Memories: Mary Lawson

The BBC Recording Section - 1941

First day at the BBCI ended the last part of my reminiscences trying to find the BBC building in Maida Vale where I had been told to report. On my way I met another woman with the same purpose so we joined forces. She was Welsh and called Jane. All signboards had in those invasion-fearing days been removed. Eventually we found a grey two-storey building extending right along the main road. It looked like an industrial warehouse. We found a sand bagged entrance where a Home Guard inspected our BBC letters and allowed us into a very small reception area. A uniformed man took us along a long shabby corridor lined with what seemed to be small offices. Taken into one, we found three other women. One introduced herself as the Personnel Officer. There followed a bewildering sequence of form signing. We learned what we would be paid, weekly in cash - cheques and bank accounts were unknown to us then - and that we would work a 3 shift system, including nights. Next day we were to report to Broadcasting House where we would be involved in a one-month training course at the end of which a small examination would decide in which branch of the Engineering Division we would work. We signed The Official Secrets Act. She asked where we were living. The other women were locals, living at home in towns near London. Jane and I were the only Outlanders. She gave us two a list of Hostels such as the YWCA, and addresses of people who may have us as lodgers. Issued with a flimsy street map of the area, we were told to go and find somewhere to live and to report to her later.

We two had had prolonged overnight train journeys and only a cup of tea and a piece of toast in the station. We were tired and hungry and lugging suitcases with all our possessions, gas masks over our shoulders and clutching our handbags which held the most vital of all, our Identity Cards, Ration Books and Post Office Savings Bank books for money when needed. We emerged from the BBC building both anxious and homesick. Today, it is not easy to realise the impact which being 'Called Up' had on our generation. With little or no choice, most were told to report to some organisation far away from home, family and friends, with no personal contact phone or internet, no knowledge of the difficulty or danger of the task head and no option to reject or leave any employment. By today's standards Jane and I, 21-year old young women, were quite unsophisticated. Jane, a GPO trained telegraph operator had never been very far away from her Welsh home town. Very few of us had ever been 'Abroad'.

Exploring the streets near the BBC building we found tree lined terraces of what pre-war must have been superior 4-storey town houses. In one street there was a notice board which said, 'One room flats - vacancies'. Down some basement steps we found a woman landlady. Ascending the stairs to the 4th floor, the 'one room flat' had the same very basic furnishings as I had known in the college hostel, but with a gas fire with a small gas ring on top. Suddenly, emerging from the other flats were two young men whom we were told, worked in the BBC. This was our first stroke of luck. In the previous six months the BBC had recruited young 18-year olds awaiting their allocation to the Services. Their hobby had been Wireless Transmission - 'Hams'. Wireless Telegraphy was, in those pre-war years what IT is now, a youthful obsession. Since the occupation of Europe in 1940, the BBC had become a vital source of news and needed a rapid increase in staff. These knowledgeable ex-schoolboys were a ready source of new recruits. The BBC called them Junior Maintenance Engineers. We were very grateful when these two offered us their services as guides.

Jane and I paid a week's rent and became tenants of adjacent 4th floor 'flats'! Our two escorts took us back to the BBC building and now we showed our newly supplied BBC Passes and badges to the Home Guard. We learned our escort's surnames, a universal practice then when forenames were used only by close family and not scattered around as they are today. Jane and I would be addressed always as 'Miss surname'. Introduced to the canteen we had our first meal of the day, vegetable soup. Nearby, through an open door I glimpsed a very big space in which were scattered a few music stands. This was Studio One, the source of all the concerts which I had for years heard on the wireless, - where Toscanini and Richard Strauss had conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the most eminent soloists had played concertos.

Returning to our flats, the 'boys' made us familiar with essential tasks such as how to feed the small gas meter with sixpences to get the gas fire and ring to supply heat. A small kettle could be boiled on the gas ring but one always filled a thermos flask for use in air raids. Clothes washing could be done in the bath water with your once-a-week bath, if the gas pressure was high enough to get the geyser to light at all. Otherwise, an occasional one shilling visit to the Municipal Baths and Washhouses, taking one's own towel and soap, was useful. Timidly, I asked what to do if the siren goes? 'Nothing much' was the reply, 'unless it gets very noisy, then you can go down to the basement.' The landlady, Mrs Clement, had a fairly large space under the stairs. This part of London had not been very badly hit. The real devastation was in the City and the whole of the East End. Our JME mentors then left us to go on the 4pm-midnight shift. Early evening, Mrs Clements brought us a small battered tin kettle, a small enamel washing up bowl and mug 'to start us off'! Suddenly I was unable to stay awake. 24 hours earlier I had boarded a train in Newcastle Station!. This had been my first day as a BBC employee.

