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Home arrow History arrow Behind the Wireless: A History of Early Women at the BBC

Being a Talks Assistant at the BBC

In 1931, in a letter to Mary Agnes Hamilton, Matheson expressed her confidence in the quality of BBC talks:

I do honestly believe that no other broadcasting service can show anything the least comparable in an attempt to cater for different audiences by hunting for appropriate speakers and ways of approach and insisting on the sorts of standard in both that we aspire to.[1]

The job of Talks Assistant at the BBC (the title given to talks producers from 1925) was multifaceted and involved, amongst other responsibilities, finding pertinent topics for broadcast, booking suitable guests, discussing with contributors the process of writing for radio, checking and advising on manuscripts, organising rehearsals and overseeing the final delivery of the talks in the studio.

Like all Talks Assistants, Fitzgerald, Sprott, Wace and Quigley were answerable to their managers in the Talks Department (or, in the case of Fitzgerald, what would become the Talks Department). Yet, because the programmes they produced were aimed at female listeners, they were not viewed as a high priority which meant they largely escaped the intense managerial scrutiny of the prestigious evening talks. This gave the women a high level of autonomy and enabled them to adapt and develop their own interests and ideas for women’s programmes, always within the Talks Department framework. The character and ethos of the Department changed during the interwar years, depending on who was in charge and the disposition of senior executives. Talks initially came under the umbrella of the Programme Director, Arthur Burrows and the Assistant Talks Director, Cecil Lewis before being moved to the Education Department headed by J.C. Stobart in 1924. Hilda Matheson, the first Director of Talks, assumed the post in January 1927 to be followed, on her resignation in January 1932, by Charles Siepmann. When Siepmann was transferred to the new post of Director of Regional Relations in 1935, the position of Talks Director was temporarily filled by J.M. Rose-Troup before Sir Richard Maconachie assumed the role in 1936. The left-wing-right-wing bias of the Department has long been a topic of academic debate (and was fiercely discussed in the contemporary press) with the Matheson/ Siepmann years viewed as much bolder and more radical than those of Maconachie who was more conservative and more risk-averse.[2]

It was often pointed out that the BBC’s female listeners were in the fortunate position of being able to enjoy their own dedicated programmes as well as the general talks output. An editorial in The Listener typified the view that, whereas women might often be interested in subjects intended for men, ‘programmes designed specially for women will, with very few exceptions, interest women only’.[3] For this reason, the BBC rarely placed specific talks for women in the evening schedules. There might be women- related items, but these would be expected to have broader relevance. This did not mean that the daytime schedules were bursting with women’s programmes. Music always made up the largest part of the broadcast day augmented by Schools output during term-times. But throughout the interwar years there was usually at least one 15-minute talk aimed at the female audience each weekday. Sometimes there were more, occasionally none at all, but they were a significant fixture.

Yet, as we shall see, there was concern that by targeting women the BBC might both pigeonhole its female audience and alienate its daytime male listeners, something that became particularly pertinent from the early

1930s when the Corporation embraced the issue of the unemployed. 1 2 From 1924, the notion of ‘talks of general interest but with particular appeal to women’ was the approach taken, which continued to be the over-riding policy of the interwar years. 1 3 After the demise of Women’s Hour in 1924, these talks always had non-gender-specific titles such as Morning Talks, Five O’Clock, Teatime Talks. Even Household Talks avoided the use of the word housewife, although they were undoubtedly the intended audience.

The BBC, however, faced a far larger problem than how to frame its female-orientated output. Unlike the women’s page of a newspaper or the abundant market in women’s magazines, it did not have the luxury of a self-selecting readership; rather, apart from a national or regional option, its programmes were listened to by all. 14 As Mary Grieve, the Editor of Woman, pinpointed: ‘pre-war divisions of taste and income set a strict limit on the number of like-minded women it was possible to gather together’, hence the plethora of carefully targeted women’s magazines.[4] [5] [6] [7] As early as 1924, Fitzgerald was aware that on radio ‘no such catholicity of choice is open to women listeners, since there is a common programme for all’.[8] But who was the woman listener? ‘Cultured woman’, ‘young industrial woman’, ‘modern mother’, ‘Devon village woman’, ‘lonely spinster’, ‘Miss Mayfair’, ‘professional woman’, were just a smattering of those imagined in Radio Times. The challenge of creating output that satisfied women of all ages and social classes; married and unmarried; homemaker and employee; in town and countryside was always going to be an almost impossible task. Understandably, most daytime talks reflected an audience that was predominantly one of housewives. Margery Wace, for example, would gain the sobriquet ‘The Housewives’ Friend’.

