You Can’t Understand England Without Understanding the BBC

From a New York Times review by Dwight Garner of the book by David Hendy titled “The BBC: A Century on Air”:

The British Broadcasting Corporation, the BBC — the Beeb — turns 100 this year. “Hullo, hullo, 2LO calling, 2LO calling,” a few thousand listeners heard through the hissing ether at 6 p.m. on Nov. 14, 1922. “This is the British Broadcasting Company. 2LO. Stand by for one minute please!” What followed were short news and weather bulletins, read twice, the second time slowly so that listeners could take notes.

David Hendy, in his thorough and engaging new book, “The BBC: A Century on Air,” writes that you can’t understand England without understanding the BBC. It occupies, he says, “a quasi-mystical place in the national psyche.” It’s just there, like the white cliffs of Dover.

The BBC sparked to life in the wake of World War I. Its founders included wounded veterans, and they were idealists. Civilization was in tatters; they hoped, through a new medium, to forge a common culture by giving listeners not necessarily what they wanted, but what they needed, to hear.

The audience was fed a fibrous diet of plays and concerts and talks and lectures; sports included Derby Day and Wimbledon. Announcers wore dinner jackets as well as their plummy accents….Catching the chimes of Big Ben before the evening news became a ritual for millions.

Equipment was primitive. A framed notice by the microphone warned guest speakers, “If you sneeze or rustle papers you will DEAFEN THOUSANDS!!!”

Radio was new; the BBC felt that it had to teach people how to listen. “To keep your mind from wandering,” it advised, “you might wish to turn the lights out, or settle into your favorite armchair five minutes before the program starts; above all, you should remember that ‘If you only listen with half an ear, you haven’t a quarter of a right to criticize.’”

The BBC gained a reputation for being a bit snooty, and soporific. One complaint can stand for many: “People do not want three hours of [expletive] ‘King Lear’ in verse when they get out of a 10-hour day in the [expletive] coal-pits, and [expletive] anybody who tries to tell them that they do.”

The BBC took it from both sides. To mandarins like Virginia Woolf, it was irredeemably middlebrow; she referred to it as the “Betwixt and Between Company.” The BBC loosened up over time and took increasing account of working-class and minority audiences, and of audiences who simply wanted to laugh.

The broadcaster was created by a Royal Charter; it has never been government-run, yet it must answer to government. Hendy recounts attempts to limit its editorial independence. Churchill and Thatcher were especially vocal critics: They felt there was something a bit pinko about the whole enterprise.

The BBC’s scrupulous reporting during World War II gave it lasting prestige across the world. It largely lived up to the motto of R.T. Clark, its senior news editor: to tell “the truth and nothing but the truth, even if the truth is horrible.”

During wartime, the company occasionally broadcast from a safer perch. When announcers intoned “This is London,” they were often in a countryside manor. The London headquarters took a direct hit from a bomb in October 1940; the reader of the evening news “paused for a split second to blow the plaster and soot off the script in front of him before carrying on with the rest of the bulletin.” Seven people were killed in the attack. After the war, the BBC’s foreign services became a prop to the Commonwealth, the new euphemism for “empire.”

One of this book’s best set pieces is of the BBC’s wall-to-wall televised coverage of Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953. One reporter referred to it as “C-Day.” This sort of thing had never been on TV before. The hard part, Hendy writes, was “persuading royal officials that mere subjects had a right to witness the ceremony in the first place.”

Over time the BBC’s tentacles grew longer and more varied: Clusters of radio and television stations catered to different demographics. Competitors crept in.

The satire boom of the postwar era arrived, led by “The Goon Show,” which ran from 1951 to 1960. There were TV dramas from iconic talents like Ken Loach and Dennis Potter. The BBC began to take the critic Clive James’s advice: “Anemic high art is less worth having than low art with guts.”

Language battles fought at the company are never dull to read about. For decades, “bloody” could be used only rarely and “bugger” not at all. One internal stylebook, Hendy writes, “included a ban on jokes about lavatories or ‘effeminacy in men’ as well as any ‘suggestive references’ to subjects such as ‘Honeymoon Couples, Chambermaids, Fig leaves, Prostitution, Ladies’ underwear, e.g. winter draws on, Animal habits, e.g. rabbits, Lodgers, Commercial travelers.”…

The BBC’s nature documentaries were pathbreaking, and big hits. (They left James “slack-jawed with wonder and respect.”) Hendy walks us through how, under David Attenborough, these things got made. They take years, enormous staffs and a global network of freelancers willing to sit out in the cold and rain to get the money shots.

Attenborough was told, early on, that he couldn’t appear onscreen because his teeth were too big. Richard Dawkins has written, in his memoirs, about how difficult it is to talk while walking backward, a crucial skill for any BBC documentary host.

More recent BBC hits include the reality series “Strictly Come Dancing,” the brainy documentaries of Louis Theroux and the comedy-drama series “I May Destroy You.”

The right has retained its distrust of the BBC, including up-to-date complaints about wokeness; it would like to see it become smaller and more “distinctive,” in the manner of PBS and NPR. These American stations have had nothing like the BBC’s cultural impact — though Greg Jackson, in his story collection “Prodigals,” was correct to refer to Terry Gross as the “Catcher in the WHYY.”

Hendy can be critical of the company, but at heart he’s a fan. He reports that across any given week, more than 91 percent of British households use one BBC service or another. He cites academic surveys showing that the broadcaster’s news output is, if anything, tilted slightly to the right.

The BBC can still be snoozy. I’m not the only person I know who, at least before Putin rattled the world’s cage, listened to the BBC World Service app at bedtime because it’s an aural sleeping pill.

I deserve to lose style points for borrowing Hendy’s last lines for my own, but he puts it simply about the BBC’s precarious position: “We sometimes never know just how much we need or want something until it is gone.”

Dwight Garner has been a book critic for The Times since 2008. His most recent book is “Garner’s Quotations: A Modern Miscellany.”


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