Part One: 1930s – 1960s

Robin Carmody on Radio and TV Times

First published July 2000

The Radio Times – written as such until 1939 – had already existed for more than three decades before television became a mass medium.

Founded, on the orders of John Reith, by the infant British Broadcasting Company when the newspapers refused to publish programme details after the BBC paid them, its popularity consistently increased with that of radio itself. By 1934 it was selling two million copies and established as Britain’s biggest-selling magazine, a position which it would hold until 1993. In the early years of World War II its sales declined, but as BBC radio became more and more important to the nation, the RT became more popular than ever, with the circulation passing three-and-a-half million in 1944. Its highest sales figures were in the last few years before television overtook radio – under Tom Henn (editor from 1944 – 54) sales reached an incredible eight million copies each week in the early ’50s. The Coronation issue of 29 May 1953 sold 9,012,358; the 1954 Christmas issue sold 9,253,025; a new record weekly average of over eight million was achieved in 1955; and the all-time peak was 9,778,062 copies for the 1955 Christmas issue. By that time, Douglas Williams took over as editor, and sales were to drop away considerably over the following few years. But those few years also ushered in the era of mass television – the raison d’être of OTT and this article.

The RT had run a “Television Number” in London only, when the BBC launched the world’s first regular TV service from Alexandra Palace in November 1936; but the new medium was not even mentioned in any of that week’s other regional editions, although TV programmes were printed every week in the London edition until 1939. When television was reintroduced in 1946, after a seven-year closedown, its programmes were again regularly included at the back of the London edition, but the TV pages looked as though they’d been included as an afterthought. Gradually, as the medium spread slowly during the early 1950s, television coverage gained more importance, more regional editions began listing the programmes as more transmitters were opened, and a regular TV column was added, credited to “The Scanners” – a counterpart to the very popular “The Broadcasters” column of the period. A special television letters page was added – one letter in 1952 said, prophetically, that a boy had responded to the cinema newsreel by saying “It’s just like on television” (TV newsreels being an important part of the early schedule), and the television schedules were pushed forward to appear after each day’s radio programmes in about 1953.

The Queen’s Coronation on 2 June 1953 famously showcased what television could become and created a massive new-found interest in the medium leading to pressure for the Conservative Government (never a great friend of state monopolies) to create competition for the BBC.

In July 1954 the Television Bill was given the royal assent, legalising commercial television in the UK and forming the Independent Television Authority. The start date, for London, was set to be 22 September 1955, with the Midlands and the North following during 1956. But during the last few weeks before the birth of ITV, the Radio Times’ reaction to the coming competition displayed a smug complacency and a “what-is-there-to-worry-about” attitude.

Some of the BBC’s tactics are actually understandable and logical – for the last few weeks before ITV started, it made a point of listing its (then) 13 Band 1 VHF transmitters, some of which covered areas which would not receive ITV until the 1960s, to contrast this with the more geographically restricted (but, crucially, to the most populated areas) ITV. While not publicly acknowledging the reason for such strategies, it introduced the American sitcom I Married Joan to be broadcast on Sunday afternoons beginning on 25 September 1955 (ITV’s first Sunday) and for the first time broke its Reithian embargo on Sunday-afternoon entertainment programmes, as a means of countering the infant ATV’s offerings.

On Monday 26 September, the start of ITV’s first full week, the BBC introduced weekday afternoon programmes for the first time, as an attempt to rival Associated-Rediffusion’s morning and lunchtime output, which would be taken off air during the following year’s cash crisis. But that week’s Radio Times was dominated by the then BBC Director General, Sir Ian Jacob, and Director of Television, Sir George Barnes, displaying a dangerous overt self-confidence, and easy dismissal of the new rivals, that would come close to destroying BBC television in the following few years. Barnes – a high-minded man of radio’s Third Programme utterly unsuited to a competitive television market – dismissed it as a minor distraction for “only a few thousand viewers in London”, or words to that effect. He could not have been more wrong.

