The birth of station 5PY was greeted with a great deal of enthusiasm from the proud listeners in Plymouth and the surrounding communities. During quirky weather conditions it could even be heard far away. On the opening night it made itself heard in Sunderland. This ‘misbehaviour’ was followed a few weeks later by Liverpool and Blackpool when it usurped Manchester’s signals. 

Clarence Goode the new Station Director made his first press interview on the last day of February, describing his ambitions for the station. James Nicholson was announced as the new chief engineer. Well established in the Plymouth wireless community he had spent 5 years as principal trainer in the wireless school at Plymouth Technical college.

An advert was placed for a secretary with ’shorthand and typing’ and Miss Jean Tye was appointed. During her interview, it was not only her secretarial skills to be judged, she was also asked if she could sing and play a musical instrument – a range of skills was of great advantage to any potential employee of 5PY. Luckily Jean could sing, recite poetry and entertain on the ukulele and piano. The station was certain to have everyone performing if they could -  even the early broadcast stations had an insatiable appetite for content. She recalled in her retirement, “I was surprised when I called at that address to see so many other applicants waiting to be interviewed. In due course I received word to report to the Director – and that was the beginning of my six happy years as secretary”. She started work immediately with a typewriter perched precariously on top of a packing case!

Jean Tye was interviewed in 1974 at her home in Scotland, she describes her early memories of 5PY.  Watch the video below.....

The studio was tested out throughout March 1924. Mr Prance from the earlier 5DJ station directing groups of musicians. The studios were right in the centre of the café and entertainment quarter of the town. It was common in that era for each establishment to have resident musical groups – a golden opportunity for 5PY to have performers right on the doorstep. Just around the corner from the studio was Café Genoni who’s trio were to become station regulars.

A Colour Impression Of One End Of The Athenaeum Lane Studio 

Meet The Gang of Four

Clarence Goode - Station Director
James Nicholson - Chief Engineer
Jean Tye - Assistant to director
David Curd - Assistant Engineer

The company had a penny-pinching approach to staffing, the team of four with freelances and performers keeping the station on-air. James Nicholson had been recruited from the Marconi Wireless Company having previously been in charge of wireless at the local municipal technical school. David Curd had previously been a seagoing wireless operator on the S.S. Moldavia. Within a year the staff had expanded to a team of ten originating drama, music, talks and information on a daily basis with an additional local themed evening  once a week.

Jean, David and Clarence  (above)  were the graft and  glue that launched the station, together with James (below). Soon though James was to leave, David taking up the role of chief engineer, actor/performer and  outside broadcast guru for the entire life of the station.

The Grand Opening Ceremony was held in the Guildhall on Friday March 28th 1924 at 7pm

The BBC welcomed Plymouth and Plymouth welcomed the BBC . A packed house and listeners from all over the country were treated to formal introductory speeches from the Mayor and managing director John Reith, followed by an evening of music and entertainment.

Watch the video story below with a good dose of the Devon dialect....

A Procession Of Programmes

Children's Hour - Perhaps the most enduring and popular slot on the schedule. It survived and was indeed the last local programme broadcast by 5PY. At teatime, children gathered around the wireless and were entertained by birthday messages, stories and music. Watch the story in the video below:

During the twenties the emphasis was on entertainment, drama was a key part of the weekly schedule. The station had its own repertory company for weekly plays and a concert party called the "Micrognomes". 

an example of drama on location

David Curd and Miss Cruikshank prepare the set for the play, set in the parlour of 'Beach House' Teignmouth

Performances could be transmitted from many venues around the town, such as the Alhambra Theatre Devonport, the Globe Theatre Stonehouse and the Promenade Pier. An example of dramatic style from the studio is shown in the video below.

Plymouth became an early innovator in the art and practice of outside broadcasts. Events were regularly aired with local  venues hosting recitals and concerts. 

The sounds of nature and community were a common theme with the early broadcasts. The BBC wanted to have realistic sea effects to complement a drama called "Wavelengths" produced by 2 LO in London. 

David travelled over to Bovisand on the other side of Plymouth Sound using a mobile set of microphone and amplifier  connected to a Post Office landline received at the studio and thence routed to 2 LO in London. He had to move very close to the waves to get an adequate effect.  By listening-in to an off-air receiver he could hear the result.    

An ambitious undertaking

In March 1926  a new heavy cruiser weighing  10000 tons was to be launched from Devonport Dockyard. No outside broadcast of a ship launch had ever been attempted before but that did not deter plucky 5PY.  Several microphones and amplifiers were procured and plans made to transmit the launch of HMS Cornwall. Pathé filmed the event for posterity and for a few frames David Curd 5PY's chief engineer can be seen close to the ceremonial position. The transmission was a great success and further enhanced the station's reputation for outside broadcasts.

The Launch 

Everyday was a music day at the station. The studio had a player piano,  grand piano and a set of drums available on demand. Singers and performers trod a virtually continuous path to the studio. It must have been an uncomfortable  experience for members of the Band of the Royal Marines who when visiting, squeezed into the studio to share the single microphone. A fine grand piano was to be a feature of the BBC Plymouth studios right up to the nineteen eighties.  

