Wednesday 20 February 2019

A Dozen Great Women

Tribute Portraits of a Dozen Pioneering Women 
in British Radio

1. Delia Derbyshire – early electronic sound synthesist

"My most beautiful sound at the time was a tatty green BBC lampshade," she recalled. "It was the wrong colour, but it had a beautiful ringing sound to it. I hit the lampshade, recorded that, faded it up into the ringing part without the percussive start."

Delia had studied acoustics, which she enjoyed for its mix of mathematics and music. A career at Decca records appealed, but the company turned her down - saying they did not employ women in their recording studios. 

After a spell at a music publishers, Delia joined the BBC in 1960 as a trainee studio manager. Fascinated by the new Radiophonic Workshop, established originally to serve BBC radio drama, she was granted an attachment there and began to indulge her fascination.

Her most famous work emerged shortly afterwards with her interpretation of Ron Grainer's score for the then new BBC series, Dr Who. In a world without synthesisers or even multi-track tape recorders, Delia devised ways to interpret ‘clouds’, ‘bubbles’ or ‘wind’ using tape speed, dubbing - and a huge amount of imagination.

Her briefs were varied, from drama projects to audio elements for science, arts and educational programmes.  For a time, the Workshop where she was a leading figure generated a multitude of familiar radio theme tunes and jingles on BBC local and network radio.  For each, she assembled a collage of sound, drawing on anything to hand, from her own voice to bells, gravel or the famous lampshade.

Delia was said to have influenced The Beatles, The Chemical Brothers and Pink Floyd. Her work stretched beyond BBC projects to major music festivals and working with leading composers.

Delia died in July 2001. 

2. Clare Lawson Dick – Radio 4 Controller.

Said to be the first woman to come to work at the BBC wearing trousers, Clare Lawson rose from the post of temporary filing clerk in the Reithian days to become the first female Controller of BBC Radio 4 in the 1970s.

Her arrival at the BBC on 10 shillings a day in 1935 was the result of many determined applications. The job was based at Wood Norton Hall, the BBC’s secret wartime location, working in the BBC’s Registry.

Once in London, when her own flat was bombed, she moved into the basement of Broadcasting House where she ‘worked, eat, drank and played” with colleagues.

For eighteen years, Clare was chief assistant at the Home Service and the new Radio 4, being appointed Controller in 1975 on the death of the previous incumbent, for whom she’d covered in illness. Her understanding of the station’s scheduling was said to be second to none and she said Radio 4 should appeal “not only to the intellect but also the emotions”. She restored ‘Down Your Way’ to the schedule.

62 years old at the time of her appointment, the Observer reported that “when she glides into the office, the tall slender Miss Lawson Dick looks more like a fashion house directrice in her late forties”

Clare died in June 1987

3. Olive Shapley – innovative radio producer and broadcaster

Famously, during a live programme featuring Durham miners, called 'Men Talking', Olive was said to have marched in silently holding a placard bearing the words: “don't say bugger or bloody".

Olive had joined the BBC in 1934, co-ordinating Children's Hour programming in Manchester, which included lengthy live plays.

Her father was a sanitary inspector, which left Olive well aware of the impact of poverty. As a documentary-maker, her programmes Homeless People and Miners Wives reflected her concern for the disadvantaged. She was one of the first to take the microphone out to people in their everyday lives - rather than be limited to studio-based programmes. Through this approach, rich regional accents were aired on the BBC – not always a popular move at the time.

Woman’s Hour became a regular home for Olive after the War, with an association stretching twenty years, becoming its third ever presenter; and she produced the programme between 1949 and 1953.

In her autobiography, ‘Broadcasting a Life’, she recalled one of the earliest pieces of advice she received from another woman at the BBC, suggesting that a crucial thing to know was “how the gentlemen like their tea”.

Olive died in March 1999.

