This one’s for the Arthurs, the Nellies, and the newspaper photographers sent to snap crazy set-up stories…

That’s two old-fashioned names and a craft profession rapidly becoming extinct as we all upgrade our ‘phones to have the best top quality on-board cameras included. Except, that is, for one of those names. Arthur was, apparently, the fourth most popular boy’s name in 2020. In fact, the British Government’s Office for National Statistics said “Arthur continued its recent rise, now at its highest position since records began in 1904 as the fourth most popular boys’ name, 11 years since returning to the top 100.” Re-reading that quote I think it could have been improved with a sub-editor’s touch. And that’s another disappearing specialism.

So, royalty aside, there’s one Arthur I want to talk about. Arthur Burrows was the first Director of Programmes for the British Broadcasting Company. He was one of four men – and it was a gendered industry from the start – who began the BBC. At the beginning the Beeb had enough staff to sit around a small picnic bench. But within two years it grew to have a team of over 330 – of which more than 110 were engineers.

In the 2010s the Corporation employed 22,000 people. However, if you include part-time, flexible, and fixed-contract staff that figure comes to 35,402. That’s almost equivalent to the Corporation employing every man, woman and child in Rutland. Imagine what the conversation in the lunchtime queue for the tea shop at Gates Garden Centre at Cold Overton, near Oakham, would be like when it’s open… (other locations selling plant-based life-forms are available, subject to current pandemic regulations).
Anyway, back to Arthur Burrows. I’ve recently been reading a book he wrote, published in 1924, less than two years after the Beeb had started. It was largely self-congratulatory in style but given the man that was true to character.

Arthur Burrows was a journalist who trained on the Oxford Times before moving to London and specialising as a science writer for newspapers and magazines. He quickly got a job with Marconi’s Wireless Company in Chelmsford.
He spent the First World War at Marconi helping to decipher morse code wireless messages for the British government. By the late autumn of 1922, now with the BBC, he was living in Wood Green – handy for a commute either back to Chelmsford or into central London to the Strand where the radio station 2LO had been set up on the upper floors of Marconi House – opposite Somerset House. It was on the seventh floor of Marconi House where Burrows would become the first voice on the Beeb, saying “This is London…”

Burrows was what today we would call a spin doctor. As a trained journalist he had some great ideas for making cheap publicity for the companies he worked for. His major coup, one that would pass into popular history, took place in 1920, in a utilitarian engineering works on New Street in Chelmsford. It was the first of many publicity events to promote the new medium of radio.
He teamed up with the Daily Mail to promote a short recital at the studios by Dame Nellie Melba, an internationally known opera singer (who was actually a Helen, but we’ll let that pass right now). By arranging the radio concert, Burrows was delving into the newly literate middle-class newspaper readership to create demand for popular radio listening. He clearly knew his intended audience, and how to use the press to get more listeners. Likewise, the Daily Mail’s editors spotted a new marketing opportunity when they saw it. To put it rather crudely, Burrows knew the Daily Mail had a predominantly female readership (it still does), and he guessed that women were the influencers when it came to wanting new furniture in the living room or lounge – such as a wireless set. So, what better channel to use than a Fleet Street title such as the Mail?
One can observe that the Mail’s relationship with the BBC has changed radically over the course of the century. Read Patrick Barwise and Peter York’s recent book “The war against the BBC” (Penguin, 2020).

I especially urge you to read pages 85 to 101 to bring yourself up to date with five decades or more of Fleet Street hostility towards the Corporation from roughly the start of the 1970s onwards. But back in the early 1920s the Mail was involved in a number of what Burrows described as “stunts” just like the Dame Nellie Melba episode. In his book he was honest about what he was setting out to achieve when it came to marketing the new medium of radio and the emerging wireless industry. After all, Marconi was connected to several firms who manufactured the receivers and who would have benefitted from any increased popularity and interest in this thing called radio.

Burrows said, “…the stunts in those days, which set half the papers in the country talking, were often trivial things…” He would include persuading Dame Nellie to stand in a draughty warehouse in Chelmsford in that kind of “stunt”. There was also sponsored aeroplane flights, and boxing matches relayed live, as well as short musical concerts.
Which kind of reminds me of the time I took over as the lunchtime show presenter at BBC Radio York between 1989 and 1993.

The programme organiser at the time persuaded one of the leading regional morning daily papers to run a picture story of me with my bare feet on the studio mixing desk – looking sad and shrugging my arms and shoulders. The “story” was that I’d been banned from tap dancing in the studio. Yes, really.

The only connection with truth being that I’d once gained an adult bronze medal for my tap dancing. See the about page for visual proof. Stunts have been a way to promote radio shows for decades. That programme organiser I mentioned later told me that he’d first hired me because of the “attitude” of my tie. I took that as a compliment. It may have been the same tie I was wearing in the newspaper shot.

Do you have any examples of “constructed” stories for publicity purposes? Perhaps you’ve created some yourself? Maybe you were involved as a snapper or sub-editor? Drop me a line and let me know.

I’m off to put my shoes back on and straighten my tie.

One thought on “This one’s for the Arthurs, the Nellies, and the newspaper photographers sent to snap crazy set-up stories…

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