The art of radio self-satire | Part 5…

Over the past few months, in part to recognise the centenary of the BBC, I’ve been reflecting on a history of comedy at the Beeb – and in particular on shows during the past one hundred years that have poked fun at the Corporation itself.

But whilst you may consider it to be a perverse kind of entertainment for us to watch (and listen to) the BBC eat itself through the art of satire, let’s not forget that others have relished poking fun at Auntie too.

And not only when she’s down and mired in political confusion.

So, first a reminder of how the Corporation has persisted in raising a laugh at its own expense.

In part one of this series of articles I considered shows from the 1920s and early 30s.

The second episode thought about the years before, during, and after the Second World War.

Next, it was the turn of the baby-boomers, the comedy they created about the Corporation, and shows from the 70s, 80s and 90s.

And in part four I shared the likes of Smashie and Nicey, Down the Line, In the Red, Ed Reardon’s Week, and – of course – W1A.

After all of which I concluded that the BBC was in fact quite a robust, mature, and well-considered media organisation that could – and did consistently – have enough cultural sophistication and maturity to be able to laugh at itself with a certain confidence.

In this episode of this mini-series, I’ll share some non-Corporation films and short stories that have put the BBC in a comic light – satirising and ridiculing the Beeb in sometimes less than complimentary ways.

A couple of these outsider observations have been financed, pretty obviously, by competing media organisations. Others have, I strongly suspect, been written with personal axes to grind.

All have used humour and satire to poke fun at the behemoth (or leviathan, take your pick) that is the BBC.

First on the list is a film from between the wars, made when the Beeb was just over ten years old and had recently moved into its impressive art-deco headquarters in London.

Radio Parade of 1935 had the comedian Will Hay as a well-dressed Director General with sociopathic tendencies, given to Hitler impersonations. Ouch.

Perhaps cancel-culture wasn’t foremost in peoples’ minds in this era, and an attitude of “defending the right to be offended” prevailed.

You can read about the movie and responses to it in chapter three of my book

The paperback edition goes on sale in July 2023.

It is, I think, remarkable that a ninety-minute movie should contain so many criticisms of the relatively young BBC.

Will Hay’s character was called Lord Garlon (a play on the words Garland / Wreath / Reith). Nice touch.

The radio station was the National Broadcasting Group which gave the acronym NBG – at the time widely understood to mean ‘No Bloody Good’.

In a comment on the BBC hierarchy, a song-and-dance routine was performed by two music hall stars of the day, Lily Morris and Nellie Wallace, dressed as charladies.

They cleaned the corridor outside the management offices, including one door marked

“Capt. Esme St. J. Entwistle G.C.M. Ret, 4th Assistant to the D.G. (Very Private)”.

This joke reflected the number of World War One soldiers who later found work in BBC management.

It also highlighted an enduring habit of the Beeb to give convoluted job titles and acronyms.

Years later, one former boss, Greg Dyke, recalled wryly how, when he joined the Corporation in 1999, he was “GD, DDG, DGD” (deputy director general, director general designate). (page 151, Inside Story.)

My second evidence of anti-BBC satire comes from the comedian Arthur Askey. He was consistently poking fun at the Corporation, even when he was coining it in as one of its highest-paid stars.

For example, his 1942 film Back Room Boy had him playing a self-obsessed operator of the Greenwich Time Signal.

This movie was not financed or, as far as I’m aware, sanctioned by the Beeb.

You can read more details about the film – and other movies by Askey – in chapter four of my book,

And I’ve blogged about it, including a movie clip, here…

Next, the children’s author Richmal Crompton in 1945 had her William character thoroughly disrupt a personal appearance of one of the pundits from The Brains Trust, one of the most popular BBC radio programmes during and after the war.

It was on air from 1941 to 1961, and as an unscripted discussion show it was the first of its kind (think Any Questions on R4).

However, it was also ripe for satirizing. Crompton captured the self-importance of the show’s panel members in her short story “William and the Brains Trust”.

It involved two characters turning up at the wrong locations to address the wrong audiences.

The schoolboy William persuaded a visiting speaker, a fictional Professor Knowle from the BBC programme, to appear at the village RAF concert evening – a somewhat raucous and disreputable event.

Meanwhile, a comedy impressionist arrived at the nearby church hall to do his act as “Prof. Know-all” – to a rather baffled audience expecting to hear an erudite lecture by a radio personality.

The stand-up comedian was puzzled as to why his audience was so quiet and failed to laugh, whilst the real professor – who had turned out in front of an audience expecting a comic – found he had to answer banal questions such as, “Where do flies go to in the winter?” receiving “a frenzied burst of applause” when he explained the reason.*

It being a children’s story, the two characters met and eventually became firm friends – and William was excused for causing the mix-up. Here’s an interview from 1968 with Richmal Crompton

And I write in detail about her in chapter four of my book.

In the next episode: a novel from the 1950s that imagines how listening to BBC radio can send you mad, and a 1960s British movie promoting land-based pirate radio – years before BBC3’s People Just Do Nothing was ever thought about.

Don’t miss it. Each new piece is published on or around the 14th of every month (traditionally, the BBC staff payday).

Put your details in the “subscribe” button somewhere on this page. And let me know what you’re listening to these days on the radio or by way of podcasts. Send me a message via the comment box below.

*By the way: in winter, flies mostly bury themselves in the ground to keep warm.

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