BBC Broadcasts and ‘Back in Time for School’

Back in Time for School 2
‘Back in Time for School’

Back in Time for School takes a group of fifteen children and their teachers back through time to experience what schooling was like at different times, from the Victorian period up to the 1990s. Last summer, I was involved in doing some research for the second episode on the ‘King’s English’, which was a speech and language programme that began in the interwar period.  To do this, I used the BBC Broadcasts for Schools Collection which I introduced in an earlier post on this blog.

The BBC introduced wireless lessons for schools during the interwar period, the earliest of these date from 1924. Schools were expected to adapt their timetables to accommodate these lessons and the BBC were keen on the ‘wireless teacher’ and the ‘class teacher’ collaborating so that both the children and the class teachers would ‘enter into the spirit of the lesson’. Class teachers were also expected to use the pamphlets produced by the BBC as guides and to make time after the transmission to answer questions that may arise. This would, according to the BBC, ‘treble the value of the lesson’! [1] Teachers were to report to the BBC any difficulties they experienced with the broadcast transmission and to comment on the content of the lessons.

The ‘King’s English’ began life as ‘Our Native Tongue’ in the 1920s.  The title is representative of the focus on the importance of English as the language of the Empire and the necessity of ensuring young children learnt how to speak their native tongue.  The programme had several name changes: In 1927, it changed its name to ‘Speech and Language’; from 1931 to 1934, it was called ‘King’s English’; and subsequently, it became ‘English Speech’.

In the early days, the programme was presented by A. Lloyd James who was a lecturer in phonetics at the London School of [African and] Oriental Studies (SOAS).  Lloyd James was a Welshman and a founding member of what later became the BBC’s Advisory Committee on Spoken English.[2] In the 1927 volume of the schedules of school broadcasts, Lloyd James explained to teachers:

The object of the talks is to arouse interest in the sounds of our native tongue, and to give some practical training in hearing and making these sounds.  Each practical lesson will be preceded by a little talk on some aspect of the subject. Very elementary notions of the history of our language may form a part of these talks, and may occasionally be read in the actual pronunciation of Chaucer and Shakespeare to give the children some idea of what English sounded like in those days.

Nothing in these talks will be said that will reflect adversely upon local dialects, and no invidious comparisons will be made between class dialects. Good northern English is as good as good southern English, etc.[3]

Lloyd James was clearly celebrating the glories of a richly diverse range of forms of English, as embodied in Chaucer and Shakespeare inviting children to become fascinated with the varieties of English. He was also at pains to point out that these lessons were not meant to reflect adversely on local dialects or to make comparisons between class dialects, and that northern English was as good as southern English. But the reality of this couldn’t be further from the truth.  Children who spoke well were likely to have a better chance of getting employment in the professional sphere (instead of manual or factory work) and thereby having the chance of climbing up the social ladder.

By the 1930s, the programme was well established in the lists of courses offered by the BBC to schools as it followed the guidelines recommended by the Board of Education which urged that ‘standard English should be taught’ without suppressing the peculiarities of dialect. This reference was from the Newbolt report on the teaching of English which was published by the Board of Education in 1921. Taking into consideration the ‘valuable constructive criticism’ from teachers, in the 1930s, Lloyd James (now referred to as ‘Professor’) modified the course to include rhythm and intonation, in addition to the practical drill in pronunciation of separate sounds. [4]

You can watch a short documentary on the Broadcasts for Schools in the second episode of Back in Time for School (on BBC iPlayer), get a taste of what the ‘King’s English’ sounded like and hear a wireless lesson from the interwar period at 33’50”.  You may end up giggling with the children as you try to purse your lips to speak R.P. (Received Pronunciation) or the ‘King’s English’. I wonder though if this will bring back memories of school for some of you.

If you miss the broadcasts, you can catch up on Box of Broadcasts for which UCL has a subscription.  You may need to access this from Desktop@UCL Anywhere

REFERENCES

[1] Lloyd James, A. (1927), “Foreword to Teachers” In:  BBC Broadcasts for Schools, Vol. 1, pp. 7-8.

[2] Mugglestone, Lynda. “Spoken English and the BBC: In the Beginning.” AAA-Arbeiten aus Anglistik und Amerikanistik 33, no. 2 (2008), 6. Unfortunately, Lloyd James’ career ended in the 1940s when he bludgeoned his wife to death – see more here, especially the newspaper articles about this sensational crime.

[3] Lloyd James, A. (1927), “Foreword to Teachers”, pp. 7-8.

[4] BBC, Broadcasts for Schools: April 18th April to 17th, 1932. Vol. 9, p. 21.

About Nazlin Bhimani

Research Support and Special Collections Librarian, UCL Institute of Education, London
This entry was posted in Library and Archives, Special Collections and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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