Fellow members of the Royal Over-Seas League have sometimes asked me what Over-Seas House was like in World War II. Did the BBC really broadcast from the clubhouse? Why did the BBC choose Over-Seas House to broadcast to the troops? From which room was it possible to broadcast and who received the transmissions?
The heavy bombing of London by the German Luftwaffe caused the BBC to look for relatively ‘safe’ studios, ie buildings that were solid, sandbagged, and preferably with a basement. Broadcasting House (whose roof and top floor were destroyed by German bombers) has many underground studios, but these were fully booked during the war. The BBC had taken over the Langham Hotel in Portland Place in 1939 but, when that too was bombed, the Corporation was forced to look elsewhere for suitable accommodation. The Paris Cinema in Lower Regent Street had a lower ground level and was frequently used for radio, as was the old Criterion Theatre in Piccadilly.
At the outbreak of war in 1939, I was a BBC secretary working on the ‘Overseas Messages to the Troops’ programmes and one of my jobs was to sort out the hundreds of letters the BBC received every week from the public, requesting to speak to their loved ones abroad. So began the BBC’s famous broadcasts to the forces in every theatre of war. Our office was not at Broadcasting House but in a narrow, tiled passage in the Criterion Theatre. In happier times this was used to house gents’ hats and coats! Having the use of Over-Seas House was particularly pleasant; we had plenty of space to move around and what could be more fitting than to broadcast overseas from the Over-Seas League?
From Overseas, July 1941
Over-Seas House was unrecognisable, sandbags fortified all entrances, the porch and windows were strengthened and, at night, heavy black curtains were drawn so that not one chink of light escaped to guide the bombers. Unwelcoming? Not a bit. Inside, members were sure of a very warm reception. It was an unwritten law that accommodation was reserved for serving men and women. Civilians who had homes were expected to return to them and the forces booked rooms at weekends when dances were held. The St Andrews Hall was packed every Saturday evening and guests swung to a live jazz band. Throughout the war, clothes could only be obtained with coupons and it wasn’t easy for those of us who weren’t in uniform to find something to wear for such dances. Dressmakers did a thriving trade in renovating old dresses. Yet, in spite of shortages and journeys home through blacked-out cities, young women looked pretty and romance was everywhere. Only last Christmas, I met an elderly lady in a Bournemouth hotel who told me that she had met her husband at the Royal Over-Seas League dances.
From Overseas, June 1942
On weekdays, the Hall of India was mainly a BBC broadcasting studio. A popular announcer did the lead-ins – blonde Joan Gilbert (later to be a success in post-war television) was in charge of broadcasts to Gibraltar. British wives, children, mothers and grandmothers all wanted to speak to their men stationed there. It wasn’t possible to say much in the short time allotted to the programme and the messages were uniformly simple… ‘I’ll be baking a special cake for you when you come home, love’. I had to alter the messages slightly in case they contained a hidden code. Sometimes a child had been born after dad had left for overseas and I would hold his son or daughter up to the microphone to say ‘hello daddy’. It was an emotional moment and hospitality was always given to the public, even if it was only a cup of tea and wartime cake (made with egg powder). Famous bands backed up the programmes and whole families were invited to choose the favourite tunes of their relative soldiers abroad.
Among those hastily scrawled letters we opened every day was one from a proud father about his talented little daughter. My colleague chose it from a huge bundle.
“This child wants to broadcast to her uncle”, she said. “She is 8 and a half years old, can sing, imitate Garbo and Tallulah Bankhead. Let’s invite her.”
Her name was Petula Clark and from then on she broadcast regularly to the Middle East. My chief at the BBC was Cecil Madden, Head of Overseas Entertainment, and I didn’t know until nearly 50 years later that he secretly paid for Petula’s drama school education. It certainly paid off and he must have been very proud of Pet’s career. Many years later I met Petula at a showbiz party. “Do you remember your broadcasts to your uncle in the Middle East in wartime?” I asked her. “As if I could forget”, she smiled. “And do you still imitate the stars?” “Heavens, no! I’m much too shy”, was her answer.