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Jews and the British Broadcasting Corporation (1922-1953)

©2004 Michael Jolles

The British Broadcasting Company was formed in October 1922, and incorporated on 1 January 1927. The most casual listener or viewer will have been apprised of the contribution made in recent decades by hundreds, if not thousands, of Jews, who have entertained, educated, and edified their various audiences, through the agency of the BBC. They include, in particular, actors, artists, broadcasters, comedians, commentators, directors, impresarios, performers, producers, promoters, technicians and scriptwriters. Michael Grade [born 1943], an accomplished and very experienced broadcaster, has been appointed the twentieth Chairman of the BBC; Stuart Young was the sixteenth. He will now, in effect, be carrying the baton of positive, peaceful and productive service by Jews who have contributed to the excellence of the world’s most respected and authoritative broadcasting organisation. However, this brief article records only those Jews who had made noteworthy contributions to the BBC in its first three decades, when Jewish names were not particularly frequently associated with it.

One of the original nine board members of the BBC was Godfrey Isaacs (Marconi Wireless Telegraph Co). He died in 1925 and was the brother of Rufus Isaacs, first Marquess of Reading, whose widow, Stella, in 1947, was appointed Vice-Chairman of the BBC; she was not, incidentally, of Jewish parentage. BBC radio broadcasts started on 14 November 1922, but very few programmes were of exclusive Jewish interest. Rare treats, however, for early Jewish listeners would have included: a relay on 16 March 1927 from the People’s Palace, in the East End, of Hebrew Folk-Songs; a tribute on 11 April 1931 by Sir Herbert Samuel and Chaim Weizmann, who spoke at a Dinner in honour of Lloyd George in recognition of his services to the ‘Jewish people’; and talks by Norman Bentwich, who spoke on such topics as Mandates, Jews, and Russia.
Amongst those Jewish artists whose performances were broadcast during the first three decades were: Harriet Cohen, Solomon, Myra Hess, Irene Scharrer, Benno Moiseiwitsch, Leonard Isaacs, Lionel Tertis, Arthur Benjamin, Samuel Dushkin, Ernest Ansermet, Artur Rubinstein, Shulamit Shafir, Maurice Winnick, Geraldo, Harry Gold, Harry Roy, Issy Bonn (vocalist, comedian), Mosco Carner, Raymond Cohen (violinist), Leo Genn (actor), and Esther Salaman (singer). Anna Instone was a renowned gramophone-recording connoisseur. Albert Sandler had broadcast from Eastbourne as early as 1925, whereas Edward Isaacs, the pianist, had, in 1922, actually broadcast from the Eiffel Tower; Isaacs later became Head of Music, Third Programme, from 1950 to 1954.
Two distinguished lecturers who spoke in the autumn of 1930 were Prof Einstein (28 October 1930), and Prof Samuel Alexander, who spoke on “Science and Religion” (30 November 1930). BBC religious broadcasting was based on Christianity, but the first broadcast by a Chief Rabbi [Hertz] was on 5 October 1924. The first ever broadcast of an athletics meeting was the Inter-’Varsity Sports, Queen’s Club meeting, which took place on 26 March 1927, the narrator being Harold Abrahams, the Olympic medallist.
When, in 1928, the BBC set up the first Panel of fifteen experts to advise on the choice of subjects and lecturers for the National Lectures, one of these was Sir Israel Gollancz [1863-1930]. In 1948, the annual Reith Lectures were inaugurated, the first Jewish lecturer being J. Robert Oppenheimer [1904-1967], whose 1953 lecture was entitled “Science and the Common Understanding”.
A few details referred to in this article were obtained from Sydney Alexander Moseley’s “Who’s Who In Broadcasting” (1933). Moseley [1888-1961] listed in his own remarkable curriculum vitae in Who Was Who, the claim “instrumental in obtaining broadcast of television in this country; was first to broadcast speech and vision simultaneously; first radio critic”.  An absolutely unequivocally explicit expression from Moseley’s nib that he was indeed a Jew is difficult to find, for he repeatedly expressed what only amounted to a finely tuned, but tantalisingly evasive, ellipsis about his racial identity. A short obituary notice, only, appeared in the Jewish Chronicle. He was an editor of the Egyptian Mail, and, in 1922, published a critical and sarcastic account of Jews and their habits in “The Much Chosen Race”. In his Diaries (1960), he recalled that “the opening of the Ark and the reading of the Torah brought back flashes of early boyhood memories”; these mention also a declaration about R. D. Blumenfeld’s Jewishness, after which Moseley had apparently been enquiring. Moseley was a biographer of Baird, a prolific writer, and was intimately associated with all those connected with early TV broadcasting.
In 1932, at a time when television was only experimentally operational and not high-definition, the BBC moved from Savoy Hill to Langham Place. The purpose-built Broadcasting House was a technically demanding project. Its architect was George Valentine Myer [1883-1959], grandson of Abraham Myer, the first Jewish town councillor in Hereford. Incidentally, Serge Chermayeff [1900-1996] designed most of the eighth floor at Broadcasting House, which included studios and offices, such as the Band Room, an orchestral studio, the Director of Talks Room, and the eighth floor waiting room.
