Friday, 7 October 2016

70 Years of Woman's Hour

Woman's Hour "aims to stimulate woman's mind at a time of day when their hands are likely to be occupied with knitting, sewing, ironing, or the more routine household chores." So said the BBC Handbook of 1960 without a hint of condescension.

Now it is more succinctly described as "programme that offers a female perspective on the world". And if the household chores are proving too onerous you can always catch it on the Radioplayer or a podcast.  

Woman's Hour was first heard on the BBC Light Programme at 2 pm on Monday 7 October 1946, so today it celebrates its 70th anniversary.

Famously the first presenter was a man, Alan Ivimey, a London-born journalist and ex-RAF intelligence officer who "specialised in writing and talking to women". BBC bosses at the time were adamant that this was the right approach. "You are right, I feel, in putting a man in 'talking' charge. Woman can't bear being talked at by other women. What they will take from a man - I speak purely radiographically - they will resent from a woman." This was despite the original suggestion, from female listener J.M. Schofield of Rochdale, suggesting a show presented by a woman for women. "In view of the fact that the BBC pays large sums to dance bands and crooners, I think they might engage the woman with the right personality to host a woman's hour ... I assume the right type of person would make a big success of it."

The features on that first day included Mother's Mid-Day Meal by Mary Marton, Putting Your Best Foot Forward by Kay Beattie, Housewife's Choice of gramophone records and Part 1 of the serial reading, Under the Red Robe. The 15-minute reading (now a short drama) is the one items that has remained throughout.

At first listener reaction was not overwhelmingly glowing: "Surely it’s not too much to ask that we may have our minds removed from the monotony of housekeeping by a programme which gives us a glimpse of a wider existence.”

By way of contrast this week's editions have included items on the Columbian peace process, the Conservative Party conference, group texts etiquette, workplace rights, Zimbabwean music, columnist Julie Burchill and businesswomen Jo Malone.

In those austerity years Woman's Hour wasn't all cookery and thrift and would regularly deal with the serious issues of the day. Light Programme controller Norman Collins was clear that it should appeal to "intelligent women" and that the programme would be provide "a popular medium for talking about serious matters", even if that meant breaking the so-called 13 and a half minute rule on the minimum time you could devote to more challenging topics. Here's Collins talking to Marjorie Anderson on Woman's Hour on 2 October 1967. 


As was the case with many daily shows at that time each edition of Woman's Hour was heavily scripted; indeed the 2 pm start time allowed for a full morning rehearsal and a lunch break before returning to the studio. This is the opening script for an early 1946 edition:

Ivimey: Good afternoon. I have three ladies round the table to keep me in order today- Edith Saunders who has been to a fascinating exhibition of Second Empire Styles at a big West End store.
Saunders: Good afternoon.
Ivimey: Marion Cutler, who's been looking into the working of that splendid service to housewives and mothers begun during the war, the Home Help service.
Cutler: Good afternoon.
Ivimey: And Marguerite Patten, who wants to save some of those tea-time tragedies when the lovely cake you've baked comes out of the oven with a hole in the middle instead of a nice brown bulge...   

When Sue McGregor took over in 1972 she'd been working in the high pressure environment of The World at One: " I think up to the point I joined, the presenter of Woman's Hour always read the questions as they were written down for her by a producer. And this was anathema to anyone who'd come from news. It used to be heavily rehearsed - and that meant that the editor listened to the rehearsal in her office at 11.00 am and then sent down, probably on flimsy memo sheets, her instructions."

Editors Janet Quigley & Joanna Scott-Moncrieff
Under the editorial control of Janet Quigley (1950-56), Joanna Scott-Moncrieff (1956-64) and then Monica Sims (1964-1971) the programme broadened out and didn't shy away from tackling difficult subjects. On the occasion of its 30th anniversary the Radio Times listed "the firsts of Woman's Hour" under four categories:

Listener participation. In 1959 the Reading Your Letters slot (which began in 1951) discovered agoraphobia and helped found The Open Door self-help group for sufferers. The programme began to stage confrontations between listeners and experts (e.g. Margret Thatcher being asked about the school-leaving age). The Points from the Postbag slot where people discussed their personal problems was a forerunner of such programmes as If you think You've got Problems!

