Following the centenary of the Women’s World Games which I wrote about last time, we celebrate another this coming week. The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) was founded on 18th October 1922. The BBC, affectionately known as “Auntie Beeb”, is perhaps the world’s most famous broadcaster, though it was by no means the first (and despite what you read on certain websites, “Auntie Beeb” is not, and never has been, used derogatively, at least not by people whose opinions matter).
The BBC was founded by royal charter, meaning it is an independent organisation overseen by the British government on behalf of the Crown. Since it’s very beginning the BBC has had many lgbt broadcasters, producers, creative artists and governors.
The BBC has produced a special website to promote their centenary. They have created a page dedicated to their lgbt broadcasting history. You can see it here, though I suspect the website will be taken down after the celebrations have ended. If this is the case I will reproduce the lgbt history page in a future article.
It would be impossible to write about the history of the BBC without mentioning Sir John Reith, Baron Reith (1889-1971), successively its first manager, first managing director, and first director general. Even today his name and reputation are known to many.
Rumours and speculation about Reith’s sexuality have been going around for decades. There is a lot of disagreement on the subject, but I think the definitive answer comes from his daughter who acknowledged her father’s bisexuality in 2006. This has been accepted by most people and is included in the BBC 100 website referred to above.
The evidence suggests that Reith had a gay relationship before his career with the BBC. His affections were directed towards Charlie Bowser (b.1894). They met in May 1929. Their close friendship didn’t please Reith’s father, a Scottish Presbyterian minister, and Reith’s brother was particularly vocal in his opposition to it. Two years later, however, the Bowser family moved to London and Reith decided to follow them.
Over the next few months and years John Reith and Charlie Bowser spent much time together, living in the same apartment, and going on holidays together. They shared a bed, but that meant nothing in those days (modern sex-obsessed society is conditioned into not understanding any innocence in it, and touching someone on the shoulder can lead to accusations of sexual abuse – talking from experience). In this case, however, we can assume it was significant in their relationship.
Reith was commissioned into the 5th Scottish Rifles, Territorial Battalion, in 1911, and following the outbreak of World War I, was transferred to the Royal Engineers. When he was posted to France Charlie Bowser was there to see him off. Throughout the war Reith carried a photo of Charlie in his wallet. In 1915 Reith was hit in the face by a rifle bullet. The scar was visible for the rest of his life.
Reith’s broadcasting career and the establishment of the BBC is well covered elsewhere on the internet. His bisexuality, however, was largely ignored or denied until more recent decades. The definitive word on the subject should go to his daughter, Marista, who confirmed Reith’s bisexuality in 2006.
On Reith’s appointment as the first manager of the BBC there was no television broadcasting. It was solely radio. Fellow Scotsman John Logie Baird developed the first broadcastable television system. An experimental broadcast produced jointly by the BBC and Baird’s company, a play, was broadcast in 1930, but the fist full BBC television broadcast was made on 22nd August 1932. It consisted of a brief message of Logie Baird himself, followed by a variety programme featuring dancers, songs from popular singers of the time, a ju-jitsu demonstration, and Sammy the performing sea-lion.
The producer of this programme was an ex-army officer called Eustace Robb (1897-1983). He had joined the BBC in its gramophone department before being appointed producer of that first light entertainment television programme 90 years ago this year.
It was around this time that Robb’s wife decided to divorce him on account of his many affairs with young men, which he never his from her.
By 1934 Robb had become the BBC’s first Director of Television Programming, responsible for deciding what programmes should be made and broadcast. He left the BBC in 1935 after the company switched television production to its new Alexandra Palace studios and changed from Baird’s system to the higher-definition Marconi-EMI system which it continued to use until 1985.
Eustace Robb was redeployed during World War II, working with the British Expeditionary Force and in the War Office.
On retirement from the army Robb became a landowner, inheriting and living at Great Tew House in Oxfordshire from the 1950s. This was once owned by his great-great-grandfather Matthew Boulton, the industrial pioneer. Boulton appeared on the UK’s £50 note with his business partner, the more famous steam engine pioneer James Watt. They was replaced in 2020 by the gay code-breaker and computer pioneer Alan Turing. Ironically, part of Eustace Robb’s duties at the War Office included receiving and distributing decoded messages from Turing and the other code-breakers at Bletchley Park.
Robb lived at Great Tew for the rest of his life. Great Tew entered the headlines in 2018 when the newly married Duke and Duchess of Sussex rented a converted barn on the estate for two years.
From its very beginning the BBC has been influenced by members of the lgbt community.