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Home arrow History arrow Behind the Wireless: A History of Early Women at the BBC
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Isa Benzie (1902-1988)

Isa Benzie’s arrival at the BBC in December 1927 was unpropitious. ‘I thought her rather young and shy, and was surprised to find her 25’, surmised Charles Carpendale following his initial meeting with her, but he added that ‘Miss Banks liked her and thought she would do’.[1] The job was secretary to Major C.F. Atkinson, the BBC’s Foreign Liaison Officer for which Benzie would earn ?3 a week.

During the War her father, Lt. Colonel Robert Marr Benzie, had served in the same army division as Reith, and it was through her father that Benzie first came to the attention of the BBC.[2] In June 1927 Col. Benzie wrote to Reith, at Isa’s behest, informing his former comrade that she was ‘a young lady of considerable character and ability’.[3] He praised her great linguistic ability, her musical prowess and the fact that she was currently training herself in shorthand and typing. He also emphasised her keenness to come to the BBC to do ‘useful work’, in particular something that would involve languages. Enclosing glowing testimonials from her College tutors, Col. Benzie concluded his letter with an exasperated stab at the young men who worked in his own office, wishing that they had ‘half the industry and perseverance she possesses’. Reith’s response to his old friend was positive. There were, he explained, periodically opportunities for girls like Isa, university graduates and people with considerable educational qualifications, but these were rare. Another possible approach was as a shorthand typist.[4] The process of her recruitment to the BBC was then set in motion.

The Foreign Department’s role in the BBC was to maintain close and regular contact with broadcasting organisations in other countries. The global explosion in broadcasting in the 1920s and 1930s made it vital that the BBC was fully informed of all international developments and the Department acted as a clearinghouse for foreign activities. Benzie’s temperament and skills were perfect for the job and she was soon taking over tasks from Atkinson, her boss, who had been redesignated Foreign Director in April 1928. Atkinson was highly impressed by Benzie. In October 1928, he pressed for a salary increase, on the grounds that she often stood in for him. [5] In March 1929, he remarked on her mental maturity, her high degree of initiative, her capacity for negotiating and her keen eye for policy implications in letters and minutes.[6] Because of this, he requested for her (and got) a wage rise to ?5, the ‘roof’ of the clerical grades, a hefty increase of ?1.10s a week. The following year, with Benzie now in effect ‘the Executive of her Department’, she was promoted to the monthly paid staff and Assistant grade on ?300 a year.[7]

Apart from managing the office, a key area of Benzie’s work at this time was the organisation of relays from the Continent, the broadcasting of overseas programmes on the BBC. It was a complex procedure that involved detailed negotiations with foreign broadcasters to acquire the items, sorting out the timings of transmission, the publicity materials, copyright and so on. She was particularly praised by Atkinson for the success of a European tour in which she had arranged a series of open relays from Germany and Austria, ‘a liaison which involved tact and command of an intricate situation’ with foreign colleagues informing him that she created an ‘excellent impression’.[8] In addition to her relay work, Benzie also entertained European callers, liaised with European broadcasters and frequently deputised for Atkinson when he was away. [9] Another of her roles was to provide information to Vernon Bartlett for his popular weekly BBC series The Way of the World.

In December 1932, the BBC’s Empire Service was inaugurated. Although the Foreign Department maintained its distinctive role liaising with overseas broadcasters, it was deemed prudent to bring it within the new and larger Empire and Foreign Services Department under a new head, Cecil Graves. The following April Atkinson resigned (possibly he felt his position had been undermined), providing the opportunity for Benzie to assume his role. If the post of Foreign Director had been filled either by advertisement or by transference from another area of the Corporation, it would almost certainly have gone to a man. In the BBC of the 1930s, no woman was ever directly appointed to an executive post. As Foreign Director, Benzie’s salary was to be ?500 a year. Although this was a considerable rise for Benzie (whose annual earnings jumped by ?150), it was markedly less than the ?1,250 Atkinson had commanded.

