Opening on Sat 10 Dec and running until Sun 16 Apr as part of a seven-year partnership between the two organisations, BBC 100 In Wales is a major exhibition at National Museum Cardiff that celebrates the corporation’s centenary in Wales, which falls on Mon 13 Feb 2023. To mark this, allow Hannah Collins, Eve Davies and Josh Williams to whet your appetite with some historical insights and personal picks…
The BBC: a 100-year history in five parts
A private birth…
On 18 Oct 1922, the British Broadcasting Company was formed by the GPO (General Post Office). This was done to streamline broadcasting licence requests, which were pouring in after the first live public broadcast two years prior – featuring the warblings of Aussie soprano Dame Nellie Melba – at the Marconi Telegraph Factory, Chelmsford. Previously, these were reserved for public information; now, listeners were enthralled by the idea of live radio entertainment. Broadcasts in Wales began on 13 Feb 1923. (Fun fact: Rudyard Kipling served on one of the GPO’s committees.)
Towards going public...
The first BBC broadcast went out on 22 Dec 1922 under the stewardship of John Reith, its first General Manager. Reith instigated the company’s mission statement to “inform, educate and entertain”, which it’s upheld to this day. What followed in the next four years was a battle that would shape the very soul of the organisation as we know it, fuelled by funding disputes, a General Strike and Winston Churchill’s desire to take “advantage” of the BBC’s mouth to the public’s ear. Controversies aside, the company eventually became a chartered corporation by New Year’s Day 1927, promising to deliver ad-free content and impartial news. Famous last words…?
‘Nation shall speak peace unto Nation’…
Speaking to a Lords Select Committee in 2016, Lord Booth described the corporation as “a cornerstone of British life. The BBC is, indeed, a national treasure. It is the envy of countries all over the world […] as it has been since the days of Lord Reith.” A Scottish Calvinist, Reith had high moral standards for its content, and set out a strict code of conduct hosts and guests followed. Topics like religion were avoided, as well as derogatory or coarse language. Censorship was usually done in the public’s presumed ‘best interest’, while the UK government maintained a quiet ban on the corporation commenting on its public policies. Reith stepped down in 1938 after establishing BBC branches across the Empire.
Sound and vision…
Fellow Scotsman John Logie Baird became the father of live television in 1929. Continued forays into the burgeoning technology met the ire of then-traditional live entertainment mediums, namely theatres and concert halls, who relied on performers’ material being ever-changing rather than preserved in broadcast media. Television shut down during WWII, putting increased emphasis on radio services to maintain public morale and information. The BBC broadcast messages from Churchill, international and religious leaders, the royal family and staffer George Orwell, but also continued to censor local and international news all over Europe – and even banned music from composers of ‘enemy’ nations. This practice continued into the Cold War, and in individual instances, like the Sex Pistols’ God Save The Queen and Ding, Dong! The Witch Is Dead following Thatcher’s death.
Not big enough for the both of us…
The BBC’s TV monopoly was demolished in 1955 with the creation of ITV. Throwing some major shade ITV’s way in 1960 was this report from business bigwig Sir Harry Pilkington’s committee: “Those who say they give the public what it wants begin by underestimating public taste, and end by debauching it”. Dissatisfied by the output of commercial television, Pilkington gave the BBC an extra channel, BBC 2, creating BBC 1 by default. Not only this, BBC 2 was higher resolution and became the first to broadcast in colour in 1967. Unofficial competition came in the form of pirate radio, leading to greater regulation, along with expansion and restructuring of BBC services to become more localised and specialised. Competition has nipped at its heels ever since – today, from online streaming – but the Beeb has weathered it all, a century later.
BBC Cymru Wales: a history in 10 decades
1920s: First BBC broadcast from Wales – Dafydd Y Garreg Wen sung by Welsh baritone Mostyn Thomas – goes out at 5pm on 13 Feb from a radio shop at 19 Castle Street, Cardiff. BBC NOW is formed.
1930s: Calls for a ‘Welsh Region’, and content in English and Welsh, are answered by a new transmitter in Anglesey.
1940s: Regional broadcasting is nixed during WWII; however, Bangor becomes the BBC Variety Hour’s home until 1943.
1950s: Recognising TV’s appeal, the BBC expands to a 10-acre Llandaff site, Broadcasting House. Public opinion on Welsh-language programming is divided.
1960s: BBC Cymru Wales is born, broadcasting five shows in Welsh and seven in English each week. Prince Charles’ investiture at Caernarfon Castle is watched by a global audience of 500 million.
1970s: BBC Cymru Wales’ first colour broadcast comes from the Llangollen International Eisteddfod. BBC Wales and BBC Cymru radio stations launch.
1980s: S4C (Sianel Pedwar Cymru, or Welsh Fourth Channel) is created as the first solely Welsh-language station; Pobol Y Cwm becomes the first British soap opera broadcast daily.
