Tales from Bush House by Chrissy Brand
Cover Story in Monitoring Times, September 2002. Grove Enterprises Inc, North Carolina, ISSN: 0889-5341
This article covers:
History of Bush House
Happy Days at the World Service Shop
This year  is the 70th anniversary of the BBC World Service. Starting in 1932 as the British Broadcasting Corporation Empire Service, since 1941 it has been located in Bush House, Aldwych, London, on the edge of The Royal Courts of Justice, just to the north of Waterloo Bridge and the River Thames.
Despite cutting the shortwave service to North America last year  the BBC remains a respected major international voice, both on radio and television, broadcasting in more than 40 languages to over 150 million listeners a week. In 1982, as part of the celebrations for 50 years of BBC international broadcasts, the BBC World Information Centre and Shop opened, known as BBC World. Due to remain open for just the 50th anniversary year, it soon became a popular visitor centre for World Service listeners, tourists and Londoners alike. So read on as we look at some of the incidents and characters that passed through the Information Center in its early years, along with other tales from Bush House.
The building of Bush House
The Bush House building itself owes much to the U.S.A. It is named after Irving T Bush of the New York Bush Terminal Company, who originally planned for an international trade center to be built on the site, complete with luxury accommodation, a club, galleries and restaurants. Architect Harvey W. Corbett of Helmle and Corbett, New York had to downsize when a 1921 slump caused financial problems, and only the main centre block was built to the original specification, with the other wings of the building scaled down.
The building itself was opened on Independence Day, 4th July, 1925 and early tenants included the Herald Tribune, but it was to be another 16 years before the BBC moved in, due to a bomb at Broadcasting House early in World War II. It has been the home of the BBC’s international radio services ever since, with BBC domestic radio located three miles away at Broadcasting House, in Langham Place; itself an equally imposing building, built in art deco style, resembling an ocean liner gliding down a narrow London street. It cost $1.25 million to build Broadcasting House, from 1928, whereas Bush House was considered the most expensive building in the world in 1929, at a cost of $10 million.
The BBC lease on Bush House is up in 2008 (sadly the Beeb never owned the building)and the current plan is for them to relocate to the revamped Broadcasting House by the end of this decade.
A further early American connection was that of artist Malvina Hoffman, who made the statue which sits above the words carved over the front entrance: To the friendship of English-speaking peoples. The Indiana stone statue (the rest of the building is in British Portland stone) is of two men holding a torch and shields depicted with a British lion and an American eagle. One of the statues was damaged by a German bomb in World War II and remained without an arm until the Indiana Limestone Co. voluntarily repaired it in time for Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee in 1977.
During building renovations in the 1980s a popular sales item in BBC World were paperweights made of chunks of Portland stone from the building, encased in plastic, bearing the legend: A piece of the BBC. Bush House is being rebuilt. This Portland stone came from its walls.
Halcyon days at the Information Centre and shop
Working in BBC World in its formative years was never short of a dull moment. With the BBC’s global reputation thousands of tourists would visit to pay homage, buy a souvenir or just to tick it off on their holiday itinerary. A number of loyal listeners, having finally reached Bush House, wanted to go on guided tours of the studios or newsroom, or meet their favourite presenters and newsreaders.
Although some international broadcasters may have allowed tours or visitors pre-9/11, the BBC did not, for two reasons; an endless parade of visitors would soon interfere with the production of programmes, and, being on the air 24 hours a day there was never any downtime when people could be accommodated. Secondly for security reasons. Then as now, there were security risks, with turbulent times in the Middle East, Northern Ireland and Eastern Europe. It had only been a few short years since 1978 when Bulgarian dissident, Radio Free Europe and BBC broadcaster Georgi Markov was killed with a poison-tipped umbrella on Waterloo Bridge.
Many listeners would bring gifts for newsreaders and presenters, such as chocolates, paintings, and even Persian rugs, and would be delighted if the person in question was on duty and able to receive the gift in person. This is the closest that visitors could get to the inside of the BBC.
