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Women Commentators, the Triumph of Olga Collett

Olga Collett ‘Britain’s Ace Radio Talker’ was unique, the only woman in the interwar years to work regularly for the BBC’s Outside Broadcast Department as a commentator. 1 27 ‘Eye witness’ accounts had been an important radio fixture from 1924, the skill of commentating very different to that of announcing. Rather than reading a carefully prepared script in a studio environment, to be a commentator involved relaying quickwitted and highly descriptive observations from live sporting fixtures and national events. Howard Marshall, Tommy Woodroffe, John Snagge and Teddy Wakeham were amongst the popular voices who, in the interwar years, regularly broadcast from football matches, boat races, public commemorations and royal proceedings.

Collett’s route to commentating was via Talks, she broadcast her first on ‘Political Canvassing’ in February 1937 as part of Janet Quigley’s At Home Today series. 1 28 Emboldened by the experience, in March 1937 Collett wrote to Seymour Joli de Lotbiniere, the Director of Outside Broadcasts requesting an audition ‘with a view to my name being placed upon your panel of women commentators’. 1 29 Her letter arrived at an apposite time. The sportswoman and journalist, Marjorie Pollard (after a number of successful talks and many approaches to the BBC) had been invited to give an eye witness account of the England v Australia Women’s Cricket Test Match in June 1937, the first time this had been attempted.[1] [2] [3] Pollard, who played both cricket and hockey at a national level, was an obvious choice. She was editor of the magazines Hockey Field and Women’s Cricket and she also contributed sporting commentaries to The Times, The Observer and The Evening Standard revealing an appetite for a woman’s eye view on female sports within the male-dominated world of sports journalism.[4] Through Pollard, the BBC was hoping to tap into this active interest.

Pollard was an undoubted expert who was known to be an able broadcaster, even if her ‘vigorous’ voice did have a tendency to ‘squeak at moments of excitement’.[5] Lotbiniere was at this time also scouting for a woman commentator for a broader sphere of work and a number of hopefuls had been put through his ‘Roof Test’ which involved being taken by lift to the top of Broadcasting House and being asked to describe the surroundings.[6] Olga Collett’s roof top audition took place on 16 April 1937.[7] Recalling the occasion in a 1983 radio interview, she divulged how, when she asked Lotbiniere how long she was to speak for he said, ‘well, everyone else we’ve tried has dried up within two or three minutes—and at the end of 11 minutes he came and begged me to stop!’[8]

Collett claimed that her gift of description and ability to hold an audience were acquired in the village halls and public meetings she addressed when her brother, the Liberal MP Kingsley Griffith, was first contesting his parliamentary seat.[9] She was an authoritative figure with a full-time job as Female Staff Administrator for ICI, a position similar to that of the BBC’s Miss Freeman. As she revealed in Quigley’s series Other Women’s Lives, it was the death of her husband, Squadron Leader Stanley Collett, in an RAF flying display in 1934 that propelled her to find work.[10] Her position as a widow meant that her appearances on the BBC were less problematic than those of Borrett who, as a married woman, was both stigmatised for shunning her wifely duties and accused of taking jobs away from men. The fact that Collett had an established career, however, impacted on her ability to work for the BBC; any events that she covered had to be slotted into her leisure time.

Collett’s successful audition had taken place just weeks before George VI’s Coronation for which she was eager to be considered as a commentator. As she pointed out in a letter to Lotbiniere, a woman would have ‘a more noticing eye for details’ as well as bringing relief during the long broadcast. It was also timely, she believed, for a woman to be considered.[11] Lotbiniere’s response, while thanking her for putting ‘the woman’s case’, pointed out that the BBC were not keen to risk such an experiment with Coronation Day.[12] Instead, Collett’s first commentary was on 17 June 1937 when she was paid eight guineas to describe

‘the arrival of Their Majesties’ at Royal Ascot.[13] This may well have been the occasion Lotbiniere had had in mind when he recruited Collett. Her credentials for such a broadcast were impeccable. Already known to the royal family through her late husband (the Prince of Wales was honorary Air Commodore of Stanley Collett’s RAF squadron) her father-in-law was Sir Charles Henry Collett, Lord Mayor of London in 1933.[14]

