‘Literary’ Women: Behind the Scenes at the BBC, 1923-1939

Authors: Murphy, K.

Start date: 15 June 2016

The interwar BBC was a vibrant place for women to work. A small but significant number were involved in programme making and other creative activities and this paper considers their role with an eye to literature, in its broadest sense. As early as 1923, Ella Fitzgerald, the producer of Women’s Hour included short stories from the American best-selling writer O Henry. Book reviews would become a staple of women’s programming; from 1930, for instance, the feminist Ray Strachey presented series on popular novels and biography. This was under the aegis of the Talks Director, Hilda Matheson. The letters written to her lover Vita Sackville-West in 1929 reveal Matheson grappling with how best to approach the evening book review programme and her scheme to replace Mary Agnes Hamilton, the presenter of New Novels’ with Sackville-West. The Director of School Broadcasting, Mary Somerville, who had studied English at Oxford and was herself part of a literary salon was, from the mid-1920s, a huge champion of English Literature for Schools. In Drama in the 1930s, the producer Barbara Burnham adapted the likes of Shakespeare and Chekhov for broadcasting as well as Greek Classics. She also adapted and produced novels: J.B. Priestley, Edgar Wallace and James Hilton to name a few. At The Listener, Janet Adam Smith, Assistant Editor (1930-35), is acknowledged as transforming its poetry pages, enticing the likes of TS Eliot, WH Auden and Stephen Spender to be involved.

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