A 100 years on and still entertaining and informing
Collections - Posted 13-02-2023
There are many things which we take for granted in modern life – watching television programmes and listening to radio programmes and podcasts being some of them. The internet has made it easier to access many broadcast platforms, with social media driving comments and news. Few people in 1923 would have predicted that a local radio station broadcasting around Cardiff would grow to become a national institution at the centre of Welsh life. In 2023, the BBC in Wales celebrates its centenary, and what better way to mark this important historical milestone than to establish the Wales Broadcast Archive at the National Library of Wales.
Radio rules – the BBC begins broadcasting in Wales on 13 February 1923
Some may not know that the BBC began as a commercial company backed by Guglielmo Marconi, the famous pioneer of wireless broadcasting. It wasn’t until 1927 that the British Broadcasting Corporation was set up as a public service broadcaster with a Royal Charter to ‘inform, educate and entertain’. In the 1920s the technology was primitive and few people could afford their own wireless set which cost £7 (the equivalent of £334 today) and the 10 shillings radio licence fee (£23 today). However, radio became very popular with 2.5m licences issued by 1928 as coverage spread across the UK. The early radio pioneers had to experiment to find out what worked and the choice of programmes was very limited. However, at 5pm on 13 February 1923, only four months after the launch of the London station, 2LO, the British Broadcasting Company began broadcasting from Studio 5WA in 19 Castle Street, Cardiff.
At 9.30pm, Mostyn Thomas sang the folk song ‘Dafydd y Garreg Wen’. Fifty years later, he recalled that “I hardly had any time to practice, which made me extremely nervous, as in those days microphones weren’t simple things to use… but we simply had to be ready, the start time had been advertised in all the newspapers”. The programmes were only available within a 20-mile radius of the studio in Cardiff, and then Swansea in December 1924.
In the 1930s the BBC increased the number of transmitters and as a result, in 1937 it launched an all Wales radio service. The previous South Wales and the West service received many complaints from listeners in both Wales and England and people in Mid and North Wales couldn’t listen at all. The historian John Davies suggested that the first all Wales BBC radio service was an important moment in Wales being seen as a distinct nation.
The opening of the Bangor studio managed by the legendary Sam Jones in 1935 led to new Welsh language programmes during the Second World War when radio was used to keep up morale. Home grown talent such as Triawd y Coleg with Meredydd Evans (who later became the Head of BBC Light Entertainment in Wales) became national stars in Noson Lawen. The BBC Light Entertainment Unit moved from London to Bangor between 1941 to 1943 to avoid the Blitz, broadcasting popular shows including ITMA starring Tommy Handley, a radio super star of the time. In the 1950s, children’s programmes were broadcast between 5pm and 6pm with ‘SOS Galw Gari Tryfan’ by the Rev Idwal Jones proving to be hugely popular as a Welsh language equivalent of ‘Dick Barton – special agent’.
In 1945 for the first time, people in Wales could buy a Welsh version of the popular Radio Times which listed BBC programmes.
Radio has a competitor
Although mechanical television sets first appeared in 1929 with experiments by John Logie Baird, the BBC didn’t launch a television service until 1936 – with breaks between programmes to rest the eyes of viewers! This service closed down during the war years but in 1946, television was back – although not everywhere. It took time to build new transmitters and to grow an audience who were more used to listening to the radio. Television needed to attract new audiences and live outside broadcasts such as the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953 encouraged people to buy television sets. It wasn’t until the Wenvoe transmitter opened on 15 August 1952 that people in South Wales could watch television for the first time, paying a licence fee of £2 (around £46 today).
Television in Wales in the 1950s struggled with a lack of coverage and mainly relied on programmes produced in London, as the BBC now competed with commercial television. The first commercial channel in Wales, Television Wales and the West (TWW), began broadcasting in 1958 in South East Wales. Appearing on the opening night were well-known Welsh stars Donald Houston, Stanley Baker and Harry Secombe. The BBC in Wales now needed to produce television content attractive to a Welsh audience.
‘Good Evening, here is the news in Wales today’
But it was in 1964 that television really took off with the beginning of BBC Cymru Wales as a separate service – although only 12 hours of additional programmes were produced with 7 hours in Welsh and 5 hours in English.
The 1960s was a time of social and political change in Wales. The BBC had a responsibility to broadcast the latest news but providing television news programmes in Wales hadn’t been done before. ‘Heddiw’ began in 1961 as a news magazine programme reporting national and international news in Welsh for the first time on television. Several famous broadcasters including Owen Edwards, Robin Jones and Hywel Gwynfryn presented the news. In 1962 ‘Wales Today’ started, sharing the slot with Points West for South West England as there was only one transmitter. That’s why the new BBC Cymru Wales service was so important. When presenter Brian Hoey spoke to viewers in October 1964, it was to Welsh viewers.
Bringing news stories to the screen was very difficult in the 1960s – everything was live, there were no autocues or computers, and the camera films were negative until they were broadcast live on the screen. No wonder the Radio Times warned viewers that ‘it may occasionally be untidy’! Yet over the years, presenters such as Brian Hoey who provided harrowing reports from the Aberfan disaster in 1966, David Parry-Jones, Sara Edwards and Jamie Owen became household names. People all over Wales now tuned in every night for the news and often stayed to be entertained by home grown programmes. Television was here to stay.
Dr Ywain Tomos
Interpretation Officer for the Wales Broadcast Archive
This post is also available in: Welsh