When the BBC was a three-letter word

The inimitable Tony Hancock as The Radio Ham


The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) has been in the news in recent weeks. For all the wrong reasons. From a celebrated purveyor of the news worldwide, the BBC has become the news. Principally, for putting out a two-part documentary on India’s Prime Minister Modi, and not a very flattering one at that. Naturally, the knives are out and the recent search / survey / raid at the BBC’s premises in New Delhi and Mumbai has drawn much ire. The ire has emanated more from those violently opposed to PM Modi’s ruling dispensation in India rather than from BBC’s HQ in London or from the British Government. Ironically, the naysayers are crying hoarse that freedom of speech is being throttled in India, while enjoying that very freedom to vociferously condemn the action against the BBC by the powers that be. That said, I do believe the government erred big time in making an almighty song and dance about the documentary being screened in India, drawing more attention to itself, though why the storied broadcaster decided not to air it on the BBC India channel remains a mystery.

 I have no wish to go into the whys and wherefores, pros and cons of this raging controversy (enough has been said), which will doubtless play itself out over the coming weeks and months, and like all such brouhahas, ultimately peter out into nothingness. I am taking this opportunity to reproduce an article I wrote some years ago about my own experience with the BBC. It has to do primarily with the BBC World Service Radio, an all but forgotten medium now. Today’s argy-bargy is all about BBC’s current affairs television arm, which is a completely different kettle of fish.

Here it is then, my love affair with the BBC as I was growing up during a more innocent age. Nothing controversial or unpleasant. A lot of this may not find much traction or resonance amongst those who are less than 50 years old, but they can still read it, if only to understand that once upon a time, BBC was just an entertaining, three-letter word. Or do I mean acronym?

Growing up with the BBC

BBC radio is a never-never land of broadcasting, a safe haven from commercial considerations, a honey pot for every scholar and every hare-brained nut to stick a finger into.

From a CBS TV broadcast

In the ‘60s and ‘70s, during my school and college years, my constant companion was the BBC World Service radio broadcasts. Whether it was the trusty Grundig radiogram at home, or the powerful Sony transistor, you would have unfailingly found me tuned into the 25 or 31 metre band short wave, receiving the crackling, but clear signals from the Beeb (the BBC’s affectionate moniker) at Bush House, London WC2.  Once in a while, I would tune-in to Radio Australia for some Test match cricket or the Australian Open tennis. Rarer still would be visits to the Voice of America. As for All India Radio, it was mostly during live cricket commentary of matches played in India, or the news in English, read by Melville De Mello, Lotika Ratnam, Pamela Singh, Surajit Sen and V.N. Chakrapani. Radio Ceylon was a domestic favourite, beaming Indian film songs back into India! Only the BBC had the nous and savvy to offer a variety that catered to every possible taste.

The magical lure of the radio is all but lost now, notwithstanding the Prime Minister’s periodic tete a tete with the masses, Mann ki Baat which, strangely, is also telecast but viewers can only hear the PM’s sonorous voice drone over a visual of a radio set! Television, for better or for worse, has invaded and consumed our lives. It’s a brave man or a dishonest one, who will admit to not being touched by the idiot box. More’s the pity, because one of the great qualities that radio possesses is its ability to concentrate the mind and free up the imagination. Rather like reading a good book. Listening to John Arlott’s rasping voice describing Colin Cowdrey’s cover drive was almost as beautiful as the great batsman’s artistry. At the first historic tied Test between Australia and the West Indies in Brisbane in 1961, I was glued to Radio Australia early morning on all five days of the match. Alan McGilvray, Lindsay Hassett and company, brought the pulsating moments alive to me. Ditto India’s Davis Cup tilt at the windmills when we progressed to the Challenge Round in 1967, only to be brought down by the mighty Australians.  Sitting at home, we willed Krishnan, Lall and Mukerjea to super human heights. Krishnan and Mukerjea even took the doubles rubber against all odds. No TV, but no matter. I was Radio Ga Ga, to invoke rock band Queen’s song title.

