Friday, September 9, 2016

Big Ben blown up: the radio sketch that sent Britain into panic

History Extra

In 1926 a short, and seemingly innocuous, radio sketch sparked panic in Britain. (Getty Images)

The politics of fear has become central to statecraft, and the modern world is badly scared. In the past, as well, full-blown panic seems to have flared up with almost ludicrous ease. On the wintry evening of 16 January 1926, for instance, many people in Britain panicked after listening to a short, and seemingly innocuous, radio sketch.
Its author was 38-year-old Father Ronald Arbuthnott Knox, a convivial priest with a taste for New Testament commentary, Saint Thérèse of Lisieux, and detective stories. Father Ronald Knox’s play, Broadcasting from the Barricades was transmitted at 7.40pm on Saturday evening, 16 January, from the George Street Studios of the BBC in Edinburgh. After being prefaced by a statement informing listeners that it was a work of humour, the play took the form of a news broadcast, interrupted by music from the Savoy Hotel, in which Father Knox described an unemployed crowd that went wild.
The newsreader announced that the unemployed, stirred to action by troublemakers such as Mr Popplebury, the Secretary of the National Movement for Abolishing Theatre Queues, had rioted. The red tide of revolution had swept over the great landmarks of London: Trafalgar Square had been overrun; the National Gallery sacked; and Big Ben had been reduced to a heap of rubble by mortar attack. Henceforth, Greenwich time would be tolled by the repeating watch of Uncle Leslie, a popular children’s storyteller from Edinburgh.
There was murder, too. The newsreader reported that Sir Theophilus Gooch of the Committee for the Inspection of Insanitary Dwellings had been roasted alive in Trafalgar Square. Mr Wotherspoon, Minister of Transport (a position of huge importance, then as now), had been hung from a lamp post in the Vauxhall Bridge Road. A moment later, the BBC issued a formal apology: Wotherspoon had not been hung from a lamp post but from a tramway post.
The play’s author Father Ronald Knox (second from right) as a guest on the BBC’s Brains Trust in 1941. (BBC Picture Archives)

Fiddling while the city burns

The listeners were once again serenaded with the Savoy Band but this was suddenly interrupted with news that the crowd had blown up the Savoy Hotel. Finally, the crowd was reported to be moving toward BBC London offices. The final words uttered were: “One moment please ... Mr Popplebury, secretary of the National Movement for Abolishing Theatre Queues, with several other members of the crowd, is now in the waiting room. They are reading copies of the Radio Times. Good-night everybody; good-night.”
Reading this satire today, it seems unbelievable that many radio listeners panicked. But that is what happened. The 20-minute programme was scarcely over before listeners all over the country became agitated. JCS MacGregor had been involved creating realistic sound effects (an unusual development in the 1920s) for the broadcast. It fell to him to explain that the show had been satire, not news. In his words: “Knox and the producer had scarcely left the building, and the debris of the Savoy Hotel was still lying about in the studio, when the telephone rang. Was it really true, asked an agitated voice, that revolution had broken out in London? I gave reassurances ... The next caller was more difficult. His wife had a weak heart, and had fainted at the news; and when he gathered from me that the whole thing was fictitious, he exploded. What, he asked with some vigour, did the BBC mean by it? Did we realise that we had grossly misled the country, and were playing into the hands of the Bolshevists?”
Other listeners began besieging local police stations, radio stations, newspaper offices, and the Savoy Hotel, demanding “how soon the tide of civil war might be expected to sweep in [our] direction”. The manager of the Savoy calculated that in addition to around 200 local calls, the hotel answered hundreds of trunk calls from all parts of the country, including Ireland, Scotland, Hull, Manchester, Newcastle and Leeds, asking whether they should cancel their room bookings. Others sought reassurance about the safety of friends staying at the hotel.

