This festive fan/Xmas Xpert/Santologist couldn’t POSSIBLY let Christmas go unpodcasted (just invented that word – I apologise).
So in this guestless episode, Paul runs down the Top 5 Christmas carols AND the Top 5 festive pop songs.
He’s amalgamated several polls, surveys and charts (inc. Songs of Praise Favourite Carol, Classical Magazine’s poll of experts, Classic FM’s carol survey, global charts etc), weighted them accordingly, and presto! Some Christmas podding for you.
From The Pogues to Postman Pat, Mendelssohn to Michael Buerk, Bing Crosby to two versions of In the Bleak Midwinter, we’ll unpick the back-story of our best-loved Christmas crooners, carols and chart-toppers. All in under ten minutes.
It’s all based on Paul’s festive history book: Hark! The Biography of Christmas, available now in paperback, ebook and audiobook (get it free on an Audible free trial, then instantly cancel!).
And please do subscribe, rate, review, share – it all helps others find this.
If you’d like to send us a tip, ko-fi.com/paulkerensa chips in the price of a cuppa coffee, or patreon.com/paulkerensa has extra audio, video & writings, in exchange for your monthly support. Thanks if you do so! It REALLY helps keep the wheels turning and the pods casting.
The podcast returns in 2022 with more guests and who knows what else…
In it, I play both Britain’s first regular broadcaster Peter Eckersley, and this man – first voice of the BBC Arthur Burrows…
Meanwhile on the podcast, here’s an approximate transcript of what you’d hear…
Marconi himself appeared on the BBC in 1936, playing himself in a reconstruction of when he first sent Morse code across the Atlantic in 1901…
Those are Marconi’s last recorded words before he died, there with his assistants Pagett and Kemp, though Kemp was played by an actor. They’re recreating the moment when they sent Morse Code from Poldhu in Cornwall to Newfoundland, 2000+ miles away. Prior to that 255 miles was the wireless record.
Marconi was always outdoing himself. As a teenager he’d sent radiowaves across his bedroom – a transmitter and receiver ringing a bell. Then outside, asking his assistant across a field to fire a gunshot if the wireless signal reached him. Then over water. Then… in 1896 the 21yr old Marconi came to England. The Italian army weren’t interested in his new invention, so he thought he’d try the influential engineers of London. I think it’s that decision that set London and the BBC as the beating heart of broadcasting a couple of decades later.
There was a magical moment where Marconi strode into Toynbee Hall in East London, with two boxes. They communicated, wirelessly, and he simply said: “My name is Gooly-elmo Marconi, and I have just invented wireless.” That’s a drop mic moment. If they had a mic to drop.
Others played with this technology. In December 1906, Canadian inventor Reginald Fessenden managed to make a very faint speech broadcast for ships near Brant Rock Massachusetts – making the first entertainment show for radio. He played a record, Handel’s Largo, played O Holy Night on violin, and read from Luke’s gospel, chapter 2. Well it was Christmas Eve.
This was actually my way in to this whole radio story. I wrote a book on the history of Christmas, called Hark! The b of C. So I researched Fesseden’s Christmas entertainment first… and also the first BBC Christmas of 1922. When I read that the Beeb had 35,000 listeners at that point, but 4 employees, I had to know who these 4 employees were! I started digging. When I discovered that 2 of those people had an on-air feud, one of them was John Reith, an arguably immoral moralist, and the 4th was soon sacked by him… I thought, there’s a book in this. So as I research and write that, I’m podcasting as I go on the BBCentury. I love that this medium of podcasting owes so much to those early pioneers… and I’m no engineer. For me, it’s all about the characters. We’ll get to the BBC pioneers soon enough, but Marconi, he was one of those characters.
Through the 1910s, business was booming for Marconi, but he still saw radio as a two-way thing – we ‘radio’ for help. Marconi took the credit for radio’s use in catching criminals – Dr Crippen, who’d escaped on a ship across the ocean. And saving lives, onboard Titanic. Soon every major vessel carried radios and a Marconi operator – for a fee of course. He made his money in sending messages, the world over, between two people. The broadcast aspect was an accident – a pitfall of radio being too ‘leaky’. So the first listeners were actually called ‘listeners-in’ – the messages weren’t intended for them.
So it was at a more amateur level – the radio hams – who’d be experimenting with ‘broadcasting’. Britain’s first DJ, technically, was a woman called Gertrude Donisthorpe in WWI. Her husband Horace was the eager experimenter, an army wireless trainer by day, and at night the couple would cycle to a field near Worcester, he’d set up one side, her on the other, and she’d play records and recite rhymes just for her audience of 1 – her husband, to see if it worked. She’d cycle across the field to see if it had, often finding he’d cycled off to tell her via a different route. As they progressed, they started transmitting limited wireless concerts for some local troops. And they were popular. Radio amateurs enjoyed what they heard, when they could hear it. There was demand for wireless entertainment… just not much supply.
But the engineers like those at the Marconi Company, were continually strengthening and improving the technology. Marconi’s right-hand man Captain Round for example…
No fan of red tape… this Churchill lookalike, round face, cigars and no-nonsense… joined 1902, genius… designed radios… especially for aircraft… Jutland direction-finding… But Captain Round is a name to watch.