Collett always insisted that she was a commentator, not a woman’s commentator. She was not employed to talk about fashions rather it was the scene, the movement, the action and the colour that she described.[15] Nevertheless, her Ascot commentary was called ‘frivolous’ by the Daily Herald, causing her to vent her spleen that this was based on ‘the usual assumption that women are only capable of describing dresses’. In a forthright letter to Lotbiniere she expressed resentment that it was a BBC employee Andrew Stewart (Edinburgh Programme Director) who had made this claim and a second claim that no woman could come into line with men on a serious or symbolic occasion. Had any woman ever been given the opportunity of tackling such an event, Collett wanted to know.[16] Collett was to be given the opportunity in November 1937 when she depicted the scene at the Guildhall for the Lord Mayor’s Banquet, an assignment she repeated the following year. In its preview, Radio Times made much of her family connections and her new positioning in the Guildhall Library, where she was to describe the assembled procession as the dignitaries walked in to dine.[17] Collett also attended a display by the Women’s League of Health and Beauty at Wembley in June 1939 and the European Figure-skating Championships in January 1939 where Cecilia College, the reigning British Champion, won gold. This particular broadcast was deemed to be of such high quality that it was used for many years by the BBC’s Staff Training Department as an example of a perfect commentary.[18]

It was an event in March 1939, however, that brought Collett overnight fame. As part of the State Visit by the French President to London, a Gala Concert had been arranged at the Royal Opera House, in the company of the King and Queen. Collett was to provide part of the commentary, her stint extended when she was obliged to stand in for a male colleague who had been taken ill. With the Royal party then delayed by more than 20 minute, she found herself on air far beyond her allotted time. Her highly personalised descriptions of the outfits, the textures, the sounds, ‘a word picture of brilliance’, made headline news the following day, The Daily Mail, The Star and the Evening Standard all applauded her tenacity and style.[19] It was only belatedly that BBC executives arranged to raise the fee for her ‘marathon broadcast’ to 12 guineas, aware that ‘Howard Marshall would have certainly got 18-20 guineas for a similar effort’. It was also agreed that in future her fee should be at least ten guineas for events of national importance.[20] There were to be no such occasions; with the outbreak of war Collett’s career as a commentator came to an end. She did continue to broadcast wartime talks for Quigley and, with Quigley as Editor, appeared on Woman’s Hour several times in the 1950s. Collett would also be a panellist on early editions of Twenty Questions.

  • [1] Broadcast on 25 February 1937. Quigley and Collett developed a close working relationship and Collett broadcast many talks.
  • [2] BBC/WAC: OB Commentary: Mrs Olga Collett (hereafter OCC), Collett toLotbiniere, 30 March 1937 .
  • [3] BBC/WAC: RCONT1: Marjorie Pollard Talks: 1, Programme Contracts to Pollard, 30April 1937.
  • [4] Oxford Dictionary of National Biography., Marjorie Anne Pollard, entry 65061, byJudith Wilson. See also Adrian Bingham (2004) Gender, Modernity, and the Popular Press inInter-War Britain (Oxford: Clarendon Press) pp. 69-74.
  • [5] Marjorie Pollard Talks:1, Wilson to Midland Regional Director, 27 April 1936.
  • [6] BBC/WAC:R30/428/1: Commentators, 22 January 1937. Seven people were trialledon this day including two women.
  • [7] OCC, Lotbiniere to Collett, 14 April 1937.
  • [8] BBC Sound archive, 41963, Olga Collett interviewed by John Lane, 26 July 1983.
  • [9] This was in a closely contested by-election in March 1928 for the seat of MiddlesbroughWest.
  • [10] ‘Other Women’s Lives’, 29 May 1937.
  • [11] OCC, Collett to Lotbiniere, 21 April 1937.
  • [12] OCC, Lotbiniere to Collett, 22 April 1937.
  • [13] BBC/WAC:R1/73/7: Board of Governors: DG’s Reports and Papers, 14 July 1937.
  • [14] ‘Other Women’s Lives’
  • [15] Olga Collett interview.
  • [16] OCC, Collett to Lotbiniere, 25 June 1937.
  • [17] Radio Times, 28 October 1938.
  • [18] BBC Sound Archive 10293, ‘What is Good Radio’, 22 November 1946.
  • [19] Evening Standard, 23 March 1939.
  • [20] OCC, Outside Broadcast Executive to Talks Booking Executive, 11 May 1939.
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