It was not until 1936, with the advent of Listener Research, that the BBC was finally able to clarify that working-class housewives formed the bulk of the weekday listenership. 1 7 Margaret Bondfield MP would have concurred that it was this audience whose lives had been most radically changed by radio. Writing in Radio Times in 1937, she praised how ‘the slender wire brings the world and its affairs into the tiny kitchens and living rooms which hitherto had isolated so many housekeepers in the performance of their duties’.[9] [10] Matheson, too, was unequivocal that working-class women were the main benefactors of radio, citing evidence from ‘particularly poorer women’, as to what a wireless set meant to them as ‘one of the most remarkable and encouraging results of broadcasting’.[11]

Matheson was also aware of a strong demand amongst women listeners ‘for talks outside the common round of household drudgery, on travel, on books, on play producing ... on how people live in other countries’.[12] Fitzgerald, Sprott, Wace and Quigley grappled with this balance between domesticity and edification throughout the 1920s and 30s, shaped by their understanding of modernity coupled with the social, political and cultural mores of the times. There is little to suggest that they were openly feminist in their outlook, rather they could be equated with what Alison Light has termed ‘conservative modernity’, bringing new ideas and ideals into the domestic sphere.[13] The influence of social maternalism is clearly apparent in the output, with a strong focus on childrearing, maternal health, infant welfare and diet? [14] The application of novel technologies such as gas and electricity along with expert and scientific ways of approaching housework are especially evident in the 1920s giving way to a more shared and experiential focus in the 1930s. Citizenship was always important, informing listeners about their rights and responsibilities, and was especially pertinent at the time of the 1928 Equal Franchise Act which extended the vote to all adult women.[15] New opportunities for women in terms of careers, sports, leisure pastimes and adventure were also strongly featured as were items on appearance and fashion.24 As Adrian Bingham has shown, these were the bread-and butter issues of the popular press.25 A sense of aspiration, of women’s desire to improve their lives, pervaded the period and the BBC unquestionably tapped into this.26

  • [1] BBC/WAC: Rcont 1: Mary Agnes Hamilton Talks File, Matheson to Hamilton, 29August 1931.
  • [2] See Paddy Scannell and David Cardiff (1991) A Social History of British Broadcasting,1922—1939 (London: Basil Blackwood) pp. 155-61.
  • [3] The Listener, 24 November 1938.
  • [4] See Scannell and Cardiff, A Social History of British Broadcasting, pp. 57-71.
  • [5] BBC/WAC:R6/219: Women’s Advisory Committee, 30 April 1924.
  • [6] For a discussion on women’s magazines and women’s pages in newspapers seeD.L. LeMahieu (1988) A Culture for Democracy: Mass Communications and the CultivatedMind in Britain between the Wars (Oxford: Oxford University Press) pp. 39-43; AdrianBingham (2004) Gender, Modernity, and the Popular Press in Inter-War Britain (Oxford:Clarendon Press) pp. 39-42; Fiona Hackney (2011) ‘“They Opened Up a Whole NewWorld”: Feminism, Modernity and the Feminine Imagination in Women’s Magazines,1919-1939’ (Unpublished doctoral dissertation: University of London).
  • [7] Mary Grieve (1964) Millions Made my Story (London: Gollancz) p. 90.
  • [8] Radio Times, 17 October 1924.
  • [9] Mark Pegg (1983) Broadcasting and Society 1918-1939 (London: Croom Helm) p. 120.
  • [10] Radio Times, 12 November 1937, ‘Women’s Broadcasting Number’.
  • [11] Hilda Matheson (1933) Broadcasting (London: Thornton Butterworth) p. 188.
  • [12] Matheson, Broadcasting, p. 190.
  • [13] Alison Light (1991) Forever England, Femininity, Literature and Conservatism betweenthe Wars (London: Routledge) pp. 10-11.
  • [14] Jane Lewis (1990) The Politics of Motherhood: Child and Maternal Welfare in England1900-1939 (London: Croom Helm) pp. 89-102.
  • [15] Michael Bailey has written about radio’s place in reconciling women’s role as housewivesand mothers while at the same time recognising their enhanced function as citizens. Michael
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