After the war, 1919, just months from the birth of broadcasting, The Marconi Company still had no real interest in radio as an artform or entertainment or anything other than point to point messaging. Apart from one person, their Head of Publicity, Arthur Burrows…
In 1918 Burrows wrote: “There appears to be no serious reason why, before we are many years older, politicians speaking, say, in Parliament, should not be heard simultaneously by wireless in the reporting room of every newspaper office in the United Kingdom. . . . The field of wireless telephone, however, is by no means restricted to newspaper work. The same idea might be extended to make possible the correct reproduction in all private residences of Albert Hall or Queen’s Hall concerts or the important recitals at the lesser rendezvous of the musical world. . . . There would be no technical difficulty in the way of an enterprising advertisement agency arranging for the interval in the musical programme to be filled with audible advertisements, pathetic or forcible appeals—in appropriate tones—on behalf of somebody’s soap or tomato ketchup.” We’ll come back to Arthur Burrows.
Around the same time in America, future radio mogul David Sarnoff sent a memo referring to a “radio music box”, that could “listeners-in” could have in their homes, playing the music broadcast by wireless stations, that were cropping up, especially in America, and a steadily increasing rate.
In Britain, Captain Round of the Marconi Company continued to experiment. Rightly medalled after the war, he switched his attention from using radio to find enemy ships, to using radio to transmit the human voice further and stronger than ever before. This meant tests.
Now the nature of radio, the quirk of it, is that it’s not private. You can’t experiment without anyone with a set listening in – and since the war there were more and more ex wireless operators and amateur radio “hams”. So as Round experimented, in Chelmsford at the end of 1919, with his assistant William Ditcham, across Britain and even into Europe, people heard him. Ditcham had to read out something into his microphone – just the candlestick part of an old telephone. Ditcham would begin by addressing those listening – the ‘leaky’ nature of these radio experiments meant the engineers actually used those cheekly listening in to find their range and signal strength. So Ditcham would begin: “MZX calling, MZX calling! This is the Marconi valve transmitter in Chelmsford, England, testing on a wavelength of 2750metres. How are our signals coming in today? Can you hear us clearly? I will now recite to you my usual collection of British railway stations for test purposes… …The Great Northern Railway starts Kings cross, London, and the North Western Railway starts from Euston. The Midland railway starts from St Pancras. The Great Western Railway starts from…”
Railway timetables! And they were a hit. Mr Ditcham became an expert is this new art of broadcasting, before the word was even invented. He noted: “Distinct enunciation is essential and it’s desirable to speak in as loud a tone as possible!”
Word spread. Letters to newspapers said how much radio amateurs were enjoying Ditcham and Round’s wireless experiments… but the content could do with being a bit more exciting. How about a newspaper?
So in January 1920, William Ditcham became our first broadcast newsreader, literally reading the news, from a paper he’d bought that morning. Well, he’d sit on it a day, and read yesterday’s paper… The press might have a problem with their copyrighted news being given away for free. And thus begins the rocky relp between broadcasters and the press. It’s worth keeping them on side…
In Jan 1920, there are 2 weeks of ‘Ditcham’s News Service’ – that’s Britain’s first programme title. That gains over 200 reports from listeners-in, as far as Spain, Portgula, Norway… up to 1500 mi away. So the transmitter is replaced, from 6kw to 15kw. Ditcham ups his game too. Throws in a gramophone record or two. 15mins of news, 15mins of music. A half hour in total – that seems a good length for a programme – really it was what the licence allowed, but it’s clearly stuck – at least till Netflix and the like mean programme length has becoame a little more variable, a century later.
Then in Feb, there’s live music – just a few fellow staff at the Marconi Works in Chelmsford, including Mr White on piano, Mr Beeton on oboe and Mr Higby on woodwind.
At Marconi HQ, Arthur Burrows, that publicity director who wrote of possible wireless concerts and ketchup sponsors, he gets behind this in a big way. He heads to Chelmsford, supports Ditcham and Round, and even joins the band.
And you know who else joins the band…
…from the neighbouring works building – Hoffman’s Ball Bearings – a singer, Miss Winifred Sayer. Now as she’s not a Marconi employee, she needs to be paid… so she’s radio’s first professional
Previous broadcasts had been a little luck of the draw, but this one, well it would be nice to tell people it’s going to happen. So Captain Round sends out the first listings – the pre Radio Times, radio… times… you can hear Winifred Sayer and the band: 11am and 8pm, Feb 23rd till March 6th That memo goes out to all the Marconi land stations and ships at sea. The first song Winifred sang was called Absent – she later called it a “punch and judy show”, and enjoyed her ten shillings a show. As she left, the MD of Marconi’s said to her: “You’ve just made history.”
So, we have radio, right? Not so fast! The fun is just beginning…
The press, you see, were worth keeping on side. The Daily Mail got wind of this. Arthur Burrows, that publicity chap and radio prophet, he became friends in the war with Tom Clarke, now editor of the Daily Mail. And the Mail loved a novelty. They’d sponsor air races and car dashes and design-a-top-hat competitions. Radio was right up their fleet street.
But they’d need a bigger singer than Winifred Sayer from Hoffman’s Ball Bearings. They wanted to see how big an audience there’d be for broadcasting – a word just coming into use, a farming term, about how you spread seed, far and wide, scattershot, never quite knowing how far it reaches, and whether it will be well received and grow into something. So the Daily Mail fund one of the world’s biggest singers: Dame Nellie Melba – of Peach Melba fame. She was over in England at the Albert Hall doing some shows, so for a thousand pounds – enough to buy a house – she came to Chelmsford. Outside broadcasts didn’t exist at the time, given the size of the kit. Ditcham and Round prepared the Chelmsford Works building, although that involved a small fire, a carpet Melba rolled away as soon as she saw it, and a microphone made from an old cigar box and a hat rack. Arthur Burrows gave Madame Melba a tour when they weren’t quite ready… She took one look at the 450ft radio mast and said “Young man if you think I’m going to climb up there, you are greatly mistaken.”