Viewers with a choice (by the end of 1956, the majority of the nation’s television audience) turned to ITV in droves. Suddenly the BBC’s output seemed staid and dull next to what the new network was offering, and the magazines give the same impression. The late ’50s design of Radio Times seems fusty and unexciting, and its attitudes (especially – and this would recur for years to come – in the letters pages) are those of the colonelocracy, with many letters sent from ageing late-Victorians. By comparison, TV Times was a breath of fresh air in this period; the editions of its first few months are fascinating time capsules of a Britain tentatively removing itself from austerity, a world where the obvious question to ask a “teen-ager” is “Do you like Johnnie Ray?” and where a question that would be asked regularly and painfully until the 1980s – should Parliament be televised? – already gets an airing.

The 1960 editions of TV Times (which existed by that time in some of the smaller ITV regions, such as Southern and Anglia, although others like Scottish, Tyne Tees and Ulster had founded their own magazines) are like a litany of all the popular concerns, interests and pursuits that in retrospect define the Macmillan era. Stamp collecting, railway enthusiasm, “holiday adventures”, now mundane-looking glass structures promoted as the newest and most exciting things in the world, and wonderful design touches of Easter eggs and bonnets in the programme pages for that time of year. We also get to see how the holy pious reverent singer of The Millennium Prayer was once perceived, a letter attacks the “poor diction” of the era’s pop singers and asks us to interpret lyrics he describes thus: “Ah jist kant wade a be with mah baby runight” – the chorus line from Cliff Richard’s 1959 Number 1 hit Travelling Light.

In February 1957, the two media were separated again – television programmes were pushed to the front of RT, with radio moving to the back. But the Radio Times was only revitalised in the same year that the BBC itself was, with the arrival of Sir Hugh Greene as Director General – 1960. In the summer of that year it was still fusty and homely, displaying an attitude to children in particular that now seems to come from a completely different world. In the Junior Radio Times supplement in August, Peggy Miller wrote of how “life moves at a fairly rapid pace in Budapest, and there is colour in the shop-windows and the women’s summer dresses, compared with Prague. At night young people dance under coloured lights in cafés along the Danube, and no restaurant seems to be complete without its gypsy orchestra … the Hungarian children revel in the outdoor summer life” (you can imagine the rest). Irene de Selincourt was explaining her boarding-school play The New Girl, about to be broadcast in the radio Children’s Hour: “Anne Gregory felt rather out of things. She had arrived at Meads House School in the middle of term; she had lost her trunk on the journey from Ceylon; and then, when she funked swimming in front of her class-mates, things became almost unbearable.”

In October the magazine, and the presentation of BBC TV itself, experienced an incredibly effective relaunch, now imbued with that classic early ’60s “modern” look. To look at the programmes for Saturday 8 October 1960 printed in both styles in two successive magazines – for this was also when the magazine moved from Reithian Sunday to Saturday to weekend-oriented Saturday to Friday (TV Times stuck with the Sunday-Saturday format until about 1964) is to see a striking and dramatic change in the RT aesthetic. The October 1960 redesign also established the format of each day’s television programmes followed by its radio output, which would continue until March 1989.

It couldn’t last, of course, and so the design of the RT became less lavish and striking with a late 1962 revision, when Abram Games’s striking cover header was replaced by a dull and unprepossessing typeface that would remain until September 1969.

The RT would gradually change as the ’60s went on, frequently printing fascinating and historically-revealing pieces, such as a September 1964 portrait of the Rolling Stones which claimed that “by their own admission, the band’s career will be short”, and the extraordinary Order of Service for Winston Churchill’s funeral in January 1965, which made extensive use of the phrase “Then shall”, as in “Then shall the Queen …” TV Times, meanwhile, went through a major design facelift around 1964, and over the following few years it had some of its best covers ever – design classics of their era, little time capsules of the so-called “Swinging Britain”. It embraced regular colour before RT, and a World of Sport feature from late 1965 is absolutely peerless, a celebration of colour which could still look modern today. Where ITV itself had once been typified by the formality of Associated-Rediffusion, now it was defined by swinging Rediffusion London, and the magazine’s style change is a fine reflection of this. Over at the BBC, Radio Times had its first colour photograph on the cover with Billy Cotton in September 1964, and colour covers were established on a weekly basis in 1967, with two of that year’s covers – the image of Goonhilly Down for the global satellite broadcast Our World, famously including the Beatles’ All You Need Is Love, and the mini-skirted “chick” who promoted fab groovy Radio 1 in the week of its launch – ranking amongst their most instantly recognisable ever.