When the shop opened it stocked a conventional line of merchandise, which was supplemented over the years to an ever more esoteric range. Items such as BBC pens, postcards, diaries, airline bags, towels, bookmarks, baseball caps and sweaters were joined on the shelves by furry insects and golf balls bearing the BBC logo. An optimistic order for thousands of BBC cups created a six foot high pyramid in the stock room. 2,000 white china cups with the BBC crest and motto Nation shall speak peace unto Nation, and 2,000 with the slogan BBC World Service, a world of difference. If you have one of these in the kitchen it is more of sentimental value rather than a valuable rarity.
Most visitors to BBC World had straightforward requests. A copy of the programme guide London Calling (later to become BBC Worldwide and BBC On Air) or the Arabic version Huna London. Maybe a cassette or video from the BBC comedy archives such as Fawlty Towers (yes, they really did only make the 12 episodes), or a tie-in television book such as David Attenborough’s The Living Planet.
Other visitors required a little more attention, such as a retired lady from Norway who had missed the end of Play of the Week and wondered if we had a copy of the script available. Thirty minutes and a few internal phone calls later, an assistant from the Drama department arrived with the script, the lady sat down and read the conclusion to the play. Unfortunately she then declared that she hadn’t understood the ending.
A large green world map on the wall had a dial underneath to tune into the live output of all 37 languages broadcast at the time. The studio feeds were piped into BBC World and informed us of breaking news to the chimes of Big Ben. Some programmes made a pleasant backdrop to work to, especially the classical music output such as Baker’s Half Dozen with Richard Baker, The Pleasure’s Yours with Gordon Clyde, or Edward Greenfield's Classical Record Review. Other programmes kept us up to date with developments in science and the arts, (Science in Action, Meridian, Omnibus), and others were just interesting in their own right, like The Merchant Navy Programme, Sports International and The Farming World.
The dial was usually set to the English Service, but at 1700 UTC each day an Eastern European gentleman would arrive, politely take a seat and listen to the Polish programme. At the time, with no Internet and minimal satellite television, these feeds, but more so the actual short wave broadcasts, were a valuable source of news, especially for Eastern European residents or expatriots. This was later illustrated when it transpired that imprisoned Polish politicians and opponents to the regime were able to hear those very same Polish broadcasts in the Darlowek internment camp. Lech Walesa and Alexander Malachowki, both to later become members of the Polish Parliament, were able to tune in, Malachowki by hiding a radio in his long bushy beard.
Another useful source of information were the daily bulletins from BBC Monitoring at Caversham, to the west of London. These Summary of World Broadcasts arrived daily and we had regular visitors who would come to read details of what All India Radio had to say on developments in Pakistan, or what the view was from the Soviet Defense Ministry on the arms race.
Britons living overseas would stock up on recordings to take home with them, to remind them of life back in Britain, as they sat on verandas in Sierra Leone sipping gin and tonics. One lady purchased the entire BBC audio catalogue of drama and classical music, on audio cassette, to replace the vinyl versions she had in her Malaysian home; the tropical heat tending to warp the vulnerable vinyl records.
Photo below: Spring 1985 window display launching Hancock videos & BBC Everyday Mandarin course. (Copyright C Brand)
A BBC map of the world, complete with details of transmitter sites, was a best seller, but it had its downside. The maps were rolled up and sent to mail order purchasers in a 3 feet long cardboard tube, marked ‘fragile’. However, dozens were returned damaged by not so careful postal staff or airways baggage handlers around the world. A battle commenced, with us sending them out in ever more durable containers, and the world’s postal services seeing this as a challenge to to bend or buckle them. I think the record was seven attempts to an address in Australia.
We ran trailers on the air for various merchandise available by mail order. Products were also promoted periodically by continuity announcers looking for something to fill in gaps between programmes. A promotional feature for the world map was accidentally left in a continuity studio for a whole month, which led to it being read out on air more frequently than planned. This in turn led to a new deluge of map orders and another battle with the postal service.The construction of the 8 to 10 storey Bush House building is such that to get from one wing to another you usually have to go to the ground floor, cross a courtyard and use an elevator. There are few connecting bridges, making for a lot of elevator travel, and henceforth a lot of impromptu language lessons should you eavesdrop in elevators crowded with different nationalities. To reach the studios, offices and departments in each of the four wings occupied by the BBC (south-east, east, north-east, north-west) often requires you to go via the main centre block where there sits a large marble bust of a elderly Roman man, watching over the building. He was discovered in the excavations when Bush House was built. From there you can, if you feel energetic, walk up the elegant marble staircases and along corridors of Indian hardwood flooring to the office you are searching for. It is said that the building layout is so confusing that it takes two years of working there before you really know your way around.
