Mary Adams (1898-1984)

Mary Adams’ initial encounter with the BBC was prickly. A respected scientist she had been invited to give her first broadcast talk in 1927. The proposed topic, ‘The Differences between Men and Women’ was, however, seen as potentially contentious, which necessitated a change of angle to ‘Heredity and Environment’.[1] Luckily, the newly styled talk was ‘extremely successful’ and Adams was contracted to give a series of six further lectures on ‘Heredity’ the following spring. 1 [2] Yet concern was again raised, this time about a reference to ‘eugenists’ (Adams’ term) as well as allusions to birth control in her final script.[3] It was felt the statement ‘knowledge of birth control methods must be spread where most it is needed’ would bring controversy and criticism to the BBC, and so it had to be removed. After the series, while there were still some complaints from listeners that the broadcast programmes were too outspoken, most letters were highly appreciative. Adams’ position as a provocative figure would be evident throughout her career at the BBC.

In January 1930, Adams applied for a permanent BBC post as Adult Education Officer for the Home Counties, her letter of application revealing that she had been intensely interested in this area of work since 1924.[4] Her list of affiliations was impressive and included membership of the British Institute of Adult Education as well as a seat on the executive of the Eastern District WEA. Her letter ended with a statement of her belief in broadcasting as an educational tool and the ‘immense influence on public opinion’ that it could have. Adams was offered the job and joined the BBC on 5 May 1930, her ?650 starting salary higher than any male colleague. She had originally asked for ?800 but this was considered too high and instead she was persuaded to accept the lower figure, with the promise of ?50 increments for four subsequent years.[5] [6]

It quickly became apparent, however, that Adams was not suited to her new job. The work of an Adult Education Officer was largely organisational whereas she was an ‘ideas’ person. She became instead a programme assistant to Charles Siepmann who headed the BBC’s Adult Education Section at this time. Her specialisation was science and she was soon producing well-received series such as Pioneers ofHealth, Biology in the Service of Man and A1 or C3? The Future of the Race.176 Lambert considered her to be ‘outstanding’, certain that her ‘contacts with scientists at the universities and her ability to pick out the latest scientific developments and have them presented in a lively and informative way’ had transformed science broadcasting at the BBC.[7] Concerns remained, however, about Adams’ impatience with office routine, her tendency to act without reference to seniors and her obvious frustration with a system that demanded her work be scrutinised by management; ‘her enthusiasm is apt to outrun her discretion’ cautioned Siepmann.[8] Although unspoken, her left-wing views were seen as potentially damaging to the Corporation at a time when they were desperately trying to prove themselves otherwise.[9] [10]

As well as science talks for the Adult Education Department, Adams worked on General Talks, for instance the 1933 series I Knew a Man in which well-known figures looked back on the lives of great men and women they had known. She also produced debates on topical subjects; ‘That Women Are Bored with Emancipation’, broadcast in November 1935, being one example. 1 80 Her wide-ranging knowledge, her experience and her extensive network of contacts made her ‘a very valuable member of the staff’.[11] Through her own connections and those of her husband, she knew an extraordinary range of people and her expense claims reveal a constant stream of dinners, lunches and sherry parties where she mingled with the great and the good.[12] But unfortunately for Adams, she was to take much of the blame for the infamous ‘Ferrie Incident’ of March 1934. William Ferrie, a representative of the National Union of Vehicle Builders, had been invited to participate in the series The National Character.[13] Representing the views of Labour, he was asked by Adams, not unreasonably, to redraft his highly political script.[14] Adams believed she had mollified Ferrie but on the night of the broadcast he announced that his talk had been censored and marched out, leaving a 30-minute gap to be hurriedly filled with gramophone music. The incident caused uproar in the press and for many months the BBC was reluctant to take political risks. Later, it was acknowledged that Adams had probably been blamed unfairly; the incident had occurred at a time of particular sensitivity for the Corporation and Adams was the obvious scapegoat.[15] However, it was considered so serious that there had been calls from senior management for her to be sacked.[16]

In the event, ill-health prevented this. Two years previously she had undergone a serious operation and was due a second operation in the spring of 1934. This meant that she was away from the BBC during the furore.[17] [18] There was no way a paternalistic BBC could dismiss an employee at such a moment, especially as Adams had the support of her immediate managers and very probably, Reith. 1 88 Instead a compromise was found with Adams returning to a rare part-time job which removed the burden of too much office-based work. Although on reduced hours, she continued to work on many complex programmes, for instance Moonstruck Fish, an expose of the herring industry and another on the five-day working week.

