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Broadcasting in the 1950s, 20-22 July 2011: conference report

The eagerly awaited Broadcasting in the 1950s conference took place at the University of Wales Study Centre, in the beautiful Gregynog Hall near Newtown in mid-Wales, from 20 to 22 July 2011.

Over these three days we heard a wealth of papers on a vast array of research topics, proving that a chronological focus to a conference can be a remarkably stimulating way to generate discussion and debate on recurrent themes arising from vastly different interests and contexts. These recurrent themes included class and education, traditionalism vs. experimentalism, sound vs. television, and the persistence―rather than death―of radio in this transitional period.

The original cast of Mrs Dale's Diary, 1948; © BBC
The original cast of Mrs Dale’s Diary, 1948

The conference offered one keynote lecture, ten panels of two to three speakers (several of which ran in parallel sessions), an evening presentation by Lisa Kerrigan of the BFI of a recently discovered recording of the 1959 BBC production of Anouilh’s Antigone (part of the BFI’s UnLOCked season), and a tour of Powys Castle. Below I shall summarize a handful of the papers given, but for a full sense of the scope of the conference please take a look at the conference website.

With just under forty participants, the conference was an extremely congenial and friendly event. This atmosphere was facilitated by the organisation of Dr Jamie Medhurst (Aberystwyth) and Professor Hugh Chignell (Bournemouth), and also Rhys Fowler and Stephanie Jones, both at the University of Aberystwyth, who managed the advance practicalities and the day-to-day running of the conference with impressive efficiency and good cheer.

Keynote: Professor Michele Hilmes, ‘ “Wagon Train at Sea”: British / American Co-Production and the Shift from Live to Filmed TV’
The conference opened with a fascinating keynote lecture by Professor Michele Hilmes of the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Professor Hilmes’ lecture took as its focus the British export of filmed television programmes, especially those of interest to the American educational television market, and British / American co-production of programmes. Hilmes argued that by the 1960s the filmed series had become the backbone of television production, creating an international market in TV programmes which were dominated by the US and Britain; also, the American educational sector gave strong support to the BBC Transcription Service and serious live drama and documentary on the BBC; and, furthermore, the end of the decade saw the beginning of BBC and American co-production, led by BBC Director-General Hugh Carleton Greene. Hilmes persuasively concluded that these strong transatlantic connections are crucial to any consideration of the development of television in Britain and America.This topic arises from Professor Hilmes’ research for her latest book, Network Nations: A Transnational History of British and American Broadcasting. This book, which is to appear this summer with Routledge, examines the history of influence and exchange between Britain and the US from the 1920s to the 1970s.

Panel 1: Reflections on the Role of Broadcasting in the 1950s

Dr Kate Lacey (Senior Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies, University of Sussex) gave a paper on ‘From Radio Listening to Television Watching in the 1950s: Reflections on a Blindspot in Media History’. This paper explored the fact that the television public was also a listening public, in terms of the fact that the two different media (radio and television) were co-existent in this period and that television also produced sound. She began by examining television as ‘radio with pictures’ and as ‘sound radio’, going on to draw on Marshall McLuhan in her discussion of the distinctions between serious and popular listening in the 1957 ‘new deal’ for radio listeners (the ‘lighter’ Light, the ‘homelier’ Home, and the changing Third), talking about how serious listening may be understood to draw on literary culture while popular listening may be considered to be an immersive and more involved experience. She encouraged the audience to reconceptualise what we mean by ‘listening’, exploring how we ‘listen’, for example, to visual texts.

Dr Jamie Medhurst (Theatre, Film and TV Studies Department, Aberystwyth University) spoke about the long-lasting impact on society of the 1951 Report of the Broadcasting Committee. Particular points of exploration in this paper were (1) the degree of unease expressed about the BBC’s monopoly and the great concern in Wales and Scotland about the BBC’s Londoncentricism; and (2) the degree of devolution introduced, with governors from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and the move to a federal system with councils/committees from each.

