Here’s a question to think about. Over the decades, since 1922, has the BBC ever been guilty of taking itself too seriously? If you read some sections of the popular British press – in particular those newspapers who regard the Corporation as the last bastion of a public service broadcasting organisation that needs to be harrumphed about – then yes.
But in this, the first of a series of articles, I want to show that this was hardly ever the case. The Beeb has always known it was something special, but at the same time was an organisation that occasionally demanded to be treated in a tongue-in-cheek way.
With great importance and responsibility comes the need for an occasional smile and a touch of levity.
The popular perception is that the BBC became, by the late 1920s, an overly serious place in a Reithian sort of way. It’s an historical image that’s persisted in some quarters.
It was, perhaps, a tone that seemed to contrast with the joyful playfulness of the likes of the Beeb’s main commercial rival, Radio Luxembourg.
That’s not strictly true, and radio historians – including Paddy Scannell and David Cardiff, and Asa Briggs too – have observed that the early BBC played plenty of dance music and broadcast lots of variety shows – even if Sundays were at first devoted to Sabbatarian broadcasting.
So, my question is does the BBC have a sense of humour? Is it able, as a major national institution, to laugh at itself? My answer, in brief is Yes. And what’s more, the way it’s gone about this self-mockery has changed over the decades.
An early example was the radio series Airy Nothings which ran intermettently from 1928 to 1931. It included sketches about the internal workings of the Corporation. That it relied on in-jokes meant only dedicated listeners would’ve “got it”. The show was first mentioned in academic circles by David Cardiff in a 1988 essay, ‘Mass Middlebrow Laughter: The Origins of BBC Comedy’, published in the journal Media, Culture & Society (vol. 10 (1): 53). The discussion continued in Scannell and Cardiff (1991, A Social History of British Broadcasting, Volume One: 1922–1939, Serving the Nation, Oxford: Basil Blackwell), where on p. 254 they said about Airy Nothings:
So, it is significant that the BBC began, in the late 1920s, to allow programme makers to satirise themselves. It would appear that this occasional radio series Airy Nothings was a release valve for pent-up resentment amongst staff and creative programme producers. It included sketches that poked fun at the Corporation’s characters on both sides of the microphone.
This picture shows the Radio Times listing for programmes on the 22nd of February 1929. Airy Nothings is highlighted – a late-night satire show.
By the way, the page lead preview looks to be an absolute corker – and stunningly relevant to these 21st century times we live in. I’d’ve loved to’ve heard Compton Mackenzie slugging it out for an hour with Bob Boothby. And I love the turn of phrase:
“It has lately burst into the region of practical politics as a demand and a scheme.”
Although if I’d been on the sub’s desk I’d’ve sent that back for a rewrite.
And I’m also confused by the title of the six o’clock talk. Take a look. I now have an image of teeny-tiny people collecting hens’ eggs. Apparently they weren’t a nuisance, which is some comfort…
But back again to Airy Nothings – which here includes a sketch called “2LO-calised” and is performed by Anona Winn and Horace Percival, amongst others. The spoof is based on the joke of the London transmitter (2LO) not being strong enough to be heard outside the Home Counties.
The very name Airy Nothings suggests the ephemeral nature of radio broadcasting. And in 1929 the technology to record and keep programmes was still very much in its infancy.
There are no known audio archives of this show. Although, if you search hard enough on the ‘net you can find other bits of audio of Anona Winn and Horace Percival out there.
In this series of articles I’m expanding on observations made by David Hendy in his book Life on Air: A History of Radio Four (2007, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 369-373).
He specifically mentions the 1980s and 90s as a high point in Radio 4’s comedy shows that satirised the medium of radio.
I’ll mention more details in a future essay in this series. But for now I want to pick up his theme, and explore other examples of this tendency – and to offer some tentative explanations for this sustained self-satire over the broadcast century.
This present series of articles has evolved from a talk I gave at an academic conference in Luton, England, in November 2022.
In a similar manner, these essays are based on research for my current book which examines novels, popular music, movies, and art that have been inspired by radio listening: Martin Cooper (2022), Radio’s Legacy in Popular Culture: The Sounds of British Broadcasting over the Decades, New York: Bloomsbury.
You can read about my methods in chapter 1 – which is available to look at for free online here: https://bloomsburycp3.codemantra.com/viewer/61c091c75f150300016f10af
You can pre-order a paperback edition of my book here: https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/radios-legacy-in-popular-culture-9781501388231/
So, as to a methodology, I use Jacques Rancière, who has suggested fiction can be read as a window on reality, and Wolfgang Schivelbusch who has examined early railway history through its cultural representation in travel writing and art.
The full details (in case you want to check either or both) are:
Jacques Rancière ( 2020), The Edges of Fiction, trans. Steve Corcoran, Cambridge: Polity.
Wolfgang Schivelbusch ( 1986), The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century, Berkeley, CA: The University of California Press.
My sources are BBC programmes that self-reference radio. By way of an explanation and a clarification, my thinking about such shows – as well as the hundreds of other examples of creativity mentioned in my book – runs along the following (non-radio) lines:
Did The Godfather movies (1972-90) and the TV series The Sopranos (1999-2007) tell us anything about large extended families and organised crime? Did The Deer Hunter (1978) film make a statement about the way war and violence creats PTSD and aggravates mental health problems? Does Mrs Brown’s Boys (2011-present) tell us anythings about the state of British/Irish comedy co-produced by the BBC and RTÉ? Is the sight of a man dressed as a sweary old woman breaking the fourth wall something to make us laugh? Was Father Ted (1995-98) funnier?
So, the radio and TV shows I am going to mention here can each be taken to say something about the BBC. Indeed, I think they can be seen as the BBC in turn saying something back to its critics. I’ll also argue here that this habit of biting the hand that feeds has been a long-running comedic tendency.
I’ll include some non-Beeb sources later: movies for example, and shows on ITV that poke fun at British commercial radio, just to add some contrast and context.
In the next article in this series (published in Feb 2023 – sign up to receive it first) I’ll share some examples from the 1930s and 40s: opportunities for the BBC to carry on sending itself up.
Tell me what you think. Leave a comment in the box below.