Category: Savoy Hill

Heavily draped studios of early days

Heavily draped studios of early days

Interior of an old studio

Over the walls and ceilings of the early studios curtains were hung in seven layers, like a Victorian woman’s petticoats. Four tons of material were used to reduce reverberation; the artist’s voice sounded thin and rarefied as though he were on a mountain-top. Microphones, at the start, looked like ordinary telephone receivers mounted on columns later were slung in rubber, boxed in and moved about on heavy trolleys.

BEFORE November, 1922, broadcasting in Britain was carried on by industrial concerns in their research departments and by a few scientific amateurs only. To provide a regular service for a growing body of listeners, the Postmaster-General granted a licence to radio manufacturers to form the British Broadcasting Company, of which Mr J. C. W. Reith was managing director. Programmes began in the evening of 14 November from London (2LO) and next day from Birmingham (5IT), and Manchester (2ZY). Stations in Newcastle, Cardiff, Glasgow, Aberdeen, and Bournemouth were opened within a year. Each used a power of 1½ kilowatts, and could be heard, on crystal set with headphones, at a range of twenty miles. The eight bands of pioneers worked hours without limit, in conditions of severest discomfort. Nevertheless, in a few months, 4½ hours of programmes were transmitted daily without fail to some tens of thousands of listeners. In December, 1922, the News Bulletins were read in London and broadcast simultaneously, by means of connecting land-lines, from all stations. Orchestras were assembled at each station, so far as studio space permitted. Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ Symphony was given from London in December, 1922, by seven players! The title of the second talk from 2LO was, somewhat unexpectedly, ‘How to catch a Tiger’. From Covent Garden, in January, 1923, came the first outside broadcast of opera. Plays were put on, though sound effects at first baffled producers. John Henry became the first successful wireless comedian. Relay stations were opened in 1924; next year Daventry (5XX) reached out to the further parts of Britain, carrying an alternative programme, including weather forecasts and gale warnings. When the first BBC gave way in 1926, without change of initials, high sense of service, or guiding spirit, it had won the goodwill of more than two million families.

Man at a piano, man at a microphone, woman sings into a microphone

The picture is of the very earliest days at Marconi House, showing a duet sung by Olive Sturgess and John Huntingdon into separate microphones; that above shows part of the bigger studio at Savoy Hill with soundproof listening cubicle in the corner, and the inevitable carafe of water for libations before the microphone.

The ’20s


THE ’20s



AS BROADCASTING grew in scope and favour, annual events and favourite personalities emerged. Running commentaries on the Boat Race were an early engineering triumph, the launch Magician being fitted with a short-wave transmitter in the stem. Children’s Hour had existed since broadcasting began. At five o’clock each day the ‘aunts’ and ‘uncles’ took the air. The first Wireless Orchestra concert was given in June, 1923, by Percy Pitt. Dan Godfrey was the regular conductor, Kneale Kelley first violin. Mr Churchill’s first broadcast was an appeal for ‘Wireless for the Blind’. Vernon Bartlett on foreign affairs became famous. Tommy Handley was as much at home with the ‘meatsafe’ as he is with its more elegant successors. The reading of his play, ‘O’Flaherty, V.C.’, by Bernard Shaw in 1924 was an unforgettable experience. The speeches of Philip Snowden revealed another master of Spoken English which was not stereotyped.


Through a generation youth has been served

Through a generation youth has been served



ONE afternoon in April, 1924, Sir Walford Davies talked and played to schools. Programmes then normally began later in the day. Two other authorities with the gift of imparting knowledge easily, Sir William Bragg and Sir Oliver Lodge, spoke to schools that spring. In this informal, almost casual way, new horizons were opened, and School Broadcasting, which is now a part of the national system of education, began: bringing outstanding men and women to the microphone, however, is still one of the main things that it seeks to do.

The children listening in the first picture are fathers and mothers now. There are 16,000 listening schools; the number grows each year. With a larger audience has gone increased specialization: ‘Music and Movement’, ‘World History’, English, Geography, Science, and Modern Languages. Schools have their own news commentaries, travel talks, orchestral concerts, a full broadcasting service in miniature, in fact. Mary Somerville, Director of School Broadcasting from 1929-1947, has been its architect and inspiration.


Farewell, Savoy Hill…

A commissionaire watches a man lock a big door

Sir John Reith locks the door of Savoy Hill for the last time

Farewell, Savoy Hill . . .

WHEN Parliament decided that the BBC should have a Royal Charter for ten years from 1926, a new organization, operating a modern medium, was lent the dignity and colour of an ancient form. The BBC had its own coat of arms, and flew its own flag. It directed its own activities without interference and controlled its own monies. The Charter called on the BBC to develop broadcasting ‘to the best advantage and in the national interest’. The expanding policy of the years after 1926 showed that the BBC had accepted the full measure of that charge. A high standard of musical performances was set, symphonic and operatic. Plays specially written for broadcasting were encouraged. Men and women distinguished in the Arts and Sciences were invited to the microphone. A parliamentary ban on political controversy at the microphone was raised in 1928. In 1932, the BBC began a service on short waves to the Commonwealth. It was an act of faith and of high technical skill; success was certain after King George V’s Christmas Day broadcast. The metal instrument box had grown new and more powerful wings.

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