The way we were: Working at the BBC

Extracts from memoirs and diaries
December 12, 2012

Lindsay Anderson, director of the 1968 film If (photo: Moviestore Collection/Rex Features)

George Orwell writes in his diary about working for the BBC’s Eastern Service on 21st June 1942. He supervised cultural broadcasts to India, with contributions from TS Eliot and EM Forster among others, to counter propaganda from Nazi Germany aiming to undermine imperial links:

“The thing that strikes one in the BBC is not so much the moral squalor and the ultimate futility of what we are doing, as the feeling of frustration, the impossibility of getting anything done, even of any successful piece of scoundrelism. Our policy is so ill-defined, the disorganisation so great and the fear and hatred of intelligence are so all-pervading, that one cannot plan any wireless campaign whatever.

“When one plans some series of talks, with some more or less definite propaganda line behind it, one is first told to go ahead, then choked off on the ground that it is ‘injudicious’ or ‘premature,’ then told again to go ahead, then told to water everything down and cut out any plain statements that may have crept in here and there, and then at the last moment the whole thing is suddenly cancelled by some mysterious edict from above and one is told to improvise some different series one feels no interest in and which in any case has no definite idea behind it.

“One is constantly putting sheer rubbish on the air because of having talks which sounded too intelligent cancelled at the last moment. In addition the organisation is so overstaffed that numbers of people have almost literally nothing to do.”

In 1947, the BBC resumed broadcasting television programmes. Grace Wyndham Goldie, later head of talks and current affairs, observed of some of the early problems:

“The [radio] broadcasters’ speciality was the use of words; they had no knowledge of how to present either entertainment or information in vision, nor any experience of handling visual material. Moreover, most of them distrusted the visual; they associated it with the movies and the music hall and were afraid that the high purposes of the Corporation would be trivialised by the influence of those concerned with what could be transmitted in visual terms.”

Robin Day joins the Radio Talks Department of the BBC in 1954 and is told by his superior:

“I want you to see yourself as—well, as having become an officer in a rather good regiment.”

On 13th February 1973, Lindsay Anderson, a film and theatre director, writes in his diary:

“Today lunch at BBC TV Centre with Mamoun [Hassan, head of production at BFI] and Norman Swallow [film and TV documentary maker], with the intention of soliciting patronage from Huw Wheldon [managing director, BBC TV] deserves record. Suddenly the door burst open and Wheldon burst histrionically into the room, eyes flashing under his picturesque eyebrows. At first I almost laughed; then it became clear that Wheldon wasn’t in fact parodying the situation, but imagined he was playing it straight as a dynamic, eccentric leader of genius. At least we prevented the occasion passing off as a mere, courteous get-together. Both Mamoun and I spoke very directly about the impossibility, as the BBC stands, of certain kinds of talent gaining employment or sponsorship. Wheldon’s response was to become angry and thank Mamoun not to teach him to suck eggs… It was difficult to take him seriously… And the other point: his basic impregnable philistinism. No project, no play or film or programme to be valued for what it is. Only for what it represents as a fragment of culture, a piece of contemporary artwork worthy of patronage.”

John Drummond is appointed controller of music at the BBC, a post which included organising the Proms, in November 1984:

“I undertook to write a confidential review of the whole position of music in the BBC, especially as [the director general Alasdair] Milne wanted my responsibilities to include music on television as well as radio. I was allocated an attic room in the old Langham Hotel, then almost entirely emptied of BBC staff, and I sat there for eight months, with Asa Briggs writing the history of the BBC in the next office as my only neighbour. I had the services of one of those amazing women who had for so many years been the backbone of the Corporation. Monica Atkinson had been in the organization all her life, latterly as assistant to senior controllers. She knew everyone and how to get hold of things. In two days she furnished my office with everything I needed, from chairs to a CD player—not neglecting the permitted quantity of curtains and the contents of the drinks cabinet, both officially graded according to the job. (Previously as an assistant head of department I had curtains that would not draw.) Monica became a great friend, and was typical of a BBC now totally lost. Her husband worked in the engineering division, her son in Data. She loved the place and all its oddities, and helped me avoid a hundred elephant traps with a cheerful ‘Let me call Maisie,’ or Harry, or whoever it was. She always had a way around any problem and an answer to any question, and unlike any in John Birt’s BBC, she enjoyed her job.”