To Broadcasting House
Broadcasting House
Next morning, Jane and I found our way to Broadcasting House, past buildings swathed in sand bags, gaps surrounded by wooden boarding, tarpaulin covered roofs, boarded-up windows, rubble everywhere - Regent Street and Portland Place. The BH entrance was fortified with sand bags, and guarded by a Home Guard who checked our passes. A person escorted us down to a basement room where we met Mr Godfrey who was in charge of the Engineering Training School, newly established to train all the new recruits. There were eight women in our class and we were each handed a notebook and pencil for note taking.

A lecture by a senior staff member introduced us to acronyms of Who was Whom. For instance SE[R] was the Head of all BBC Recording, but SREs were the senior recording engineers in charge of staff on each daily shift. We were WOs, Women Operators! Next - Who was Where? The Music Department and BBC Symphony Orchestra had been evacuated to Bristol in 1939 but had lost numbers of instruments and their library of scores in the heavy raids on that city in 1940 and had been hastily re-housed in Bedford, where they used the Corn Exchange for the weekly broadcasts of a Symphony Concert. Drama and Light Entertainment Departments had had a similar fate and ended up in Bangor, North Wales. Bush House, acquired in 1936 to house the then new Empire Service, was now home to people of all nationalities and languages. They were sending programmes to occupied Europe and other parts of the world. An Arabic section was housed in newly acquired buildings in the country at Caversham and Wood Norton. French and German Sections were temporarily working in Maida Vale. This had been a logistical nightmare for BBC executives when in May 1940 all the carefully planned 1939 distribution of staff had been disorganised by the German occupation of Europe, and the Blitz.

Next day the lectures became more technical. An engineer called Mr Rantzen, Esther's father, gave us a lecture on 'Lines' when terms such as Impedance, Inductance, Trap Valves and Cross Talk were explained. A massive General Post Office network of insulated copper cables above and below ground, provided the entire UK communications system, as the internet does today. The multiple lines supplying all parts of the BBC ended at a wall of racks of terminals in a Control Room. At each CR, an operator would connect the appropriate lines to Studios, to other BBC units and to the major Transmitters, many located in remote parts of Britain. Some of us would be trained for this work. We were told how, when on 8th December 1940 the upper storeys of Broadcasting House were demolished by a land mine, teams of engineers had, in 24 hrs, transferred the entire complex system to a basement area, without the loss of a single broadcast programme. An example to us all!

We were escorted along a maze of BH catacombs and shown this vital Control Room. As the engineer in charge demonstrated the involved operational procedure, suddenly, out of a loud speaker came an intoned 'Lord Have Mercy Upon Us' from the 'Evensong' which was being broadcast at that moment. Our laugh seemed to surprise the engineer. From another corridor we overheard the unmistakeable rich voice of Ed Murrow, the famous US War Correspondent broadcasting his daily news bulletin to the US networks.

Next subject was 'Transmission'. Although qualified in theoretical physics, the technology of Wireless Telegraphy was for us a new subject. This was the thermionic valve era and we filled our note books with hastily scribbled circuit diagrams using Diodes, Triodes, Pentodes, and Rectifiers. One lecture was on the design of Aerials. We were told the importance of Air Raid security measures. BBC transmitters might be a source of Direction Finding for enemy aircraft so, given the Early Warning signal by RAF Radar, main BBC transmitters in the expected enemy flight path ceased transmission. But, the broadcast output was immediately taken over by a network of small 1 kilowatt transmission units. These 'H' transmitters had been secretly housed in suburban houses on the outskirts of the main towns and cities so that local reception of programmes would continue unaffected. When in 1940, Invasion was a very present threat, these transmitters were tested daily to provide a possible 'Underground' BBC and staff were trained in Morse Code. Thankfully, with invasion now seeming less likely we were to be spared this added burden. Some of us however would be trained and sent to operate a little H transmitter 'somewhere in the UK'.