She broadcasts on June 15th 1920, and it’s a huge hit, despite a shutdown just before finishing her last song. Captain Round makes her do it again, without telling her of the shutdown, by simply asking for an encore.
Arthur Burrows gives the opening and closing announcements, instead of William Ditcham, because this has been Burrows’ dream. Broadcast radio concerts. So what next? It spanned Britain, reached Madrid, parts of the Middle East…
But it’s too successful. The Air Ministry finds planes couldn’t land during the concert. It dominated the airwaves. So despite a few extra professional concerts from Chelmsford that summer – opera stars like Lauritz Melchior, and Dame Clara Butt – the govt step in and shut all radio experiments down.
Arthur Burrows finds himself at sea, literally, that summer, demonstrating radio to the press on the way to an interionational press event… but without govt backing, journalists now see radio as maybe a means to communicate newsroom to newsroom. Ditcham’s news and Melba’s music seem to be all that broadcasting amounted to.
For 18 months, nothing. Radio amateurs, and indeed Arthur Burrows at Marconi, petition the PostmasterGeneral to reconsider. And finally… it worked.
Because while the ether had fallen silent in Britain, it continued in Holland, a bit in France, and in America radio is booming. Not wanting to be left behind, the British govt say ok, you can have one radio station. The Marconi Company is granted a permit. But much to Burrows dismay… the job lands on the desk of another person I want to introduce you to… Peter Eckersley
Eckersley was with the Designs Dept of the Aircraft Section of Marconi’s. His team had helped create air traffic control; Eckersley had been there in the war for the first ground to air wireless communication, and now in their spare team, his team in a muddy field in the village of Writtle in Essex, not far from Chelmsford, would have to fit this broadcasting malarkey in in their spare time, for an extra pound a show, not much.
It was odd. Radio amateurs wanted it. Burrows the Marconi publicity guy wanted it. Eckersley and his team couldn’t give two hoots about it – in fact they celebrated when the govt banned radio 18 months earlier, as finally the airwaves were clear for them and their serious work, instead of constant blinking opera from Chelmsford.
But it’s Eckersley’s job, to start Britain’s first regular radio station: 2MT Writtle. And from Feb 14th 1920, for the first few weeks it sounds pretty normal. They play gramophone records, chosen by Arthur Burrows at head office. Burrows has arranged a sponsorship deal – not with ketchup with a gramophone company, who provide a player so long as it’s mentioned on air. Peter Eckersley’s team of boffins break the gramophone player. There was a live singer – the first song on the first regular broadcast radio show was the Floral Dance, though the Times called it only “faintly audible”. It is not a hit. For 5 weeks this continues, bland introductions to records, a live singer or two. And Peter Eckersley, the man in charge, goes home each night to hear the show his crew put out on the wireless. Until week 6, when he stays, for a pre-show gin and fish and chips and more gin at the pub. Then he… runs down the lane to the hut and reaches the microphone first! And he starts talking……
Eckersley talks and talks and mimics and carouses… He plays the fool, plays the gramophone records, off-centre, or covered in jam…
…the strict licence meant closing down for 3mins in every 10, to listen for govt messages, in case they have to stop broadcasting. Eckersley doesn’t shut down for 3mins. The licence limited them to half an hour. Not Eckersley. Over an hour later, he stops. And sleeps it off. Next day, his team gather round and tell him what he said.
Our man Arthur Burrows gets in touch. A stern admonishment! Burrows’ dream of broadcasting, had been dashed on the rocks by Eckersley, a man drinking, on the rocks. But accompanying Burrows’ angry missive came a postbag of listener fanmail. “We loved it” they said. “Do it again.” Burrows was a lone voice against Eckersley’s antics, so the following Tuesday, and every Tuesday in 1922, Peter Eckersley seized the mic again and again.
Demand for radio sets boomed. Ports stopped receiving ships when Peter Eckersley was on. Parliament even closed their sessions early to hear him. He was our first radio star. And he helped spawn an industry.
Burrows is still fuming, but there is no greater demand for radio. So he applies for a 2nd licence, for a London station – let’s do this radio thing properly. 2LO in London is granted that licence, and Burrows isn’t taking any chances – HE will be the primary broadcaster.
Poetry readings, sports commentary, opening night boxing match. Later in the summer, garden party concerts. And as Burrows is a publicity and demonstration man, many of these broadcast concerts are for private institutions, charity events, a chance to show what broadcasting can do.
Other wireless manufacturers other than Marconi’s express an interest, they ask the PMG for a licence to broadcast too. MetroVick in Manchester, they want in, so the PMG says fine. Kenneth Wright is the engineer at MetroVick who gets the job of launching in Manchester.
Wright continues in Manchester… Eck continues in Writtle in Essex… Burrows continues in London…
But Eckersley mocks Burrows. In fact people write to Arthur Burrows saying how much they enjoy his broadcasts on 2LO London, but could he stop broadcasting every Tuesday evening for the half hour Eckersley’s on, cos listeners want to hear Eckersley lampoon Burrows. For instance, Burrows played the Westminster chimes in the studio – this is 18mths before Big Ben’s chimes would be heard on the BBC. So Eckersley outdoes Burrows by finding all the pots, pans, bottles and scrap metal he can, and bashing it all with sticks. Messy chaos! He loved it.
He’s another, retold by Eckersley and Burrows themselves, some 20 years apart… You see, both would close their broadcasts with a poem.
All through the spring and summer of 1922, each broadcast is still experimental. Official broadcasting hasn’t quite yet begun – because no one knows if there’s a future in this. In fact the Marconi Company largely thought all this was one big advert to show consumers how easy wireless communication is, and how they should all pay Marconi’s to help them send point-to-point messages.