1990s: First BBC Welsh webpages go online. Despite competition from deregulated commercial stations, devolution increases investment in BBC Wales.
2000s: BBC 2W goes on air. Doctor Who is relaunched by BBC Cymru Wales from Roath Lock and becomes an instant hit.
2010s: BBC Cymru Wales is first in the UK to go totally digital; successes like Merlin, Casualty and Sherlock drive expanded drama department.
2020s: BBC opens new Broadcasting House in Central Square, Cardiff.
Around the BBC in five historic programmes…
GAVIN & STACEY
The Welsh-English duo Ruth Jones and James Corden certainly know how to write a script. Packed with humour, emotion and drama, Gavin & Stacey has become a true BBC icon – the pinnacle, I would say, of British sitcoms. From Billericay to Barry, this comedy captures, albeit hyperbolically, Essex and Welsh stereotypes with dexterous hilarity. Each character is likeable in their own way, making it almost impossible to pick a favourite: that said, Bryn, Nessa, Smithy, and Pam are probably my top four. I’ve rewatched the boxset countless times whenever needing a little pick-me-up; my sister and I have long prided ourselves over our ability to recite Gavin & Stacey quotes whenever they seem fitting.
IN OUR TIME
The BBC Radio 4 knowledge juggernaut hosted by the profoundly intelligent Melvyn Bragg, who is joined by an array of scholarly guests each week at 9am on Thursdays for a live radio discussion. In Our Time covers topics from philosophy, culture, science, history, and religion and has done so since 15 Oct 1998 – there is a comprehensive store of ideas and wisdom in their archive, to say the least. The host is not afraid to challenge guests, making for some of the most interesting and enlightening discussions on any station. Bragg and guests will never know how much they have helped me through my A-Levels and undergraduate English Literature degree!
Every weekday at 10am is Woman’s Hour, on BBC Radio 4. A radio magazine programme that spotlights women’s voices and lives with topical conversations about sports, health, safety, motherhood, menopause, careers, and more, the show continues to highlight how gender inequality is still relevant in contemporary society, while demonstrating how women empower with each other to tackle these issues – ‘girly-chat’ but with a political twist. Thanks to Woman’s Hour, I feel encouraged not to be complacent when there is still so much to be done to tackle gender discrimination.
DESERT ISLAND DISCS
Another BBC Radio 4 classic, created by Roy Plomley in 1942,Desert Island Discs asks celebrities of the day which eight tracks, book, and luxury they would take – alongside the complete works of Shakespeare and the Bible – as a castaway to a desert island. The programme has been hosted by Lauren Laverne since 2018 and she has amply filled the boots of the four wonderful presenters that came before (Roy Plomley 1942-85, Michael Parkinson 1985-88, Sue Lawley 1988-2006, Kirsty Young 2006-2018). The very first castaway was Vic Oliver and notable guests since include Princess Margaret, David Attenborough, Stephen Fry, George Michael, Maya Angelou, and Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill. A light, fun listen providing interesting insight into storied lives.
In 1966, Doctor Who had a problem. Leading actor William Hartnell’s failing health was affecting his ability to learn the Doctor’s lines. The show was successful, therefore, BBC bosses needed a solution. Enter: regeneration. William Hartnell’s first Doctor regenerated into Patrick Troughton’s second Doctor on 29 Oct 1966 in the fourth episode of The Tenth Planet. As a result, the show has now been running for 59 years (albeit with a few breaks), becoming one of the BBC’s most successful exports. Curiously, the episode itself is missing, having been junked by the BBC in the 70s – so check your attics for any old film cans… you may just well have a piece of television history in there!
In 2008, Doctor Who became a cultural juggernaut once more, gaining millions of viewers with its reboot. Not only did this bring those eyes to Wales where the show has been filmed since 2005, but it also spawned the adult-orientated spinoff Torchwood (set in Cardiff) and CBBC spin-off Sarah Jane Adventures. In June 2008, the three shows came together for an epic crossover for ambitious two-parter The Stolen Earth and Journey’s End, which included a surprise regeneration for David Tennant’s Doctor, seen by over 10 million people watching live in the UK.
Now (spoilers ahead!), David Tennant has just returned to Doctor Who with Swansea’s Russell T. Davies back as head writer and Sex Education actor Ncuti Gatwa coming on board as the next Doctor. What’s more, the show will continue to be produced domestically by BBC Wales, and given an extra boost from its partnership with Disney+, bringing millions more eyes worldwide to our country.
BBC 100 In Wales, National Museum Cardiff, Sat 10 Dec-Sun 16 Apr.
Admission: FREE. Info: museum.wales/bbc
words HANNAH COLLINS, EVE DAVIES & JOSH WILLIAMS
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