Finally 'Recording' - This lecture was given by the Superintendent Engineer (Recording). He explained the function of recording. Prewar, it was used to supply the Commonwealth with recordings of BBC UK broadcasts of Talks, Drama or Music etc. These could also be relayed by short-wave throughout 24 hrs. to the 5 Time Zones, to Africa, India, North and South America and the Pacific. In wartime however, recording played a much more vital purpose. Prior to being broadcast all material must be first censored for anything liable to be of 'help to the enemy'. This was not a problem where a script was available such as for talks, drama or comedy, but incoming news bulletins and Outside Broadcasts for instance, must first be recorded and vetted by a chain of official bodies and on their advice, suitably edited before broadcast. Even news from BBC war correspondents attached to Service units whose scripts would already have been checked by their Service censors, had to be recorded and rechecked before being broadcast. The lecturer then discussed 'Integrity'. It was the principal objective of the BBC that all broadcast information should be accurate. With all information which had been edited for Security it was essential that the listener was always informed beforehand if a recording and not a live broadcast was being transmitted. The BBC now transmitted war reports to all parts of the world and had already acquired a reputation for trustworthiness. All staff and especially recording staff involved in the editing process must not ever discuss their work with family or friends or even outside their own section of the BBC. This talk ended our first week in the school.

Our first weekend Saturday and Sunday being our free days, we first found a local grocer and butcher with whom we could register our Ration Books. We collected our small packet of tea, 4oz of butter, 2oz of cheese, one egg and a small 'National' loaf of bread. We took our week's meat ration as four slices of corned beef as this had no waste and needed no cooking!

Jane had received an invitation to visit distant relatives of her mother and asked me to accompany her. They lived in NE London and we managed to find the correct Underground route and their house. We were shocked to see how much more devastation there was in that area than ours. The house we were visiting had had a 'near miss' and was damaged, but as proprietors of the adjacent grocery shop, her relatives had to remain there and continue to supply the local people with their rations. We were given a homely Welsh welcome and tea. As we were leaving, suddenly there was the wail of the siren. With the family we were ushered into the storage cellar under the shop. As well as large containers of the shop's vital grocery supplies, the cellar was equipped with cushions, blankets, old armchairs and air beds. Newly filled thermos flasks of hot soup and tea were brought down and Jane and I were told to 'make ourselves comfortable as it might be a long night'. In the subsequent quiet spell we talked about music and of course a sing song followed with a younger member of the family keeping us in tune with a mouth organ accompaniment. We sang my favourite Welsh folk song which I had known since school, 'David of the White Rock'. Then it got 'noisy' though below ground one felt rather than heard the sounds. Then it got 'very noisy' and I was glad to be with this 'Blitz-Hardened' family who had already endured this kind of ordeal night after night for six months, and still seemed unconcerned. When the 'ALL CLEAR' sounded our hostess said quietly 'Wonder who got that lot?'

After a very early breakfast, as Jane and I left, we paused at the door and 'took in' the scene. It was a beautiful Sunday morning, no one about and intensely quiet. When years later I read that Vaughan Williams had tried in his Pastoral Symphony to convey his own WW1 experience of the strange quiet at dawn which followed a night's activity, I remember thinking 'I know what he means'. When we emerged from our home stop on the Underground, we found the road barricaded. The BBC Maida Vale building had taken a direct hit. The worst damage was at the end of that extensive building some distance from our street, but I was thankful that I had not spent last night under Mrs Clement's stairs. Later the 'boys' told us that luckily it was also their day off, but an announcer with the German Section, which occupied the damaged end, had been killed. Next day we found that the much loved Queens Hall had been burned to a ruin.

More lectures Back to school on Monday, a lecturer now explained 'Operational Procedures'. Accurate timing was vital. All broadcast material must begin and end precisely at the time allotted. The 'pips' and 9pm chimes of Big Ben were vital broadcasts for listeners in Europe and elsewhere. No silent gaps must occur between programmes to allow the nasal 'Gairmany calling' voice of the German broadcaster whom the country had named 'Lord Haw Haw', to intrude.

Further lectures included technical details of the different types of microphones used and the placement of these in studios and elsewhere. For a Symphony Orchestra, only three microphones were used, one above the conductor and the other ones mid way above the left and right sides. Soloists did not have an individual microphone. 'Stereo' was then only being tried experimentally and was not in regular use. 'Dynamic Range' was an important topic. The incoming sound level had to be reduced by a volume controller to a maximum of 45 decibels to prevent overloading the recording apparatus, producing sound distortion or 'cross talk' interference on adjacent lines. This was not usually a problem with speech, but loud passages in music or other incoming sound effects usually needed some reduction.

Some 'lecture notes' - flimsy sheets of barely legible carbon copies of typed summaries of all the lectures - were given to us to help our own inaccurate scribbles. We, the class of 1941, were the guinea pigs. A year later the BBC established at the outstation Wood Norton, a proper text book equipped training school which I believe still existed until recently. The 'examination' was a fairly gentle ordeal intended to find which topics we had liked most and what our own interests were, drama, music, sport, or other. The verdict. Jane, my friend was to go to a 'transmitter' and she hoped, back to Wales. I was delighted when told I was to join the Recording Section and would, over the next two weeks, be taught all the technical 'know - how'. Jane was to be trained at the main London transmitter at Brookmans Park, so she prepared for a possible move to a new billet in North London. My base would be Broadcasting House, so I could remain living where I was. The JMEs reported that Maida Vale was being rapidly repaired, with new reinforcement and safety areas installed. Studios and the recording section were again operational and it was likely I would work there after training.