But the bug grows. The press want in. The Daily Mail apply for a licence for to set up a radio station. They’re turned down – it would be too powerful for a a newspaper to have a radio station. It only took Times Radio 100 years…
In Westminster, the PostGen is inundated by applications for pop-up radio stations. He can’t just keep licensing all of them. What is this, America?! Arthur Burrows…
In May 1922, the PostGen says to the wireless manufacturers, look. I can’t have all of you setting up rival radio stations. But I will licence one or maybe two of you. Get together, chat it through, work out how you can work together.
For a while, it looks like there will be two british Broadcasting companies – a north and a south. Kenneth Wright…
…but after weeks, even months of meetings, primareily with the big 6 wireless firms, an agreement is struck.
…You may wonder where Reith is in all this. Wasn’t he meant to be the fella who started the thing!? He arrives when the BBC is one month old. For now, he’s leaving a factory management job in Scotland, settling down with his new wife, having moved on from a possibly gay affair with his best friend Charlie… and he’s about to try a career in politics. He’s never heard of broadcasting at this stage. But for those who have, in the summer of 1922, Parliament announces there will be one broadcasting company, funded by a licence fee…..
One British Broadcasting Company. Marconi, MetroVick, Western Electric, General Electric and so on… each will have one representative on the board of this BBC, and then broadcasting can continue, they’ll all sell wireless radio sets, and to fund the operation, there’ll be a licence fee.
The name ‘BBCo’ is coined by one of the wireless manufacturer bosses in one of those meetings, Frank Gill, who notes in a memo before the name ‘broadcasting company’, the word ‘British’. A few lines down, he’s the first to write the word ‘pirates’ regarding those broadcasting without a licence.
But there’s one more hurdle to conquer – news. That takes some time to iron out with the press, and finally it’s agreed that us broadcasters will lease the news from them, for a fee, and no daytime news, to ensure readers still bought papers.
The press and the broadcasters still have an uneasy relationship, so whenever you see the newspapers having a pop at the BBC, know that the Daily Mail sponsored the first ever broadcast with Dame Melba, they were turned down for a radio station when they applied, and for years they were annoyed this radio upstart was trying to steal their readers.
With the starting pistol sounded, Arthur Burrows gets his dream: he’s convinced his employer, the Marconi Company that radio isn’t just about sending messages to individuals, it’s about reaching many listeners… or better still, it’s still about reaching individuals, just lots of them. Flash forward to Terry Wogan’s sad goodbye from his Radio 2 Breakfast Show. “Thank you for being my friend.” Singular. Radio – even podcasts like this – still speak to one listener at a time. I make a connection with you. Arthur Burrows and Peter Eckersley, were among the first to realise that.
But which of them would launch or join the BBC? The wild unpredictable Eckersley, who created demand for radio, and was still mocking Burrows in his field hut in an Essex village? Or the straight-laced Arthur Burrows, who’s prophesied broadcasting for years?
I think we know the answer to that. Playing it safe, The Marconi Company kept 2LO as part of this new British Broadcasting Company, as well as 2ZY Manchester under MetroVick, and a new station in Birmingham, 5IT, run by Western Electric. Marconi’s would also build new stations, in Newcastle, Cardiff, Glasgow, and more, growing in reach and ambition.
But it starts in London, on November 14th 1922, with a souped-up transmitter, rebuilt by good old Captain Round, the Marconi whizz who helped start it all. Arthur Burrows is before the mic, achieving his dream, to see broadcasting come to fruition. There are no recordings of that first broadcast, but we recreated it…
The next day, the Birmingham station 5IT launches – they quickly bring in the first regular children’s presenters, Uncle Edgar and Uncle Tom. An hour after they launch, Manchester 2ZY starts under the BBC banner, with more children’s programming there, plus an early home for an in-house BBC orchestra.
When the jobs go out for the this new BBC, bizarrely after it’s actually launched, there are just 4 employees hired before the end of the year, and Burrows is first, a shoo-in for Director of Programmes. John Reith applies for General Managership, having tried a bit of politics, but been pointed towards the BBC advert by his MP boss. On arriving, one of the first things he says is: ‘So what is broadcasting?’
As for Peter Eckersley, he continues at 2MT Writtle, every Tuesday evening into January 1923. The only non-BBC station to share the airwaves till commercial, pirate or… well there’s Radio Luxembourg but that’s for a future episode. But Eckersley too is ultimately convinced to join the good ship BBC. And all it takes is an opera, broadcast live from the Royal Opera House in January 1923 – one of the first outside broadcasts.
A penny drops for Eckersley, and he realises the power and potential of this broadcasting lark. Reith convinces him to stop his frivolous Tuesday show in Essex, and offers him a job as the BBC’s first Chief Engineer. And here Eckersley prospers, giving us new technology, nationwide broadcasting, the world’s first high-power long-wave transmitter at Daventry, he brings choice to the airwaves, with a regional and national scheme. Without Burrows, without Eckersley, without Reith, British broadcasting would look very different.
There’s one other name, among many, I’m particularly enthusiastic about: Hilda Matheson. An ex-spy who becomes the first Director of Talks, who reinvents talk radio and gives us the basis for Radio 4 and speech radio and indeed podcasting, you could argue, as we know it. She’s a fascinating character – part of a gay love triangle with the poet Vita Sackville West and Virginia Woolf. She’s the only BBC employee allowed to bring a dog to work.
And so much more, we’ll unpack on the British Broadcasting Century podcast, plus the Pips, the Proms, the Radio Times, and everything else you know and love, tolerate or loathe about British broadcasting today.
