Should a major cultural institution ever be seen to be making fun of itself? This article considers some BBC programmes – all ones on the radio – from the 1930s to the 1950s. It follows on from the first in this series of essays, available to read here, or by clicking on this preview:
Since publishing that piece I’ve been helped enormously by fellow radio historians Andrew Barker and Paul Kerensa in locating what we can now agree is most likely to be the first comedy satire on British radio – about the radio.
Andrew Barker, formerly of the BBC’s Open University programmes unit, and now based in West Yorkshire, is an expert on archival sources for radio history. He contacted me to say,
Perhaps the first example was on the first birthday of the BBC on 14th November 1923 when Peter Eckersley transmitted ‘an “Emergency” programme by a “distracted” staff and orchestra’. This programme was definitely a satire on the BBC.
Indeed, and here it is on page 221 of the Radio Times dated 9 November 1923. It was apparently re-broadcast simultaneously on the other transmitters mentioned here. And I notice Reith gave a talk straight after…
Paul Kerensa, who is based in the Home Counties, just outside London, is a writer, comedian and scriptwriter who in 2022 conceived and toured with his one-man show about the first days of the BBC.
He’s an avid radio historian, and I commend his podcast about The British Broadcasting Century. It’s available at https://bbcentury.podbean.com/ (I recommend it; not only because I’ve guested on it, of course). Paul told me,
Some more info on that BBC birthday show – or actually, what came before it. The retirement tribute of Marconi boss Godfrey Isaacs looks like it was the inspiration for the BBC birthday shows. I’ve assembled the following bits [see picture below] across several pages of Prospero’s Wireless by Myles Eckersley. Read to the end footnote for Reith’s withering critique of one of Eck’s later efforts… Eek.
And I looked in BBC WAC [Written Archives Centre] at Eckersley’s papers but couldn’t see any of those scripts – it would be great to see them again…!
Andrew Barker later added:
Here [below] is the extract I was looking for with more details of the first birthday evening programmes. It’s on p. 152 of C. A. Lewis’s memoir Broadcasting from Within. Peter Eckersley is here just called by his title “the Chief Engineer”. He was conducting the orchestra in that programme to celebrate 2LO’s first birthday.
It’s important to recall that John Reith and Peter Eckersley had very different temperaments, characters, and moral compasses.
Reith could be dour, overbearing, and humourless; Eckersley could be impetuous, outrageously funny and prone to stealing other men’s wives.
It was the later that eventually got him the sack from the Beeb when he was named in divorce proceedings.
I think a key portrayal of broadcasting in the early years was the humour generated by the chaos of live radio. In the previous episode of this series of essays I talked about Airy Nothings – and the disorganisation of the early broadcast days.
Now we’ve been hearing about Peter Eckersley’s 1923 shenanigans – designed to highlight what a belt-and-braces affair radio broadcasting was.
Next, I have another example – this time aimed at the younger listeners.
Norman Hunter in 1931 had his Professor Branestawm – in one of his stories – do a really awful live broadcast.
This helped the Children’s Hour audience know about back-timings, presentation skills and time checks – and what could happen if they went wrong. It was media studies avant la lettre.
The Prof Branestawn character (although not this specific story) was resurrected for TV for a whole new generation – by comedian Harry Hill. Here he explains his love of the character:
Other examples of satire: and the BBC radio series Band Waggon (1938-1939) had Arthur Askey and Richard Murdoch living in a workman’s hut converted into an apartment on the roof of Broadcasting House.
It was a sacrilegious use of an almost sacred art deco building. Watch the first five minutes of the movie adaptation to get an idea:
The mental image of staff carrying out possible transgressions on the roof of BH was continued by Terry Wogan, who presented the BBC Radio 2 Breakfast Show from 1972 to 1984 and again between 1993 and 2009.
He joked about, “the ‘dance of the BBC virgins’ that supposedly took place on the roof each morning”. It gets a mention in this delightful piece: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2016/jan/31/terry-wogan-intriguingly-subversive-national-treasure
And here’s the Wogan himself, signing off for the last time from BBC Radio 2:
Just after the end of World War Two, the frustrations and pomposity of BBC highbrow producers were revealed in How To Listen. It was a comedy drama first broadcast on the opening night of the Third Programme in 1946.
Stephen Potter and Joyce Grenfell satirised radio listening, or rather non-listening. I like the bit with a stereotypical couple of young lovers. The boy tries to impress the girl with his new radio set. She is not impressed.
It was a brave choice with which to open the new radio station. That the Third struggled with interference on medium wave for many years was spotted from the start. The intentionally elitist radio station only began to get VHF transmitters starting in 1955.
The Goon Show (BBC, 1951–60) regularly began episodes with a joke about the Corporation. This exchange from 1955 is typical, between Wallace Greenslade and Harry Secombe:
Wallace Greenslade: This is the BBC Home Service! Will anybody start the bidding?
Harry Secombe: Ten shillings there!
You can listen to it here:
Which, you’ll admit, takes the surreal to a new level.
Next time, I’ll consider how BBC comedy has satirised radio broadcasting in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Subscribe via the link on this page, cunningly marked “subscribe”, to make sure you get next month’s edition in this series.
By the way, this article is based on my current research. If you want to read more, these radio programmes are discussed in my book: Martin Cooper (2022), Radio’s Legacy in Popular Culture: The Sounds of British Broadcasting over the Decades, New York: Bloomsbury
There’s more on both Airy Nothings and The Professor Does a Broadcast in chapter 2. Band Waggon, How to Listen and Terry Wogan appear in chapter 4, and The Goon Show gets mentions in both chapters 4 and 7.
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
And finally, you can pre-order the paperback edition of my book here: https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/radios-legacy-in-popular-culture-9781501388231/
Enjoy. And let me know what you’re listening to right now. Drop me a line in the comment box below.
2 thoughts on “The art of radio self-satire | Part 2…”
Thanks Martin, your passion shines through! And intriguing clips…
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