4. Olga Collett – early radio commentator

"I refused from the start to be a woman commentator- I said i will be a commentator or nothing. I will not describe fashions - and I never did." 

Olga was the only women between the Wars to work as a commentator for the BBC’s outside broadcast unit, delighting audiences with her broadcasts from Covent Garden and Ascot. 

Olga graduated to commentary from a spell with the Talks department, broadcasting her first programme in 1937 on political canvassing. After writing to the head of outside broadcasts, she was granted a rooftop interview at which she was asked to describe what she could see from her vantage point on the top of Broadcasting House. After fellow interviewees dried up after two or three minutes, BBC bosses begged her to stop after eleven.

Duly appointed, she was keen to commentate on the Coronation as she suggested a woman might have ‘a more noticing eye for detail’. The BBC was more cautious, fearing the Coronation was no place for such an experiment.  1937 saw her eventual debut, describing the arrival or the Royal family at Ascot. Her 1939 European Figure Skating Championship commentary was regarded so highly, it was regularly used by BBC staff trainers.

An 1939 commentary was to attract real acclaim, when she was on duty at a state visit of the French President to London. A combination of delays and the illness of a male colleague saw Olga obliged to continue for a lengthy period. Her marathon performance resulted in inches of admiring press coverage.

5. Angela Bond – radio producer and music programmer

Angela Bond knew the real role of the radio producer on a music radio station. 

She knew that to get the best out of talent like Kenny Everett, she had to understand him. Angela helped to persuade cautious BBC bosses to give him his own radio show and did her best to contain his enthusiasm and creativity to the point of acceptability. She persuaded him to act sensibly, even when such direction was unwelcome.

Her love and knowledge of music was legendary, beginning in the early 1950s in the Seychelles when she acquired a guitar. Following a spell in Nairobi, she returned to Britain in the early '60s and secured a role in the ‘Gramophone Department’ at the BBC Light Programme where she was well-positioned to make a contribution to the thinking which drove the establishment of BBC Radio 1.

Her contribution to Kenny Everett’s Saturday show is well-remembered - her desk piled high with records and always knowing when she stumbled across something which would be of interest to him. The programme achieved audiences of five million.

At Radio 2 from 1969, Angela produced the legendary Pete Murray on his ‘Open House’ programme.

Her influence was to stretch beyond the BBC. On her retirement, she trained herself in the early music scheduling software ‘Selector’. Then, in a world of great suspicion about computerised music programming, she trained a generation of bright young commercial radio programmers how to get the best from it.

Angela died in January 2013

6. Daphne Oxenford – Listen with Mother presenter

"Are you sitting comfortably ...? Then I’ll begin", said Daphne, as she launched into another edition of BBC radio's ‘Listen with Mother’. A generation remembers her tones to this day.

Daphne was an actress, making her stage debut at the age of 13, and touring with ENSA after the War, before returning to perform in revues in London. On TV, her best-known early role was as Esther Hayes in Coronation Street. On radio, she was part of the ‘Listen to Les’ and ‘The Dawson Watch’ on BBC Radio 2, and ‘The Clitheroe Kid’ comedy series.

But it was ‘Listen with Mother’, originally on the BBC Light Programme, for which she would be best-remembered, with its mix of stories, songs and nursery rhymes for children under the age of five. At 1:45pm every weekday afternoon, a million children and parents would pause: "And when the music stops Daphne Oxenford will be here to tell you a story". 

She narrated the programme from 1950 to 1971, and her beautifully delivered opening words were eventually included as a phrase in the Oxford dictionary of quotations.

Daphne died in December 2012

7. Jean Metcalfe – Family Favourites presenter

As Jean grew up, Uncle Mac and Toy Town, of Children's Hour all "went into one ear and stayed there".

In subsequent years, her own warm voice became part of Sunday lunchtime tradition for a generation of radio listeners with her appearances on ‘Family Favourites’.

In her early years, Jean loved elocution, art and radio. Little wonder she was eager to win the prize on Children’s Hour to visit Broadcasting House.

