Juliet Nicolson

Listen with Auntie

Forty million Britons turned to Auntie for news, entertainment and vital reassurance throughout the second world war

The camouflage-painted, smoke-blackened entrance to London’s 1940s Broadcasting House, moated with sandbags and battered by bombs, provided its staff with a refuge from attack. Inside, a gender-segregating blanket divided the employees’ emergency dormitory in two. But such propriety masked the energy, idiosyncrasy and influence that ballooned within the Portland Place walls during the wartime years.

From the morning of 3 September 1939, when Neville Chamberlain used the wireless to announce that Britain was at war with Germany, the same day that the Alexandra Palace indefinitely shut down all television broadcasting, radio became the nation’s indispensable source of up-to-the-minute information. Although the Houses of Parliament and London’s poshest clubs had initially banned the use of the relatively newfangled machine, at the outbreak of war Britain’s wireless listeners numbered around 40 million (if you included those who listened in pubs) out of a population of 48 million. Images in the press of people at home wearing expressions of concentration, anxiety and occasional amusement while huddled around a wooden box became familiar.

In Edward Stourton’s fascinating, complex and exhaustively researched biography of wartime life at the BBC, an organisation for which he has worked for three decades, he studies documents marked ‘secret’, memos about broadcasters not to be trusted, and scripts scrawled with the censor’s tut-tuttings. The BBC had begun broadcasting in 1922, and in 1939, still in relative infancy, was viewed by many as a citadel for the privileged Oxbridge elite. Regional accents and women’s voices (except for Vera Lynn’s heart-lifting singing) were rarely heard on air and Penelope Fitzgerald’s hilarious novel Human Voices comes out of her subordinate wartime experience as a BBC secretary.

During the first uneasy year of conflict when the BBC was seen as hectoring and fussy, reminiscent of a spinster, ‘Auntie’ acquired her nickname.

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