John Wyver writes: considering the two television covers of Radio Times from October 1936 in an earlier post piqued my interest as to what the covers of the weekly listings magazine were like throughout the rest of the 1930s. How, for example, did Radio Times use its covers to celebrate Easter during what W H Auden famously called ‘a low dishonest decade’? So I poked around in BBC Genome and came up with the somewhat surprising answer, hardly at all. Christmas was a major event for the magazine, reflecting its significance for radio, and later television, from the BBC, but at least on the covers of Radio Times religious services and bunnies very much took a back seat to sport and other attractions.
Easter Sunday in 1930 fell on 20 April, but The Radio Times (the masthead still carried a definite article) was a good deal more interested in the live commentary that radio would provide on the FA Cup Final the following Saturday.
Outside broadcasts from this big day at Wembley started in 1927, although apparently 1930 was the first year that the BBC paid a rights fee. Needless to say the numbers on the pitch in the cover image were not painted on the grass, but rather were employed by the commentators to tell radio listeners where the ball was at any moment. Arsenal beat Huddersfield 2-0 and the Graf Zeppelin passed over the stadium at the start of the second half.
A very similar image featured on the cover in 1935, when Easter Sunday was 21 April and Sheffield Wednesday beat West Bromwich Albion 4-2.
The 1935 cover carries an ‘Also this week’ note trailing ‘Easter Programme from Jerusalem’, but otherwise the holiday weekend is absent. There was no such recognition of Easter in 1931, falling on 5 April, when the big attraction of the week was a performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera Kitesh, or as it is more often known The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevroniya. First performed in St Petersburg in 1907, the opera was presented this week from a BBC studio although it had previously been broadcast live from Covent Garden in March 1926. The dramatic expressionist woodcut carries a credit in the top-right corner to ‘Foricer’ or similar but I can’t currently trace an illustrator by that name. Anyone have any ideas?
In 1932 Easter Sunday was 27 March and the week’s Radio Times cover was prosaic.
For Easter Week in 1933, when the Sunday was 16 April, Radio Times similarly – and in a comparably uninspired manner – highlighted two notable broadcasts.
The orientalist musical pantomime Chu Chin Chow had been a huge stage hit during the First World War, and the year after this cover it was made into a talking motion picture at Gainsborough Studios. Oscar Asche was the theatre show’s writer, producer, director and original star. The Ringer was Edgar Wallace‘s hit stage play from 1929, which he had adapted from his own story The Gaunt Stranger. Two British film versions of this tale had already been made (as well as one in Germany), and Wallace had died just over a year before, having been working in the United States on the script for King Kong.
It is partly simple curiosity that made me look up these Radio Times covers for Easter Sunday on the wonderful resource of BBC Genome. But I was also intrigued to see the extent to which these coves might bear out a key idea developed by Paddy Scannell and David Cardiff in what remains perhaps the very best book about interwar radio, A Social History of British Broadcasting: Volume One 1922-1939 (Blackwell, 1991 – subsequent volumes, sadly, have not been forthcoming).
In Chapter 13 Scannell and Cardiff explore ideas of national identity and the need to make an abstract collectivity concrete through ‘a sense of belonging, the “we-feeling” of the community [which] has to continually engendered by opportunities for identification as the nation is being manufactured.’ As they write further,
Radio and, later, television were potent means of manufacturing that ‘we-feeling’. They made the nation real and tangible through a whole range of images and symbols, events and ceremonies, relayed to audiences direct and live…
Nothing so well illustrates the noiseless manner in which the BBC became perhaps the central agent of the national culture as its calendrical role; the cyclical reproduction, year in year out, of an orderly and regular procession of festivities, rituals and celebrations – major and minor, civil and sacred – that marked the unfolding of the broadcast year.
What I found interesting is that, at least as manifested through the covers of Radio Times, this ‘calendrical role’ is not focussed in the 1930s on the religious festival of Easter but, if anything, on the parallel rituals of sport.
From the pre-war decade the only Radio Times cover that embraces Easter is this from 1934, when Easter Sunday was 21 April. It’s entirely distinctive with a sans-serif masthead (although the definite article is still there) and a bold simple design setting off a traditional pastoralist vision of village life. The style of the image derives ultimately from the woodcuts of the 19th century engraver Thomas Bewick but the church, cottage and swallow are embedded in a strikingly modern lay-out.
I have no idea why the 1934 Easter cover was so different, and by the following year the magazine was relying on a traditional format for its aerial photograph of Wembley (see above) and in 1936, when Easter Sunday was 12 April, the magazine appeared behind this.
In 1937 Easter on Sunday 28 March was, at least as far as the cove was concerned, solely a focus for a weekend of Bank Holiday sport, with a bold photographic image and angled typography conjuring up speed as a symbol of modernity. Note that the definite article has disappeared from the masthead, which now incorporates a slightly aggressive, even fascistic new central logo. No more, in a world just a month away from the Luftwaffe’s bombing of Guernica, do we have the aspiration ‘Nation shall speak peace unto nation’.
(For more on this motto, go here – it seems that in the BBC’s official coat of arms it was adopted in 1927 and then abandoned in 1934, to be replaced by the Latin tag ‘Quaecunque’, meaning ‘Whatsoever’ – which seems really weird. It appears to have been revived for the corporation’s Christmas card in 1948 and to have been used again more widely after that. More research is needed on this, methinks.)
In 1938, when Easter Sunday fell on 17 April, Radio Times and the illustrator ‘J.H.’ (any ideas, anyone?) were encouraging listeners, imagined as childless but pet-loving, middle-class suburbanites living in solid semis, to write in with their thoughts about the BBC’s music policy. There’s no hint of Easter.
1939, and Easter Sunday was 9 April. There are months of sunshine to come before war is declared at the start of September, but the cover of Radio Times now seems oddly prescient.
And finally, in 1940, when Easter Sunday was 24 March, from the cover of Radio Times you really wouldn’t know there was a war on. Although there is a modest mention of Easter services from Canterbury Cathedral and Temple Church.
Apropos of nothing, the immensely popular stage and screen star Jessie Matthews was cited in the 1930 divorce proceedings of Sonnie Hale from his first wife Evelyn Laye. Hale had first left Laye in 1928, when public opinion largely sided with the spurned wife, and he married Matthews in 1931, nearly a decade of respectability from the appearance of this cover.
To cheer us all up, here’s Jessie Matthews singing ‘Over My Shoulder’ from the final moments of the 1934 musical film Evergreen, directed by Victor Saville.