on changes she had observed in her lifetime, the ‘most momentous transformation’, she believed, being the demise of government by a ‘tiny clique’.[5] ‘Taking the Strain off Parliament,’ in July 1930, voiced her views on devolution, prompting an editorial in The Listener which drew attention to this ‘courageous’ talk.[6]

Webb’s connection with the BBC was not limited to the Talks Department. She also worked closely with the Adult Education section, in particular with Mary Adams and Charles Siepmann. Adams was invited to Passfield Corner, the Hampshire home Beatrice shared with her husband Sidney Webb, now a peer of the realm.[7] (Although efforts had been made to coax Sidney to broadcast, these were always declined.) Adams failed to persuade Beatrice Webb to take part in a series on ‘The Census’ in 1931, but she did agree to contribute to Siepmann’s ambitious venture The Modern State in early 1932 agreeing a fee of 50 guineas for her three talks on ‘The Diseases of Organised Society’.[8] The manuscript for the first broadcast required Adams’ ‘blue pencil’, with changes sought to its length,

(as a difficult topic it needed to be read slowly and with pauses, so was too long); its use of ‘pentasyllabic words’, (these needed to be substituted with something simpler); and its casual references to His Majesty (who would probably be listening in).[9] The script for the final talk, to be aired on 21 January, while ‘magnificent’ was seen to be ‘so daring that we have been having conferences over it’.[10] Four corrections were asked for, most notably the removal of a reference to ‘mutilation, death and chronic disease’ which, Adams agreed, was no stronger than the truth, but which might be ‘too strong for some listeners’. Webb was sanguine about the changes, her main annoyance with the series was the way Radio Times had advertised her as Lady Passfield rather than Mrs Sidney Webb, her accustomed name.[11] [12]

Russia was to be the subject of Webb’s next talk, on 22 September 1932. She and Sidney had spent three months from May to July touring the Soviet Union, which had become popular with left-wing activists. The couple returned full of enthusiasm for the way it was run, their experiences published in 1935 as Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation?73 Webb promised that her BBC talk, which was to be part of the series Travellers in Europe, would be objective in tone.[13] Writing in her diary on her return from Broadcasting House she confessed that, although delivered with verve, she had felt ‘very unequal to the strain’ and had come home with a racing heart.[14] The BBC’s reaction to the talk is not recorded but Webb evidently believed it was the reason she was not invited back, commenting to Adams in February 1934 that her broadcasting days were over.[15] Adams was eager that Mrs Webb should return, her suggestion that she speak again on Russia in November 1934 (a talk which did not materialise) perhaps a final chance to use ‘the grand old lady’.[16] Webb did agree to contribute to the series Efficiency and Liberty in February 1938. The talk was on the Russian system of government and included a question- and-answer session with Henry Wilson Harris, Editor of The Spectator.

This was to be Webb’s last broadcast. Now aged 80, her association with the BBC came to a close.

Beatrice Webb was one of a small number of women such as the MP Nancy Astor who made regular appearances in the BBC’s interwar evening schedules, their status in public life coupled with their gift at the microphone making them immensely attractive to the BBC. Mrs Edna Thorpe, on the other hand, was unique amongst regular women broadcasters in the interwar BBC, her lack of eminence her selling-point.

  • [1] Norman and Jeanne MacKenzie, eds. (2000) The Diaries of Beatrice Webb (London:Virago) pp. 464-5. Diary entry, 29 February 1928.
  • [2] BBC/WAC:910/Mrs Sidney Webb Talks:1 (hereafter BWT:1), Matheson to Webb, 23March 1928.
  • [3] BWT:1, Webb to Lambert, 9 October 1928.
  • [4] The Listener, 13 March 1929.
  • [5] The Listener, 22 January 1930.
  • [6] The Listener, 30 July 1930.
  • [7] BWT:1, 14 October 1930.
  • [8] Mrs Sidney Webb Talks: 2 (hereafter BWT:2), Siepmann to Webb, 26 June 1931.
  • [9] BWT:2, Adams to Webb, 5 January 1932.
  • [10] BWT:2, Adams to Webb, 19 January 1932.
  • [11] BWT:2, Webb to Adams, 18 December 1931.
  • [12] For a discussion on the Webbs in Russia see Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,Beatrice Webb, entry 36802 by John Davis.
  • [13] BWT:2, Webb to Adams, 24 August 1932.
  • [14] MacKenzie, The Diaries of Beatrice Webb, p. 510. Diary entry, 22 September 1932.
  • [15] BWT:2, Webb to Adams, 16 February 1934.
  • [16] BWT:2, Adams to Dawnay, 26 November 1935.
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