In January 1927, just two weeks after the fledgling British Broadcasting Company became a corporation and gained its royal charter, Professor T H Pear from Manchester University launched a psychology experiment on air.
HELLO AGAIN… Nine Decades of Radio Voices
BY SIMON ELMES
Random House, 368pp, £18.99
He asked nine people each to read a passage from Dickens, and invited listeners to guess from the timbre of their voices what they were like, and what they did for a living. He had 5,000 responses. Most, disappointingly for his thesis, wrong.
Nine decades on, we’re no better at deducing personal traits or physical characteristics from the timbre of a voice, but something about the intimacy of radio makes me, for one, constantly try. And the beauty is, until I’m confronted with the truth –the actor behind a favourite character who turns out sandy-haired when I’d thought of them as dark, and taller – it’s my mental picture, and I can do what I like with it. As someone said, radio is the senior service for a reason: the scenery’s better.
Simon Elmes’s latest book – one of a raft of 90th anniversary tributes to the BBC – pulses with his own love of the medium. He uses some of the famous voices in broadcasting, and a few less well known now, to trace the history of what came to be known, after the arrival of television, as “sound radio”. It’s an engaging read.
Back at the start, when accents were clipped and presenters wore dinner jackets and the only way to achieve a fade-out was by tiptoeing backwards from the microphone, the experimental nature of radio made it a paradoxically relaxed, and even mischievous, medium. Anything could happen, and frequently did. Peter Eckersley, Britain’s first radio star, once stretched a piece of string across the studio behind another presenter, bringing him down with a crash during one late-night fade. The on-air antics of the late Kenny Everett fade by comparison.
As technology improved and expectations grew, so the BBC matured, and by 1936, when King George V was dying, announcer Stuart Hibberd demonstrated the power of a perfectly modulated sentence. “The King’s life is moving peacefully towards its close” is one of the many famous soundbites quoted here. What Elmes does, to counter the problem that reading a speech isn’t the same as listening to it, is to analyse its effectiveness. He does this with a radio producer’s ear.
So Chamberlain’s 1939 declaration of war and Churchill’s wartime addresses are deconstructed to reveal the structure behind their rhetoric. And Lord Haw-Haw’s subversive broadcasts from Hamburg are picked over to show why, during the phoney war of 1939-40, one-third of all British listeners were tuning in to him.
With 90 years of radio history to cover, there are almost too many voices to unpack. Elmes describes his favourites in terms of chocolate, honey, and port-wine. He divides his material into nine chapters, roughly decade by decade, although the closer to the present day he is the more you sense his metaphorical tape machine speeding up. Changes in technology, editorial policy and society at large all form part of the narrative, making it an ambitious project, executed with a fearlessness reminiscent of those early broadcasts.
Classic funny moments are recorded for posterity – John Snagge’s 1949 Boat Race commentary in which he hazards a guess that either Oxford or Cambridge is winning; the moment when early Today presenter Jack de Manio’s dentures snapped on air; and more recently, James Naughtie’s unfortunate Spoonerism while introducing the then culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt.
There’s enough fireside nostalgia to carry you through to spring. But it’s offset by thoughtful assessments of some exemplary news reporting, including Richard Dimbleby’s numbing account of the horrors at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp; Alistair Cooke’s eye-witness account of Bobby Kennedy’s assassination; and Brian Hanrahan’s “I counted them all out …” Falklands War report.
There’s an interesting exploration of what radio magic means now – Terry Wogan, Paddy O’Connell and Kirsty Young come as close as anyone. I’m glad to see Today’s Evan Davis get a mention: in an often hectoring world, his voice – somewhere between an Aero and an Emery board on the chocolate-to-gravel scale of timbres – is a welcome oasis of calm, and surprisingly effective.
As for BBC’s current woes, 90 years of innovation cannot be wiped out by a nasty, tarnished star and two dodgy editorial decisions by a television programme. It’s to be hoped that Simon Elmes’s comprehensive assessment of the first nine decades of radio helps to redress the balance.