An exhibition opened today at the Museum of London which celebrates the magazine that has adorned many of the nation’s coffee-tables for almost a century: the Radio Times. The “The” was dropped surprisingly early, in the 1930s, so it’s not just chicanery of modern branding agencies. People still use it, though. Don’t they?
But enough of that. The BBC first started broadcasting radio in 1922. To its chagrin, the nation’s newspapers refused to publish programme listings for free, so in a fit of pique, the corporation founded The Radio Times. Cover price: 2d. Did everything cost tuppence in the early part of the 20C?
Moving anti-clockwise from this issue we move through the decades, perusing a selection of several dozen covers of the 4,000+ issues that there have been of Radio Times. Through its 90 years, even during the war, RT has only missed one week (those pesky unions again). We flit backwards and forwards between mainly black and white print and occasional duotone (splashing out), and eventually moving on to full colour as a permanent fixture. We see long-forgotten stars of stage and screen. Recognition for me starts around Tony Hancock: for younger viewers, even he will seem obscure. It’s notable that light-entertainment is almost always the theme, sport and drama less so, news and documentary (apart from propagandistic wartime editions), hardly ever. But this may be down to selection, I don’t know.
Take a look at this war-time cover featuring J.B. Priestley, doing a sterling job of promoting cheerfulness in the face of evil.
“I’ve always pleaded for more imagination in handling of the war, more flags and less red tape, more music and fun, hard work and high jinks…”
I’d love to hear some of this stuff, and I wonder whether, unlike Orwell, some recordings have survived. The design is austere, grim and martial, it looks strangely Soviet and alien.
Talking of the war, one of the more unusual items among all of this is a map captured by the Americans in Germany towards the end of the war. It’s runs north-west of Westminster and plots targets for the Luftwaffe. These include the RT’s print works. It’s clearly a British map, overprinted in German. One imagines that RT was considered by the enemy as an important conduit of information from government to people and also important for morale. Whatever the case, the site was marked wrongly anyway, RT continued uninterrupted.
There is something for all in this well-constructed, considered show. For me it was mostly to do with design. There are parallels with the London Transport Museum’s poster show for Tube150. Indeed RT and London Transport (in its various guises), drew from the same pool of talented artists and graphic designers down the years. Looking at pictures of John Reith I can’t help thinking of London Transport’s Frank Pick. Both were single-minded men with a vision, and on a mission, big personalities who insisted things were done their way. You don’t see their ilk in public life now. So, on a design thread, I appreciated the display showing all of RT’s mastheads down the years.
Which do you like the most? I’m not sure whether it is loyalty to “my” era, but I think it’s second from bottom on the right.
Dr Who. Most reviews I’ve seen so far have focussed on the Dr Who-ness of this show. Not me. I should mention there is a very large Dr Who display in the middle of this exhibition, featuring Dr Who covers. It includes a real life golden dalek and some original comic artwork by Frank Bellamy. What is a surprise and will delight Who fans is the original designs for the daleks. Like proper engineering drawings. I always thought they were just knocked up based on back of an envelope sketch. But look!
I realise that my choices have made this post look rather colourless, which gives a completely false impression of this delightful show which is actually very colourful indeed, so I’ll chuck in this image from 2005 for balance.
Cover Story: Radio Times at 90 runs until 3 November at the Museum of London and is free admission.