The BBC At War – BBC 2


Word PressOh, how gloriously British was this?!  It was also pretty unbiased, particularly impressive given that it was a BBC documentary about the BBC and was presented by the son of one of the BBC’s leading Second World War correspondents.

So, at the start of the Second World War, there were Goebbels & co churning out propaganda like … well, a well-oiled propaganda machine, whilst, here in Blighty, the BBC was determined to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.  In some ways it sounded bizarrely like some sort of Boys’ Own book in which Johnny Foreigner sneaked on his classmates and cheated at cricket whilst the upstanding British boys refused to do anything which even smacked of dishonour, but obviously this was very serious stuff and the BBC’s determination to maintain its integrity even in such terrible times has to be applauded and greatly respected.

Less so does the BBC’s decision that popular music and light entertainment was inappropriate in wartime.  Whilst German radio was keeping people’s spirits up, the BBC churned out a load of horrendous organ music which made everyone feel worse.  Luckily, that idea soon got scrapped.  The weather forecasts were scrapped as well, although, given how accurate anything the Met Office says tends to be, I doubt that the Luftwaffe would have taken much notice of them anyway.

On a more serious note (no pun intended), the BBC found its attempts to do its job being thwarted all over the show, not by the enemy but the British establishment.  Churchill wasn’t very keen on radio, preferring the old days of stirring speeches made “live”.  The powerful press barons didn’t want the BBC stealing their thunder, and so initially the BBC was only allowed to broadcast one news bulletin a day!  And even that was supposed to come from what was reported by Reuters.  At a time when the country was in mortal peril and people were absolutely desperate for absolutely every scrap of news they could get, the press barons were only bothered about safeguarding their own interests!   Furthermore, the War Office was worried about things being reported because of reports inadvertently aiding the Nazis and the potential danger to morale – understandable, but very difficult for the BBC.

However, as the war went on, it dawned on Whitehall that BBC radio could and would unite the country at this horrendous time.  Yet even then there were problems.  Correspondents abroad were treated with suspicion.  When the BBC took on J B Priestley, needing someone who could compete with Lord Haw Haw in terms of entertainment and charisma, there were frowns and complaints because he was becoming a celebrity.  Terribly bad form.  The BBC was not supposed to promote any sort of cult of celebrity (oh, for certain TV programmes to adopt that idea nowadays!).  Talk about couldn’t do right for doing wrong!  Then there was a terrible to-do over the playing of the Soviet anthem.  The BBC had been busily playing the anthems of Britain’s allies but, once the Soviet Union entered the war, the powers that were got all stressed out over whether or not playing the Internationale might cause the Great Unwashed to start thinking shocking Bolshevik thoughts.  Bloody hell, did these people have any idea what the people of the Soviet Union were going through, on our side, with a common enemy?  It was eventually conceded that the Internationale could be played, and that positive images of the Soviets could be presented, but it took a while.

It also eventually dawned on the powers that were that the BBC could have an important role to play abroad.  Churchill used the BBC World Service to address the people of France (although they might not have been very flattered had he turned up at the studio demanding to know where his “Frog speech” was), and Ed Murrow broadcast via the BBC to the United States.

The programme didn’t say as much, but it can certainly be argued that the institution which we refer to as “Auntie Beeb”, but which is currently coming in for a lot of criticism, helped to win the war.  It undoubtedly did a great deal to bring the country together, and yet it had to fight the British establishment in order to do so.  Fascinating stuff, and very well-presented (although seeing Jonathan Dimbleby with white hair makes me feel incredibly old!).  Looking forward to the second part of the series.



6 thoughts on “The BBC At War – BBC 2

  1. George Tytherleigh

    All the fuss about the BBC playing the [then] Soviet Union national anthem based on ‘The Internationale’ was fine but the anthem played on the programme was NOT the same at all !
    The programme included only the later [1943] national anthem.
    So who got it wrong !


    • Roger Lewis

      Dimbleby got mixed up again regarding Charles Gardner’s commentary from the white cliffs of Dover on a Luftwaffe attack in July 1940, as he reports watching a Junkers 87 crashing into the sea.

      Jonathan Dimbleby says “Gardner was wrong about the Messerschmitt – it was an RAF fighter”.

      So Dimbleby called Gardner’s Junker 87 a Messerschmitt and it was apparently neither!


  2. Andrew Weir

    There must have been dozens of BBC folk who saw the show pre-transmission who did not know that the music played was the Soviet national anthem, not the Internationale. Dumbed down? It’s here and it’s real.


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