by Gordon Bathgate
Over eight decades ago the BBC began broadcasting to Britain, and the North-East played a pioneering role in the development of British radio. But then, the fledgling station had a local loon at its helm.
John Reith, a minister’s son, was born in Stonehaven but moved to Glasgow with his family when he was young. His strict Presbyterian upbringing had a dark influence on his life and greatly affected his demeanour.
When he was interviewed for John Freeman’s Face to Face programme in the 1950s the dour, humourless Scot described his life as one of austerity. In his own words he ‘never learned that life was for living’.
Although he was a difficult man to like, he was the perfect man for the job when he was appointed managing director of the British Broadcasting Company in 1922.
Under his leadership the BBC was changed from a handful of experimental stations run by wireless manufacturers into a cohesive organisation with a mission to ‘Educate, Inform and Entertain’. Reith directed staff to make high quality broadcasts with a strong moral underpinning.
Aberdeen was picked by Reith to be one of the BBC’s first stations and premises were sought in the area. Accommodation was rented at the rear of Aberdeen Electrical Engineering’s property at 17 Belmont Street. Access to the premises was gained by the narrow stairway at the rear of the shop. On the second floor were a couple of small offices and a large room.
The room was an old meeting hall overlooking the main Aberdeen to Inverness railway line. It was converted into a rudimentary studio by draping heavy black curtains on the walls to deaden the noise from the passing trains. The studio was particularly affected by the vagaries of the North-East weather. The lack of central heating or air conditioning meant the temperature veered between freezing cold in the winter to boiling hot during the summer.
Radio was a very young science back then and the art of broadcasting was in its infancy. The potential strength of transmissions was limited by technology and power consumption rather than frequency allocations. Additionally, the BBC needed to cover the greatest population in the quickest way possible to make the service profitable for the company’s shareholders.
The obvious solution was to keep adding to the three initial stations, so a system of low powered transmitters was launched in areas with a high population density. The initial nine stations gradually expanded to 20. This resulted in citywide coverage for most areas, but little or no rural coverage, and allowed for just one programme – the locally originated one – and no other.
The Aberdeen radio station was assigned the call sign ‘2BD’ and began broadcasting on 495 metres on a cold blustery evening on 10 October 1923. The Marquis of Aberdeen performed the ceremony before the evening’s transmission began in earnest. His opening address was heard at 9pm, followed by music from the band of the 2nd Gordon Highlanders. Among those attending the debut transmission were station director R. E. Jeffery, John Reith and the Lord Provost of Aberdeen. There, too, was Captain Peter Eckersley, the BBC’s charismatic and eccentric chief engineer.
The transmitter was located in the premises of the Aberdeen Steam Laundry Company – perhaps taking the idea of Steam Radio too literally. From there the signal was sent to the aerial, which was strung up between two tall Marconi masts. It was perhaps unwise to site the studios near several electrical generators, as these often interfered with the signal. Despite the low power, the initial broadcasts were heard in Norway and 2BD’s output was clearly picked up in the United States during International Radio Week in November 1924.
There was only one studio microphone, known technically as a Marconi Round Sykes. This clumsy machine weighed 25 pounds and was trundled round on a wheeled base. The microphone was enclosed in a wire mesh and was likened by the engineers to ‘a meat safe on a large tea trolley’. This gauze structure caused headaches for the technical boffins, especially in summer. Bluebottles frequently got inside from the bottom of the stand and became trapped in the mesh. When this happened, the listener could only hear a humming noise and the broadcast had to be interrupted while the offending insect was removed. Having only one microphone meant, of course, that only one person could talk in the early days.
Station 2BD was one of the first to broadcast a weekly 15-minute sports programme in which Peter Craigmile, the international football referee, previewed forthcoming events. The Aberdeen station was responsible for another broadcasting first when it transmitted a Gaelic language programme in 1923.
The new medium attracted a lot of interest, and large crowds would gather outside electrical retailers when they relayed the broadcasts from huge loudspeakers.
Each broadcasting day lasted for six hours and, as there was no opt-out facility, consisted entirely of live broadcasts. Light music and comedy shows were particularly well received. The local news bulletins were also popular, especially during the general strike in 1926. Local performers and musicians were enlisted to help and the Aberdeen station could act as a springboard to greater things. Local harmonica player Donald Davidson, known as the ‘Banchory Moothie’, secured a recording contract with Beltona Records after being discovered on 2BD.
The 2BD Repertory Company was established to perform adaptations of the classics as well as numerous offerings in the vernacular, mostly one-act plays with a handful of characters. For example on Thursday 1 August 1926 listeners were treated to a Scots comedy by Jessie R.F. Allan called The Dark Gentleman. Looking through the cast lists, the same names appear again and again and it appears that local actors such as William Mair, Grace Wilson, George Dewar and Daisy Moncur were gainfully employed throughout that year.
One popular drama series was centred on a fictitious castle in Aberdeenshire. The House at Rosieburn told the tale of a witch burnt at the stake who, before she died, placed a curse on the inhabitants. One actor, playing a witch-finder, was the envy of his colleagues when he was given an official sanction to utter the line, “C’mon ye auld bitch!” Although tame by today’s standards, this was considered quite outrageous language at the time.
The station had its own 12-piece orchestra, formed in 1924, to provide musical entertainment. They dressed in full eveningwear for every performance and were only permitted to remove their jackets on particularly hot days in the summer. There was no air conditioning in those days and they couldn’t open a window because of the noise of the railway. The musicians had no choice but to sweat it out.
