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A note about relying on Radio Times

Radio Times' 'Television' cover, 23 October 1936

Radio Times' 'Television' cover, 23 October 1936

Although most of our recent blog posts have been about particular productions of stage plays on television, and although these contributions will most definitely continue, we also want to use the blog to reflect on the ways in which we are conducting our research. This post comes from my recognition this week that the central source from which Amanda and I are working, the weekly BBC publication Radio Times, is perhaps not quite as reliable, especially in the earliest years of television, as we might once have thought.

Surprisingly perhaps, for almost all of television’s history, there is no official retrospective record, either public or private, of what was actually broadcast. For whatever reason, for many years after 1938 the BBC did not log exactly which programmes were transmitted. (Such data is, of course, collected about today’s services, but I would be fascinated to know at what date such records began.)

Given the absence of any central record, Radio Times is of absolutely fundamental importance to historians, archivists and all those concerned with television’s past. The BBC is currently digitising back copies, and information drawn from this important project will become the definitive record. But as our Screen Plays research is uncovering, we need to treat the content of Radio Times with care.

For just one short period of television’s history, if we want to know about the content of transmissions on a daily basis there is an authoritative alternative. Published by the BBC, the carefully compiled volumes of the BBC Programme Records from 1922 onwards record titles and timings, contributors and credits for each and every radio programme. The hardbound BBC Programme Records 1936 extends this account and includes details of television programmes for the fragment of the year after the start of the official service. Then for the following two years the BBC Television Programme Records, Vol. 1, 1937-38 was published as a standalone volume (and is abbreviated with the 1936 information to Records in the discussion below).

Publication of this invaluable series was disrupted by the war. No volume for either radio or television covers 1939, and presumably the compilation of records was not seen as a priority either for the wartime radio services or for the cash-strapped television operation when it resumed in 1946. The neat row of well-thumbed volumes on the shelves of the BBC Written Archives Centre comes to an end with 1938. Even so, for television historians the 1936 to 1938 records are absolutely invaluable.

Radio Times listing for The DybbukIn many ways the Records listings are more detailed than those in Radio Times, which were sent to the printers up to a fortnight before a programme was broadcast. There are, for example, entries for each edition of the popular magazine show Picture Page with careful notes of which music hall acts and noted figures of the moment appeared on screen. There is also, on occasion, far more detailed casting information, as can be seen from comparing the listings in each source for a remarkable presentation one Friday afternoon of the Habima Theatre from Tel-Aviv. In addition to the presence of the legendary Jewish actress Hana Rovina (this appears to be the more usual spelling), we learn the names of twenty-two other actors who appeared with her. In addition, we can see that there was a commentary by the biblical scholar J. Isaacs and an introduction by Sydney Bernstein, who was then Chairman of Granada, a property and cinemas  conglomerate and who was known for his interest in the theatre and who was later to found Granada Television.

Programmes Records listing for The Dybbuk

Because the Records were compiled after transmission of a television programme, we can safely assume that they are more accurate than the speculative information in Radio Times. And it is when programme entries are compared directly, that the problems become clear for researchers who are relying on Radio Times.

Very often the information in the Records and Radio Times aligns fairly precisely, although the exact transmission times in the former rarely agrees exactly with the schedulers’ aspirations. But there are a number of occasions in the 1937 records (which to date are the only ones that I have looked at closely) when significant scheduling changes were made after Radio Times had gone to press.

For Saturday 27 February 1937, Radio Times promised its readers, as part of a double bill called Grave and Gay, the comedy sketch by Ronald Jeans Catching the Male (Radio Times Television Supplement, 19 February 1937, p. 10). In fact, what viewers saw was Catherine Parr, a comedy sketch by Maurice Baring (Records, 1937, p. 16).  An edition of Theatre Parade, albeit with an unspecified play, was promised for 22 April 1937 in Radio Times but – according to the Records – was not produced. The short comedy sketch The ‘Ole in the Road, scheduled for 4 May 1937, was replaced by one called In the Night Watch.

Radio Times announced a major production of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s play Waterloo for 8 October 1937, but according to the Records this only made it to the screen on 25 October, with a repeat two days later. And on 25 October it replaced what Radio Times had billed as a presentation of scenes from Measure for Measure. One other notable difference concerns what might have been the first Eugene O’Neill drama to be featured on British television. Act II of O’Neill’s Anna Christie was billed in Radio Times for 3.40pm on Friday 7 May 1937. This was to be a staging in the studio of part of the Westminster Theatre production with Flora Robson as Anna Christopherson. In the Records there is no sign of the transmission, either then or later, with its place in the schedule on 7 May taken by an edition of Play Parade with scenes from Twelfth Night.

In 1937 BBC Television presented around eighty productions of theatre plays, and the information in Radio Times for approximately ten per cent of these appears to be  wrong in some significant way. Which seventy-five years on perhaps only matters if you are depending on Radio Times as your primary source to compile an accurate database of all productions of stage plays on British television.

The problem, I imagine, is most acute for these early years. The pre-war television service from Alexandra Palace was run on a wing and prayer, and often scrambled together at the last moment. I can imagine the logistical and contractual problems that were being worked on at the last moment to bring Anna Christie to Alexandra Palace, and why the prospect had to be abandoned, even if Radio Times had gone to press. After 1946 the planning systems were more rigorous. Changes to the programme schedule were more likely to occur in these years because of technical problems rather than down-to-the-wire changes of plan.

It is also hard to know what alternatives researchers have. The BBC Written Archives Centre holds written records for many of the programmes, but far from all, and rarely for those that did not reach the screen – I have yet to find a file for the abandoned Anna Christie. There are also scattered press reviews for a handful of productions, but information about the contents of these early schedules is otherwise scarce if not non-existent. If only the Records had continued publication beyond 1938… As it is, we have to continue to recognise the immense value of Radio Times, and to rely upon it, but also to acknowledge that, as with everything else in the historical record, its tens of thousands of pages have to be used with caution, to be constantly questioned and, where possible, carefully cross-checked.


One thought on “A note about relying on Radio Times

  1. A lot of good points there. It’s so frustrating to see Radio Times information taken as gospel by well-meaning but inadequately informed researchers, who reproduce it online where it will remain unchallenged and often reproduced further by others. There’s a hideously inaccurate Wednesday Play guide somewhere online which does just this. (no doubt I’ve done similar in the past – I’m no paragon in this area)

    Trouble is, the BBC Programme Records and WAC material aren’t easily available to many who have an interest in this material. There is one readily available source of reliable information regarding British television drama: Kaleidoscope Publishing’s Drama Research Guides (one for BBC, one ITV), which have recently been heavily expanded, revised and made available as vast (the BBC one is nearly 3,000 pages) searchable PDFs for a modest price. They include titles, durations, credits, broadcast dates and archive notes.

    I believe the content is largely drawn from the broadcasters’ own records and seems very reliable. Inevitably a few errors have crept in, but they’re certainly the most accurate source of information which will be widely available to most amateur researchers. Highly recommended. I’m sure you’re aware of them but thought worth mentioning them here for any interested readers who may not have encountered them. (I just wish I had them when I wrote some of the screenonline entries you’ve kindly mentioned elsewhere). Details of the guides, and other publications, here:

    Posted by Oliver Wake | 1 June 2012, 10:48 pm

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