Behind the Wireless: An Early History of Women at the BBC, by Kate Murphy

Well-researched portraits of female pioneers and game gals capture the buzz around the Beeb as women entered the professions, says Sharon Wheeler

July 7, 2016
Portrait of Hilda Matheson, BBC

We hear about all those telephone number salaries that the BBC’s big cheeses are earning. I wonder, though, whether they have a matron and an in-house flower arranger these days. And I bet that whoever meets arriving celebrities isn’t dolled up in evening dress.

Former BBC staffer Kate Murphy, now lecturing at Bournemouth University, has produced a real treasure trove of a book, replete with tasty morsels of research and pen portraits of the national broadcaster’s formidable female pioneers and game gals.

Early on, she observes that most of what we know from the early days of the BBC comes from all-male memoirs. And in fact, it was a throwaway comment in Asa Briggs’ multi-volume History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom that set Murphy on her journey. What she is aiming for is prosopography – collective biographies. A lot of staff files no longer survive. So when it comes to people like the wonderfully named Elise Sprott, Murphy has ranged across documents from the BBC’s Written Archives Centre: memos, monthly reports, meetings minutes, the records of the BBC Club and its staff magazine, Ariel.

With this in mind, Murphy acknowledges that she is not undertaking a full history of women at the early BBC. What she aims to do instead is to capture the buzz around the 1920s and 1930s Beeb. The First World War and the repeal of the Sex Disqualification Act (Removal) in 1919 allowed female entry to most professions, and the BBC was seen as a highly desirable place to work.

She paints a vivid picture of beautifully turned-out young women flocking through the doors of the BBC every morning. Maurice Gorham, editor of the Radio Times from 1926, preferred to liaise with the secretary rather than the relevant producer: “They were clever…did the work of two men…not only was it more pleasant, but she would probably know more too.”

Murphy frequently touches on the ambivalent attitude to female staff of the corporation’s first director general, John (later Lord) Reith. She also discusses the fact that its Marriage Bar turned out to be a partial one, and with some ways around it for prized female staff. In certain quarters, no elegant eyebrows were raised at same-sex relationships. Hilda Matheson (pictured, above), its Director of Talks and one of the BBC’s elite women, had an affair with the writer Vita Sackville-West. Apparently, Matheson’s secretary, Eileen Barry, beamed when her suspicions of a stay at Sissinghurst for her boss were confirmed – and blushed when the poet sent her lupins. Matheson, we learn, enjoyed being different – although her contrariness would lead to her departure from the corporation. Murphy’s poring over the archives is meticulous, but it is the personal stories that make this book so engrossing and so valuable.

And as for Sprott, one of four women to have responsibility for the BBC’s talks aimed at women in the interwar years, we learn that she changed her first name from Elsie – presumably because the new moniker sounded better on air – and was appointed an MBE for services to broadcasting. Murphy even discovered a 25-second clip of her voice from 1932, which she describes as gold dust.

The book ends on a personal note, with Murphy mentioning her 24 years at the BBC working on Woman’s Hour. She notes that the number of women in senior management positions remains stubbornly at about 38 per cent and that women continue to be poorly represented at executive level. And her mention of the case of presenter Miriam O’Reilly – who successfully sued the BBC for age discrimination in 2011 – reminds us that there are still battles to be fought and won.

Sharon Wheeler is visiting lecturer in media studies, Birmingham City University, and author of Feature Writing for Journalists (2009).


Behind the Wireless: A History of Early Women at the BBC
By Kate Murphy
Palgrave Macmillan, 295pp, £19.99
ISBN 9781137491725
Published 9 May 2016

You've reached your article limit

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 6 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Professor in Music and Performance UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH WALES
Professor in Design UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH WALES
Professor of Storytelling UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH WALES
Professor of Creative Industries UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH WALES
Postdoctoral Position in Modelling of Farming Systems SWEDISH UNIVERSITY OF AGRICULTURAL SCIENCES SLU

Most Commented

question marks PhD study

Selecting the right doctorate is crucial for success. Robert MacIntosh and Kevin O'Gorman share top 10 tips on how to pick a PhD

Pencil lying on open diary

Requesting a log of daily activity means that trust between the institution and the scholar has broken down, says Toby Miller

India, UK, flag

Sir Keith Burnett reflects on what he learned about international students while in India with the UK prime minister

Application for graduate job
Universities producing the most employable graduates have been ranked by companies around the world in the Global University Employability Ranking 2016
Construction workers erecting barriers

Directly linking non-EU recruitment to award levels in teaching assessment has also been under consideration, sources suggest