Breaking taboos. Many subjects particularly those to do with sex, were simply not discussed on the radio until Woman's Hour talked about them. Homosexuality was first discussed in 1958; the Pill in 1962; frigidity and impotence in 1965, transsexuality in 1970; and so on.

Consumerism. From the beginning the programme took up listeners' complaints and answered queries in Answer and Comment. Watchdog began in 1969; Checkout in 1971.

World events. Even before the CND marches Woman's Hour discussed the dangers of nuclear fall-out with Foreign Secretary Selwyn Lloyd and a panel of experts. Under the title Press Conference women journalists grilled prime ministers and other leading politicians. From the early 60s Gladys Yang recorded talks from Peking. Special editions have come from all over the world including Moscow, Ghana and Mexico.

According to Sally Feldman (at the time acting editor in 1991) "not all listeners were thrilled by the programme's frank and fearless approach. One lady was puzzled by the mention of the word 'lesbian', with which she was unfamiliar. When she looked it up in the dictionary, she turned the radio off immediately in disgust. She did not listen again for 20 years, but then she finally did decide to switch it on again, the first word she heard was 'lesbian'. She switched off once more and wrote a bitter letter of complaint".

Womans' Hour continues to push the boundaries and make the news with, in just the last twelve months, the introduction of Late Night Woman's Hour with Lauren Laverne and an adaptation of Erica Jong's Fear of Flying complete with references to the "zipless f**k".

Olive Shapley & Joan Griffiths
For such a long-running programme there has only been a small band of regular presenters. Taking over from Alan Ivimey (dropped because he was considered "somewhat patronising") was Joan Griffiths (1946-49) and then Olive Shapley (1949-51). Here's Olive talking to June Knox-Mawer on the programme on 18 June 1976.


In the early 50s Jean Metcalfe and Mary Hill introduced the programme and a regular Friday regional edition was heard - a feature that remained until April 1998. There was also a chance to hear selected items again in a Sunday Woman's Hour Digest and then the much-longer running Sunday supplement (later moving to Saturday) called Home for the Day (1952-68, heard on the Home Service then Radio 4) which, from April 1968, became Weekend Woman's Hour.

Marjorie Anderson (above) joined Jean in 1952, eventually becoming the main presenter when Jean left in 1957. Other presenters in the 60s and 70s included Teresa McGonagle, Pamela Creighton and Judith Chalmers.

One of the long-forgotten elements of Woman's Hour is the signature tune. My research on this is far from conclusive but when the programme first started it was using the Light Programme's Oranges and Lemons sig tune. By 1948 it was the Overture to The Merry Wives of Windsor by Otto Nicolai. In the 1950s the Masque et Bergamasque Overture by Gabriel Faure was used. In the late 50s Smetana's piano piece Ze Studentskeho zivota was played. From August 1960 Natasha's Waltz from War and Peace by Nino Rota was selected. In 1962 it changed to William Walton's Facade and then went jazzy in 1963 with the MJQ's version of Vendome. and in 1965 Charlie Byrd's Jordu.  By the time I made this recording on 8 April 1980 a sig tune was still in use - anyone know the title/composer?  


In 1973 there was a major shake-up: firstly after two decades Marjorie Anderson retired through ill-health and was replaced by Sue McGregor, who'd already joined the team the previous year, and then from 2 July the programme bade farewell to Radio 2 and moved over to its new Radio 4 home. But not all the team welcomed the station change. Editor Wyn Knowles in a memo to the network controller: "Whilst recognising the case for transfer, we feel that there is much to be said for our remaining on Radio 2. First of all, we know that our present audience is predominantly working class and that while many of these may switch over to Radio 4 in order to hear Woman's Hour, a sizeable number may not be in the habit of switching channels and will lose us..."


Sue McGregor photographed for the Radio Times 
in 1976 (Credit: Tony Evans)
Perhaps more significant was the difficult task of Sue McGregor taking over: "Difficult , because Marjorie had been doing it for a very long time and was an entrenched favourite. But the Woman's Hour team was jolly nice to me and, if there were any nasty letters from listeners, I was never allowed to see them". Coming from a news background "meant that I had to slow down quite a lot in pace as well as in treatment, but I did it in the way I felt happiest and they left me alone to get on with it. I always did my own research for the interviews, in consultation with the producers, and the questions are very much mine, not fed to me, as was the case in the past." 

