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Mrs Edna Thorpe, ‘Ordinary’, ‘Average’ Housewife

On 20 March 1935 Edna Thorpe, a London-based housewife, wrote her first letter to the BBC suggesting a short talk.[1] Because of her deep interest in the ‘mistress v maid controversy’ she divulged, she had gone undercover to investigate the issue for herself, applying for the position of a ‘daily help’ in a number of houses where she had been able to scrutinise the attitudes of both. Before she sent her observations to the newspapers, Thorpe wondered, might the subject be of interest to the BBC? The letter was passed to Margery Wace who responded with eagerness. A first-hand experience such as this would have been music to her ears and Mrs Thorpe was invited to meet Wace at Broadcasting House and, subsequently, to write a draft script.[2] Impressed by the scope and quality of the writing, as well as Thorpe’s pluck, Wace was convinced the talk should be placed in the evening schedules. After much deliberation, in January 1936, in conjunction with a male GP, Thorpe took part in a 6.50 pm discussion on ‘The One Maid Problem’ for which she was deemed to be a success.[3]

Edna Thorpe would have a broadcasting career that spanned 15 years. Almost all we know about her, however, is what can be gleaned from the hundreds of letters she wrote to the BBC bursting with her effervescent ideas, pursuits and opinions. From these it is possible to ascertain that she was an audacious Yorkshire woman in her early to mid-thirties, she was married to an electrician, she did not have children and, judging by her frequent changes of address, lived in London in rented accommodation.

The BBC described her as ‘lower middle-class’; she portrayed herself as the ‘ordinary’, ‘average’ housewife.8 1 A fervent listener, Thorpe would turn her lifestyle and varied interests into copy for her talks. BBC producers welcomed this ordinariness and also came to value her sentiments as representative of ‘the woman’s point of view’. In addition to her constant stream of programme proposals, Thorpe set up informal, and eclectic, listening groups, feeding back sentiments on a wide range of BBC output, a veritable powerhouse of suggestions and ideas.

The series that would become Thorpe’s stomping ground was At Home Today which Wace had introduced into the morning schedules in September 1934 and which would continue to be championed by her successor, Janet Quigley. Between 1936 and the programme’s demise in 1942, Thorpe broadcast talks on topics as varied as the ‘White Fish Industry’, ‘Forming a Reading Club’, ‘Hints on Springcleaning’, ‘Notes from a Housewife’s Diary’ and the woman’s angle on the British Industries Fair; the talks she actually gave only a fraction of those she suggested. In the spring of 1936, Thorpe took part in ‘The House that Jack Built’, a three-part series based on the premise of a housewife taking on the building industry in the form of an architect, a builder and a town planner. Thorpe was felt to be ideal because she was neither professional nor connected with any housing movement, rather, she was ‘an intelligent woman who has combined running her own home with finding out how others run theirs’.[4] [5] Two of the individuals tackled by Thorpe were the master builder John Laing and the grandee of town planning George Pepler. To put each programme together the scripts of the two discussants were mailed between them, gradually built up into questions and responses and then rehearsed before broadcast. In the programme with John Laing, for example, Thorpe took him to task on problems of damp, soundproofing, squeaky floor boards, ill-fitting doors as well as the better use of recesses for storage.[6]

As will be discussed shortly, Thorpe was one of a handful of women invited to take part in Men Talking and she also participated in two further evening talks. The first was in January 1938 when she was part of a panel discussion in the weekly programme The Cinema.[7] The topic was ‘The Audience’ and Thorpe, ‘speaking as a housewife’, included the observation that it was one of the ‘cheapest ways of getting a change from the daily round’ offering the chance ‘to be amused or interested in some aspect of our life which seems different from our own’.[8] The second was in The Poet and the Public in May 1938. Radio Times enthused that she had been brought to the microphone by Humphrey Jennings ‘chiefly because she is a typical housewife yet happens to take a great interest in poetry’.[9] Thorpe had first indicated her zest for the subject two months earlier when, on spotting an advanced notice of the series, she suggested her ‘intelligent interest in modern poetry’ might make her representative of the ‘ordinary average reader’.[10] [11] The ‘dialogue’ was excessively prepared beforehand with Thorpe and Jennings’ initial discussion drafted as a script, amended and then twice rehearsed before transmission.8 8 After the talk (for which she was paid the standard ten guineas evening fee), Thorpe was pleased to report that she had received many comments about the spontaneity of the broadcast, hinting at her proficiency on air.[12]

Thorpe was exceptional in the interwar years, a regular broadcaster whose expertise was her ordinariness. After 1939, she would continue to be used widely by the BBC, taking part in many of Quigley’s wartime programmes for women and later she became a popular speaker on Woman’s Hour, her final broadcast in April 1951. Thorpe’s pre-war appearance on Men Talking in October 1937 was specifically to represent ‘the woman’s point of view’.

  • [1] BBC/WAC: RCONT1: Edna Thorpe Talks:1(hereafter ETT:1), Thorpe to BBC, 20March 1935.
  • [2] ETT:1, Wace to Thorpe, 22 March 1935, 3 April 1935.
  • [3] ETT:1, Wace to Siepmann, 11 June 1935.
  • [4] For example, ETT:1, Thorpe to Wace, 13 January 1936; Thorpe to Quigley, 4 January1937; BBC/WAC: RCONT1: Edna Thorpe Talks:2 (hereafter ETT:2), Quigley to MidlandRegion Director, 5 October 1938.
  • [5] ETT:2, Luker to Dowler, 16 April 1936. George Luker produced the series.
  • [6] Broadcast 27 April 1936.
  • [7] Broadcast 10 January 1938.
  • [8] World Film News No.2, February 1938, quoted in Jeffrey Richards (1984) The Age ofthe Dream Palace: Cinema and Society 1930-1939 (London: Routledge) pp. 16, 65.
  • [9] Radio Times, 24 May 1938.
  • [10] ETT:2, Thorpe to Luker, 23 March 1938.
  • [11] ETT:2, Luker to Thorpe, 12 April 1938.
  • [12] ETT:2, Thorpe to Cox, 29 May 1938.
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