Rampant Scotland Book Review
The BBC in Scotland - The First Fifty Years

BBC Scotland HQ, Pacific Quay, Glasgow

Author: David Pat Walker
Publisher: Luath Press, Edinburgh
ISBN: 1908373008

The BBC is a strange beast. It was founded as the British Broadcasting Company in 1920 with the encouragement of the companies that manufactured radios who were keen that people should have content produced in the UK. John Reith (pictured here), a fearsomely dour son of the manse was its first Director-General and he imprinted his Presbyterian view on the organisation that is now a global media player.

The BBC in Scotland has also evolved over the years from what was initially a series of local studios in Edinburgh, Glasgow, Dundee and Aberdeen to its present incarnation headquartered in ritzy offices on the south banks of the Clyde (see illustration above).

David Pat Walker, who is a retired BBC executive has laboured hard to produce a history of the Corporation's first fifty years in Scotland starting in 1922 It is a comprehensive record of the organisation and as such it is an amalgam of matters of record along with a number of anecdotes which will resonate with people who grew up in the era when the BBC reigned supreme.

I must admit to having a limited interest in the various managerial appointments over the years and even less in the intricacies of various transmitters and other technical matters. But there is plenty of of other material which will interest the general reader - particularly those of a certain age who can remember when the McFlannels, a comic soap, was on the radio and when the youthful comic Stanley Baxter was making his mark. In the years before commercial competition, let alone the Internet, the mass of Scots were drawn together by what they saw or heard on the BBC.

At times the BBC is equated to a straight-laced relative. It is known as 'Auntie' by disrespectful employees and the public alike. That is probably connected to the Reithian tradition and a certain natural conservatism which followed his reign. Some of the most intriguing accounts in the history were when Auntie shrugged off her stays. In the mid 1920s there was a splendid spoof news broadcast which indicated that revolutionaries had stormed the Savoy Hotel and were shelling Big Ben. The programme alarmed many radio listeners as well as senior managers in London.

I was also very taken by an account of how the veteran journalist Jack House was despatched to find a replacement for a performer who had withdrawn at the last minute. He returned with a youthful secretary called Molly Weir, who demonstrated her formidably speedy shorthand - on the radio. (Molly Weir moved from secretarial duties to be a writer and broadcaster in her own right.)

There are many more anecdotes of programmes that were very important to a population that was pretty dependent on the BBC for its information and entertainment. As is often the case, the more interesting bits refer to things which went wrong. I was also interested to see how some of the current issues relating to BBC Scotland's role today were discussed in days gone by. The general restraint and aversion to risk was raised in the 1940s when Robert Hurd of the Saltire Society asked if.... "the BBC staff will be able to break loose from past habits of the mind. Will they take risks? Will the news bulletins continue to be the kind of appendage following London instead of a proper integration of Scottish news with world news?"

David Pat Walker has completed a Herculean task with this book. Over the fifty year span drama, music, sport, children's programmes and light entertainment make up just some of the BBC's output north of the border and it must have been difficult to keep the book to a manageable size.

It is a worthy record of a large and important part of Scottish life but also a readable one. The author has followed the BBC's mission of combining information and entertainment and avoided any settling of personal scores. In fact he makes no mention of his own career in any shape or form. I hope the book finds its audience

20 April 2012

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