Review of ‘The BBC: A People’s History’ by David Hendy

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) turns 100 this year. This ambitious, enormous book is an ‘authorised’ history which makes extensive use of the archives and is as about as impartial (or not…) as the BBC itself.

Beginning with the invention of radio, this book follows the formation of the BBC, its expansion and rise in popularity, to the invention of television, the role of the BBC in the Second World War, post-war development, to the online services and various crises of recent years. It also wonders what the future of the BBC is but tries to look on the bright side. There are a generous number of photographs included.

Unfortunately I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I’d hoped. The writing style is not very accessible and requires much concentration to pick through the long paragraphs. The emphasis is on the ideology and purpose of the BBC, with the constant wrangles over government interference and the boundary between education and entertainment. This was necessary of course, but there wasn’t enough discussion of individual programmes, personalities and audience reactions, particularly post-war. The wonderful cover image (Daleks in London) is misleading, as Doctor Who occupies one short unilluminating paragraph. Many of the most famous BBC TV programmes are not even mentioned. The early technology is discussed but some later developments are missed out. I felt that the book started off well, but my interest in it waned and I ended up disappointed. In its defence, even a large book like this has to be selective and won’t please everyone. I did learn a lot, but like the earlier output of the BBC, it was educational rather than entertaining.

I would recommend if you want to read about the leadership and politics of the BBC or its role in the Second World War. It’s also useful for information about the early days of the company and how the technology worked. If you want a lighter read or more of a nostalgia / cultural history trip then best to look elsewhere.

Published by Profile Books in 2022.

3 thoughts on “Review of ‘The BBC: A People’s History’ by David Hendy”

  1. Interesting. I would love to read more on BBC’s history but I guess this book may not be for me, as well, and your observation on Doctor Who and the cover is also one of the reasons. Like you, I would also prefer something lighter. I guess I would enjoy any positive or education chapters, though, because in recent months I somehow only looked up the negatives and read on Jimmy Savile and on the company’s historic greenlighting of dangerous stunt shows which also resulted in the death of ordinary man Michael Lush in 1986 (that’s one shocking incident that stayed with me after I read one article).

    1. Thanks for your comment. Although the book is an authorised account, it does follow the author’s interest to some extent and couldn’t cover probably half of the history of such a huge organisation! I really like the cover but it was such a shame not to have any discussion of Doctor Who. The chapters about WW2 were very inspiring as the BBC did play a very important role. Some of the negatives of BBC history are discussed, such as Savile of course, but I don’t remember a reference to Michael Lush and in fact I didn’t know about it so just looked it up – how awful.

      1. I am surprised it is not even mentioned because BBC had quite a history with the Health and Safety Executive agency over the company’s support and promotion of dangerous stunts on TV. I would love to read about the BBC’s role in WW – I am sure it was inspiring!

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