Their double-bass player, a man called Watson, once unwittingly put the station off the air during a heat wave. Perspiring profusely, he looked down and noticed a plug in a nearby wall socket. In a fit of pique he bent down and unplugged what he thought was the radiator. Unfortunately it was the socket for the one and only microphone and it was several minutes before the error was realised. The orchestra was reduced to an octet in December 1926 before being disbanded in October 1929.
To help fill the broadcast hours, the London office would often send up a large leather trunk filled with sheet music and material for the local actors and musicians to perform. A team of peripatetic performers also travelled around the regions doing one-night stands at each location. Their gruelling fortnightly schedule would take them to stations throughout Scotland, Northern Ireland, Wales and England.
Music hall artistes were invited to perform when they were in the area. Mabel Constanduris was a character actress who was incredibly popular in the early days of wireless, performing comedy monologues as various members of the Buggins family. Mabel appeared before the 2BD microphone on 3 February 1928 in a programme with the catchy title Mrs Buggins gives a party in the Aberdeen Studio.
Local lad Harry Gordon was also a frequent visitor to Belmont Street, and his gramophone records and live broadcasts for the BBC made him one of Scotland’s highest paid entertainers. His fictitious town, Inversnecky, situated elusively “just outside Aberdeen” was populated by a host of weel-kent characters.
Each week a number of eager youngsters were invited along to the Belmont Street Studios to hear a story from Uncle Sandy or Auntie Win. Soon youngsters were clamouring to pay their shilling to join the junior listener’s club. They received an enamel badge and a different coloured membership card each year. By 1928 the Radio Circle boasted 19,000 members nationwide.
The local broadcasts became extremely popular and any attempt by the BBC to cut back on transmission hours was fiercely criticised. The broadcasts often elicited a strong response from the listeners as announcer Harry Jeffrey found out one night. He ad-libbed during his closing address that it was a terribly rainy night and he wasn’t looking forward to walking home in the wet, as he had no transport. When he emerged from the premises he was amazed to see a row of cars lined up along Belmont Street, vying to take him home.
In May 1925 the studio and premises were extended. The BBC gained its own entrance and the address was altered to 15 Belmont Street. By this time R. E. Jeffery had left and Neil McLean had been appointed as station director, with a staff of two assistants and three engineers.
2BD permeated its way into the public consciousness and became a subject for humour. A joke from the early 1920s used the Aberdonians unwarranted reputation for being tight with money. A wireless enthusiast, it was said, was anxious to hear the BBC station in Aberdeen. He tried over and over again to adjust the coils of his receiver for the correct wavelength. Finally a friend came to the rescue. He asked for a moneybox and rattled it in front of the new-fangled wireless set. Instantly a voice was heard, saying “Aberdeen calling, Aberdeen calling”.
The ‘listeners in’ as they were called, had to show a remarkable dedication to hear these early broadcasts. The simplest receiver was a crystal set, which used a mineral crystal as a rectifier. It enabled the listeners to tune in to the station on headphones, assuming they were within range of a station, had a large aerial, and could locate a receptive part of the crystal using a wire probe called a cat’s whisker.
To obtain greater range or volume, a valve receiver was needed. This was much more expensive – a valve cost a week’s wages and was extremely fragile. A large high tension battery and a low tension accumulator provided the power, and could be recharged like a modern mobile phone. But these beasts weighed several pounds and were full of corrosive acid, necessitating a slow careful walk to the local dealer. Most radio owners had two: one in use and one being charged. You could easily spot a wireless enthusiast in those days by the acid burns on his hands. Wireless dealers, cycle shops and garages recharged batteries and accumulators for sixpence.
One person could listen on headphones, but a loudspeaker – usually a metal or wooden horn fixed to a telephone receiver – was needed for a family to listen in. These horn speakers were replaced by the moving coil type, which appeared just before 1930. This is the kind we still use today.
Members of the public had to purchase a licence to receive the transmissions legally. The fee was 10 shillings (50p); the GPO retained half that amount and the BBC got the rest. The BBC also levied wireless manufacturers, and with a few minor adjustments, this financial arrangement persisted throughout the first decade of broadcasting.
Lord Crawford’s committee of 1925 recommended that broadcasting be conducted by a public corporation ‘acting as trustee for the national interest’. It also approved the general tone of John Reith’s programming, so not surprisingly, he became the first director general of the BBC when the company became a corporation on 1 January 1927.
But the days of 2BD were numbered. It was no longer feasible for 20 BBC stations to continue on 20 different wavelengths. Resources were being squandered by duplicating the same kind of programmes on each of the different stations. A long-wave transmitter was opened in Chelmsford to carry the voice of the BBC to foreign shores.
The problem of interference from abroad was becoming serious. In America the random proliferation of stations had proved unworkable. An international conference was hastily convened to prevent ‘a chaos of the ether’, and the Geneva plan of 1926 halved the number of medium wavelengths used by the BBC.
The development of Post Office landlines between studios meant that a service from London could be provided to the outlying stations. Simultaneous broadcasting made possible the development of both national and regional programmes; the impetus for 100% local programmes faded. Gradually the smaller stations died out and with them went the experimental phase of broadcasting. The call sign of 2BD was last heard during 1929.
GORDON BATHGATE is a 46-year-old writer and broadcaster from Aberdeen. He has worked in radio for over 20 years and presents programmes for Waves Radio in Peterhead. Presently researching a book about the history of Torry, an area he has lived in all his life.
This is an article from the February 2005 edition of Leopard Magazine. To read much more like this every month, subscribe to Leopard Magazine.