Dr Sian Nicholas (Department of History, Aberystwyth University) offered a talk on ‘Now the War is Over: Negotiating the BBC’s Wartime Legacy in Post-War Britain’ which argued that many of BBC Radio’s populist wartime successes were downgraded once the war was over with energy instead going into establishing the elite Third Programme, for example, and making The Brains Trust more serious.

Panel 4: Class, gender and identity

Dr Kristin Skoog (a postdoctoral researcher at Bournemouth University) gave a paper on how the radio soap opera Mrs Dale’s Diary (broadcast from 1948 to 1969) opened up debates in the press about British class identity in the post-war period. The central focus of the paper was on the various perceptions and criticisms of Mrs Dale’s class and social position in a wide variety of newspaper sources to which the BBC ultimately responded by introducing into the storyline visits to art galleries and social family occasions, such as marriages.

Dr Mary Irwin (Research Fellow on the AHRC History of Television for Women, 1947-1989 project at the University of Warwick) gave a paper on BBC Television programmes for women between 1947 and 1955. She argued that television programming had a lot to contribute to the post-war public re-negotiation of women’s roles and that the study of these presents an important challenge to any uncontested notions of ‘ “cosy” domestic fifties femininity’. Dr Irwin presented brief histories and analyses of the following programmes: (1) Designed for Women (BBC, 1947-1951); (2) For the Housewife (BBC, from 1948); (3) Leisure and Pleasure, which replaced Designed for Women in 1951; and (4) Women’s Viewpoint (1951, five episodes only). Furthermore, she introduced into her conclusion some pertinent thoughts about the need for a feminist audiovisual archiving policy.

Dr Sean Nixon (Senior Lecturer in the Sociology Department, University of Essex) considered the depiction of women within television advertising during the 1950s and ’60s, being especially concerned with how women were defined in the roles of wife, mother and consumer. The ‘modern housewife’ was established as a socially progressive figure, supposedly freed by technology from the domestic drudgery of old, and in this mould she was intimately connected with the idea of the ‘new household’ (indoor toilet, running water, piped gas, etc). Dr Nixon discussed the depiction of women and the home (especially the kitchen) in television commercials of the period and also examined how the originally American ideas of the ‘modern housewife’ and ‘new household’ was tailored to a British market from 1945 (with much smaller kitchens, British accents, etc).

Panel 9: Broadcasting Practice and Culture in the 1950s

Dr Ieuan Franklin (Research Associate on the AHRC project Channel 4 and British Film Culture at the University of Portsmouth) and Dr Paul Long (Department of Media & Communication, University of Central England) offered an interesting co-presentation on ‘Broadcast Practice and Culture in the BBC Regions in the 1950s’. It examined the work of Charles Parker (of ‘Radio Ballads’ fame, 1958-63) and Philip Donnellan (who worked on documentary television films), both based in the BBC Midland office in the 1950s, and the consequent extent to which they were able to pursue experiments in the aesthetics of broadcasting and represent the voice of the ‘voiceless’ in the region, away from the gaze of Broadcasting House.

Dr Darrell M. Newton (Chair of the Communication Arts department at Salisbury University, Maryland) gave a paper which looked at issues surrounding 1950s immigration as represented by broadcasters in Britain and the US, with a special focus on an episode of America’s Town Meeting of the Air which, broadcast in 1955, brought together Herbert White, Mayor of Lambeth, and Edward Miller, Chair of the Mayor’s Committee for Puerto Rican Affairs in NYC, to discuss the recent arrival of the West Indian community in London and the post-war increase of Puerto Ricans in NYC.

[Professor Hugh Chignell, who unfortunately wasn’t able to attend the conference, was to present his work on the BBC Home Service and the 1956 Suez crisis in this panel.]

This stimulating conference also included panels and papers on aesthetic practices and style, Anglo-American influences beyond the transatlantic sphere, culture and critical practice, individual broadcasters, science broacasting, and transatlantic interactions. For more information on these other panels, see the conference website.

It is hoped that a collection (or two?) of essays from this conference will be published in due course―let’s hope so, for the emergent conference themes on the relationship between broadcasting and society in the ‘long 1950s’ are both interesting and important. Watch this space!



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