From the 1970s the Woman's Hour production team started to extend the brand, leading to the weekly phone-in Tuesday Call (1973-86), for the large part presented by Sue McGregor along with Judith Chalmers, Jill Burridge and Barbara Myers. There was also It's Your World (1984-87) a co-production with World Service that allowed listeners to question world leaders and royalty such as Margaret Thatcher, King Hussein of Jordan, Kenneth Kaunda, Pik Botha, the Duke of Edinburgh and Princess Anne.

Reflecting the fact that 42% of listeners to Woman's Hour are men there were occasional Man's Hour specials in 1978, 1986 with Terry Jones, 1988 with Willy Russell and 2004 with Jon Snow. Eventually the blokes got their own series of Men's Hour with Tim Samuels on Radio 5 Live between July 2010 and January 2016.  

In late 1986 Jenni Murray shared the presenting role with Sue McGregor (she'd already been on the regional editions from Bristol since 1979) before becoming the main presenter in September 1987 when Sue joined Today.

Interviewed for The Guardian in 2008 Jenni Murray once again addressed the issue of the seemingly perennial question as to what class of listeners was tuning in to Woman's Hour. "I tell you what I really get cross about - it's this middle class idea. To me, the only qualification you need to be a Radio 4 listener is an enquiring mind. An inquiring mind exists in the working class - and I know because I came from it - in the middle class and in the upper class. It's absolutely nothing to do with class at all. There's nowhere else where you find a programme that has the breadth of subjects that Woman's Hour has - and treats it with rigour." 

1990 saw a potential threat to the programme as Radio 4 controller Michael Green wanted to shake-up the schedule and address the mid-morning dip in audiences. From September 1991, he announced, the programme would be in a new time slot and, perhaps, with a new title. Radio 4 listeners, ever resistant to any tinkering with the listening habits, were not happy. Actress Anna Massey, a guest on many occasions summed it up: "To lose the 2 pm slot could be counted as a misfortune, but to lose the title as well must be counted as carelessness".

But Green was insistent: "Twice as many women are available to listen to the radio at 10.30 in the morning as at two in the afternoon - five million as against two-and-a-half million - so a programme directed at women in the mornings could win double the present audience. I'm not going to change the nature of Woman's Hour dramatically: the female perspective will continue to dominate. But the idea that middle-aged women stay at home to listen to the programme is outdated; partly because far more go out to work; but also because research shows that the age profile of the Radio 4 audience is getting younger."

The shift from 2 pm to 10.30 am occurred in September 1991 and the move to the current 10.00 start in April 1998.

Jane Garvey & Dame Jenni Murray
Alongside Jenni Murray the other regular hosts have been Martha Kearney (1998-2007) and Jane Garvey (2007 to date)

On the Boxing Day 2013 edition Jenni Murray was joined by Sue McGregor to launch the online archive of Woman's Hour audio clips, the oldest dating back to September 1957.  


At the start of this 70th anniversary year Jenni Murray and guests reviewed the history and considerable impact of the programme. This aired on 1 January 2016.


Woman's Hour celebrates its 70th anniversary on Monday with a live programme from the BBC Radio Theatre. Jenni Murray, Jane Garvey and a guest panel "discuss the results of a poll specially commissioned to find out about UK women's lives in 2016. How has life changed for women at home and at work from 1946 to the present day?" 

References:
Life on Air: A History of Radio Four by David Hendy (OUP 2007)
And now on Radio 4 by Simon Elmes (Random House 2007)
The responsible woman: the BBC and women's radio 1945-1955 by Kristin Skoog (University of Westminster PHD thesis 2010)
Woman's Hour: three decades of pioneering radio by Wilfred D'Ath, Radio Times 2 October 1976
Move us if you must by Angela Lambert, The Independent 23 January 1991
Ideas above their station? by Russell Miller, Sunday Times Magazine 15 September 1991
National institution - I think not by Vicky Frost, The Guardian 14 April 2008

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