And so to work Next day I reported to the BH recording section. The SRE told me I would be trained on Disc recording and replay. I was shown a row of turntables, each with the usual pickup arm and stylus for playing records, and two unusual machines, placed side by side, which were for making new records. The BBC used disc records very extensively but they differed from the familiar commercial records in that they must be able to be played back immediately. The commercial record cut a sound track on soft wax and this was electroplated to make a matrix from which thousands of copies could be pressed. The BBC process used a 12in aluminium disc which was coated with a layer of acetate varnish, thick and soft enough to enable a sapphire cutter to trace a sound track and also tough enough to allow instant playback with a very light weight stylus. Usually only needing to be played a few times, the disc could then be stripped, re coated and reused, a necessity at that time of shortage. Discs needing to be kept for archives could be preserved by the electroplating process.

When making a recording, the blank disc must first be examined for evenness of the coating. In a recording studio, one of the terminals in the ubiquitous wall rack supplied a constant 1000 cycles per second 'tone' at standard loudness. Connecting this to the cutter head using a newly installed sapphire cutter, a trial sound track was recorded. This track was then played back through headphones. Listening, I was told, was our most important asset. Any noticed sound distortion may mean that the cutter had cut too deeply into the coating, or lost its edge and must be replaced. A pickup following a freshly cut sound track allowed the operator to compare incoming and outgoing recorded sound throughout the process. At any deterioration in sound quality, the flick of a switch transferred the incoming sound instantly to the second recording machine.

Today, a CD can contain more than an hour of recorded content. The 12in commercial record of 1941, played at 78 revs per minute, might contain 8 minutes worth. To increase this the BBC was ahead of its time in introducing ' Slow Speed', 33 revs per minute, so our discs could perhaps record 12 minutes of decent quality. Most broadcasts lasted either 30 minutes or an hour. This introduced the 'Change Over' problem. As the cutter approached the centre of the disc, an appropriate moment was chosen to switch the incoming sound to a pre-prepared and running second machine. Hopefully, when recording speech, this could be done during a break or a pause at the end of a sentence. Disc recording could be used for popular songs, dance music, and comedy, but for classical music, two other forms of recording were used, 'tape' and 'film'. These machines were kept at Maida Vale which was regarded as the main recording centre, so my training in these two systems would have to wait till later.

In each recording room was a cubicle with a desk fitted with a manually operated volume control unit for limiting the incoming sound level. A red line on the dial indicated the 45db. level which must not be exceeded. An automatic system was still to come, so at present, this was a WO's job. Music levels could unexpectedly go 'over the top' so the operator had to follow the score, if available, and reading ahead of what was being played, gently ease back the control before the expected ff passage. Sfs were a problem!

Finally, pencil and forms at hand, both operators must immediately note down in minutes and seconds, the exact time of everything which occurred! These notes were finalised into a Log which would accompany the recording everywhere until it was no longer needed.

In the first week in June, my Recording Supervisor told me I was ready to go 'on shift'. I would in two days time start on the morning shift, 8am to 4pm, at BH. I spent those free days back to every day living. I wrote a long letter to my parents. I said 'Goodbye' to Jane who was moving to her next 'home'. Happily, the two JMEs were still my neighbours and always helpful. I prepared myself for the very early morning 'start'. There had been a number of night siren wails recently but none needing a descent to the basement so I think I had begun to 'get used to them' and sleep!

The SRE who welcomed me on my first day 'on the job' introduced the other staff - two REs and a WO, one of the first recruits who had completed her training a month earlier. We two would work as a pair, one in the cubicle and the other doing the cutting. I found that the morning shift could be busy but very dull. For use on the Home Service we recorded the daily sheaf of Government Regulations, talks about how to save fuel and food, etc, and chatty interviews - nothing of interest. Somewhere else in BH an announcer was reading this stuff into a microphone, and at the start of every session a disembodied voice in our headphones uttered a phrase which, time after time in the months ahead, would activate our robot-like response, 'We are going ahead in ten seconds from ---- Now,' - start the recorder, lower the recording head on to the disc, 2 second run in, quick look at the clock, log exact time, nod to cubicle, 'Recording'! Then followed about 5 minutes of manic manual dexterity and 'keeping your wits about you'. In this brief time between every machine 'change over' I had to stop the machine, remove and correctly label the completed disc, test and install a fresh cutter and blank disc, log any comment on sound quality, then warn the cubicle when the active recording head was nearing the centre of that disc, so that she could decide the next moment to flick the next 'change over' switch. Now I understood why we were called 'Operators'. Finally, the Log, with three carbon copies, was written up, checked by the SRE and signed by us two WOs. This document went everywhere with the recording to assist the person who would have to play it back during a broadcast. Days later, in the canteen one could be accosted by someone unknown who would say 'I had a lot of trouble with that rotten change over you saddled me with.'