Part of that is because I’m using my writing time to write my first novel. First?! Ha! That implies there’ll be more.
It’s on the origin story of the BBC (podcast on that here), and a bit part in that is Nancy Astor. I’m more focused on her secretary, Hilda Matheson, who left Astor (begrudgingly – Astor had to pretty much sack her to make her go) to work for the fledgeling BBC, rising to become the Beeb’s first Director of Talks.
Matheson was the highest-ranking female boss of the company/corporation, and helped invent talk radio as we know it – the ‘Radio 4’ style of clever/interesting/diverse people informing/educating/entertaining. Before her, there were rather dry lectures, but she opened it to include debate and added a conversational style, plus her connections brought Britain’s celebrities of the day to the mic – George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells, Virginia Woolf (Matheson’s own love rival, for the affections of poet Vita Sackville-West). Matheson also worked for MI5 in both World Wars, hired by Lawrence of Arabia during the first one.
I know, right?! What a character. You start writing about the BBC and you end up writing about gay affairs and spying. But then you research Matheson’s pre-BBC boss, Lady Astor… and boy oh boy, keep pulling on that thread.
Nancy Astor was the first MP to take her seat in the House of Commons, so that’s the chapter of the book I’ve chosen to introduce Matheson and Astor. Nancy was an American divorcee, and you may have seen her name in countless quotes, part of a decades-long mud-slinging roast battle with Winston Churchill. eg.
Astor: “Sir, if you were my husband, I’d poison your tea.”
Churchill: “Madam, if you were my wife, I’d drink it.”
After Nancy Astor’s triumphant maiden speech at the Commons (largely to boos, which was not the done thing for maiden speeches), Churchill was heard to say, “I feel as if a woman has just entered my bathroom and I had nothing to defend myself with, not even a sponge.” Astor apparently replied: “Mr Churchill, you are not handsome enough to have worries of that kind.”
Yet before her parliamentary career, Churchill was a friend to Nancy Astor, joining her lavish parties at her vast country home of Cliveden. After she became an MP – only because her husband rose to the House of Lords (he didn’t want to, and hoped Nancy would only babysit his seat while he got the law changed to return to the Commons) – many politicians snubbed her. Churchill was notoriously cruel with it. When he saw her in a Commons corridor, he’d talk loudly about venereal disease and the like, just to embarrass her.
So while the first Astor/Matheson scene in my novel has them at Westminster, I wanted their second chapter to be at Cliveden, the sprawling estate that Nancy loathed, that her husband inherited from his father William Astor.
I’m en route to a stand-up gig tonight, so pulled into a motorway services to do some writing on the novel. Then realised: I’m not that far from Cliveden…
…Cliveden is now a hotel, but the National Trust operate the estate. I sought a tour, and rounded the corner of the house to see a gaggle of tour guides all having their training. What’s the collective noun? A question of tour guides? A gift shop of tour guides? Anyway, there are no tours while the hotel finds its feet again post-lockdown. I left them to their training – early, given there aren’t any till 2022 – and explored the grounds.
It’s not the first time I’ve written part of a book in the place it’s set (although you’ll notice so far I’ve not done much sitting and writing; just some mooching around – still, all helps). When I wrote Hark! The Biography of Christmas, I wrote the chapter on Bracebridge Hall – fictitious English manor house, described by US writer Washington Irving in 1821 as the scene of lost old English Christmases, log fires, carriage rides, games etc – in the same manor house it was based on, Aston Hall near Birmingham. Irving visited Aston Hall as a guest of the Watt family (the lightbulb guy), and was so inspired by their Christmas celebrations that he exaggerated and fictionalised it in his book, which in turn inspired Dickens to write about old Christmas too.
Like Cliveden, Aston Hall is now a place to visit rather than a private property, so I worked on the chapter about its history while sitting in Aston Hall’s very modern cafe – but with a lovely view of the old house, and having just enjoyed an enlightening tour of it.
It really helps get under the skin of what you’re writing if you can visit your setting, let alone be writing about it while you’re there. I’ve read a handful of books and accounts of Cliveden and the Astors, but to visit it and see its scale was quite another thing.
The hotel was for guests only, but I popped my head around the door and glanced at the Cliveden’s entrance hall. It’s not changed much. This was it 100 years ago – the scene that would have greeted Winston Churchill, George Bernard Shaw, and various visiting US presidents:
The chapel was open for non-hotel guests like me. It used to be a tearoom in the 1800s, but the Astors turned it into a chapel, not for Sunday worship for somewhere to be buried. It’s quite something:
Nancy Astor was a complex character – heralded as the first female MP to take her seat in Parliament, but better known for what she was anti than what she was pro. Anti-semitic, anti-Catholic, anti-communist – she backed Hitler through the 1930s, and the ‘Cliveden set’ was an upper-class group of appeasement, Nazi-sympathetic toffs who chose the wrong side of history. Nancy regretted her views in 1939, and spent the war trying to atone for her earlier views, helping children and families, just as she had set out to do in Parliament from 1919 onwards – only now she was turning cartwheels and turning her homes into hospitals.
Anyway, enough blogging – back to the novel-writing, before I forget all that inspiration and start to write about Lady Astor and Matheson just having a chat in a shop or something. I hope to discover Lady Astor holidayed in Hawaii and had some key plot points happen there – I fancy a trip further afield to write where I’m setting my book…
Nancy Astor and Hilda Matheson are fascinating characters, and I can’t wait to get into them in the novel. If I ever finish it, I’ll let you know all about it here.
In the meantime, my podcast The British Broadcasting Century is telling the BBC origin story – and we’ll get to Hilda Matheson on there… in about 50 episodes time.
