“A claim to be heard”: voices of ordinary people in BBC radio features

Lewis, Peter M. (2020) “A claim to be heard”: voices of ordinary people in BBC radio features. Revue française de civilisation britannique, 26 (1). 1 -14. ISSN 2429-4373


The BBC radio feature, originally influenced by the documentary film movement, combined music and sound with speech that at first was scripted, later recorded on location, along with ‘actuality’. This paper will ask ‘whose speech?’ A memorandum from BBC Director General, John Reith, in 1924, had insisted that “only those who have a claim to be heard above their fellows on any particular subject… should be put on the programme”. Nevertheless, from the 1930s onwards, there was a continuing effort on the part of more politically-minded producers to extend the range of voices heard on the air. The BBC’s North Region, where it was easier to escape Reith’s centralising control, led the way. Pioneering initiatives used the cumbersome recording apparatus of the time to reach into people’s homes and work-places to capture working class voices. After WW2 this example was followed in other regions, until, belatedly in the late 1950s, the BBC began to accept the use of portable recording. By this time a Europe-wide culture of radio feature-making had developed, influenced by the French exploration of musique concrète and the flourishing German Hörspiel, and fostered by the Prix Italia and the International Features Workshop. British features producers contributed to this movement and won some success with highly-crafted, aesthetically innovative features. The paper concludes by examining examples of the voices heard in BBC radio features in the last decade of the 20th century.

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