One morning we two were given a roll of 'mutton cloth', a sort of knitted cotton mesh, and asked to do some cleaning of the equipment, but we did not sulk. Roads outside were a mass of rubble. Ever-present dust could blunt the edge of the cutter and penetrate the disc coating causing 'surface noise'. Cleaning was all part of the job.

Editing a disc recording was not easy. First, two copies were made of the original disc, this being carefully put aside should anything go wrong! A row of turntables, each with a very light weight pick up arm and head and tiny sapphire stylus to prevent damage to the thin acetate coating, played back these copies. Armed with the editing instructions, a playback of one copy was stopped abruptly before the first word of the passage to be removed. With a yellow wax crayon we put a tiny mark on the groove at that point beneath the stylus. Similarly the second copy play back was stopped after the last word of the same passage and the groove marked. A new recording of the contents of the first disc as far as the mark, followed by that of the second disc after its mark, eliminated the unwanted passage. Sometimes the process went smoothly, but more often with difficulty.

Some sessions which tested our skills and tempers to the utmost were for the French Section. Directed by one of the French staff, we had to record on discs successions of very short bands. On every alternate band was a little tune carrying the words 'Radio Paris Ment!' (Radio Paris Lies). Even with only school French we could understand that these were replies to the propaganda being broadcast by the Nazi controlled French Radio. Another curious set of bands had to have very precise timing. In 1944, we learned that these were the coded messages to the French Resistance.

After 12 days which seemed never-ending, I remember I had a vague feeling of disappointment - this job was not what I had expected. It was repetitive, dull, yet with a constant fear of making a mistake at a crucial moment. I had my two free days ahead but with the departure of Jane I felt very much alone. A letter arrived from my old school friend. It told me how much she was enjoying life in the Army. It also told me that the two Merchant Navy sailors who, so long ago, had escorted us to the Queens Hall, had been 'Lost at sea'. Feeling low, I did what everybody did to survive those dark days, I went to the cinema. My spirits were lifted by the antics of Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour in the first of the series of 'Road to---' films. This was 'The Road To Singapore'. Throughout the war years the US film industry churned out light comedy films and musicals packed with singable songs which did much to boost morale. The BBC also did its bit, continuing a number of comedy programmes which already had a following, 'Band Wagon' 'Hi Gang' and 'Music Hall' and of course 'It's That Man Again' soon to be ITMA. With Tommy Handley, the master of rapid repartee, a host of zany characters and catch phrases which became everyday parlance, the series was compulsory listening on Thursday evenings. Though complete with jokes about the 'Man with the Mustache' nothing was at all jingoistic.

I began my next 12 days on evening shift, 4pm to midnight, on June 20th. On June 21st Germany invaded Russia. Suddenly there were incoming reports from all parts of the world, commentators all giving their assessments of the 'Implications'! Churchill spoke! This needed non-stop recording. We WOs were each made an assistant to an RE, doing all the support jobs. Sent to collect supplies of blank discs, I lost my way in the BH maze and blundered into a room where a middle aged lady was sitting in front of a microphone - it was Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands.

As in 1940, the German army was in no time on the outskirts of Leningrad, Moscow and Kiev. Relations with the Soviet Union which had been guarded since Stalin's 1939 pact with Hitler, suddenly became 'Cordial'. Daily, goodwill messages to 'our dear friends and allies' were recorded and transmitted. The weekly concerts by the BBC Symphony Orchestra seemed to include a lot more Tchaikovsky, Glinka, Borodin and Rimsky Korsakov , especially 'The Great Gates of Kiev'.

My next spell was on night shift, midnight to 8am, mostly playing back to the world what had been recorded during the day, a much easier job than recording. The 'change over' between successive discs could be practised in advance. Eating a canteen meal at 3am. was the worst ordeal. Home at 9am, sleeping in daylight took some time to get used to. So passed July and August. On the last day of my shift I received an Internal Memo - my next 12 days would be the day shift at Maida Vale . This was the beginning of a period that I remember as the happiest time of my war time job with the BBC.