Google Gertrude Donisthorpe. I hope you find something.
Because when I just tried it, this is what came up for Britain’s first DJ (in 1917), and one of the world’s first female broadcasters…
…Not a lot. A podcast about her that I’ve just uploaded. An article in the Catholic Herald about her presenting a robe. A TV listing from 1969, when she was interviewed about her work as a radio pioneer. Then it’s genealogy sites for someone completely different.
Yet Gertrude Donisthorpe, one of the first female broadcasters in the world, was arguably the first DJ in Britain, albeit, to begin with, with an audience of just one: her husband.
Gertrude was married to Captain Horace Donisthorpe, and the duo were early radio pioneers. It seems to have been Horace’s enthusiasm, but he quickly swept up Gertrude in too.
In World War I, wireless telegraphy (essentially Morse code) was more common than its upstart younger sibling wireless telephony (ie. speech and, when technology allowed, music). Wireless operators needed training up before heading to the front, so that was Captain Donisthorpe’s job, based near Worcester. Valve radios at the time were very expensive but tricky to operate, so part of his challenge was teaching new recruits how to care for them without breaking them.
After hours, the Donisthorpes would cycle to a nearby field and set up either side of it – to experiment with what this new wireless radio telephony could do. She would speak into a transmitter; he would try and pick up her signals via a receiver across the field. When they couldn’t hear anything, they’d cycle to each other to say so – often missing each other (they really should have set a rule where only one person does the cycling and the other stays put).
She had a test phrase that she’d say, over and over: “A wonderful bird is the pelican, its beak can hold more than its belly can.” One of the first factoids, there you go Steve Wright.
Gertrude would do most of the speaking, and even introduce and play a few gramophone records. So in my mind, that makes her Britain’s first DJ – to an audience of one, across a field, who she’d then cycle to. It was like a meet-and-greet, or an early badly-attended version of the Radio 1 Roadshow.
On Leslie Baily’s Scrapbook for 1917 radio programme in 1967, Gertrude said: “My first broadcast was from a bell tent in a field near Worcester. My part in this experiment was strictly unofficial. I sat on a sugar-box in front of a transmitter, which would now be considered a museum piece. It had a bath of oil for cooling the one and only valve. At first we simply had conversations between two stations, about a mile apart.”
“If I heard nothing, I would take my pushbike and pedal to the other station, where I would often find that my husband had gone on his bike to my base, by a different route! Still, we did quite often make contact over the wireless, and I suppose my husband got quite a lot of technical knowledge from these experiments. Later we broadcast gramophone records, and recitations to amuse the troops at training centres, at Malvern and Droitwich. This was also strictly unofficial!”
As the experiments continued, the Donisthorpes played a few wireless concerts, three evenings a week, for the local military camps. So the audience increased. It’s unknown who spoke for those concerts, but my best guess would be that Gertrude still did much of the talking, as Horace’s interest was in how it sounded: her the presenter, him the producer. Their musical transmissions could be heard in Droitwich, Malvern and Norton. Throughout, they were experimenting, tweaking and trying to perfect the art and engineering behind this early broadcasting – ‘broadcasting’ as a word was yet to come in, for another five years.
Radio at this point was intended to be point-to-point communication, a way of sending and receiving a message between two people. The Marconi Company saw their future in charging for these messages. It was only the technology’s Achilles’ heel – that the transmissions were ‘leaky’, that others could ‘listen in’ – that meant that broadcasting was accidentally invented. Christmas Eve 1906 was the first radio entertainment broadcast for wider listeners, given by Reginald Fessenden (hear more about it on the first episode of our podcast) to ships near Brant Rock, Massachusetts.
A few years after the Donisthorpes, radio amateurs were entranced by experimental transmissions from Marconi’s Chelmsford workshop. To begin with they were recitations of railway timetables, till the ‘listeners-in’ asked for more entertaining tests to take place. Perhaps a newspaper, then maybe a song or two. That would require more nuanced microphones and ultimately more powerful transmitters – but Marconi engineers like Captain H.J. Round and William Ditcham were eager to try.
After a few false starts – including an opera broadcast from Dame Nellie Melba that was so successful that the British government banned radio broadcasts for fear of interfering with military communications – 1922 saw Britain’s first regular broadcast service, when Marconi’s was granted a licence to keep the moaning radio hams quiet. Captain Peter Eckersley was in charge, and when he seized the mic one day and was effortlessly entertaining, radio caught on in a big way. Hear more of his early broadcasts here. Eckersley’s genius and the ambition of his radio rival Arthur Burrows led to the establishment of the BBC; Eckersley became Chief Engineer, Burrows became Director of Programmes.
As for the Donisthorpes, Horace dabbled with the idea of broadcasting the closing night of a West End musical, just as the BBC was forming in the summer of 1922. It was to be based on the popular trend of listening to live performances via home telephone (the Electrophone), that had been popular since 1895. Alas Donisthorpe’s negotiations came to nothing. The BBC formed without him and he joined Marconi’s. He gave the occasional guest talk on the BBC in the late 1920s, on ‘wireless and the sea’ and the effects of an eclipse on radio transmission.
Gertrude was a guest on In Town To-night, a popular radio talkshow (the Graham Norton Show of 1934). In 1953 she contributed to Those Radio Times for the Light Programme, alongside Beryl Reid and Max Bygraves. (Bygraves incidentally is the performer who’s nearest the same age as the BBC – he was born just a few weeks before the first BBC broadcast.)
She gave one TV interview that I know of, for a 1969 BBC2 programme on the wireless entertainments that pre-dated broadcasting, called Yesterday’s Witness: Breaking the Silence. It’s not on iPlayer or Youtube… yet.
