Subscriber Only

The BBC: A People’s History – Essential reading as broadcaster fights crisis

Book review: David Hendy’s timely reminder of corporation’s remarkable achievements

The BBC: A People’s History
Author: David Hendy
ISBN-13: 978-1781255254
Publisher: Profile Books
Guideline Price: £25

To mark its centenary the BBC is facing the deepest, most extensive, near existential series of crises in its history. The hostile Conservative government of Boris Johnson is apparently hell-bent on freezing the licence fee in inflationary times for two years and abolishing it in 2027 as part of a series of populist policies – “ red meat”– to try to save his premiership. The move comes amid repeated attacks over “bias” stoked on a daily basis by the right-wing tabloids that have forced the organisation onto the back foot.

For good measure, all the national public service broadcasters, including RTÉ, face unprecedented competition from, and false comparisons with, the giant US streaming subscription organisations such as Netflix and Disney +. So the arrival of David Hendy’s The BBC: A People’s History could hardly be more timely or welcome.

Hendy, a professor of media and cultural history at Sussex University, demonstrates that across the BBC’s 100 years there is nothing new under the sun. The corporation’s current predicament may be remarkable for its intensity, but the BBC has often faced hostility from governments – right back to its first days, when the pioneering broadcaster was required to avoid all matters of controversy or lose its licence.

As it is after all a People's History, considerable emphasis is also given to the emerging mass audiences and what they made of it all

Hendy details most of those bitter rows with government from the General Strike to the Falklands and Iraq wars, and Margaret Thatcher’s visceral, ideological hated of the BBC. Frozen licence fees are nothing new either.

The controversies and the colourful history are related not just in the voices of the now almost forgotten broadcasting big-shots of the day but also the editors, producers and engineers.

As it is after all a People’s History, considerable emphasis is given to the emerging mass audiences and what they made of it all – in particular the great impossibility faced by all public service broadcasters of providing something of interest to everyone when a multitude want more of this and less of that.

An entry from the diary of a retired nurse, written in the opening months of the second World War, is typical of many ambivalent attitudes to public service broadcasting, then and now. Muriel Greenway had often turned off her radio in despair because of all the “high-toned” music and sloppy jazz, but when her set was broken for three weeks she declared herself lost, “as if a friend had gone from the house”.

Later, BBC radio marched to a pyramid theory of ascending aspiration across three services – the Light programme, the Home programme and the Third for the most cerebral offering. The hope was that listeners would be taken gently and led up to the apex by making the best available to all. It never happened, of course – a likely reflection of the British class system. Such ideas were then finally blown apart by the arrival of the pirate radio stations.

Hendy is clear about what he is trying to achieve and what he is not. Asa Briggs’s majestic, five-volume history of the BBC was mainly about the details of policymaking. Hendy is more interested in the people who actually created the institution through its programmes, often made by anarchic, creative individuals finding free space despite the bureaucracy above them.

Their voices are all here because Hendy had access to what he believes is one of the corporation’s most underused treasures: several hundred candid oral interviews with former staff. They include former director generals but also receptionists and lift attendants. The result is a treasure trove of marvellous detail and some revelations.

We hear, for instance, that British national treasure David Attenborough was rejected as presenter for the intellectual quiz show Animal, Vegetable or Mineral? because it was judged that his teeth were too big for television. Attenborough was, however, allowed to choose the objects and organise the boozy lunches that enlivened the subsequent broadcasts, before moving on to greater things.

Hendy lovingly recreates just how remarkable that achievement has been, and still is, and how the danger is that it might be underestimated

After the first edition of the ground-breaking That Was the Week That Was, which ushered in the age of satire, the cast jumped into taxis to go to a Kings Road restaurant to dine on beef and mango while waiting for the early editions of the Sunday papers and rave reviews.

More significantly, the reason given for closing down TWTWTW – that you couldn’t run such a programmes in 1964, an election year – was, of course, nonsense. The real reason was government pressure on the governors.

It would be unfair to criticise a book for what it never seta out to be, although the people and the detail tend to crowd out some of the policy. There is also perhaps an understandable bias of interest in the past, with two-thirds of the book devoted to the first half of the BBC’s existence, inevitably leading to later compression.

The chairmanship of George Howard, for example, is reduced to noting that he was a Tory land-owning Whig who wanted to entertain lavishly at the expense of licence payers and required young women to be produced on foreign trips. And apart from the Real Lives row, which undermined then director general Alasdair Milne, his chairman at the time, Stuart Young, manages only a couple of paragraphs.

A People’s History has carved out its own domain and is a valuable contribution to understanding how the very concept of broadcasting had to be created from a blank page and repeatedly reinvented in the face of changing technology and, now, rapidly changing public taste.

Hendy lovingly recreates just how remarkable that achievement was and still is, and how the danger is that it might be underestimated because of the series of internal crises and inquiries, many self-inflicted, including the Hutton inquiry into Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, the death of David Kelly, the Jimmy Savile scandal, and Martin Bashir’s Princess Diana interview.

Alas, the old nostrum proves true that when the UK is divided, and it is now, the BBC “is always on the rack”. For Hendy, the BBC has never been about payment for a commodity for oneself – it is about contributing to a reservoir of shared knowledge or collective experience. And like retired nurse Greenway long ago: “we sometimes never know how much we need or want something until it’s gone”.

The book is essential reading for Nadine Dorries before she starts tweeting again on the BBC and its licence fee.

Raymond Snoddy covered the British media for many years at the Financial Times and the Times