By 1935, Adams felt ready to return full-time, a decision supported by those she worked most closely with, who were now confident that she had tamed her political edge. Senior management, however, remained unconvinced.[19] For instance, at a meeting with Nicolls, the Controller (Administration) in August 1935, Adams insisted that the perception of her as ‘a wild, unruly, Bolshevik sort of person’ was unjust. Nicolls’ response was that it was for her to prove that the view of her ‘as being unruly and a political axe-grinder’ was not a fair one.[20] By April 1936, the consensus was that Adams should return full-time, however, just as agreement was reached her pregnancy was announced.[21]

As had been the case with Somerville, Adams’ maternity leave was dealt with in a pragmatic and business-like manner. It was to be generous. Reith agreed that she should get maternity leave as if she were on the full-time staff.[22] There was a suggestion that the option of working part-time should still be offered, ‘Mrs Adams may prefer this herself when she has the baby, that is if she does not wish to retire altogether’.[23] Adams, however, was certain that she would want to return to work full-time.[24] On 28 September 1936, four weeks after her confinement, Adams wrote an effusive letter to Reith.[25] Thanking him for the lovely flowers and the welcome they gave to Sally, ‘who is already in my uncritical eyes, quite adorable’ she went on to enthuse that motherhood was very satisfactory, ‘Already I feel a new creature, riding on ardour and responsibility—and considering how best I can justify my existence to my daughter’. Bearing in mind this new sense of purpose she informed Reith that she felt ‘more and not less fitted for a position of responsibility’ and, in consequence, she was keen to apply for the position of Director of Talks which had recently been advertised. Even today, to put oneself forward for such a major promotion a month after giving birth would be viewed as unusual. How much more so in 1936, but Reith hardly batted an eyelid and agreed to her application going forward.

However, he ended his letter with a caution, ‘are you quite certain that you wish to live a double life, or are wise or right in doing so?’[26]

In September 1936, the BBC had finally publicised the position of Talks Director, a post that had been vacant for almost a year. Adams had expressed her interest in the job as early as April 1936, assuring Reith that she had ‘very much changed her opinion of things since she joined the Corporation, and was much less revolutionary now than she was then’.[24] [28] Adams, the only woman to be shortlisted for the ?1,200 a year post, made a good impression on the Appointment Board. 1 98 The post, however, went to Sir Richard Maconachie who had served as British Minister to Kabul from 1930 to 1936. It was implausible that Adams would have been offered the job whatever her circumstances. With more than a thousand applicants, she faced stiff competition from outside and the BBC was already of the opinion that the position should be offered to someone of a right-wing persuasion. Maconachie’s appointment satisfied this.[29] Adams was due to return full-time to the Talks Department in January 1937; however, visiting the BBC on his wife’s behalf, Vyvyan Adams requested that because of stress, she be allowed a further few weeks’ leave.[30] He also requested a move to Television for a few months, as he felt she needed a change from her present work. Whether Mary Adams was complicit in this request is not known, neither is it known why Television was the suggested destination. Probably the prospect of working under a new Talks Director was seen as untenable and Television Talks would have presented an exciting new challenge.

On 24 January 1937, Adams arrived at Alexandra Palace as the world’s first woman television producer. The BBC had launched its pioneering television service in September 1936, which was available to a small number of London homes.[31] Adams was an unusual recruit both in her age (she was nearly 39) and in her sex, nearly all her colleagues were thrusting young men who had been specifically appointed to the new medium.

Gerald Cock, the Head of Television, welcomed Adams’ wealth of contacts and ideas, but he was not impressed by her ability ‘on the floor’. He judged her ?800 salary ‘seriously out of proportion’ with others in the department and indeed Royston Morley, Eric Crozier and George More O’Ferrall, young men who would go on to have important television careers, earned considerably less.t 02 Despite this, Adams continued to receive annul rises of ?50 taking her salary in April 1939, to ?900.

Adams brought to television her maturity, her experience and her brimming contacts book. Her responsibility was for talks, her output immediately impressive. She made her screen debut on 8 March 1937 introducing a programme on ‘Architecture Today’ with Maxwell Fry and Professor Walter Gropius and later that week a discussion on ‘Food and Health’ with Robert Hudson, MP and John Hilton, two men she knew well. She was also responsible for the output directed specifically at women, in particular the series, World of Women which included personalities such as the artist Dame Laura Knight, the sculptor Lady Kennett and the poet Olga Katzin, who spoke about their work. Adams produced general interest programmes such as Picture Stories where well-known artists told their life story through drawings, as well as a tribute to the charismatic priest Dick Shepherd, broadcast a year after his death.[32] [33]

Described as small, birdlike and always well-dressed, photographs of Adams at this time capture her magnetism.[34] Frequently smoking a cigarette, she perches with her guests: purposeful, engaged, motivating. She was undoubtedly an intense woman and her early BBC career was marked by tension. But her value to the Corporation as a programme maker meant that concerns such as her political views, her ill-health and indeed her motherhood were surmounted by a management convinced of her ability and honourable in their behaviour towards a loyal member of staff. Like Somerville and Benzie, she would have an impressive post-war career with the Corporation promoted to Head of Television Talks in 1948 (where she worked alongside Somerville) and to Assistant to the Controller of Television in 1954, where she spotted the talent of Grace Wyndham Goldie.[35] Adams retired from the BBC in 1958.