As for other early female broadcasters, 1910 saw radio hams such as Mrs M.J. Glass of San Jose and Olive Heartburg of New York. Perhaps the world’s first female DJ was Sybil Herrold in San Jose, who introduced records from 1912 on her husband Charles Herrold’s experimental radio station. The brilliantly named Nancy Clancy was a 16-year-old announcer on WAHG in New York in 1924. On this side of the Atlantic, the early BBC included Cecil Dixon as our first radio ‘Auntie’, broadcasting for children, while Helena Millais was arguably Britain’s first broadcast comedian (here’s a video in which I introduce a recording of her act). Pioneers such as Elise Sprott and Hilda Matheson are BBC names I can’t wait to tell people about on the podcast.
I’m grateful to Dr Elizabeth Bruton, curator of Technology and Engineering at the Science Museum, for furnishing me with the Donisthorpes’ full names (Horace’s is a beaut: Captain Horace St John de Alva Donisthorpe. There aren’t many of those nowadays).
I’m glad she’s helped set the record straight on Gertrude Anne Andrews, who was born 1895 and died 1980, just as Gertrude set records straight, then played them, 105 years ago. I hope the next time I google her, the name of Britain’s first DJ will be broadcast a little more widely.
Here’s a charming photo I’d never seen before this week: JFK claps along as his children dance in the Oval Office.
I found it while researching for my new radio history podcast: The British Broadcasting Century. (Your ears on it would be most welcome, whether on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Podbean, or other.)
But what could link this family moment in America’s highest office with old British radio?
The answer is well-known to true radio fans (‘anoraks’ – nicknamed after the anorak-wearing fans who’d visit the pirate radio ships. Pirate DJ Andy Archer came up with the name, and I might just be getting him on the podcast soon…).
The first British pirate radio station was set up by Ronan O’Rahilly in 1964, in frustration at a limited radio industry. The only audible stations at the time were the monopolistic BBC, or Radio Luxembourg with their pay-to-play model (record companies sponsored shows to get their artists airplay). 7 million would regularly listen to O’Rahilly’s station. But first it needed a name – both his offshore radio station, and the boat that hosted it off the Suffolk coast.
The above picture gave him the answer.
Two years earlier, O’Rahilly had seen this photo in Life Magazine: A young Caroline Kennedy dancing in her president dad’s office. The playful disruption of government, he called it.
That was just what his new pirate station sought to do. So he named his boat and his station after the girl. Years later in tribute, Radio Jackie would take their name similarly, but after Caroline’s mum, Jackie Kennedy.
We’ll tell some of this story on the 5th episode of the podcast, ‘Arthur Burrows: 1920’s All-Request Pirate’. There’s also an exclusive guest in another pirate radio legend, Emperor Rosko, who also appeared on Radio 1’s first line-up.
Researching, presenting and producing the British Broadcasting Century podcast in lockdown has been a challenge while home-schooling two children. We’ve had some hard days (both wife and wifi went downhill at similar times; both are gladly improving).
Looking at that picture of JFK and his dancing children reminded me that when you work from home – as he did, as I do, as many of us do now – you need to expect frequent visits from the youngsters, and be glad of them.
Caroline (and JFK Jr, also in the pic) playfully disrupted authority, as Radio Caroline then did. There was a time for business, but a time for dancing.
On Father’s Day, I’ll be glad that my children crash the office as much as they do, interrupting the workload with play, dance or wifi queries. I’m no president nor any great authority, but I can have a tendency to think my work matters more than it probably does – especially when it’s this podcast, which barely qualifies as work.
I don’t know how long lockdown will last. I don’t know how long my podcast will last. I do know it takes a lot longer to research, record and edit while school is happening across the room. But bring on the dancing…
If the President could find time to clap along, so will I.
‘The British Broadcasting Century with Paul Kerensa’ is free from all good podcast providers, including Apple Podcasts, Spotify + Podbean. Listen and subscribe now.
This is a blatant plea to come and join my new podcast, The British Broadcasting Century. I’ll be geeking out about the origins of the BBC, radio and life as we know it, for a dozen or so episodes (in series 1; then who knows how many thereafter).
This is an extended trailer, with a few bonus clips just for being loyal podcastees here on A Paul Kerensa Podcast/The Heptagon Club.
If you haven’t been paying attention… I love Christmas. Although weirdly, I’ve only just realised that this year. Ask me last year, and I’d’ve said, TBH, I’m more just interested in it… but this year, I’ve spilled over into fully loving the weird festivity.
The book Hark! The Biography of Christmas came out in 2017. New for 2019 is the Audible podcast, Christmas: What The Fa-La-La-La-La. If you’re with Audible already, click that link and have a listen! If you’re not with Audible, there’s a free trial here, and as soon as you’re in, you get access to all their podcasts, from me, Stephen Fry, Dermot O’Leary, everyone. You can cancel immediately if you like, though make sure you grab a free audiobook first. In a week or two’s time, you might even find the audiobook of Hark! The Biography of Christmas – it should be there shortly.
As for the podcast, here’s what led to it…
I do the Pause For Thought slot on Radio 2 Breakfast Show via a company called TBI Media. They’re fab. They sought ideas for entertaining documentary shows to pitch to Audible, who were looking for non-fiction podcasts. We pitched. They liked it. We did it.
It was a mighty quick turnaround. Kudos to producer Geoff Jein and big boss man Dave Young and bigger boss man Phil Critchlow, and Geoff’s Christmas elf Ollie Seymour, for pulling it all together (like a cracker).
