(as published in West Country Life Jan 2018)
Ask people to sum-up what it means to be English, and before long someone will mention the BBC. Like many, I admit I have a certain soft spot for this most British of Institutions. It is not because of their celebrity-soaked competitions, Sunday evening period dramas or even toe-tapping radio shows, but because of the important role the BBC have played over the past 100 years in helping develop the technology to entertain us.
The other day I had the fortune to pick up a couple of items very much connected with the golden years of the BBC. It is one of the highlights of my job I guess to trade in objects that give us a glimpse into our social past, and sometimes just by handling these things you inadvertently answer questions that had always been niggling at the back of your mind. Questions like…. why on old broadcasts does everyone always sound so very prim and proper? Were people just better mannered back in the old days or are there other factors too?
I knew from collecting gramophones as a teenager that most early 78rpm records used the piano as accompaniment not because the instrument was everyone’s favourite, but because under the circumstances it recorded well and played back the clearest without swamping the singer’s voice. I assumed therefore that there was probably more to early broadcasts than just good manners, but so far I’d yet to come up with an alternative hypothesis.
The first item I got was a book. It was written in the late 1940s by a veteran BBC radio presenter and it was intended to help people make better speeches both for social engagements and for a successful career in radio. Full of anecdotes and examples of good and bad speeches, the central argument was that to be good at broadcasting you should first forget everything you ever learned at school about written prose, and instead focus on the simplicity, rhythm and repetition of colloquial speech. Stacato incomplete phrases, I learned, are far more engaging over the wireless than those long and complicated ones by Wordsworth or Byron. And that once you’ve lost your listener by over complicating things, they are usually gone, bye-bye, never to return. Therefore always focus on lilting clarity.
The second item I found was a retro 1970s clock. Infact it was a bit more than just a clock because it came mounted on a heavy old formica-clad cupboard door with big coloured lights set around it. This clock was one of the originals used in a BBC World Service studios at Bush House before it closed down some years ago. The lights were for evacuation and fire alarms and to signal when you were on and off air, but just like the book had taught me, from finding old photos of the actual studio, this clock was positioned in the line of vision. It was perhaps a constant reminder that in radio timing and a controlled pace is everything. When you are beaming live through the homes of millions of people the listener can’t suddenly ask you to repeat yourself when you start mumbling or tripping over your own words.
The third item I bought was also my favourite. It was an original BBC outdoor ribbon ‘Lip microphone’ from the 1940s. While indoor studio productions are far easier for the sound man to oversee, stepping outdoors (especially at a busy live event) throws up a host of new challenges. The biggest problem has always been trying to get rid of those annoying ambient noises such as wind, cars and cheering etc especially while maintaining the ability to move your head around to describe what you see. Before 1937 the solution had been a sort of full headset with a mic strapped precariously infront of the mouth. It must have been horrible for the commentator to use.
In 1937 the Marconi company together with the BBC tried to come up with a better design. Their solution was a hand-held ‘Lip microphone’ that encased a standard floating mic in a tidy handheld unit, but had a fixed bar for the presenter to butt their lips against while talking (2 1/2 inches from the internal mic to be precise). This would both maintain the clarity and cancel out the other noises. It was a beautifully simple idea and even today 80 years later, outdoor presenters at big events still tend to use lip-microphones. For the BBC their new microphone would also earn them notoriety during WW2 as the plucky commentators stood outside in London with mic in hand to describe the devastation of the Blitz going on around them. After the war these mics would become synonymous with sporting commentary.
Adapting to the design
Like any kid with a new toy it was obviously not long before I was playing with the mic. Pressing my lips against the guard and pretending I was recounting the scene of some royal wedding somewhere, all I can say is I’m glad no one was around to see me. But as I spoke a funny thing happened. By accident and without trying I noticed that my Queens English was improving and really it was less to do with the actual microphone technology or sense of playfulness. It was largely down to the design.
You see by holding your top lip in particular against the top bar it forces the speaker to take on the traits of the classic ‘stiff upper lip’, constricting the movement of the upper lip and exaggerating the movement of the lower. Also by actively holding the mic against the face rather than it floating freely infront of you, you inevitably have to concentrate just that bit more to ensure it remains touching.
So there you go. For all these years I had just assumed the old radio presenters were probably just cut from better cloth than I, but no. When broadcasting outside their poetic clarity was in part the result of a simple and constrictive design. It was the realisation that being so close to the mic your every cough and stumble would be heard loud and clear so to make every word matter. And perhaps via their training, it was the realisation that at big live events you get no second chance to describe what you are witnessing. Therefore stand tall, embrace the timbre of your spoken words and let your bottom lip do the talking………….