To be Foreign Director was both a daunting and a prestigious position which involved negotiating at the highest level. The BBC Standing Instructions listed amongst the duties of the post: the collection, communication and record of incoming foreign information; executive dealings with foreign and international press, radio organisations and cultural movements; dealings with the public on foreign and international matters and entertaining foreign dignitaries.[10] The job also entailed straddling all foreign links initiated by other BBC departments, for example in Music and Education, and the Foreign Director was also called upon to represent the Corporation at meetings of the International Broadcasting Union (IBU) which frequently took place abroad. In May 1936, the Morning Post marvelled at Benzie’s ability to ‘ring up New York, Sydney, Calcutta or Cape Town as casually as you and I call a taxi’. 1 49 The same month Wireless magazine ran a feature on her, describing Benzie’s work as ‘a job that would intimidate many a man’.[11] [12] In April 1937, Ariel reported on the Foreign Department’s complex negotiations in connection with George VI’s Coronation, a relay of which was being taken ‘by practically every country in the world’.[13]

Like Somerville and Matheson, Benzie gave her all to the Corporation. In August 1935 she complained that she was working on average 14 hours a day. It was the only way she could complete even the basics of her job, she protested, and gave her little time for what she termed ‘constructive work or initiation’.[14] She was often in correspondence with senior executives over low staffing levels and in September 1935 was finally successful in acquiring a second Assistant, Richard Marriot, which increased the fulltime staff of the department to four.[15] The appointment of Marriot raises an interesting point. Why it was considered necessary for the new Assistant to be a man? In her plea for a second Assistant, Benzie had specified that ‘he should be young, adaptable and presentable’, with the ‘ability to get on by himself’. 1 [16] Graves was ‘definitely anxious that the job should be given to a man’, a point on which Benzie concurred.[17] The reason may be simple. With Janet Quigley already in place as an Assistant as well as a female shorthand typist, the only man working in the department in 1935 was the Foreign Executive, J.M.G. Best.[18] Perhaps it was felt that one more woman might have lowered the department’s status. However, according to Ariel, in 1937, the Department now had a staff of eight, six of whom were female.[19]

Away from the office, Benzie functioned in a masculine world. At the BBC, the senior executives she worked with were all men. 1 58 She made frequent trips to Europe, as the BBC’s representative at the IBU, again a male-dominated organisation. 1 59 At one point, Reith queried whether Miss Benzie should be given the same status accorded to Graves by the IBU, the implication being that, as Foreign Director and as a woman, she was of lower rank.160 Perhaps, as a rare female, Benzie garnered more attention when she was abroad and in consequence was given greater consideration. Part of her job was to greet foreign dignitaries. At this level they would almost always have been men, yet the BBC appears to have been happy that one of its most important international ambassadors was a woman. It may have added cachet to an organisation keen to be seen as innovative to the wider world.

Benzie’s work in the Foreign Department was applauded by her seniors, her rapid promotion to Foreign Director a result of her ‘intelligence, wide knowledge and executive ability’.161 In April 1936 it was announced that Benzie was to be given equal status with other Heads of Department in the Programme Division prompting pointed discussions about her comparatively low salary. While her manager, Graves, was satisfied to offer her annual increments of ?50, which was in keeping with ?500 a year, Nicolls, in his capacity as Director of Internal Administration, was adamant that her salary should be raised significantly and for three years in a row, a rise of ?100 was authorised which was seen as more in line with the responsibilities of the job and in keeping with the role of a department head.162 Benzie herself appears to have been unaware of these negotiations and there is no indication that she ever discussed her level of pay. In 1937, on the recommendation of her seniors, she received a further boost. She was to be regraded ‘A’ which meant not only enhanced status, but a new salary ‘roof’ of at least ?1,250.163

158 Cecil Graves as Empire Service Director; Lindsay Wellington as Director of Programme

Planning and Basil Nicolls as Director of Internal Administration.

  • 159 See, for example, BBC/WAC:R3/3/11: Control Board Minutes, 14 January 1936, 17 June 1936, 7 September 1936.
  • 160 Control Board Minutes, 14 January 1936.
  • 161 IBSF: 1, Acting Administrative Assistant (Talks) to Administrative Officer (Talks), 7 December 1945.
  • 162 ISBF:1, Confidential Reports 1934, 1935, 1936. In 1936, the ten other department heads in the division earned at least ?1000, with Val Gielgud earning ?1,550 in Drama and John Coatman ?1,600 in News. Mary Somerville earned ?1,200.
  • 163 IBSF:1, Pym to Benzie, 2 June 1937.

