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Women Announcers, the Sheila Borrett Experiment

On 28 July 1933, Sheila Borrett became the first woman announcer on the BBC’s National Service. Already known as a radio actress, she had auditioned for the position taking the same test as the men. It was a prestigious job. Wearing full evening dress, BBC announcers were not only expected to introduce programmes but also to deliver football results, the fat-stock prices, SOS messages, weather reports—and the all-important news bulletins. Yet it was more than this; announcers, whether in Britain, the USA, Germany or elsewhere were perceived as the embodiment of that particular network or station, the ‘public image’, their voices setting the overall character and tone.[1] At the BBC, as early as 1925 it had been recognised that the announcer built up ‘in the public mind a sense of the BBC’s collective personality’.[2] This was why, from 1924, BBC announcers were anonymous, it was not their personality but the Company/ Corporation’s that they were projecting. However, unlike her male counterparts, it was impossible for Mrs Giles Borrett to remain unknown.[3]

Provincial and regional BBC stations had, from the early 1920s, used female announcers to introduce their women’s talks and Children’s Hour. In the summer of 1930, there had been alarm in the press when it appeared that a woman had been appointed to a permanent position in the Midland Region.[4] A BBC official quickly moved to quell fears, explaining that Miss Gladys Ward was being used merely as temporary holiday relief.[5] The London Evening News was reassured. Having expressed horror about ‘a Hobb’s century being announced in a pleasant soprano or the details of a heavy-weight fight related by a girlish voice!’, the paper was glad to report that men who listened ‘may breathe again, secure in the knowledge that all depressions, all scores and all that Mr Snowden [the Chancellor of the Exchequer] may do, will be announced henceforth in fine resounding baritones’. The Evening News would have been aghast to learn that many European-based stations such as Radio Luxembourg, Radio Normandie and Radio Budapest regularly used female announcers. A feature in Radio Pictorial, entitled ‘Eva at the Mike’, profiled nine such women in countries that included Lithuania, Switzerland, Denmark, Finland, Italy, Spain and Poland.[6] German radio also employed female announcers who, although rare on the general output, were the predominant voice on women’s pro- grammes.[7] They were also commonplace in the USA with women widely accepted as announcers and presenters on the prolific daytime schedules aimed at the female audience.[8]

In her 1933 book Broadcasting Hilda Matheson pondered the question as to why women announcers, who were favoured in Latin countries and Central Europe, were unwelcome in the UK. She thought it likely that the ‘immense importance attached by the British to sport’ meant that there was a sense that ‘no woman could read football and cricket results with the peculiar conviction which a male voice alone would convey to them’. She did, however, express incredulity that this should be put forward as an objection as ‘many male announcers themselves neither play nor are interested in these manly games’. 1 14 Notwithstanding Matheson’s viewpoint, Radio Times previewed the arrival of the BBC’s first woman announcer with foreboding, foreseeing ‘panic among the horsehair armchairs, retired colonels muttering darkly over their muffins, consternation in the bow- windows of the historic clubs’.[9] [10] Borrett’s first job was to introduce a teatime concert from London’s Hotel Metropole. Reviewing the debut of the ‘woman with golden voice’, News Chronicle declared that she had ‘good, clear vocalisation, correctly pitched, pleasing in its cadency’ although it was pointed out that she was being paid ?500 a year just to say a few words.[11] [12] The paper also made much of her 15-month-old son who, they claimed, was listening in. As a wife and mother, Mrs Giles Borrett’s appearance at the microphone transgressed, in many people’s minds, the acceptable role of a woman, in particular a married woman. On the other hand, she encapsulated modernity, a further reason why the press were so fascinated by her.

The incongruity of Borrett’s position was compounded when, on 21 August 1933, she read the six o’clock news bulletin for the first time. Europe had again led the way in its promotion of women newsreaders. In 1926 the Stuttgart-based station Surag had appointed a woman to read the headlines, weather reports and financial information. Norag, a pioneering Hamburg station, followed suit shortly after and was soon boasting two women announcers. In 1932, Gertrude Van Eyersen became the first woman announcer on national German radio (the Berlin Funkstunde) although her appointment was met with contempt in the press. 1 17 This was due not only to questions about a woman’s authority to speak for the nation but also because, in hard economic times, she was seen to be taking a job from a man. Authority was the underlying reason why women in the USA were debarred as announcers from the ‘proper’ business of radio which was ‘men’s’ concerns such as news, politics and sport.[8] Elsie Janis, NBC’s first woman announcer in 1935, was quickly moved away from reading news bulletins because of listener complaints.[14]

Sheila Borrett was to suffer a similar fate. In October 1933, after only three months in the job, she was axed. In its statement to the press the BBC explained that it was because they had received more than 10,000 letters of complaint with more than 90 per cent of detractors being female.[15] [16] In a personal article ‘Why I Came and Why I Went’ published in Radio Pictorial the following year Borrett wondered whether it was the pre-publicity that had done for her. 1 21 There had been mass anticipation of her taking on the role which was seen as a daring experiment. perhaps if she had started unobtrusively, she mused, she might have been given the chance to grow into it. She also pointed out that nearly 90 per cent of the letters of appreciation that she had received had also been from women. Characterising the English as a conservative people who hated innovations, she also raised the issue of discrimination: was it ‘prejudice against women playing a speaking part in the affairs of the world?’ she wondered. Although no longer an announcer, Borrett continued to feature widely on the BBC appearing in a host of dramas and as a reader of poetry and prose, seemingly with no objections. Her final appearance at the microphone, in December 1937, was a weekly serialisation of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey.