During my school days in Bangalore my English teacher would exhort us to listen to the BBC, the better to improve our English grammar and diction. In particular, we were told to catch the news, ‘on the hour, every hour,’ Greenwich Mean Time.  I would listen to the world news on BBC Radio whenever I could, more to imbibe the ‘correct pronunciation of the Queen’s English,’ as opposed to boning up on happenings in the House of Commons or keeping track of Idi Amin’s shenanigans in Uganda. I kept a handy Oxford dictionary by my side, just in case. Google search was eons away from entering our lexicon.

Then there was the entertainment side of things that really caught my fancy and virtually made me a BBC addict. Live sports, comedy, drama, music (popular and classical), quiz shows, royal weddings, and the odd funeral, even. Tarry awhile and indulge me as I delve into some of these unforgettable programmes.

The weekly Saturday Sports Special was a treat. Depending on the season, Association (now Premier League) Football, County and International Cricket, Wimbledon and Racing at Ascot – you simply couldn’t get enough. Master of Ceremonies Paddy Feeny, sitting in his London studios, would expertly navigate the listener from event to event, keeping us informed of the scores and state of the game. Week in, week out, I felt Paddy was talking to me personally! All this, peppered with constant light hearted banter with his wonderful fellow commentators on the ground – the aforementioned John Arlott, Brian Johnston, Christopher Martin-Jenkins, Henry Blofeld, Trevor Bailey, Freddie Trueman and many more. Even the football scores held a certain poetic cadence – Sheffield Wednesday 2 Wolverhampton Wanderers 1, Hamilton Academical 3 Heart of Midlothian 0, Partick Thistle 1 Inverness Caledonian Thistle 1.

Ajit Wadekar’s team, winning at The Oval in 1971 along with the series, was a seminal moment for BBC followers in India. People dancing on the streets with transistor radios pressed to their ears after Abid Ali hit the winning runs, was an unforgettable sight. Come Saturday, I would sit in front of my wireless from 6.30 pm and not move till well past midnight. My mother would yell at me to come for dinner. I would rush to the table, fill up my plate and be back again at the tuning dials. Radio dinner!

For western music buffs, there was no better place to turn to than the BBC World Service. Programmes like Top Twenty and Desert Island Discs, were an absolute must. While the former kept us abreast of the pop hit parade, with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, not to speak of balladeers like Tom Jones and Engelbert Humperdinck invariably topping the charts. Desert Island Discs put the spotlight on famous personalities who had to imagine being castaways on a desert island, and select their favourite music during their unexpected solitude, hoping someone would find their message in a bottle.  The conversations with the presenter, the plummy voiced Roy Plomley or the charming Sue Lawley, were invariably urbane and witty. Then there were hilarious quiz programmes like My Word and My Music, involving some of Britain’s most eloquent raconteurs regaling us with their quirkily erudite answers. Finally, if classical music was your thing, BBC at the Proms was a delight, featuring some great orchestral performances.

What about comedy? What, indeed! Nobody does comedy better than the British. BBC Radio virtually spawned some of Britain’s finest comedians, many of whom shone on television as well. Hancock’s Half Hour, Round the Horne, The Goon Show, Beyond the Fringe, The Men from the Ministry (an audio precursor to the celebrated Yes Minister / Prime Minister series on television) and several more. These great radio programmes showcased the massive talents of the likes of Tony Hancock, Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe, Alan Bennett, Jonathan Miller, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and others of their ilk. David Frost was a worthy addition, though current affairs and biting satire were more his stock-in-trade. That Was The Week That Was was a huge hit for Frost on British television but here in India, we were treated to choice excerpts on BBC Radio. These stalwarts considerably predate the likes of John Cleese and Rowan Atkinson, who were products of the burgeoning television era that gave us everlasting hits like Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, Blackadder and Mr. Bean.