The world’s first formal high-definition public service TV transmission started on 2nd November 1936 from Alexandra Palace. In charge of the arrangements which successfully brought about the technology which divided the image into 405 lines,1 sent at 50 frames per second, was the Russian born Jew, Isaac Shoenberg [1880-1963], who already had experience in Russia in setting up radio stations there. (The Royal Television Society has since initiated the Shoenberg Memorial Lectures.) It was Shoenberg who had said of television: “Well, gentlemen, you have invented the biggest time waster of all time. Use it well”. The opening took place at 3pm. Half an hour later, the first ever BBC music programme was broadcast on TV. The conductor was Hyam Greenbaum [1901-1942], a Brighton born Jew, who was once a violinist in the Queens Hall Orchestra, and who had helped orchestrate some of William Walton’s film scores. 
Proceeding now to Queen’s Hall, to the immediate southeast of Broadcasting House, it was here that the promenade concerts were first broadcast by the BBC. Built in the same year as the Jewish Historical Society of England was founded (1893), it was bombed on 10/11 May 1941, just when the Great Synagogue was destroyed. The very first official concert at the Queen’s Hall, performed on 2 December 1893, had been conducted by a Jamaican born Jew, Frederic Hymen Cowen [1852-1935]. Although Cowen had been famous for decades as a conductor, he had, in 1869, at the age of sixteen, acted as soloist in a performance of a piano concerto which he had himself composed. By the way, another Jewish-born conductor, Sir George Henschel, who had converted to Christianity, had a daughter, Georgie, who was one of the BBC’s best-known female announcers. The hall’s first ‘unofficial’ concert, however, took place on 25 November 1893 in front of royalty, and featured the hall’s first soloist, another Jew, the violinist Tivadar Nachez [died 1930] who was born in Budapest.
Queen’s Hall and Budapest had another association, that of Theodor Herzl [1860-1904], and, for that matter, Max Nordau [1849-1923]. Herzl was in London to direct the 4th World Zionist Congress, whose formal sittings were held at Queen’s Hall from 13 to 16 August 1900. On his arrival, Herzl was beset with an attack of gastritis, so he was confined to his bed at the Langham Hotel, which stood to the immediate southwest of where Broadcasting House now stands. Apparently [verification required], the British branch of the Jewish National Fund was started in about 1905 at this hotel, which, incidentally, now has a Theodor Herzl Suite.     
The BBC has always been very proud of its foreign language services to overseas audiences. The extension of its services to the Arabic world was the first broadcast service to the world in any language other than English (that is, before services in Spanish, French, German or Italian). This took place on 3 January 1938, when programmes in Arabic were inaugurated, the first speaker being Emir Seif-El-Islam Hussein. The first BBC programme in Yiddish was made in July 1942, but a Hebrew service (for Israeli listeners) did not start until 30 October 1949.2
In 1939, at the outbreak of war, the Radio Times had to change its schedule of programmes. The revised edition, dated September 4 [Volume 64, Number 831A], appeared on the day after Britain declared war. The very first piece to be broadcast in the new wartime schedule (Sept. 4) was “The Parade of the Tin Soldiers”, composed by Stettin-born Leon Jessel in 1905. Jessel, whose compositions were banned in Germany in 1933, died at the hands of the Nazis in 1942.
The visual symbol of the BBC was, at first, its coat of arms. This was replaced in December 1953, when a moving image, the first animated TV symbol in the world, appeared on the screen. It was designed and devised by London-born Abram Games [1914-1996]. The BBC motto, “Nation Shall Speak Peace Unto Nation”, is, however, much older. It is derived from an early Semitic language exhortation, from the Old Testament prophet, Isaiah, an Israelite [Isaiah 2:4].
The pioneering decades of broadcasting, a period synonymous with the BBC, really did witness a  ‘Wonder of the World’. (Nowadays the BBC excites, for some, a very different type of wonder!) I hope that this article will have enabled readers to learn about several fascinating Jewish individuals who had contributed to the BBC’s early success, and I hope that the reader may, on visiting Broadcasting House or whilst passing through its vicinity, be reminded of its interesting past Jewish associations.

First Published in the JHSE News Letter and republished with thanks to the JHSE.

1.  This alternated, each week, with the 240-line Baird system. Another inventor was Ludwig Blattner who invented the Blattnerphone, one of the sound recording systems used at the BBC [JC 01.11.1935, p.10]. 
2.  Incidentally, Edwin Samuel [1898-1978], son of Herbert Samuel, was Director of Broadcasting in Palestine from 1945 to 1948.

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