Art Deco at the B.B.C.

by Paul Stewart

In the dark ages of broadcasting, which had begun in 1922 with just a few talks and news items per day, the appeal and scope of a national radio service were hard to predict. Receiver equipment was expensive, cumbersome and unreliable and there were many amateur stations up and down the country with no laws or regulations in place about how broadcasts should be conducted. Early radio contributors to the fledgling BBC broadcast from the Savoy Hill studios, including HG Wells and George Bernard Shaw. Radio drama flourished and poetry, weather forecasts and the chimes from Big Ben were heard across the airwaves for the first time. Radio was beginning to thrive and the growth of the Beeb forced the organisation to move to its first purpose-built centre, Broadcasting House in Regent Street in May 1932.

 

However, it isn’t just the exterior of the iconic Broadcasting House[i] that strikes a chord with lovers of Art Deco architecture. Australian-born architect Raymond McGrath was commissioned to design the interior lobby area and enlisted the help of two giants of the Modernist world: Wells Coates and Serge Chermayeff. When it was opened, its herringbone ‘elevator’ style doors, geometric pillars, modern lighting and classical statues presented a bold, confident and opulent front-of-house to what was fast becoming a world-renowned and respected institution. In the Concert Hall (which was to become the Radio Theatre), renowned sculptor of the time Gilberty Bayes created 12 carved friezes depicting poetry, dance and music. Although vastly different in scale and budget, comparisons in style and theme can be drawn to New York’s Rockefeller Centre, which opened a year later

 

Deeper inside the building, on the sixth and seventh floors, Coates’s designs could really be felt. He designed the sound and effects studios, corridors and waiting areas. His ‘Isokon’ approach to streamlined living, so evident in the later Lawn Road flats in Belsize Park, London, really came into its own here as curved surfaces, storage compartments and neat, flowing elegant lines adorned performance spaces and working areas.

Throughout its early life, the BBC moved with the trends and the times and the people it purported to represent, showing that it, too, was a listener. During the depression, entertainment at home was an affordable and popular social need and the wireless was the essential household appliance to provide this. Dancing at home in the evenings was commonplace; people dressed up, cleared away tables and chairs and, thanks to programme listings in the press, tuned in to their favourite programmes. Residencies of dance bands in top nightclubs often went out live to millions of listeners. It also meant you could hear new tunes without having to go to a music store or buy heavy 78rpm shellac records.

Much like rock and roll, and subsequently pop music decades later, it was the younger audiences that were tuning in and going to dance halls; so marketing had to appeal to these ‘bright young things’. Advertisers and designers capitalised on this and made their messages strong, enticing and fashionable.  The resulting shift cannot be better illustrated than by front covers of The Radio Times itself. The first issue hit the newsstands on 28th September 1923, its inception due in part to an ultimatum from the Newspaper Proprietors’ Association, whose members had refused to carry on printing radio listings for free in their titles. At first, The Radio Times was a text-heavy, dry document printed on newsprint; however it was soon to make aesthetic and cultural leaps to include illustrations, articles and cover art from the authors and designers of the day.

 

This stark, stylised example from May 1929 by renowned poster artist E. McKnight Kauffer (right) shows a geometric depiction of a face with bold shapes and solid areas intersecting with the text. This contrasts quite drastically with the conservative, newsprint version issued just two years earlier for the January 1927 edition (left).

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Another iconic cover that came a little later is this ‘fireside number’ by Philip Zec issued on 15th November 1935. It conveys the appeal of staying inside, keeping warm and listening to the wireless to beat the winter blues.

You wouldn’t necessarily associate visual style and imagery with the medium of sound but the BBC embraced it. These design classics would not look out of place amongst the poster art produced for cinema and travel, leading-edge at that time. Another anomaly is that there was no other major competitor in the marketplace; the Beeb didn’t need to sell any products aggressively so design served as a kind of pure marketing that existed solely for the growth and popularity of the service to the nation. Advances in radio technology and cabinet design brought a new sophistication and popularity as the medium continued to grow; at the end of March 1924 around 720,000 broadcast receiving licences had been issued whilst at the end of March ten years later, that figure was 6.2million.

The annual BBC Year Book was a round-up of highlights, broadcasts and comment and a look ahead to the coming year. This was a BBC publication and the Art Deco flavour can clearly be seen in these dust jackets from 1929 and 1930.

 

Until 1937 when the BBC took complete control, the The Radio Times was a joint venture with publishing giant George Newnes Ltd. Their portfolio included many motoring, lifestyle and technical titles, including the very lavish but sadly short lived Radio Magazine. Published from February to November 1934, this wasn’t in any way competition for the BBC, if anything, it threw a spotlight on the glamour, the gossip and the personalities of British radio, all packaged up in a Hollywood-style monthly magazine. Very few copies of it exist today but the Art Deco-inspired artwork and photography is exceptional.

 

Children were not forgotten either. From 1928 to 1933 the BBC ran their Radio Circle Club to bring together the listeners of Children’s Hour which was broadcast daily from 5pm – 6pm. Club badges were issued that used the familiar ‘sunbeam’ motif with a bar underneath depicting the different regions. The programme ran until 1964.

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By the mid-1930s the BBC was known worldwide for its coverage, variety of programming and expertise. However, over the next decade, it was to become more important than ever as the clouds of war gathered and people relied on their wireless set to deliver news of hope in the nation’s pursuit of peace. By the end of the war, the number of receiving licences was in excess of 10 million.

The BBC ran out of space in Broadcasting House as it expanded and technology changed, resulting in many alterations and extensions to the building. Surviving Art Deco interior features were restored in 2009. The BBC no longer owns Radio Times [ii], and its covers evolved from the pure graphic design of the Art Deco era to feature photographs as of the 1960s, changing with the times. 

[i] By George Val Myer

[ii] Radio Times dropped the definite article from its mast head in the nineteen forties.

Broadcasting House
Broadcasting House in period – photo courtesy of the BBC

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