Janet Quigley, ‘Tea Time Talks’

Margery Wace’s replacement in the Talks Department in August 1936 was 34-year-old Janet Quigley who was transferred from a demanding job as Isa Benzie’s assistant in the Foreign Department where she had worked for six years. It was to be a shrewd choice, with Oxford-educated Quigley excelling as a talks producer.[1] Quigley would not only work on the output aimed at women but also on a number of high profile evening programmes including Men Talking and the controversial series Towards National Health.[2] Once ensconced in the Talks Department, she was quickly praised for her hard work, her ability to handle speakers, her good ideas and her discretion. The task of following Miss Wace was seen to be a difficult one, which she coped with admirably.[3]

Soon after Quigley’s arrival in September 1936 there was a change to the schedules and a new experiment in women’s talks, Five O’Clock. While this may have been a response to the Women’s Conference it could also have been linked to the growing popularity of continental stations, such as Radio Luxembourg, which had the effect of loosening up the BBC schedules from this time.[4] Broadcast weekly on a Monday, Five O’Clock replaced that day’s Morning Talk. It is improbable that Quigley would have had an input into the change of time, as she had only arrived in the department the previous month, but she would certainly have influenced the content. Aimed at the family ‘sitting round the tea table, waiting to be entertained’ it continued the familiar pattern of a 15-minute talk by an expert, usually a woman.[5] In the nine months it was on air, this ranged from a motor-car consultant and the owner of a silkworm farm to an inventor, an antiques dealer and a golfing star discussing her wardrobe.[6] From September 1937, Five O Clock was replaced by a new series, Tea Time Talks planned on similar lines but, according to Radio Times, with ‘perhaps ... a rather lighter note’.[7] The series, which boasted the first talk to women ‘on making the most of their looks’, survived until the outbreak of war.[8]

Quigley’s zeal to help women is revealed in a fervent exchange of memos about a proposed new series in November 1936. The first memo, headed ‘The Beauty Racket’ disclosed Quigley’s ‘mission’ to save women, particularly those who were badly off, from the ‘tyranny’ of beauty advertising.[9] She was particularly incensed, she wrote, by what she viewed as the conning of women into spending large sums of money on products with doubtful benefits, believing themselves doomed if they were unable to purchase the new face powder or anti-wrinkle cream. Her series, in contrast, would show women how they could keep, ‘skin, hair and hands in good condition and also indulge in moderate cosmetics for ten shillings a year!’ Because this was a potentially contentious topic, Quigley needed approval from senior management but the response from Cecil Graves, Controller of Programmes, was a curt ‘no’. Having discussed the idea at Programme Committee there was concern that the fury of manufactures would be raised if the BBC was seen to suggest that women could make themselves beautiful by soap and water alone. In addition, from the point of view of Radio Times advertisements, which included beauty products, it would be difficult.[10] Not to be deterred, Quigley re-presented her

‘considerably modified’ ideas to Maconachie, the new Director of Talks, in July 1937. Assuring him that she was no longer ‘burning with indignation’ at the beauty trade, she hoped that an occasional series of talks on the care of the skin, hands and hair might be included in the autumn sched- ules.[11] The series was again proposed to Graves, Maconachie citing as his excuse ‘the quenching of Miss Quigley’s spirit’.[12] This time it was agreed, and Mary Embrey presented the first ‘Making the Most of your Looks’ as part of Teatime Talks on 21 October 1937.

As well as overseeing the new afternoon programme, Quigley took over with enthusiasm the Friday morning child welfare talks. While appreciating their value, particularly for working-class mothers, Quigley was anxious about the way correspondence was handled.[13] Because the doctors used in the series were anonymous, letters from listeners were not forwarded on to them for reply which, she believed, severely reduced the value of the service. Writing to Maconachie, Quigley gave the example of a mother of three, expecting her fourth, who had written to the BBC following a programme on the importance of diet during pregnancy. ‘Yes, she knew that she should drink two pints of milk a day at this time, but what was the use of telling people like her when she had not enough money to get herself an extra cupful, let alone a pint’.[14] By not responding, Quigley claimed, the BBC were withholding much needed information that free milk was available at the nearest health clinic. Quigley’s suggestion, that at the end of each series an entire programme should be devoted to clarifying information and answering queries, was taken up.

Another of the responsibilities Quigley assumed was The Week in Westminster. Under the stewardship of Wace the programme had undergone a major modification when, in 1931, male MPs were introduced as speakers. In January 1937, with a new time-slot was proposed, Quigley sensed that the character of the programme was again about to change, voicing her regret as she believed it provided an important service for women.[15] Maconachie confirmed that there was indeed an intention to broaden the talks beyond the female audience. It needed to appeal to a larger section of more serious-minded listeners and from September 1937

The Week in Westminster was divorced from women’s talks. 1 28 Quigley, however, insisted on producing the new-look programme which she did until it was temporarily discontinued at the outbreak of war.

