Collett’s achievements as a commentator in many ways exemplified what it took to be a successful woman broadcaster on the interwar BBC. She built strong relationships with producers who nurtured and promoted her; her links to public life and her association with royalty gave her an authority to speak; her sphere, though she insisted it was not fashion, was still appropriate for a woman, describing the spectacle of state functions and feminine events.
To be a broadcaster was to enter the nation’s homes. She or he personified the BBC’s public service ethos to inform, educate and, occasionally, to entertain. The live nature of the medium meant that, once the impromptu pioneering days were past, scripts were carefully checked and, where possible, rehearsed. Matheson’s professionalisation of broadcasting, with the introduction of guidelines for the way a talk should be written and delivered, clarified the intimate nature of the spoken word and marked out a special role for those who were able to captivate and engage.
The women considered in this chapter represent different facets of British broadcasting in the interwar years. Marion Cran was one of the earliest radio celebrities, her passion for gardens and her way of i nspiring the listener by evoking the beauty and poetry of her craft saw her gain an appreciative following and kept her in work at the BBC for eight years. Cran’s arena was the female daytime audience, which was also Ray Strachey primary domain. Strachey’s strength was her ability to turn her hand to a breadth of topics whether books, careers or citizenship, subjects to which, as a clever and accomplished older woman, she was able to bring an informed point of view. But both Cran and Strachey, it appears, were vulnerable to the whims of the Talks Department. Once the producer who championed them had left, they fell out of favour, in Cran’s case permanently. The eminence of Beatrice Webb protected her from this, it was her status as a national figure which had brought her to the BBC, the quality of her scriptwriting and the attractiveness of her voice then ensuring that she remained in demand. Webb only ever spoke in the evening schedules, something occasionally achieved by Strachey and by Edna Thorpe, in her capacity as representing the woman’s point of view. Thorpe’s broadcasting career was predicated on her status as a housewife. Her capacity to turn her life experiences into engaging talks made her invaluable to a BBC that was aware of this missing voice.
The very different ways in which the Corporation dealt with Sheila Borrett and Olga Collett highlight the fine line that was trodden when speaking on behalf of the BBC. Borrett was never castigated by her employers; it was the volume of listener complaint that prompted her removal. Collett, as an outside broadcaster, was highly praised for her commentary, the public events she described did not overstep the line of authority that Borrett was seen to have breached. Women’s voices and their authority on air have continued to be the subject of fierce debate. In the interwar years, thousands of women spoke before the microphone many of whom were widely appreciated and a small number garnered fame. But the contested role of women in public life meant that they were never used to the same extent as men, their right to talk for the nation only occasionally sanctioned. Like the institutional BBC, women were largely denied access to the most highly prized roles.