The world on eight floors
The world on eight floors
The BBC has never owned the building, and leases it from the current owners, a Japanese organisation called Kato Kagaku. Previous owners have included the Church of Wales, and previous tenants have been on both sides of the political fence: The Soviet Steamship Company, newsagency TASS, Intourist and a Russian bookshop; The British Air Ministry, The Parker Pen company, TNT, the Inland Revenue (British Taxation body) and the British Secret Service. There have been various alterations carried out for the BBC. Studio 6 in the South-East wing basement was originally a swimming pool, Studio N42 in the North-West wing was a cinema, and there was once a badminton court in the North-East wing.
As you might expect the building is a microcosm of the world containing all of the BBC language services; Albanian to Arabic, Bengali to Burmese, Hausa to Hindi, Kinyarwanda to Kyrgyz, Turkish to Thai, Ukrainian to Vietnamese. The canteen and BBC club bar in the basement is all the better for such multiculturalism, with a wide range of cuisine on offer and people wearing a range and variety of clothing that you don’t often see on the comparatively drab London streets. Bush House is probably the most cosmopolitan office block in Britain.
As with many parts of Bush House the canteen is open 24 hours to sustain the workforce, and to act as an impromptu meeting place. A studio production assistant from the Sinhalese service might be having her lunch whilst on the next table an engineer from the scheduling department is starting his breakfast.The exotic smells emanating from the canteen could be replicated if you picked up a recipe book in BBC World. The popular range of cookbooks which we shipped all over the world included Vegetarian Kitchen, Ken Hom’s Chinese Cookery, Madhur Jaffrey’s Indian cookery, and the ubiquitous quintessential English cook, Delia Smith.
Hallowed corridors of Bush House (Copyright C Brand)
Listeners and visitorsAs well as the day to day visitors we received sackfuls of mail from just about every country in the world. Mostly the letters were requests for technical and frequency information or orders for merchandise, but there were more esoteric letters that asked for copies of the Bible, begging letters to help fund children’s education, or requesting free items of clothing.
Such letters were further proof of the BBC’s reputation and impact on millions of listeners. Monitoring the letters over one sample four week period illustrated the range of correspondents, as we received post from continents and people as as diverse as a Chinese farmer, the Tibetan embassy in Belgrade, a Church Minister in the Central African Republic, a Guatemalan student, a Japanese businessman, along with the usual letters from the western world.
A number of technical questions were raised and answered by the Waveguide programme, and the programme also produced a series of leaflets which were eagerly snapped up in BBC World. Reviews of new receivers, such as the Sony ICF2002 with digital readout (one of the first of its kind in 1983), information on why wavelengths are changed with the seasons, and overnight frequencies for night time listeners in Britain were useful handouts used to fend off repeated questions from many visitors.
The information literature on offer was of great interest to listeners and visitors. Stacks of schedules in all languages, product reviews, photos of presenters, calendars and posters. The English by Radio and television broadcasts spawned a lot of audio and video material, which customers from all over the world would come to Bush House to buy, or order by post. Best selling titles around the world included Follow Me with Francis Matthews and the children’s series Muzzy in Gondoland. Getting on in English, Choosing Your English, English for International Co-operation and other output catered for all levels of English learners; from beginners to advanced, tourists to businesspeople. English by Radio output included programmes such as Can I Help You? and Paedagological pop.
You could also learn other languages with the BBC. Courses available, many of which accompanied televsion programmes or audiocassettes included Russian Language and People, Everyday Mandarin, Buongiorno Italia, Digame, Deutsche Direkt, A Vous La France and the ‘Get By’ series.
