In 1940s Britain the wireless was one of the key sources of home entertainment and news. Since the 1920s – when the first musical broadcast was aired from the Marconi Research Centre in Chelmsford – the wireless radio provided the backdrop to family life. Once the BBC received its Royal Charter in 1926, becoming the first national broadcaster in the world, households got used to turning on their wireless to be entertained, as well as to be informed.
Back in 1940 the BBC Home Service provided a wide range of programmes, everything from classical music, short stories and drama, schools programmes, comedy and sport. It was on the Home Service that the nation heard King George VI announcing the start of the Second World War, and throughout the war years wireless radio provided a vital link for families divided from their loved ones, desperate to hear news of how the fighting was progressing.
The BBC Forces Programme, broadcast from January 1940 through to 1944, provided a focus, not just for those back at home, but crucially to those at the front. During the early part of the war when little actual warfare took place – referred to now as the time of the ‘phoney war’ – it became clear that the armed forces spent long periods sitting in barracks with little or nothing to do. The BBC Forces Programme provided a mixture of drama, comedy, popular music, features, quiz shows and variety shows. The ‘Forces Sweetheart’ Vera Lynn filled a Sunday evening slot with her programme, Sincerely Yours, delighting everyone with her uplifting and sentimental songs, as well as reading out messages to the troops.
When the war ended much of the light entertainment was moved to the new Light Programme, with a regional Home Service still broadcasting news and current affairs. It’s interesting to note the extent to which the Light Programme targeted women, with Housewives’ Choice on a weekday morning and Woman’s Hour, first broadcast in 1946, taking an afternoon slot. Mrs Dales’ Diary became the first serialised radio drama, running from 1948, right through to 1969. Women were certainly an important target market.
During the war years women were needed to take up every kind of occupation while the men went to war, but from 1945 onwards married women were once again expected to be responsible for all the household duties.
It seems they were destined to follow the advice of an ancient Greek proverb:
Let women stay at home and hold their peace.Aeschylus, in Seven Against Thebes, 467 B.C
At least the wireless broadcasts provided a welcome companion to their chores.
Evening broadcasts, however, were welcomed by the whole family, offering a backdrop to homework, reading, mealtimes, and even resting. In fact, a survey carried out in 1947 revealed that nearly eighty percent of the three thousand adults asked confirmed they listened to the wireless while eating each of their three meals a day.
Another decade passed before television began to seriously compete with the wireless, but until then loyal listeners congregated around their wireless radio, as though it was one of the family.