In 1940, she began at the BBC’s Variety department making her on-air debut the following year, reading a poem on the Empire Service. As War began and the BBC Forces Programme was launched as comfort to our troops worldwide, she auditioned. At the BBC Africa Service, she began her relationship with the long-running and much-loved programme which made her a household name: ‘Forces Favourites’, later renamed ‘Family Favourites’ and ‘Two Way Family Favourites'.

The programme, heralded by the familiar theme tune ‘With a song in my heart’ comprised requests from members of the armed forces abroad, and their families at home.  It was whilst hosting the programme that she met fellow presenter Cliff Michelmore ‘down the line’ – a discreet relationship which would end in marriage.

Her listeners developed a real closeness with her. When she lost her second baby, she and her husband received a huge volume of letters of sympathy from listeners.

A natural interviewer, Jean also broadcast for the Expeditionary Forces programme and was dubbed ‘Broadcasting Personality of the Year’ in 1955 by the Daily Mail - and won a Variety Club of Great Britain radio personality award in 1963. In 1950, she hosted Woman's Hour, then aired on the BBC Light Programme.

In later years, Jean served as a suitably frank chair of ‘If You Think You've Got Problems’ on Radio 4, where teams of experts discussed real human issues.

Jean’s final Family Favourites was broadcast in 1985, she died in January 2000.

8. Mary Somerville OBE – broadcasting executive and schools broadcasting pioneer

Mary Somerville pioneered schools broadcasting in the 30s and 40s, and served as controller of BBC Talks.

Mary had met the BBC’s first director general John Reith whilst at school and offered to work unpaid, convinced that the new medium of radio broadcasting should be used in schools to supplement the scholastic teaching methods of the time. His advice, however, was to continue studying at Oxford.

She was eventually hired, beginning her career at Savoy Hill, then working for the BBC's Education Department, becoming Director of School Broadcasting in 1929.

At the time, there were worries about radio’s role in education – some even feared that radio could influence the educational agenda. Mary recognised its potential; and, whilst ensuring it brought genuine educational value, she also sought opportunities to liven up the programmes with dramatizations and sound effects.  She also pioneered new styles of broadcasting for infants, notably Music and Movement.

Whilst Reith had retained a fondness for Mary, she became seen as a rebel in a male-dominated BBC, albeit the organisation was generally some way ahead of many others at the time in equal rights. She fought for the tools to do her job, and for both her own rights and for those of others – putting pay parity for women and maternity leave firmly on the agenda. It was her pregnancy that prompted the BBC to introduce maternity leave in 1928.

After a spell as assistant controller of the BBC Talks division (home sound), she became controller in 1950 – the first ever woman controller of a BBC division.

On her retirement in 1955, the BBC stated that 'the service of broadcasting to schools is Miss Somerville's great monument' and that 'during her last five years in office' she had brought her mature wisdom to bear upon the difficult and exacting problems that face controller, talks”.

Mary died in September 1963

9. Doris Arnold – the first woman DJ

Doris was one of radio's earliest stars. As presenter of ‘These You Have Loved’ until 1963, she became the BBC’s first female 'disc jockey'.

Although her parents viewed her career aspirations as precarious, she joined the BBC in 1929 in the way many women did, as a typist - working in the stores department. When a pianist was unwell, however, she made her on-air debut. She was a talented sight-reader and was trialled as a BBC accompanist, despite her worries of the ‘lowbrow music’ broadcast. She later performed arrangements for programmes such as ‘Songs from the Shows’ and ‘Music Hall’. Playing alongside her husband, she was to become one of the BBC’s most highly paid people in the inter-war years.

One manager suggested that had she fallen ill, it would have taken three people to replace her – and, even then, their work would not be equal to hers.  Nevertheless, she had to push for pay parity with male colleagues, eventually securing increased expenses for her ‘stylish attire’ when giving radio concerts.