The vitriol that marked Borrett’s arrival as a radio announcer was in sharp contrast to the delight that accompanied the entrance of Jasmine Bligh and Elizabeth Cowell as the first female Television Hostess-Announcers in November 1936. Selected from hundreds of hopefuls, the two young women were expected to exude poise and glamour. A Daily Mirror report on their first press conference described Bligh as ‘tall, statuesque, really beautiful in the dignified Edwardian manner’. Cowell, conversely was ‘slight, quick, with a lively face which one would call “chic”’. The former had blue eyes, the latter brown and they both had ‘pleasant voices, easy manners and were discretely dressed in sober black and white’.[17] A BBC survey into viewers’ opinions carried out in 1939, on whether television announcers should be male or female, showed that while 44 per cent were indifferent, the overwhelming majority of the rest preferred women. 1 23 Cowell and Bligh’s success was because of their appropriateness. They did not assume to speak for the nation in a position of authority rather they were there to introduce viewers to the new visual wonder of television, their beauty, style and composure central to the role.

Although Borrett’s tenure as a radio announcer was brief, BBC management were theoretically prepared to give women another chance. In June 1934, the Board of Governors resolved that there was to be no ban on the employment of women as announcers, actively encouraging further experimentation in the Regions.[18] [19] In January 1939 it was further agreed that a ‘woman announcer should be experimentally employed when a convenient opportunity occurs’.[20] [21] [22] During the Second World War women would be widely used to announce programmes, though not to read the news. The continuing antipathy towards women newsreaders is encapsulated in a June 1939 Radio Times article by the journalist and novelist Irene Stiles. An impassioned plea for the ‘wider use of the feminine voice in broadcasting’, it emphatically did not include women reading the news. ‘Even the most ardent feminists’ Stiles claimed, ‘would find it difficult to produce a woman’s voice that could deal calmly with so many worldstirring events’. It was the ‘quiet unruffled’ tones of the male announcers that proved soothing and reassuring. ‘I, for one, would not have that otherwise’ she declared. 1 26 Irene Stiles scepticism about women reading the news did not extend to women as commentators. In particular, she exuded praise for Mrs Olga Collett who, she believed, offered ‘the perfect illustration of how adequately a woman’s resourceful tongue and allembracing eye can deal with brilliant functions and picturesque events’.

  • [1] Michele Hilmes (1997) Radio Voices: American Broadcasting, 1922-1952 (Minneapolis:University of Minnesota Press) pp. 58-9; Kate Lacey (1996) Feminine Frequencies: Gender,German Radio, and the Public Sphere, 1923-1945 (Michigan: University of Michigan Press)p. 199.
  • [2] Briggs, Birth of Broadcasting, p. 292.
  • [3] In 1925 announcers were required to wear dinner jackets.
  • [4] Evening World; Daily News and Chronicle, 21 July 1930.
  • [5] Evening News, 25 July 1933.
  • [6] Radio Pictorial, 10 January 1936.
  • [7] Lacey, Feminine Frequencies, p. 196.
  • [8] Hilmes, Radio Voices, pp. 141-4.
  • [9] Matheson, Broadcasting, p. 56.
  • [10] Radio Times, 4 August 1933.
  • [11] News Chronicle, 29 July 1933, quoted in Anne Karpf (2007) The Human Voice: TheStory ofa Remarkable Talent (London: Bloomsbury) pp. 158-9.
  • [12] Lacey, Feminine Frequencies. Lacey points out that it was still rare for women to fillthese roles, pp. 200-1.
  • [13] Hilmes, Radio Voices, pp. 141-4.
  • [14] Karpf, The Human Voice, p. 159.
  • [15] The Daily Mail, 6 April 1934; Daily Express, 7 April 1934.
  • [16] Radio Pictorial, 9 March 1934.
  • [17] Quoted in Gordon Ross (1961) Television Jubilee, The Story of 25 Years of BBC Television(London: WH Allen) p. 32.
  • [18] Briggs, The Golden Age of Wireless, p. 622.
  • [19] BBC/WAC:R1/3/1: Board of Governors, Minutes, 27 June 1934.
  • [20] BBC/WAC:R1/7/1: Board of Governors, Minutes, 25 January 1939.
  • [21] Radio Times, 23 June 1939 ‘More Women Commentators’ by Irene Stiles.
  • [22] Radio Pictorial, 16 June 1939.
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