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‘Men Talking’ and ‘The Woman’s Point of View’

Men Talking was conceived towards the close of 1936 as a series of experimental afternoon discussions aimed predominantly at the unemployed.[1] Two or three speakers ‘of the “man-in-the-street” type of intelligence’ would discuss, impromptu, without any script, a subject of everyday interest.[2] Topics featured in the first series, broadcast in spring 1937, included the inheritance of wealth, bringing up children, manners and the emphasis of sport in the press. Aimed in particular at discussion groups, the response was far greater than anticipated, with both working-class and middle-class audiences demonstrating approval.[3] [4] As a result it was decided to move the series to the evening schedules in the autumn of 1937.

Before the new series was broadcast, a change of title to ‘People Talking’ was suggested, since women speakers would now take part.9 3 However, the consortium of Talks Assistants who produced the programme, Roger Wilson, George Luker and Janet Quigley, decided that to alter the title would seem ‘rather affected’ as the emphasis was on the Talking rather than the Men and the original name was retained.[5] There was a strong theme of family life running through the 12 subjects proposed for the ten-week run such as ‘The New Freedom in the House’, ‘The Size of Families’ and ‘Should Married Women Work outside the Home?’ much of which merited ‘a woman’s point of view’. A panel of 30 potential ‘A’ list speakers was drawn up which included eight women, amongst whom were Mary Stocks, Olga Collett (who Quigley had recently made the acquaintance of) and Rosalind Johnson, a kitchen maid.[6]

The first Men Talking of the autumn series, on ‘Parents and Children’, caused a riotous response, primarily because of the inclusion of Mrs Winifred Parsons. Luker had met Parsons at a meeting in Cambridge and had thought her ‘admirably suitable’.[7] [8] [9] However, the night after the discussion was aired on 7 October, Wilson sent a highly emotive note to Luker which informed him that he had listened to the programme with a group of ‘highbrows’ who all criticised the programme for being too middle-class, the chief blame for which fell on Parsons.97 Quigley was also of the view that Parsons had been a disaster; ‘she talked too much, she interrupted unscrupulously, she sounded aggressive’.9 8 Despite this, Quigley informed Maconachie (the Director of Talks) that both she and

Luker were in agreement that women should continue in the rest of the series but, in light of the Parsons experience, their role would be reviewed. Firstly, a woman should not be allowed to monopolise the conversation. Secondly, because Parsons was a good example of her type, ‘intelligent, vivacious, used to public speaking, eager to express her views’ it was this sort of woman who was wrong. In future, programmes should use quieter, non-aggressive women, ‘who will only speak when the woman’s point of view, as opposed to the man’s, is really called for’. Thirdly, women of whatever type needed coaching beforehand, which would include warnings on interrupting. Fourthly, the male speakers must be told not to show more politeness to the women speaker than to each other. ‘We hope, by these means’ Quigley assured her boss, ‘the women speakers will not continue to be a complete liability’. As Luker informed Wilson, ‘Miss Quigley is going to experiment with a mouse-like woman instead of the tiger we have been experimenting with in the past’.[10]

Further memos focus on issues of class rather than gender but of the nine remaining programmes in the series, only two included women, Edna Thorpe and Ray Strachey. Strachey’s appearance on 18 November was on ‘A Woman’s Place Is in the Home’ in which she defended women’s right to work against the novelist Nigel Balchin.[11] For this she received rare praise from John Gloag, who hosted the debates. Admitting that he believed it to be ‘an utterly mistaken policy’ to include women in the programmes because they ‘paralysed the men’, he described Strachey as excellent and the exception, someone who illuminated the discussion without dominating it.[12] Thorpe was similarly praised by Quigley for her appearance on ‘Family Budgets’.[13] Thorpe’s letters to Quigley, however, reveal her exasperation at the lack of women in Men Talking, commenting at the close of the series that ‘no discussion on any aspect of family life is complete without a woman’s angle’.[14]

The heated discussions that surrounded the inclusion of women in Men Talking illuminate the contested role of women broadcasters in the interwar years. The success of Strachey and Thorpe was not because they were mouse-like women but because they understood the medium of radio. With women’s restricted access to the airwaves, it is self-evident that there would be a far smaller pool of experienced speakers to draw from. In addition, the art of debating would have been taught to, and encouraged in, boys who attended public school, something that would have been far less common for girls. Reflecting on the Parsons experience, Luker was clear that beforehand, she had seemed ‘exactly right’. She was accustomed to WEA audiences, she had a pleasing voice (‘really’ he added), as well as a sense of humour and skill in putting her ideas together. In addition, reports from 50 Listening Groups had all ‘singled out for praise Mrs Parson’s voice’. The script also showed that what she said was usually sensible.[10]

The issue, then, was purely her behaviour on air. By talking too much, interrupting and appearing aggressive she had not acted in a way that was judged suitable for a woman. She was, after all, only there to represent ‘the woman’s point of view’. That a woman might be able to contribute to a general discussion was never a consideration. This is evident from the personalised broadcasts that developed in the interwar years, when men (always men) such as Harold Nicolson spoke in broad terms about life, in Nicolson’s case the very popular People and Things.[16] Women could talk about their expertise, hence Strachey’s Women’s Commentary on political and civil life, but they did not have the authority to talk in general terms, unless it was from a feminine perspective. This may have been linked to the notion that men could represent a national viewpoint, the viewpoint of ‘everyman’. And this became even more pertinent when it came to representing the voice of the BBC, as an announcer.

  • [1] BBC/WAC:R51/118: Debates and Discussions, Rose-Troup to Graves, 16 November1936.
  • [2] BBC/WAC:R51/319: Men Talking (hereafter MT), Maconachie to Graves, 23 April1937.
  • [3] MT, Notes on the experience gained running this series January-April 1937.
  • [4] MT, Maconachie to Graves, 23 April 1937.
  • [5] MT, Wilson to Maconachie (in consultation with Quigley), 21 June 1937.
  • [6] MT, Luker to Maconachie (in consultation with Quigley), 13 July 1937.
  • [7] MT, Luker to Maconachie, 28 September 1937.
  • [8] MT, Wilson to Luker, 8 October 1937.
  • [9] MT, Quigley to Maconachie, 8 October 1937.
  • [10] MT, Luker to Wilson, 11 October 1937.
  • [11] Broadcast on 18 November 1937.
  • [12] MT, Notes on the Men Talking Series by John Gloag, 28 December 1938.
  • [13] ETT:1, Quigley to Thorpe, 15 October 1937.
  • [14] юз ETT:1, Thorpe to Quigley, 18 December 1937.
  • [15] MT, Luker to Wilson, 11 October 1937.
  • [16] Broadcast between 1930 and 1935.
 
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