Doris died in 1969.

10. Sheila Tracy – presenter, newsreader and musician

Sheila Tracy’s cheery voice through the night on Radio 2’s ‘Truckers’ Hour’ represented a time and a place in British radio.

Having studied music at the Royal Academy of Music, Sheila formed a vocal/trombone duo, The Tracy Sisters, who appeared in variety, on radio and television. Sheila was then appointed as on-screen announcer on BBC Television, moving to BBC Radio 4 in 1974. There, she became the station’s first ever female newsreader, reading her first bulletin in July 1975. “It was the midnight bulletin - so it didn’t cause too much fuss”, she said. The same year, she was one of four newsreaders chosen to take part in the experiments in parliamentary broadcasting.

Sheila became a regular and hugely likeable voice on Radio 2, bringing ‘Truckers Hour’ to the station, based on a format she’d witnessed on a visit to the USA. She introduced ‘Big Band Special’ – and would even join in with the trombone section.

Having left Radio 2 in 2000, she joined commercial radio, working on the digital station Primetime Radio – and continued expressing her love for big band with a show called Swing Time on the Saga Radio regional stations.

Sheila died in September 2014.

11. Hilda Matheson OBE – first director of Talks at the BBC

“Broadcasting may spread the worst features of our age as effectively as the best”.

Hilda met John Reith, the BBC’s first Director General, whilst working as political secretary for Lady Nancy Astor, Britain’s’ first female parliamentarian. Reith head-hunted her to assist the head of the BBC Education Department.

She became the first Director of Talks in 1927, establishing the first news department as the BBC began compiling its own news rather than rely on agencies. She moved the focus to reporting rather than simply reading bulletins and recognised that the radio medium demanded a more engaging style rather than formal talks and addresses. She was known to vet every script - and instruct presenters to speak as if conversing with a friend, rather than lecturing.

Under her direction, intellectuals such as HG Wells, Bernard Shaw, Virginia Woolf and the woman who would become her lover, the novelist Vita Sackville-West were given a platform.
She also launched ‘The Week in Westminster’ to inform on the workings of parliament following the extension of the vote to adult women; and organised the first live political leaders’ broadcast.

After arguments with Reith, Hilda resigned from the BBC in 1932 and began working as the radio critic on the Observer and wrote the influential book called ‘Broadcasting’ which captured the march of technology. The first woman to write such a book, she asserted that broadcasting answered: “the need for rapid interchange of news and views, for familiarizing each country with the ideas and habits of all other countries, and above all the need for an education which may fit men and women, literate and illiterate, for the complicated world of tomorrow”.

She ran the Joint Broadcasting Committee during the War to counter German propaganda by broadcasting British opinion on foreign stations, which were in neutral European and Latin American countries, in German and Italian.

Hilda died aged 52 in October 1940.

12. Sheila Borrett - the first female announcer on the BBC

Sheila was the first ever female newsreader. Her tenure was famously short, being fired after just three months, owing to thousands of complaints from listeners uncomfortable with having a woman on the radio.

Sheila had been employed by the BBC as an actress, working on radio drama, although she hankered after an announcing job, a prestigious post usually reserved for men. These were days when newsreaders were an anonymous bunch who did not give their names, and it was feared a woman might be a little too conspicuous.

Her arrival as a newsreader in 1933 was trumpeted by the BBC, although the Radio Times observed “we foresee panic amongst the horsehair armchairs - retired colonels muttering darkly over their muffins”. In the event, over 10,000 listeners were said to have complained, most of them women.

Sheila continued in drama; and moved to the United States after the War. As Sheila Stewart, she continued broadcasting on radio and television until she was in her seventies.  She suggested it was her ''great foghorn of a voice'' which helped her become an announcer at a time when the technical quality was so bad that ''a woman's high-pitched voice was very displeasing to the ear”.

Sheila died in 1986.

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