Welcome to the Past…

Now here’s something worth shouting about: the BBC, it turns out, has finally put its old schedules online! Yes, thanks to something called the Genome Project, it’s now possible to search electronically through Radio Times listings from the period 1923-2009 — gaining easy access to all sorts of information that, previously, was available only to people who lived within reach of a major library and were able to spend significant slices of eternity leafing through thousands of un-indexed pages. As a result of this development, if one wants to know something like, say, when and why Robert Simpson showed up on BBC Two, it’s now the case that the information can be had within seconds.

Sadly, what we actually get to see — as you’ll have noticed if you clicked that last link — isn’t a set of scans of the magazine’s yellowing and fragile pages; nor are we able to search the entire text of any given Radio Times issue. All we can access are the programme listings — presented as the glitchy, error-ridden product of automated OCR processing and html formatting (though the errors can be crowd-fixed: see the ‘Make it better’ bit, over on the right of that results page). Personally, I think it is extremely unfortunate that the publication is not searchable and readable in full — as the amount of ‘social history’ locked up in the articles and features printed along with the listings is simply immense: of necessity, Radio Times laid down a weekly record of the nation’s (officially sanctioned) preoccupations throughout some very tumultuous decades.

Cover of Radio Times, issue of 13 April 1967

Cover of Radio Times, issue of 13 April 1967

Mind you, a lot of ‘social history’ consists of things people would prefer you not to remember: here’s one Radio Times cover that I’ll bet the BBC is keen that everyone should forget. The programme thus advertised was BBC One’s The Black and White Minstrel Show of 15 April 1967. Oddly enough, the following month the BBC received, and completely ignored, a petition asking for the show to be taken off the air. It ran until 1978.

One assumes that the BBC’s decision not to do the digitizing job properly was determined by financial considerations — as well as a worry that to reproduce anything beyond their own copyrighted listings might raise legal complications (especially where photographs and drawings were concerned).  But even though supporting material has been removed, there are additional items that have slipped through the net: quite a few of the informative nuggets that some of the BBC’s greatest music broadcasters used to contribute to the radio pages are also to be found. (See, for example, Deryck Cooke‘s introductory note to a 1953 Home Service broadcast of Delius’s ‘Brigg Fair’.)

All the same, the scale of our loss is not to be under-estimated. For example (and just to stay with Deryck Cooke for a moment), if you look up the Genome entry for the Third Programme schedule of 19 December 1960 — the day of the famous broadcast during which the world heard Cooke’s first attempt at producing a ‘performing version’ of Mahler’s incomplete Tenth Symphony — you’ll see the listings information clearly enough (presented as a computerized transcription that looks like this). If, on the other hand, the BBC had graphically scanned all the pages and presented them complete, you’d see the following article as well — complete with two photographs and a drawing by Milein Cosman (partner and future wife of Hans Keller) [click to see the image full-size]:

From the Radio Times issue of 15 December 1960

So, having drawn readers’ attention to this imperfect but useful tool, I’ll now step aside and allow you all to start trawling through the data in search of whatever kind of information you want: I daresay more than one person seeing this will be at least a little bit curious to know something about the TV and radio output that their mother missed while she was being rushed to the hospital to give birth to them…

But before I go, there is one very serious point to be made about this resource. For the fact is that, by its very nature, broadcasting has always been something that eats its own history: most people have had no access at all to proper reminders of what the BBC’s schedules used to contain — and, therefore, have had no reliable standard against which to judge what the schedules contain nowadays. Access to this database changes all that at a stroke — and cannot fail to have an impact on thoughtful people’s awareness and opinion.

For example, recent decades have seen the BBC more and more inclined to treat ‘classical music’ as a minority-interest embarrassment which — as far as radio is concerned — needs to be removed from pretty well every station except Radio 3. For years, I’ve been trying — without any success at all — to make people aware of how radically different the situation was as (relatively) recently as the night my own mum fetched up in the maternity ward and missed Dr Kildare. You see, the truth is that in the days before the BBC’s culturally disastrous switch to so-called ‘generic broadcasting’ in the form of Radios 1, 2, 3 and 4 — a pop station, an ‘easy listening’ station, a classical station, a talk station — it had long been the case that classical music circulated effortlessly across all the BBC stations as a matter of course. Just take a look at what else my mum missed that day: you’ll see classical music not merely on the Third Programme (the evenings-only ‘culture channel’), but also — five programmes’ worth of it! — on the Home Service (usually considered the predecessor of Radio 4): see 09.25, 16.00, 20.00, 22.30 and 23.15. Meanwhile — as you’ll also see — the Light Programme (usually considered the predecessor of Radio 2) moved easily up and down a spectrum of orchestral and band music that had light-classical at one of its ends. The one thing you don’t see is the kind of ‘ghettoization’ that allows people to stick with one favoured thing all day long and avoid familiarising exposure to anything else.

Anyone who feels like taking an ideologically or aesthetically driven position on why the classical repertoire is now viewed as a complete irrelevance by a massive proportion of the UK population would, I believe, be wise to ‘hold their peace’ until they’ve counted the ways in which the BBC — our national broadcaster and the repertoire’s principal guardian — has, over decades, worked to marginalise it. Now, thanks to the BBC’s own Genome Project, the required information is more easily available than ever before.


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