In April 1937, Quigley instigated the first of her own series, the experiential Other Women’s Lives. Broadcast at 10.45 am on Saturdays, it brought to the microphone an eclectic assortment of expert and ‘ordinary’ women including Agnes Smith, who began her working life as a ‘doffer’ in a cotton factory, Mrs Edward Harvey who ran a general store in a working-class district of Liverpool, the film critic Winifred Holmes and Mrs Olga Collett, supervisor of women staff for ICI, whom we shall meet in Chapter 8. Like her predecessor, Quigley’s output predominantly addressed women as homemakers with series such as Sickness in the House about the care of invalids and the elderly and Housewives and Experts aimed at those who did their own DIY.[16] [17] A six-part series on Careers for Girls in spring 1939, made in collaboration with Ray Strachey and the Women’s Employment Federation, was constructed as a short talk from a ‘young and enthusiastic’ member of each selected job (nursing, physical training, domestic service, dressmaking, the Civil Service and secretarial work) followed by a brief description of the training required, promotion prospects and so on which were provided by Strachey.[18] Quigley had requested that the talks be broadcast in the early evening ‘so that fathers as well as mothers could hear them’ but in the event, they were placed at 2.45 pm on Saturdays.

The series Mistress and Maid broadcast from January 1938 revisited a perennial interwar issue: the servant problem.[19] The shortage of domestic staff had been a preoccupation of the middle classes since the end of the First World War with the employment of a maid continuing to symbolise affluence. The topic had been addressed within women’s talks several times before, both in individual programmes and in broader series.[20] Quigley replicated the format of the earlier broadcasts which had utilised a range of viewpoints; in her series, 16 different speakers were used. As with previous series there was no debate about servitude itself rather, as an article in The Listener elucidated, those who spoke had expressed opinions on why the servant shortage had arisen and how best the situation might be dealt with, stressing issues of status, flexibility and pay.[21] Quigley was satisfied the subject had been given a thorough airing and was particularly pleased that in many households, mistress and maid had listened together, discussing the talks afterwards.[22] The correspondence had also been impassioned, hailing the BBC on the one side, ‘as the courageous spokesmen of a maligned and inarticulate class’, and, on the other, ‘accused, usually by contented servants, of stirring up unnecessary trouble’.

Janet Quigley’s final daytime programmes, before the BBC introduced its wartime schedules, increasingly focused on the looming hostilities.[23] ‘The Housewife in an Emergency’, for example, broadcast on three consecutive Tuesday mornings from 15 August, included advice on food shortages, tips on storage and the use of canned food. This gave a foretaste of Quigley’s extensive wartime series for women which would include The Kitchen Front, Calling All Women, Your Health in Wartime and Talking it Over, for which, in 1944, she was awarded an MBE.[24] In 1950, after a break of five years following her marriage in 1945, Quigley would resume her association with women’s programmes as Editor of Woman’s Hour, retiring as the BBC’s Assistant Head of Talks in 1962.[25]

  • [1] BBC/WAC:L1/784/1, Janet Quigley Staff File (hereafter JQSF:1).
  • [2] Quigley worked on the series with Guy Burgess. See Karpf, Doctoring the Media.,pp. 37-8.
  • [3] JQSF:1, Confidential Report, April 1937.
  • [4] See Scannell and Cardiff, A Social History of British Broadcasting, pp. 230-5.
  • [5] Radio Times, 28 September 1936.
  • [6] Broadcast 19 October 1936, 9 November 1936, 4 January 1937.
  • [7] Radio Times, 23 September 1937.
  • [8] In fact Barbara Cartland had spoken on this topic in 1929.
  • [9] BBC/WAC:R51/397/1a: Talks Policy, Quigley to Rose-Troup, 9 November 1936.
  • [10] BBC/WAC:R51/397/1a, Graves to Rose-Troup, 9 November 1936.
  • [11] BBC/WAC:R51/397/1a, Quigley to Maconachie, 6 July 1937.
  • [12] BBC/WAC:R51/397/1a, Maconachie to Graves, 14 July 1937.
  • [13] BBC/WAC:R51/210/1: Health, North Regional Programme Director to Maconachie,1 February 1937.
  • [14] BBC/WAC:R51/75, Quigley to Maconachie, 19 April 1937.
  • [15] BBC/WAC:R51/115: Week in Westminster, Quigley to Maconachie, 7 January 1937.
  • [16] BBC/WAC:R51/115, Green to Barnes, 24 June 1937.
  • [17] BBC/WAC:R51/397/2: Talks Policy:2. The reports are dated 29 April 1938 and weresent by Quigley to Maconachie.
  • [18] BBC/WAC:R51/69/4: Careers, Quigley to Maconachie, 1 February 1939.
  • [19] The shortage of servants was viewed as a significant problem for the middle classes, seefor example Alison Light (2007) Mrs Woolf and the Servants: The Hidden Heart of DomesticService (London: Fig Tree); Lucy Delap (2011) Knowing their Place: Domestic Service inTwentieth Century Britain (Oxford: Oxford University Press).
  • [20] In 1924, ‘The Domestic Service Problem’ had included broadcasts by women whoemployed servants and servants themselves as had the 1930s series ‘The Future of DomesticService’.
  • [21] The Listener, 23 February 1938.
  • [22] Talks Policy: 2, Janet Quigley Quarterly Reports, 29 April 1938.
  • [23] This was introduced on 4 September 1939.
  • [24] See Sian Nicholas (1996) The Echo of War: Home Front Propaganda and the WartimeBBC (Manchester: Manchester University Press) pp. 70-100.
  • [25] See Kristin Skoog (2010) ‘The “Responsible” Woman: The BBC and Women’s Radio1945-1955’ (Unpublished doctoral thesis: University of Westminster).
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