What format then? I was keen on mixing entertaining light chat (that’s Christmassy) with deeper historical sections (that’s also Christmassy), so we settled on the final product – something that got the balance right between fluffy and info-dump. We didn’t want a show that was just two people talking. We wanted guests. We also wanted a bit of depth, so we needed…
Six Christmas themes, one each episode.
For host, we lucked out and got Grace Dent. A brilliant journalist and broadcaster but above all FUN! She’d introduce, I’d be co-host and we’d waffle away about Christmas present (you should have heard the first recording – our opening 2mins became 30mins very quickly), what we do, why we do it, etc.
For the themes, we wanted to build up to Christmas. So Episode 1 features the earliest Christmassy moments – the shops selling Christmas cards, preparations that are out and about, not in the home yet. It gave us a chance to mull on Christmas’ back-story – Yule, Roman Saturnalia, etc, as well as look at the big story of Christmas past.
Episode 2 would then dive into the Nativity, but also other Christmassy stage things – panto, carols and Christmas pop songs. In Episode 3, we’re starting our Christmas shopping and pondering Santa, Father Christmas and St Nick. In Episode 4, it’s time to put the tree up, and bring Christmas into the home – plus a chance to get Dickensian. Episode 5 is all about the food – perfect listening for the week before Christmas, when you’re basting your turkey and eating too many mince pies. Episode 6 then is Christmas Day itself – so that’s Christmas telly, games, the Queen’s Speech… and a bit on Boxing Day and the Twelve Days into New Year.
Sounding a bit info-heavy? Right then. Guests! The finest comedians: Milton Jones, Lucy Porter, Andy Zaltzman on the lapsed Jewish/cricketing Christmas, Aatif Nawaz on his Muslim Christmas (of basically, working, and never putting a tree up). A food expert on the food ep: The One Show’s Angelica Bell, who also won Celebrity Masterchef (judged by our host, Grace Dent). And BBC 6 Music’s Shaun Keaveny brought festive fun to episode 1.
It’s like Noel’s House Party meets BBC4. And look, for a brief moment today, it was beating Gladwell and Mitchell to top Audible’s charts…
To get it, in brief – and, to be honest, gain me a few quid referral fee even if you cancel and never pay anything:
1. Click the link. Arrive at Amazon’s Audible page.
2. Sign up to Audible’s free tiral. Yes, card details needed, but you can unsubscribe after your free trial easily enough, and keep your audiobooks/podcasts. It would auto-renew at £7.99/mth (for that you get a credit for any audiobook – even the epic ones), but you can cancel before that happens and spend ZILCH pounds if preferred.
Comedians With Books returns! With live show #3 around the corner, here’s live show #2 for your ears – or at least the book panel second half, recorded live at The Guildhall at Guildford Fringe Festival.
CWB is an occasional hybrid comedy-night-meets-book-festival, on this episode welcoming funny authors James Cary, Pierre Hollins and Dan Evans, hosted by Paul Kerensa (this is A Paul Kerensa Podcast after all). We get stuck into self-publishing v trad v Unbound, writing for radio, the future of the book industry, and much much more.
Also PK’s requests for beta readers for new short stories… details of Hark! The Biography of Christmas book group notes… new children’s book Joe’s Bros and the Bus that Goes… your feedback for future podcasts/audio versions of PK’s Writing Blog… and much much less.
A one-off (or at least very occasional) pop-up podcast with an excerpt from a recent Comedians With Books show, recorded live at The Star Inn with Guildford Fringe. It’s a new thrice-yearly hybrid comedy night meets book festival. This panel discussion features anecdotalist Aidan Goatley, relationship ponderer Rosie Wilby & stand-up mathematician Matt Parker, hosted by El Capitan Paul Kerensa.
Can it be? Our final episode? Yes. Yes it is. Stay subscribed for the future podcast that’s currently percolating, due to replace this within the year. But for now enjoy 7 final conversational titbits from everyone’s favourite 7-sided chat bunker…
– Charity mastermind STEVE CHALKE on his world-record-breaking feud with Sir Steve Redgrave
– BGT semi-finalist NOEL JAMES on televising ‘the frog joke’
– Beatboxing champ GAV TYTE on teaches Paul to beatbox using a bag of cabbage
– Nomadic funnyman TONY VINO on Fijian language problems
– Vicar, author & prop-maker CRIS ROGERS on Butlins’ secret swimming pool
– Presenting guru LEE JACKSON on why short is tough
– Comedic collator SIMON JENKINS on apocalyptic jumble sales
Thanks for listening! Look forward to bringing you something new soon…
Ho ho whoa! 9 guests?! In a tribute to the 9 Lessons & Carols, Paul our Host of Christmas Past flies his sleigh back through festive history. There are no live guests a-guesting – instead for our penultimate show, we drop in on influential Christmassy words from:
– Astronaut TOM STAFFORD on pranking NASA
– Private HENRY WILLIAMSON on sharing tobacco
– Writer CHARLES DICKENS on humbuggery
– Writer WASHINGTON IRVING on Christmas the English way
– Devonian clergyman RICHARD SMART on Christmas the man
– Puritan minister HEZEKIAH WOODWARD on Christmas the heresy
– King HENRY III on Christmas the dinner
– Saint HILARY of POITIERS on the first carol
– Charles M Schulz creation LINUS on the true meaning of Christmas
Phew! One more episode to go, for now. Join us in January. Merry Christmas!
A stopgap podcast, to report on our temporary absence (due to a busy month), then our permanent absence (to follow early next year after a two-episode send-off). A couple more episodes will follow, then, well, the future’s bright – but it may, alas, not be heptagon-shaped.
An update is contained herein, plus snippets of guests from our fnar-fnale to come in January.