RADIO ACTUALITY MEANS sound recorded on location. With the kind permission of BBC Worldwide, the London Sound Survey is able to present a collection of recordings for radio that were made in and around London during the 1930s and 1940s.
They bring to life some of the everyday voices and circumstances of the time. Many are unedited rushes and others never made it onto air, but all have been digitised for the first time from their original 78 rpm transcription discs. More will be added over the coming months.
In 1936, the film-maker John Grierson accused the BBC of having failed to develop an 'art of the microphone' to match that of the documentary cine camera. This was not entirely accurate, nor was Grierson a disinterested observer.
Radio features in the early and mid-1930s had addressed issues such as slum conditions in the series Other People's Houses, experimented with modernist techniques of audio montage for Crisis in Spain from 1931, and encouraged unemployed people to speak about their plight in Time to Spare from 1934.
Earlier criticisms were more justified. John Reith, the BBC's first Director-General, regarded having one's voice broadcast as a privilege that should be restricted to the professional intelligentsia. In a memo from 1924 he warned station managers against allowing the general public to be heard on air, dismissing them as 'those whose qualification to speak seems doubtful'. A critic wrote in a 1932 edition of the Radio Times:
Real life is news, and the more people feel it is real, the better it is as news. That is why the arts have gone realistic. Tragedies are no longer written only about rich people, and the film cameras have come out of the studios and begun haunting the factories, the stokeholes and the docks. Yet there is the microphone tending more and more to stay at home in its snug unreal studio, or at least only going out to those people it knows. New techniques are needed that do not rely on commentators. Not to come between the real stuff and the listeners, but to help reality out.
Much thought was already being given to this within the BBC. At the same time, advances in recording technology introduced a new word to the vocabulary of radio: actuality. This meant getting the microphone on location and out into the real world. The first BBC radio programme to use actuality sound was Lawrence Gilliam's 'Opping 'Oliday, made in the summer of 1934.
Its recordings included interviews with hop-pickers on location in Kent, communal pub singsongs, the sounds of the hops being processed, and some snatches of dialogue which were likely to have been scripted in advance. Three tracks from 'Opping 'Oliday are reproduced here on the London Sound Survey.
Gilliam would go on to produce other radio features incorporating actuality, such as the lyric radio documentary Summer over the British Isles. In 1943 Time magazine described him as a pioneer:
Like documentary films, which Hollywood ignored and Britain developed into a vivid educational instrument, documentary radio is old stuff to BBC. It was inaugurated in 1935 by ruddy, jovial Lawrence Gilliam, Cambridgeman and BBC features director. Since then BBC sound trucks have poked about England recording fox hunts, hop-picking festivals, markets, and building them into first-rate documentary radio shows.
Different regional approaches to actuality appeared early on. Gilliam's features were among the best and most innovative to emerge from London for the National Programme. But many other London-based features often relied on the voice of an authoritative commentator, or else had members of the public recite lines written for them. In the catalogue records at least the focus of the programmes commonly veers towards the anodyne.
Broadcasters working in the BBC's North Region were prepared to take on controversial domestic issues and developed more natural-sounding techniques. Features such as Harry Hopeful which emerged with the help of E.A. Harding, the North Regional Programme Director, strived to treat the listeners and participants as equals. As the radio critic Grace Wyndham-Goldie wrote in The Listener in 1939:
Let me give one last shout for regional broadcasting. In London the search is for the best possible feature, play, actor, talk or entertainment and to provide it for the listeners. But in the regions there is something else. For it is the business of regional broadcasting to be expressive of the region . . . its daily work, its past, its attitude of mind and, above all, the quality of its people. This is done in a dozen different ways, but the most direct and important of these is in its features and actuality programmes.
The early recording technologies available to the BBC involved heavy and delicate equipment which didn't lend itself to being moved around. Electrical disc-cutters, as used by record companies, had been around since the 1920s. Vacuum tubes amplified the sound signal, making possible a much improved frequency response compared to the earlier acoustic-only recording techniques.
In addition to electrical disc-cutting, the BBC also looked with interest towards magnetic recording. Wire recorders had been around since the 1920s and, although portable, were limited by their poor sound quality to use as office dictation machines. Then, in 1930, the BBC took delivery of a new machine bearing the name of its inventor, Louis Blattner.
The Blattnerphone was an intimidating device which recorded sound onto sharp-edged steel tape either 3mm or 6mm wide. The tape moved briskly at 1.5 meters a second between reels which could weigh around 20 kg when fully wound. Errant reels which fell off the Blattnerphone's heavy iron frame and rolled away were reputedly capable of smashing through partition walls.
The hazards posed to the operator by a flailing, broken tape meant that the Blattnerphone had to be worked by remote control. Editing was done by means of soldering or spot-welding. The sound quality was sufficiently good for broadcast speech. A familiar example of a Blattnerphone speech recording is Neville Chamberlain's broadcast at the outbreak of the Second World War.
New disc-cutting machines supplied by the MSS Recording Company in the early 1930s were lighter than their predecessors and lacked the peculiar dangers of the Blattnerphone. They were also transportable, although the BBC had no suitable vehicles when Lawrence Gilliam began recording 'Opping 'Oliday in 1934. He overcame this problem by hiring a recording van from a record company.
By 1936 the BBC had bought a laundry van and two lorries for conversion into mobile recording studios. Microphones with long leads could be taken into people's homes or else gave the recordist a short radius of freedom when capturing actuality outdoors. The Peckham-born broadcaster Olive Shapley recalled the limits of early mobile recording:
We had a thing like a furniture van to go round in. Two engineers making two breakable discs in it, you know, and this thing had to be manouevred into all kinds of odd places and blocked up streets and there was great trouble with the police. It was a cumbersome business altogether.
The demands of wartime reporting sped up research into miniaturising equipment. In 1943 the BBC and the MSS Recording Company began designing the 'Riverside Portable' disc-cutter and by September six units were being built. The machine looked like a portable gramophone player and could cut double-sided 10-inch discs. It came equipped with a high-output crystal-type microphone made by the Astatic Microphone Laboratory in Ohio.
After the war, a few Riverside Portables found their way into government surplus stores. Bill Johnson, who was later to become an engineer at Levy's Sound Studios, persuaded his mother to buy him one when he was a teenager:
We found a pristine MSS mobile disc cutter with the magic letters BBC scorched into the heavy wooden carry case. Eventually I taught myself how to work it. This entailed a balancing act with the cutting head. Too little weight and the record would not play, too much and a sapphire cutting needle would grind itself through the lacquer surface into the aluminium base of the blank and be ruined. Also control of dynamic range and modulation of the cutter head ensured success or failure.
Searching the BBC Archive catalogue for the sounds of everyday life is like panning for gold. Speeches by Baden-Powell, Nye Bevan or Stanley Baldwin must be passed over, while finding a description like auctioneer's voice, tells others to hush or children's singing games, Wandsworth draws in the breath.
Such recordings make up just a small proportion of the Archive. How they echo the city's life was constrained by technology and the need to record strong and clear sound-sources. They also favour commerce over industry, the city centre with its traditions over the growing new suburbs, and the mundane over the controversial.
The recordings come from times which are now passing from living memory. You might find them at once familiar and impossibly remote, for here are the voices of the ancestors.