A secret weapon used to disseminate the barrage of facts and figures from the public was a battered card file index behind the counter, containing all sorts of pertinent information. There were answers to standard questions such as local bookshops that stocked Persian language learning materials, or simple tourist information on times of the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. Any questions which required a bit of research, and there were many, would be faithfully recorded and indexed, ready for the next time a visitor happened to ask what the theme tune is for The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy? (Journey of the Sorcerer by the Eagles) or the marching music for Radio Newsreel (Imperial Echoes).
Some of the most popular World Service programmes have always been those that feature pop music. Although standard fare on UK radio stations, British pop was much in demand for a younger global audience. The Latin Amercian service started Ritmo in 1965, a Saturday night request show, and other language services broadcast programmes. Disc Jockey Dave Lee Travis (DLT) had a request show on the World Service, called A Jolly Good Show, which may have played similar music to his programme on domestic BBC Radio One, but he commented that the main difference was in the type of requests he received. For example, in Broadcasting House for his domestic show he would be playing songs ‘for Tracy in Scunthorpe, from Gary who says he’s really got the hots for you’. In comparison his Bush House show would have far more eloquently phrased letters, such as Ángel writing to say that Zohra is akin to the delicate orange blossom in a spring time shower.
At BBC World no two days were the same. There might be a book signing by a media personality or politician. A famous actor having finished recording Play of the Week, or DJ or famous musician might be passing through on their way to record a programme or interview. It might be a day for a surreal Monty Python type experience trying to sell an English teaching course to someone who didn’t speak English at all, necessitating a phone call to the appropriate BBC language section for a translator. It might entail playing music down the phone to someone who wanted to purchase a soundtrack but wasn’t quite sure what it was called or what it sounded like.
There might be time for an interesting chat with a Swahili presenter or Romanian secretary, looking to purchase a BBC T-shirt or pen for a competition prize, or a Greek producer looking for inspiration for programme themes amongst the books and merchandise.
There is some uncertainty to the BBC’s future within Bush House when the lease runs out in 2008. The BBC wants to merge all its news services in one central location in a state of the art complex in Broadcasting House. Whether this will happen is as yet unknown, but there would be opposition amongst the employees at Bush House. Either way, if you are visiting London, get along to the Information Centre and soak up the atmosphere of the marbled corridors and distinguished voices that have floated across the airwaves these past 70 years.
Update 2012: BBC WS eventually vacated Bush House for Broadcasting House in June 2012.
One of the infamous BBC World maps, mention in the above article, and one that didn't stray far from Bush House in fact- it being for sale at the 2012 auctions of Bush kit and miscellanea.
A World in Your Ear, Reflections on Change by John Tusa, Broadside Books, London 1992.
BBC World Service www.bbc.co.uk/worldservice
Other websites that detail Bush House’s proud BBC past include a 1960s review at Mike Baker’s website: www.bakerlite.co.uk/bush_house.htm
Other websites that detail Bush House’s proud BBC past include a 1960s review at Mike Baker’s website: www.bakerlite.co.uk/bush_house.htm
The Richardson Media website is another place which packs a wonderful array of Bush House tales and photos of studios and people behind the scenes as well as those behind the mikes, spanning 50 years from 1950 to 2000: www.richardsonmedia.co.uk/Bushlog.html
Just read this post today after listening to some of the World Service 80th anniversary programming.
What a fascinating insight into the workings at Bush House.
Wonderful account; reference to this seen in Radio User (Feb 2012 edition).
Years ago, in the days before security guards, health & safety and terrorism, I was a Geology undergraduate at King's College on the Strand. Most days, I used to walk down Kingsway, across the Aldwych into Bvsh Hovse via the north door, past the desk, turn right and down the stairs, to emerge on the south side opposite the Main entrance to King's.
From outside the building, my eyes were gazing up at the Portland Stone. But once inside, my eyes were cast down to the floor, studying the magnificent stromatolitic limestones which covered the floor of the corridors and stairs; a brisk 90 second walk through could my take 5 or 10 minutes on some days. There was always something to see.
As well as an architectural marvel, it was a geological one, too.
That's really interesting dyvroeth. It must have been a long time ago you walked through - what a great idea-as I am pretty sure the security guards were pretty tight even when I worked there. I plan to return before the BBC completely leave, for one last look around and hope my (perfectly valid and legitimate!)plan to get in works. Watch this space...
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