Watch the 5PY Syncopated Trio below

In complete contrast to the BBC 100yrs on, news was the most minor part of the station's fare. Strict regulation limited the broadcast of any news to after 7pm and any 'controversial' content was banned. No journalists were employed and the news agency content delivered by a messenger from the 'Western Morning News'. The general strike of 1926 changed the public's attitude to radio  when people realised the significance of the new media even if it was not independent from a political agenda set by government. Talks were regularly aired seeking to inform and educate the listeners, often being criticised for being stuffy and lacking listener interest.

One of the early talks was given by Lady Astor who had refused London preferring her local station - Clarence Goode in his retirement recalled her first broadcast:

David Curd recalled newsgathering in the early days during his retirement 


Bigotry and Politics

Controversy raged when 5PY became embroiled with religion and morals. In 1925 the Plymouth Anglican Church through the suffragan bishop John Masterman and the church committee sent a letter of complaint to John Reith, calling into question Clarence Goode's motives in employing Catholic staff. In the BBC pre-war as was society generally anti-Catholic bigotry was common, it was considered inconceivable that a BBC Director General could be of the Roman Catholic faith - even up to the nineteen sixties questions were asked about religious beliefs of senior staff. Reith's Scottish Presbyterian view on life and intense egoism prevailed with any organisational decision during his tenure. In the following audio clip Clarence Goode explains his position and the aftermath. Of course we only have a view from Clarence's perspective, there could have been other issues and we know that he 'carried a chip on his shoulder' well into old age.   

A New Management Team

So Clarence was out, and a new director was soon found.  

Cyril Collins Norton Wallich was recruited - another military man with a rank of Captain. He was a member of the Royal Field Artillery and employed with wireless communication. Attached to MI 1 he was involved with code breaking. In his civilian life he spoke in support of the temperance movement which no doubt bolstered his standing with Reith. He was supported by a team of 10 staff with James Langham the new assistant director appointed by Clarence before his departure. 

Ben Norton makes his mark

Cyril was soon to take up the pseudonym 'Ben Norton' for his role in the station dramas. He developed and improved the quality of the 5PY drama group 'The Micrognomes' . He also demonstrated an enlightened view towards women's roles and equality in the workplace. A new role for Women's Organiser  was filled by established musician Madame Winnie Grant ('Auntie Winnie' to the Children's Hour audience) and she was also tasked with improving the children's output on the station. Significantly he recognised that Madge Taylor a new recruit had presentation skills and put her forward in the role as station announcer. Women announcers were not accepted in London but the regions had more latitude with appointments. They still needed to be vetted by head office.....In the following audio clip from 1972, Madge remembered her early days and her role during the general strike:     

Cyril standing behind Reith on the steps of Savoy Hill, London


The Regional Scheme - Closure On The Horizon

The relay stations had fulfilled their brief by encouraging more radio licence purchases boosting the income of the BBC in the formative years. There was one huge problem looming – that of a shortage of broadcasting frequencies. European stations were expanding and the UK’s allocation could only accommodate two national frequencies. The key policy of the BBC as defined by Peter Eckersley was to have a main ‘national’ programme and an alternative, so broadcasting space for the relays might be difficult to sustain. Eckersley was minded to keep the old relay stations as he wrote in late 1925,

 ….Relay stations promote a provincial enthusiasm difficult to appreciate in London

He later elaborated that perhaps local schools programmes, local information, and news could be provided over restricted hours.  This was not supported at the Savoy Hill offices where there was a corporate mentality to favour expenditure in London – the ‘cultural metropolis’. Peter Eckersley was successful in driving through his ‘Regional Scheme’ of high power stations but lost the argument to keep the relay stations. The BBC’s management committee was known as ‘The Control Board” and on 17th November 1926 they decided to close down the relay stations over a number of years. 

Reith offered the local directors some motivation by allowing them to produce programmes that did not seek to compete with London but offered something local and individual. Cyril Wallich was promoted to manage a station in India with James Langham taking the reins. Plymouth continued to the last, offering local sports and talks, and on occasion contributions to the national conversation.

James Langham the third station director, a literary man often seen with a book tucked under his arm.
A football match commentary booth in 1927. James Langham joins the commentator while David Curd looks on.


A Celebrity Booking

Lady Astor often hosted celebrities and people in the public eye. In 1929 George Bernard Shaw  was visiting Elliot Terrace on The Hoe and had been booked for a new series of programmes 'Points Of View'. 

The 'Points of View' series was an idea from the most outstanding unsung hero of the early BBC, the 'director of  talks' Hilda Matheson. She had managed to liberate the BBC spoken word from the moribund to meritorious. Having successfully negotiated an end to the ban of controversial material she went on to create the BBC's first news department. She had been head hunted by Reith when she was political assistant to Nancy Astor and her society connections were a bonus for the developing BBC.  Behind the scenes all was not well. Points of View was distressing Reith - the speakers challenged his old school ideology. Hilda had to go 'hammer and tongs' to defend her interpretation of free speech during meetings with the DG. Later their differences forced Hilda to resign in late 1931 when Reith sought to ban discussions about DH Lawrence and James Joyce.    

Bernard Shaw in the studio at 5PY

Click HERE for a transcript of the broadcast


Into the thirties.......

With the anticipated closure of the Plymouth studio there had been minimal investment in the fabric of the building at Athenaeum Lane. Little had changed in the control room.  This photo taken in May 1931 showed minimal change since its installation in 1924- save the replacement microphone amplifiers to the left.