The BBC is marking scenes in my life, as it must for millions – aren’t we lucky to have it? | IanJack

Mdays are laundry days. In the kitchen, steam rises from the sink and my mother squeezes soaked clothes through the mangle. On the radio a man sings Oh what a beautiful morning from the musical Oklahoma. Later in my childhood, other songs made their mark: All you can do (I can do better), Music, Music, Music, (How much is) that dog in the window?. But the opening number in Oklahoma is the first music I remember and can put a name to: a memory preserved, perhaps, through the song’s association with the sun and the importance of sunshine for wash days.

Of course, I had no idea where the song came from or how songs in general came about; no idea of Rodgers and Hammerstein; I wouldn’t know corn (“as high as an elephant’s eye” or otherwise) if I met him dancing in the street. I also didn’t know what was old and what was new. Children, when they encounter the world for the first time, imagine that what they hear and see has always been there. This is how, for many years, I thought of Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ – as eternal – when in fact, first sung on Broadway in 1943, it was only a few years old. more than me.

Likewise, the organization that brought her to us: the BBC had only been founded some twenty years earlier, in 1922, and was therefore much younger than my parents, who never called her by its name (“Let’s listen to the BBC”) but always as an instrument (“Let’s listen to the wireless”). The two were synonymous. Other stations were marked on the dial – Luxembourg, Hilversum, Athlone – but apart from a flirtation with Lord Haw-Haw during the recent Second World War, my parents had ears only for the BBC Home Service and the BBC Light Programme.

The BBC had a good war. “To inform, educate and entertain” was the mission statement of its Presbyterian founder, Lord Reith, but until 1939 none of these goals had been achieved in grand style. The days when she could consider herself the voice of the nation – its comforter, its best expression and its main adornment – ​​were far from over. Dance bands, symphony orchestras and plays were his great attractions. He relayed the news to his audience with hesitation and tact. Radios were banned in gentlemen’s clubs and the Palace of Westminster, and until 1938 nothing but church services was broadcast on Sunday mornings. According to Edward Stourton’s BBC story, a broadcast started: “Good evening, today is Good Friday. There are no news.”

Even when the information existed, the BBC felt it was best left to the newspapers. By the mid-1930s he had managed to set up a news service, but even so he employed no journalists, only text editors who fashioned news stories from copy provided by Reuters. Its first journalist, Richard Dimbbywas hired at a Southampton newspaper on the basis of his new suggestion that certain recruits from the press staff could be “kept ready, just like the men of the evening paper, to cover the unexpected news of the day…a great fire, railroad accidents, pit accidents, or any other major disaster in which the public, I fear, is deeply interested”.

The war shook BBC break out of its social conservatism and massively expand its operation. The need for entertainment, public information and propaganda swelled the number of employees from 3,500 in 1937 to 9,000 in the summer of 1941. (Today it directly employs about 22,000 people.) keeping the moral and report the facts.

Winston Churchill, who hated the BBC, wanted the Ministry of Information to be the sole provider of the war narrative. It was the job of the armed forces, in his words, “to supply the ministry with the raw meat and vegetables and the ministry to cook and serve the dish to the public”. Resistance from the BBC altered this crude ambition, but the truth was always a casualty. The retreat from France was transformed into the courageous triumph of Dunkirk; shocking casualty figures Dieppe Raida bloody debacle, were suppressed.

However, as the war progressed, efforts were made to preserve the credibility of the BBC: a senior adviser wrote that lies were only worth spreading if they brought “considerable” military advantage. . George Orwell, then a talk show producer in the Eastern Service, felt that, compared to the flow of enemy propaganda, “our little corner” had remained “pretty clean”. And we were, after all, trying to win.

The BBC I grew up with was born in those years, remembered by many who lived through them less for their newscasts than for their escapism. At least that was how it was at home. I heard so much from my parents and my older brother about It’s that man again that I began to believe that I had heard the comedy series myself. It ended with the death of its star, Tommy Handley, in 1949, but some of its catchphrases remained relevant into the 1960s: “Can I do you now, sir?” (Mrs. Mopp); “After you, Cecil” (Claude); “No, after you, Claude” (Cécil). By then they had been joined by streams of other later radio show catchphrases – Much Binding in the Marsh, Take it From Here, Ray’s a Laugh, Around the Horn – so that conversations in the radio age, perhaps especially among schoolchildren, became almost Freemasonic in their mysteries to anyone who had never heard of them”He fell in the water” on the Goon Show or “Stone me!” within half an hour of Hancock.

We had a television in 1961 and the BBC first became visible to us – literally, through its typographic branding, its newsreaders, glimpses of its studios, offices and transmitters. It used to exist only as noises – music, words, laughter, applause, sound effects, knocks on doors (“Can I do you now, sir?”), splashes (“He fell in the water “). BBC Television has a list of terrific accomplishments; BBC Radio flourishes in its shadow. With their overseas services, they still represent one of the world’s great cultural projects, despite continual harassment from free-market ideologues and cost-cutting from malevolent governments. It seems unlikely that Britain will again invent something so admired and so influential; we were lucky to have it.

As it must for millions of others, it marks scenes in my own life. As a reporter in a seedy Indian hotel room, trying to locate the World Service on a shortwave radio; as a son coming home late one night to find his father surprised and amused by the satire of That Was the Week That Was; as a schoolboy doing his Sunday night homework to the distinguished waltzes of Max Jaffa and his Palm Court Orchestra. And then the first moment: Mom with her mutilation, wet clothes hanging out to dry, oh what a beautiful morning. I guess Housewives’ Choice, sometime in 1948.

The BBC celebrated its centenary last Tuesday. May it last a long time.

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