  • [1] BBC/WAC:S322/17/2: Mary Adams: Heredity, Lambert to Adams, 3 August 1927.
  • [2] Lambert to Adams, 6 October 1927.
  • [3] Lambert to Adams, 16 December 1927, 19 December 1927. For a discussion on thepolitics of birth control in the interwar years see Jane Lewis (1990) The Politics of Motherhood:Child and Maternal Welfare in England 1900—1939 (London: Croom Helm) pp. 196-214.
  • [4] BBC/WAC:L2/5/3 Mary Adams Staff File:3 (hereafter MASF:3), 30 January 1930.
  • [5] BBC/WAC:L2/5/1: Mary Adams Staff File:1 (hereafter MASF:1), Goldsmith toSiepmann, 24 February 1931.
  • [6] For a discussion on Adams as a science producer see Allan Jones (2012) ‘Mary Adamsand the Producer’s Role in Early BBC Science Broadcasts’, Public Understanding of Science,21, 968-83.
  • [7] Lambert, Ariel and All his Quality, p. 75.
  • [8] MASF:1 Annual Report, February 1931, January 1932.
  • [9] For a discussion on left-wing bias in Talks see Scannell and Cardiff, A Social History ofBritish Broadcasting, pp. 155-60.
  • [10] The broadcast, on 2 November 1935, pitted E. Arnot Robinson against Nancy Astor.
  • [11] MASF:1 Annual Report, January 1934.
  • [12] For example, in May 1936 Adams claimed for 20 separate engagements. These includedlunching Miss Buckley and Mr Rowntree (on the young architects group); consulting SirNorman Angell (on the Peace series); sherry to Dr and Mrs Silk and Mr Roote (Praguejournalists) and dining with Margery Fry (contact on Autumn programme), BBC/WAC:S322/39/2 Mary Adams Correspondence, Expenses May 1936.
  • [13] For more on the series and Ferrie’s contribution see Scannell and Cardiff, A SocialHistory of British Broadcasting, pp. 290-1.
  • [14] BBC/WAC:910FER: William Ferrie, letters from Adams to Ferrie.
  • [15] MASF:1, Nicolls to Graves, 30 April 1936.
  • [16] It looks probable that Colonel Dawnay, the Controller (Programmes), had instituted this.
  • [17] Although requested by Administration several times, no specifics of the procedure weregiven, the suggestion being that it was of a female nature.
  • [18] MASF:1, Nicolls to Carpendale, 19 July 1935.
  • [19] See, for example, MASF:1 Siepmann to Dawnay, 21 June 1935 , Rose-Troup to Dawnay,25 July 1935.
  • [20] MASF:1, Nicolls to Dawnay, 19 August 1935.
  • [21] MASF:1, Rose-Troup to Graves, 7 February 1936.
  • [22] MASF:1, Reith to Graves and Nicolls, 21 April 1936.
  • [23] MASF:1, 20 April 1936 unclear who written by/to.
  • [24] MASF:1, Reith to Carpendale and Graves, 21 April 1936.
  • [25] MASF:1, Mary Adams to Reith, 28 September 1936.
  • [26] MASF:1, Reith to Mary Adams, 5 October 1936.
  • [27] MASF:1, Reith to Carpendale and Graves, 21 April 1936.
  • [28] MASF:1, Carpendale to Adams, 3 December 1936.
  • [29] Briggs, The Golden Age of Wireless, pp. 148-9.
  • [30] MASF:1, Pym to Nicolls, 1 January 1937. Her father had died that week and she hadjust weaned the baby.
  • [31] For the early history of BBC television see Briggs, The Golden Age of Wireless, pp. 519622. See also Gordon Ross (1961) Television Jubilee: The Story of 25 Years of BBC Television(London: W.H. Allen).
  • [32] MASF:1, Confidential Report First Quarter 1938. In January 1937, Morley andCrozier, both Assistant Producers, earned ?260; More O’Ferrall, a Producer like Adams,earned ?400.
  • [33] Radio Times, 7 October 1938.
  • [34] Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Mary Adams.
  • [35] Higgins, This New Noise, pp. 78-83.
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