However, Benzie’s promotion in June 1937 coincided with the announcement of her engagement. Unlike Somerville, who was determined to work as a married woman, Benzie was ‘clear in her mind’ that she did not want to lead ‘the double life that some girls do’.[20] On 2 September 1937 she married John Royston Morley, ten years her junior and one of the ambitious young producers in the new Television Department.[21] The event merited reports in several newspapers, where comment was made on it being a morning wedding (so allowing Benzie to return to work after lunch) and that only two witnesses attended, one of whom was Janet Quigley.[22] Benzie formally resigned on 3 January 1938, prompting genuine sadness at the loss of a woman of her abilities. The Times reported that she was given a farewell luncheon and presentation attended by Reith, Carpendale and the four Controllers, amongst many others.[23] Following Benzie’s resignation, the appointment of a replacement was held up by the proposed reorganisation of Foreign and Empire Broadcasting. In the event, the position of Foreign Director was abolished. Marriot, one of Benzie’s Assistants, resumed the title Foreign Liaison Officer in the newly amalgamated Home Intelligence Department.

It is interesting to speculate whether it was Benzie’s resignation that prompted a restructuring of the department. In her four years in the post she had maintained if not raised its status, bringing it to a level with other department heads. Her personal style and diplomatic skills had given the job added prestige, but with her resignation the post ceased to be viable and became one of routine, reflected in her successor’s title and lower salary.[24] Although Benzie had flair, she was not so large a personality as Matheson or Somerville (she was less vocal and demanding) and so made less of an impact on management. The post of Foreign Director was also not as high-powered as those of School Broadcasting Director or Director of Talks. Nevertheless, the importance of her role should not be underestimated; good foreign relations were vital to the interwar BBC and Benzie was often lauded in the press as one of those women who held a significant job.[25] Benzie (who gave birth to a daughter in 1938), was to have a second BBC career. In 1943 she was re-employed as a radio producer, becoming the doyenne of health broadcasting as well as being instrumental in establishing the Today programme in 1957.[26] On her retirement in 1964, she was one of the few women in the Corporation graded ‘A1’.

  • [1] BBC/WAC:L1/1049/2: Isa Benzie Staff File 2 (hereafter IBSF:2), Atkinson toGoldsmith, 29 November 1927, note from Carpendale.
  • [2] Reith Diaries, 22 January 1924.
  • [3] IBSF:2, Colonel Benzie to Reith, 6 June 1927.
  • [4] IBSF:2, Reith to Colonel Benzie, 8 June 1927.
  • [5] IBSF:2, Wade to Carpendale, 28 October 1928. It was turned down on the groundsthat secretaries were expected to deputise when their principals were on leave.
  • [6] IBSF:2, Atkinson to? (unclear), 6 March 1929.
  • [7] IBSF:2, Confidential Report, 1930.
  • [8] IBSF:2, Confidential Report 1933.
  • [9] IBSF:2, Atkinson to Goldsmith, 6 February 1933.
  • [10] BBC Standing Instructions: Foreign Department.
  • [11] Morning Post, 18 May 1936.
  • [12] Wireless Magazine, May 1936.
  • [13] Ariel, April 1937.
  • [14] BBC/WAC:R13/206:Foreign Department, Benzie to Beadle (Empire and ForeignExecutive), 27 August 1935.
  • [15] Richard Marriot joined Janet Quigley as an Assistant. Benzie had a personal secretaryand also the full-time use of a short-hand typist in the General Office.
  • [16] BBC/WAC:R13/206, Benzie to Beadle, 27 August 1935.
  • [17] Beadle to Nicolls, 4 September 1935.
  • [18] Following the 1933 Production/Administration split all departments had an Executive,who acted as the liaison between Production and Administration.
  • [19] Ariel, April 1937. These included Benzie’s ‘personal clerk’ Norah Wadsley and twofurther departmental secretaries.
  • [20] IBSF:2, Un-named memo to Nicolls/Pym, 7 June 1937.
  • [21] Reith was unimpressed by Morley. Meeting him for the first time he described him as‘a dilettante sort of youth, presumably brainy’. Reith Diaries, 5 May 1938. The marriage was not a success.
  • [22] Daily Sketch, 3 September 1937; Daily Express, 3 September 1937; Radio Pictorial,17 September 1937.
  • [23] The Times, 5 January 1938.
  • [24] Marriot’s salary was raised from ?400 to ?650.
  • [25] See, for example, Morning Post, 6 September 1934; Answers, 5 October 1935;Manchester Guardian, 3 March 1936; Express and Star, 4 September 1936.
  • [26] Paul Donovan (1997) All our Todays: Forty Years of Radio 4’s ‘Today’ Programme(London: Jonathan Cape) pp. 7-10, 18-19.
 
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