Around the World in Eight Days – (Day 8: London)

Image kindly provided by Roke (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Jules Verne’s adventure story was published in 1873. Phileas Fogg of London and his French valet, Passepartout, attempt to circumnavigate the world in 80 days on a £20,000 wager (roughly £2.25 million today) set by his friends at the Reform Club.

While we might have 80 days ahead of us in lock-down with the CoVid-19 coronavirus, this doesn’t mean we can’t travel – the internet at least.

The first British radio station to make regular entertainment broadcasts had the ‘call-sign’ “2MT”. Transmissions began on Valentine’s Day 1922 from an ex-Army hut beside the Marconi laboratories at Writtle, near Chelmsford in Essex. Initially, the station only had 200 watts and transmitted on 700m on Tuesdays from 2000 to 2030. In the radio-spelling alphabet of the day, “Two Emma Toc” was a surprising success. The presenter, producer, actor-manager and writer was Captain Peter Eckersley, a Marconi engineer. His regular announcement; “This is Two Emma Toc, Writtle testing, Writtle testing”, quickly became well known. Its success led to the creation of a sister station, “2LO”, and subsequently the British Broadcasting Company (BBC). 2MT did not become part of the BBC and closed down on 17 January 1923, however, Eckersley went on to become the founding Chief Engineer at the BBC. The Marconi Hut site at Writtle is commemorated by a nearby information board (unveiled in 1997 by Marconi’s daughter Princess Elettra Marconi) at Melba Court, which is named after Dame Nellie Melba who made Britain’s first publicised entertainment broadcast.

2LO began broadcasting on 11 May 1922, for one hour a day from the seventh floor of Marconi House in London’s Strand, opposite Somerset House. Initially the power was 100 watts on 350 metres. 2LO was allowed to transmit for seven minutes, after which the “operator” had to listen on the wavelength for three minutes for possible instructions to close down. On 14 November 1922 the station was transferred to a new organisation, in 1923, which took up the nearby Savoy Hill for its broadcasting studios. In 1927, the company became the BBC. On 9 March 1930, 2LO was replaced by the BBC Regional Programme and the BBC National Programme.

‘Call-Signs’ are an important way of helping the listener to know the nature of the information that they are hearing. In the US, many readio stations still use their call-sign at least once an hour. Yesterday, I mentioned that there are 641 in New York alone!

The BBC World Service began in 1932 as the BBC Empire Service, broadcasting on shortwave, and aimed principally at English-speakers across the British Empire. In his first Christmas Message (1932), King George V characterised the service as intended for “men and women, so cut off by the snow, the desert, or the sea, that only voices out of the air can reach them”. In 1938, the first foreign-language service was launched in Arabic. Programmes in German started in 1938, and by the end of 1942, the BBC had started broadcasts in all major European languages. As a result, the Empire Service was renamed the BBC Overseas Service in 1939, supplemented by a dedicated BBC European Service from 1941.

Funding for these External Services of the BBC came from the Foreign Office budget rather than the domestic licence-fee. The service has always been a political voice, promoting a British viewpoint and interests. The External Services broadcast propaganda during the Second World War of 1939-1945. Its French service Radio Londres also sent coded messages to the French Resistance. George Orwell broadcast many news bulletins on the Eastern Service during World War II.

In 1940, the BBC opened its studio to the first members of the resistance who fled France’s occupation by Germany. Radio Londres was born and would become the daily appointment of the French people for four years. It opened its transmission with : “Ici Londres ! Les Français parlent aux Français…” (“This is London! The French-speaking to the French…”), now a very famous quote in France. It was the voice of Free French Forces under Charles de Gaulle, who, on 18 June 1940, made his famous Appeal of 18 June, inviting his compatriots to resist and rise against the occupation. Broadcast entirely in French, it served not only to counter the propaganda broadcasts of German-controlled Radio Paris and the Vichy government’s Radiodiffusion Nationale, but also to appeal to the French to rise up (including De Gaulle’s calls to empty the streets of Paris for one hour, demonstrations, and the preparation of D-Day, or the V for Victory campaign, involving drawing a V sign on walls as an act of subversion).

Georges Bégué, an operative with the Special Operations Executive (SOE) had the idea of sending seemingly obscure personal messages to agents in the field, in order to reduce risky radio traffic. Broadcasts would begin with “Before we begin, please listen to some personal messages.” It was clear to everyone that they were coded messages, often amusing, and completely without context. Messages such as “Jean has a long mustache” and “There is a fire at the insurance agency,” each had some meaning to a certain resistance group. From the beginning of June 1944, the Allies inundated the network with messages. On 1 June alone, over 200 messages were sent, making it clear to those listening that something was in the works. The first four notes of Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, correspond to the dot-dot-dot-dash of the Morse code letter V for Victory and became a familiar part of its identity.

Shortly before the D-Day landings of 6 June 1944, Radio Londres broadcast the first stanza of Paul Verlaine’s poem “Chanson d’automne” to let the resistance know that the invasion was imminent. The first part of the stanza, ‘Les sanglots longs des violons de l’automne’ (“the long sobs of the violins of autumn”) indicated that the invasion would begin within 24 hours; the second, ‘Blessent mon cœur d’une langueur monotone’ (“wound my heart with a monotonous languor”) was the specific call to action. Allied victory in France in late 1944 sounded the end of Radio Londres.

By the end of the 1940s the number of broadcast languages had expanded and reception had improved, following the opening of a relay in modern-day Malaysia and of the Limassol relay in Cyprus in 1957. On 1 May 1965 the service took its current name of BBC World Service. The tension between government interests and independent journalism are always present. In August 1985 the service went off-air for the first time when workers went on strike in protest at the British government’s decision to ban a documentary featuring an interview with Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin.

In recent years, it has been substantially reduced as independent radio stations broadcasting in local languages have rapidly expanded. However, even today the BBC World Service operates in English 24/7/365 and has separate services in 27 other languages. Traditionally, the Service relied on shortwave broadcasts, because of their ability to overcome barriers of censorship, distance, and spectrum scarcity. The BBC has maintained a worldwide network of shortwave relay stations since the 1940s, mainly in former British colonies. These cross-border broadcasts have also been used in special circumstances for emergency messages to British subjects abroad, such as the advice to evacuate Jordan during the Black September incidents of September 1970. These days, most of the language streams use all the usual forms of internet and digital broadcasting, such as RSS-feeds, video channels, and web-services. In addition to broadcasting, the Service also devotes resources to the BBC Learning English programme – one of the most popular international systems for people acquiring English as a second language.

Check out the BBC’s “Sounds” web-pages for a smorgasbord of music streams, podcasts, documentaries, and live news;

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