Notable one-offs on BBC radio (and television) included the ill-starred Royal nuptials of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer, the entire event and the church service was given the full treatment – a meticulous ‘ball by ball’ running commentary. How ironic to reflect on this wedding pageant in the light of the subsequent tragic events that unraveled. Piquantly, Lady Diana and Mother / Saint Teresa died within a day of each other, and our television channels in India literally split the difference, simulcasting live both the funerals from London and Calcutta!

It would be remiss on my part not to mention my brief encounter with the legendary Mark Tully, BBC’s voice in India. Tully’s dispatches from his adopted country were full of empathy. During a brief working stint in Delhi in 1971, I perked up enough courage to track him down at his residence in the tony suburb of Jor Bagh. I had no appointment but he let me in to his warm home without demur. I told him I would like to work for the BBC and would he put in a word to the boffins in London and get me an opening – even as a tea boy. I could work my way up from there. I still cannot believe I actually did that, but youth knows no fear. He was all ears, but nodded his head in an east-westerly direction, indicating that it was next to impossible. I had to be satisfied with tea and sympathy. That was about as close as I got to working for the BBC! If all this makes me seem a bit of an Anglophile, I make no apologies. It was what it was.

One can go on and on, but I will conclude with a brief mention of what I consider among my most prized possessions – a double CD celebrating 75 years of BBC Radio, which I picked up at a BBC shop in London. Don’t think these outlets exist anymore, but the recordings take us on a roller coaster ride of the finest, landmark presentations on BBC Radio since its founding in 1922, ranging from the voices of King George V, H.G. Wells, Neville Chamberlain, Winston Churchill’s ‘finest hour’, John Lennon hours before he was fatally shot, Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood with Richard Burton reciting, The Berlin Wall’s fall, and much, much more. Truly, a collector’s item.

In the words of Burmese statesperson Aung San Suu Kyi, ‘When I was under house arrest, it was the BBC that spoke to me – I listened.’

As did I.


That was the BBC of my callow youth. Radio, audio and I was all ears. There was nothing not to like about it, and I have no regrets for having been Bush House’s ardent fan. The situation today, however, is completely different. All visual, nothing left to the imagination. One of our hyperventilating television anchors has even dubbed it ‘Boring Broadcasting Corporation,’ a cheap shot with which I strongly demur, at least in so far as the BBC on the radio I knew all those years ago, was concerned. In the final analysis, everything has now become acridly political. And toxic. And it sucks.

Published by sureshsubrahmanyan

A long time advertising professional, now retired, and taken up writing as a hobby. Deeply interested in music of various genres, notably Carnatic and 60's and 70's pop/rock. An avid tennis and cricket fan. Voracious reader of British humour and satire. P.G. Wodehouse a perennial favourite.

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  1. I fondly remember my childhood when, during wars with our neighbours (circa 1962, 1965 and 1971), the family elders would be keenly listening in to BBC to get authentic and objective information about the ongoing conflict.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I can truly relate to what you have said, but your remembrance of events and personalities is astonishing. BBC was the first to announce Indira Gandhi’s assassination, even as AIR withheld it for sometime.


  3. Suresh – you’ve taken the words out of my mouth about radio and the BBC in particular. Like you, I grew up listening to the same programs and names you mention. I’m going to save this blog to cheer me up from time to time. Radio continues to be my favourite medium. Nicely done again!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. The BBC has become boring as far as I can tell, although my wife and I threw out telly when it changed from analogue to digital. BBC has also become very Marxist but subject to the ludicrous LGBTQi+ nonsense.

    They radio is not bad, albeit perhaps it is really the old shows that they repeat that are still classic. But there can be some decent modern stuff.

    Melville De Mello is an unusual name. Melville is a family name on my mother’s side so I wonder how he came to be called that. Melville is well known as a name in Scotland.

    Anyway, thank you for the reminiscing.


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