By Asha Gage, IET Archivist
As the BBC celebrates its centenary in 2022, we look at one aspect on how it was at the forefront, not only technologically, but by breaking down barriers for women’s employment in the technical arena.
Women had been employed at the BBC since the early 1920s, but the war brought unprecedented opportunities in every department from the engineering side of broadcasting to working as announcers, producers, playwrights, hostesses, script writers, editors, to name a few.
During 1941 the BBC opened their Engineering Division to women between the ages of 21 to 35. Women were trained in the BBC’s own school and worked alongside their male colleagues in the control rooms and recording centres of London and the Regional studio centres.
An initial fortnight of training equipped them with the knowledge about the organisation of their Division, of the wartime system of wireless transmission, and how to handle studio equipment, microphone, control desks and panels. Additionally, there was training on the equipment used in outside broadcasting. Opportunities were also available for producing their own specimen programmes on a closed circuit.
Some worked in the recording rooms, where daily disc or steel tape records were made of events happening all over the world. These regular ‘news-reels’ were made of short talks, impressions and eye-witness accounts but occasionally the Recorded Programmes Department work involved some special assignments. These included when H.M. King George VI or Winston Churchill was speaking, and every care had to be taken to ensure perfection. In these instances, three separate recordings were taken, three machines ran simultaneously so that a master-record was obtained. A degree of technical knowledge was required for this work.
Another area where the women were given training was as junior programme engineers. Located in the studios they were responsible for handling the gramophone turntables, producing sound effects plus many other requirements of the job. Many who qualified in this field had previous experience on the stage, as stage managers or in the film studios.
Women were also employed as home announcers or as announcers for the Overseas Service; they wrote their own scripts and broadcast to the whole world. They could also become Studio managers for the European broadcasts or supervisors for the Monitoring Service. All these positions, whilst not coming under the heading of ‘engineer’ necessitated a thorough knowledge about the mechanisms which they controlled. This is why the BBC Training School course for programme assistants covered subjects such as the organisation of the Corporation, the writing of scripts, how to handle speakers, the use of music in play production as well as the actual workings of studio apparatus, microphones, play-backs and the production panel. Radio programmes in the 1940s could be a complete play which required changes of scene and atmosphere that involved the use of the artificial ‘echo’ and elaborate set-up linking panel and studios; or a simple talk that required background effects. In each instance the programme staff had to be capable of providing these services.
Providing comfort in difficult times
In addition to learning the technical aspects of the job the women employees of the BCC also fulfilled another very important role; that of a comforting voice, a reminder of home, consistency, or a bit of escapism during dark times.
As British forces were deployed further overseas, the women at the BBC were actively involved in the Empire Entertainments Unit which worked from an underground theatre near Piccadilly Circus, London. Programmes for the Forces Overseas were numerous and were broadcast continuously 24 hours. To give an example of their reach the broadcasts were heard in the Middle and Near East, Gibraltar, Libya, Malta, for the RAF stationed in Canada, Australia and New Zealand, South Africa, West Indies and the Forces in India. Most of the broadcasts contained special messages for those serving overseas from home. Every Friday afternoon a programme called “Your cup of tea” allowed mothers, wives and sweethearts of the Forces in Africa a chance to come together with a cup of tea to give connection to those separated in a friendly, welcoming space. Many of these programmes had women producers, comperes and announcers.
Letters of appreciation revealed the positive impact these women had in keeping up morale. A Sapper in Tobruk wrote,
“The tune ‘When the Lights of London Shine Again’ fetched a lump in the throat.”
Relatives of those serving were also grateful for the BBC service in keeping them in touch with loved ones as this letter testified,
“I live at a lonely lighthouse on the South African coast and I never miss one of your programmes. I would be so happy if you were able to send birthday greetings to my two brothers who are serving, for they have a birthday on the same day.”
A letter to Jane, compere to the forces in isolated territories, had a letter from Captains C F and P in West Africa stating,
“Dear Jane, my pals and I have just arrived from a jungle patrol, away from everything, and to arrive back and hear your voice was honestly too much. We had to write.”
Betha Wilmott, who sang in the programme “Your cup of tea” had similar letters of warm appreciation,
“Just imagine a dozen British and Indian soldiers in a tarpaulin-covered hole listening to you singing ‘I Shall be Waiting’. We were all very pleased when one mother included all of the boys in her message to her son. It seemed to be a personal message to all of us, and talking about it on our way back to camp we all felt very bucked.”
These roles, in front and behind the microphone, were hugely important in providing a service during the war years. The Empire Entertainment Unit was justifiably proud that they never once failed to broadcast a programme, indoor or outdoor, even under the most challenging and dangerous conditions of the blitz.
- ‘New openings for girls in the BBC’ Joyce Wedgewood, The Electrical Age, Autumn 1941 pp810-811
- ‘The girls behind the mike’ Joyce Wedgewood, The Electrical Age, Spring 1942 pp858-859