Reading ‘Radio Times’ for Christmas 1941

21st December 2016

One reason to be cheerful during this endlessly unnerving Brexit+Trump interregnum is a little seasonal gift from BBC Genome and its blog. BBC Genome is the invaluable and all-round essential website featuring all of the BBC’s radio and television listings between 1923 and 2009. And its blog is a treasure trove of trivia and broadcasting history. As one entry in this year’s advent calendar it has made available a .pdf of the 1941 Christmas Radio Times, complete with editorial matter, programme details and advertisements. And what a rich, resonant document this is, conjuring up the traces of Christmas past from 75 years ago. Download it now and dive in with me – I’m going to pick out bits and pieces through the rest of this afternoon and into the evening.


• This Radio Times comes from life during wartime, and from an especially dark moment in Britain. Hitler’s attention may have been diverted from invasion and Germany’s forces may have turned against the USSR, but on 7 December Japan had launched their attack on Pearl Harbour. The following day the United Kingdom joined the USA in declaring war on Japan. and within 48 hours the Japanese had sunk battlecruiser HMS Repulse and battleship HMS Prince of Wales in the South China Sea. British troops were fighting Rommel in Egypt but operations were stuck in something of a stalemate. There was no sense that an Allied victory was in any way a foregone conclusion.

• Given the state of the war on the Eastern front, perhaps it’s not as surprising as it might otherwise be to find this programme listing for the Home Service on the evening of Sunday 21 December. According to Wikipedia the leader of the Soviet Union was born on 18 December 1878, so he would have been 63 years old.


• This is from the editorial page headed ‘Both Sides of the Microphone’ and credited to ‘The Broadcasters’:

Christmas Day ! Men and women working strenuously in war factories, training in camps and barracks, watching on lonely gun-sites, those in peril on the seas, or on duty in distant lands, manning the battlefronts of the world, no less than the lonely old folks at home-yes, even those who have suffered misfortune or bereavement-will recognise the difference, feel it in the very air,say to themselves ‘It’s Christmas Day’, and find their pulses quickening and a sudden glow of warmth leaping across their hearts at the thought.

• The only BBC services operational at the time were the Home Service and the Forces Network. There was no television, of course, the nascent network having begun in November 1936 but shut down on 1 September 1939, apparently because of fears that German planes could use the Alexandra Palace transmitter as a homing beacon to locate London. Each day’s Home Service schedule begins with a note of the times when the black-out starts; in London 75 years ago today this was 5.23pm.

• The big radio event of the week, flagged on the cover of Radio Times, was the first episode of Dorothy L. Sayers’ serial The Man Born to Be King, a cycle of plays about the life of Jesus. Intriguingly this was broadcast during the Children’s Hour slot at 5.15pm on Sunday 21 December. In a feature Dr J.W. Welch, the BBC’s Director of Religious Broadcasting heralded what he called ‘this modern Passion Play’ as

so far as I am aware, the first broadcast dramatisation of our Lord’s life in any country, and Our Lord will be impersonated in a public play in this country for the first time since the Middle Ages.


Head of Radio Drama Val Gielgud was the producer, and the cycle continued every fourth week until 18 October 1942. Robert Speaight took the role of Jesus, having been known previously for his Becket in T.S.Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral. Wikipedia takes up the story:

The project aroused a storm of controversy, even before it was broadcast. Objections arose to the very idea—atheists complained of Christian propaganda, while devout Christians declared that the BBC would be committing blasphemy by allowing the Christ to be impersonated by a human actor—and also to Sayers’ approach to the material. Sayers, who felt that the inherent drama of the Gospel story had become muffled by familiarity and a general failure to think of its characters as real people, was determined to give the plays dramatic immediacy, featuring realistic, identifiable characters with human emotions, motivations, and speech-patterns.

The decision to have the characters speak in contemporary colloquial English was, by itself, the cause of much disquiet among those more accustomed to Jesus and his followers using the polished and formal words of the King James Bible. In the event, although it continued to be criticised by conservative Christians—one group going so far as to proclaim the fall of Singapore in February 1942 to be a sign of God’s displeasure with the series—The Man Born to Be King was generally considered a great success, both as drama and as biblical representation.

• Inevitably many of the modest display ads reference the war, including this


But my favourite is this brilliantly simple and smart graphic for OXO – I’d love to know who the artist was.


Lead image: illustration for the 23 December Home Service page which has the following caption: “Christmas Cavalcade. The story of six Christmas Eves is told in the musical romance of family life by Ronnie Hill and Peter Dion Titheradge to be broadcast tonight at 9.35.”

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