On 18 October, the BBC marks the 100th birthday of its foundation (one month before it started regular radio broadcasting). It will be hoping the celebrations make the case for its continuation, amid discussions with the government over the broadcaster’s form and funding after the current agreement runs out in 2027.
Given political pressure for the BBC to become more commercial, there’s an irony that it was exactly that a century ago. The British Broadcasting Corporation, state-owned under royal charter, has only existed since 1 January 1927. From 18 October 1922 until then, it was the British Broadcasting Company – a consortium of wireless receiver manufacturers.
My selection of shows from each of the BBC’s 100 years aims to recognise the “best” (subjective as that inevitably is) but sometimes the worst. These are part of the BBC’s history, too – and sometimes threatened to end it.
Some ground rules: I have picked only programmes made by the BBC, which excludes imports (Dallas, Neighbours, Das Boot) no matter how significant. And because, say, Sir David Attenborough could represent at least five years, each creative (unless part of a comedy team) features only once.
Many early BBC records are missing, so some shows have been reconstructed from Radio Times back copies, newspaper listings and reviews, and memoirs or biographies. Another important source is the Official History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom by Asa Briggs.
1922 – Preliminary Broadcast
“Hello, hello. This is 2LO, the London station of the British Broadcasting Company calling! 2LO calling.” The experimental network 2LO had broadcast one hour a day since 11 May. From 14 November, it was transferred to the British Broadcasting Company. This call-sign formally started BBC broadcasting, and the first voice heard was that of Arthur Burrows. He read a one-minute weather and news bulletin, then repeated it at dictation speed so listeners (estimated at 10,000) could take notes – education was a key aim of the BBC from the beginning. For this, the first licence fees cost 10 shillings, equivalent to about £19 today.
1923 – Organ Recital at the Steinway Hall
Broadcast at 3pm, this was the first “wireless” programme listed in the launch edition of Radio Times on 30 September. It kicked off five and a half continuous hours of organ music, which likely reflected the kind of material deemed appropriate for a Sunday – then sacred as the Christian day of rest.
1924 – Woman’s Corner
For most of its 100 years, the BBC has been accused of being too London-centric. But at the start, short and weak radio signals required 20 transmission centres around the UK, all with different schedules. Those in range of Birmingham got Woman’s Corner at 4.45pm. This mother-programme to one of radio’s biggest franchises featured a daily talk: subjects included topical horticultural hints and Shakespeare’s heroines.
1925 – The Travelling Man
Until at least the 1990s, the vast majority of broadcast dramatists were male, but one of the earliest radio playwrights was Lady Gregory, though she was more likely chosen for her aristocratic heritage than proto-feminism. The opening lines of this one-act play – “What is it you are going to make, mother?” / “I am going to make a grand cake with white flour. Seeds I will put in it” – spookily foresaw the future significance of baking to the BBC.
1926 – Big Ben, Weather Forecast and General News
A sequence still familiar to listeners – time signal (the chimes of Big Ben), climate news, headlines – became part of the rhythm of radio. But a news bulletin on 4 May triggered the first of many times that a government threatened the BBC over its journalism. A miners’ strike led to an industrial walkout. As this included print workers, the government filled the newspaper gap with its own propaganda sheet, the British Gazette, edited by the then chancellor of the exchequer, Winston Churchill. Infuriated that news bulletins early in the dispute neutrally reported the views of government, unions and employers, Churchill sought to use emergency powers to take over the British Broadcasting Company (as it still was) as an official Downing Street mouthpiece. John Reith, the BBC’s general manager, resisted this, but was forced by the government to deny a voice to opposition politicians. This tension – a broadcaster owned by the state but seeking editorial independence from it – has continued for 96 years.
1927 – The FA Cup Final
This was the first ever live commentary for an event that remains in the BBC schedules in 2022. Cardiff beat Arsenal 1-0. Curiously, the commentator, George F Allison, later became the Arsenal manager. A picture of the Wembley pitch, divided into eight squares, was printed in Radio Times; during the transmission, Allison’s assistant, Derek McCullouch, shouted out which quadrant of each half the ball was in. On 1 January, after five years as a private company, the BBC became a state-owned network, its final initial now standing for “corporation”. Reith became the first director general and received a knighthood.
1928 – Wish Wynne
The first variety (the precursor to light entertainment) slots drew on music hall entertainers, including Wish Wynne, a comedienne – as listings billed her – with a speciality of “fairytales in cockney character parts”. Wynne became so devoted to radio that, insisting the show must go on despite frail health, she collapsed at the end of a Sunday broadcast in 1931 and died soon after.
1929 – The Second News
Now broadcasting from 10.30am until midnight, the BBC’s wireless service expanded to two daily news bulletins: the first in the early evening, the second later at night, a pattern that continues to this day. Even big news – such as the Wall Street crash in November – would wait until those slots, so scheduled shows such as More Biscuit Recipes and Elementary French could always go out as planned.
1930 – The Man With the Flower in His Mouth
The first drama broadcast in both picture and sound was an adaptation of this short play by Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello. Co-produced with TV pioneer John Logie Baird’s own company, the show had few actual viewers (hardly any sets existed) but showcased the BBC’s bi-media future. In another major restructuring, from 9 March, the wireless output was divided into regional and national programming. The Man With the Flower in His Mouth was reserved for regional London audiences.
1931 – The Mary Celeste: A Mystery of the Sea
This was the origin story of one of TV’s superpower genres: the true-crime drama. L Du Garde Peach, a prolific writer of historical sketches for Children’s Hour, recreated the mystery of the American merchant ship found floating in 1872 with its entire crew missing.
• Coming up tomorrow in part two (1931-41): the king falls, peace fails.