The Savoy Hotel – a BBC radio broadcast in 1926 reported that it had been blown up. (Mary Evans Picture Library)
In Newcastle, the sheriff was nervously uncertain about what precautions he should be taking to ensure that anarchy did not spread to his part of the country, while the wife of the lord mayor of Newcastle was reported to have been “greatly upset” at being unable to contact her husband (who was out at dinner) to inform him about the rising “red tide of revolution”. The Irish Telegraph could not restrain from reporting that numerous listeners rang their offices, breathlessly enquiring: “Is it true that the House of Commons is blown up?”
Luckily, it was a short-lived panic, over within 24 hours. Those responsible for the broadcast were amazed that listeners had been fooled by tales of revolution led by a Mr Popplebury, Secretary of the National Movement for Abolishing Theatre Queues. The idea that the children’s character, Uncle Leslie, would take over sounding the time after Big Ben’s demise was also clearly ludicrous. But the BBC was forced to apologise: “London is safe, Big Ben is still chiming and all is well”, it announced. The apology added, however, that it was “hardly credible that if we were giving out news of such a national crisis we should intersperse snatches of dance music”. Nevertheless, it bowed to pressure to “take no risks with its public’s average standard of intelligence” in the future and Knox refused to speak on radio again until 1930.
Why might such a satirical programme prove so frightening? In part, the panic caused by the broadcast reflected wider economic and political insecurities ravaging the nation. Left-wing papers were quick to identify class-based fears to be at the heart of the panic. “Supposing the imaginary news announcer told his listeners that a Tory mob had marched on Eccleston Square and blown up the offices of the TUC!”, exclaimed the Daily Herald.
The Leeds Weekly Citizen was also queasy about “this kind of allusion to the unemployed, at a time when so many are suffering so badly from the failure of our social system to provide them with work and sustenance”. By 1926, an estimated 12.5 per cent of workers were unemployed, and the numbers were rising. Furthermore, a few months before Knox’s broadcast, miners had risen up with the cry “enough is enough”, striking against bosses who threatened their already precarious livelihoods.
Unemployment demonstration c1920: radio listeners were receptive to the broadcast in the era’s climate of social unrest. (Getty Images)
Another development alarming the middle class was the polarisation of politics in Britain, with the establishment in 1920 of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Although the Communist Party was feared out of all proportion to its membership, “Red internationalism” rendered the Communists a threat to “British values”. The Daily Herald reported that the broadcast incited the “political passions” of listeners. The paper disclosed that at one dinner party, the broadcast inflamed the “violent anti-Labour convictions” of the host, at which point he began to angrily lecture his guests about the pernicious events allegedly taking place in London. Might “the left” have succeeded in mobilising disaffected workers?
Media coverage of Father Knox’s Broadcast from the Barricades was quick to link the broadcast to an alleged Communist threat. For instance, on the same page that the Daily Mail published its account of the panic, it printed a column entitled “Lying Propaganda”. This informed readers that around 250,000 broadsheets “full of illiterate Communist violence and shameful perversions of truth” were being distributed weekly throughout the United Kingdom. “Their only object is to create hatred and discontent and to bring about a state of affairs which may give the disgusting tyranny of Communism a chance to seize upon this country”, the paper warned.
The fact that the news of a riotous crowd in London was broadcast on the radio was also crucial. BBC monopoly of the radio waves and its government-guaranteed political neutrality made radio news profoundly authoritative. As one panic-stricken person hoarsely maintained on the telephone to a journalist for a Liberal Welsh paper immediately after being informed that the broadcast was a hoax: “No ... there must be something in it, we have heard it over the wireless”.
When this call was followed by many others, even the journalist answering the telephone began to have his doubts, wondering if, after all, “there was not something in it”. Similarly, the Daily Mail reported that when people were told it was a hoax, they refused to believe it: “We have heard it on the wireless”, they reminded the sceptical newspaper reporters, “Why, we have even heard the explosions!” In 1926, radio had a unique ability to spark intense panic in its hapless listeners.
Joanna Bourke is professor of history at Birkbeck College and the author of Fear: A Cultural History (Virago, 2005).

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