The first outside broadcast ever made by the BBC was the famous Nightingale broadcast of 19 May 1924. An improved microphone made this possible—an excellent example of which we recently acquired from the BBC. In this article, I attempt to recapture the forgotten prominence of this pioneering microphone, while deciphering the cultural meanings surrounding the Nightingale phenomenon. I will also draw upon the Nightingale broadcasts’ ‘reappearance’ within two feature films: The Demi-Paradise (1943) and Electric Dreams (1984).
An Ear for an Eye
With the advent of radio broadcasting, a mass changeover from the eye to the ear had begun. Those who had grown up in a visual, print-based culture were plunged into a new auditory world of simultaneous information created by radio.
The microphone promised to do for the ear what the microscope had done for the eye. While the telephone provided a physical extension of the human sense of hearing over a distance, the microphone promised a magnification-like function that would enable people to hear sounds they had never heard before.
Between 1920 and 1922, Peel-Connor carbon microphones were the standard in British wireless broadcasting. Little more than repurposed telephone mouthpieces, they were acceptable for the human voice but were too insensitive to yield satisfactory results in other applications. A higher quality microphone was needed to help the fledgling medium of broadcast radio appeal to a wider public.
The Marconi-Sykes Magnetophone
In 1923, an improved microphone of a more sensitive type was introduced which was to improve radio from sounding like an ordinary telephone to a medium with a stunning new auditory clarity. Although this microphone would be succeeded by a more practical design within a few years, its enhancement of radio and the types of programmes it made possible for the first time would have cultural effects that would resonate for decades.
It was known as the Marconi-Sykes magnetophone. Its extremely sensitive moving coil design was first used by the BBC in their studios at Savoy Hill in central London, which opened on 1 May 1923, about six months after the formation of the BBC.1 Based on an earlier microphone design patented by A.S. Sykes, it had been substantially improved by Captain H.J. Round, the first chief engineer of the Marconi Company.2 The magnetophone, along with an artificial echo system, were two of Round’s many contributions to the early stages of the art of broadcasting.3
It was so sensitive that it picked up sounds which were at first a mystery to the BBC engineers. Eventually the sounds were discovered to be coming from things like buzzing insects, squirrels, and rabbits nibbling at the wires.4
The body of the microphone was a magnetised cylindrical iron pot which made it extremely heavy. The sound-sensitive aluminium moving coil was extremely fragile, supported on a backing of paper which in turn was supported on cotton wool pads covered by a thin layer of Vaseline. The microphone was usually supported in a cradle or sling of sponge rubber to help isolate it from mechanical vibrations—anything more than a slight movement could be enough to dislodge the coil completely.
The microphone was often placed within a copper mesh box called a Faraday Cage, invented in 1836 by English scientist Michael Faraday. This was necessary to block out electromagnetic interference which the sensitive microphone was susceptible to. Microphone, rubber cradle, and cage would sit on a sturdy wooden splayed stand in the middle of the studio at Savoy Hill. A knife switch on one leg of the stand was used to turn the microphone on or off. The apparatus was nicknamed the ‘Meat Safe’ because of its resemblance to meat storage cupboards in use at the time.
We acquired the original and complete Savoy Hill ‘Meat Safe’ in 2012 as part of a large collection of historic radio and television broadcasting, reception equipment and props gifted to the museum by the BBC to help celebrate their 90th anniversary.
Beatrice Harrison’s Nightingale Broadcasts
Beatrice Harrison was best known for her famous Nightingale broadcasts over the BBC, even though she was also the leading cellist of her generation and a favourite of composers such as Bradford-born Frederick Delius and Edward Elgar.
She often rehearsed pieces in the garden of her family’s house, Foyle Riding, located near Oxted, Surrey. While rehearsing late at night, she discovered that nightingales nesting nearby would often sing along with her cello. In 1924, after making her debut radio broadcast, she persuaded John Reith, general manager of the BBC, to arrange a live outside broadcast which would feature the nightingale.
… I telephoned Sir John Reith at the BBC, who seemed very dubious at first. Meanwhile the song of the Nightingale was at its height at Foyle Riding and I knew that it must be now or never as from now on he would sing later and later at night and in two weeks he would be gone.5
With Reith convinced, BBC engineers P.P. Eckersley, A.G.D. West and others were called in to set up the equipment up the day before. The microphone was set up on a table about 100 yards away from the nightingale, with no requirement for the Faraday Cage, since there were no sources of electromagnetic interference in the Harrisons’ garden. The very weak electrical signal the microphone generated required a great deal of amplification equipment. When the time was right, the amplified signal would be sent through the telephone lines to be broadcast from the central BBC station in London, 2LO. Rex Palmer was to announce.
Ms. Harrison recalled:
It was something to see all the paraphernalia of the BBC in our garden. It was a great risk of course, as in those days no wild bird had ever been broadcast in its natural state.6
Even more importantly, it would represent the first ever broadcast live to radio from an outdoor location.
The first broadcast was made at midnight on 19 May 1924. It was reported that approximately a million people listened while Ms. Harrison played a duet with the nightingale. Having proved so popular with listeners-in, it was repeated the next month, and for the next twelve years the BBC broadcast her Nightingale concerts in May. In the Radio Times before the second broadcast, BBC Managing Director John Reith wrote that the Nightingale:
has swept the country… with a wave of something closely akin to emotionalism, and a glamour of romance has flashed across the prosaic round of many a life.7
Ms. Harrison recalled:
The public, I must say, went completely mad over the Nightingale. The experiment touched a chord in their love of music, nature and loveliness.8
In the years to follow, thousands of visitors flocked to Foyle Riding during nightingale season; the Harrisons entertained musicians and friends, and chartered buses to bring families from the East End, giving them tea and beer until midnight. The broadcasts gave Harrison a good deal of publicity, and nightingales were depicted on her concert posters and embroidered on her concert dresses. It was reported that she had received over 50,000 fan letters. Recordings made by HMV were released on 10” shellac phonograph discs, and proved extremely popular.
The first HMV Nightingale recording was made on 3 May 1927; it included the Northern Irish folk song ‘Londonderry Air’, also known as ‘Danny Boy’.
The Nightingales during World War II
On 9 May 1942, Wellington and Lancaster bombers on their way to Mannheim interrupted one of the BBC’s live Nightingale broadcasts. The broadcast had to be cancelled for fear that Germans listening in might be able to pinpoint the bombers’ position. Nonetheless, the whole event was recorded, and the original recording still exists today.
The Nightingale recordings interrupted by the bombers in 1942 appear to have inspired a fictionalised scene in the British wartime propaganda film The Demi-Paradise (1943) starring Laurence Olivier. About one hour and 13 minutes into the film, there is a short sequence of Ms. Harrison as herself playing her cello with the nightingales in the midst of a German bombing raid on Britain, with the BBC engineers putting it out on radio.
It was Jacques Ellul who in 1962 first argued that propaganda is not ideology.9 It is rather the hidden, but complete image of a social way of life that is embedded in the social technologies and social patterns just as it is embedded in, say, the English language.10 In The Demi-Paradise, Laurence Olivier’s Russian character, upon hearing the nightingales singing outside, recites a passage from Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale—‘Thou wast not born for death, immortal birds’—thus indicating appreciation of the British way of life.
A later film which pays tribute to the Nightingale recordings is the well-regarded British-American feature film Electric Dreams (1984). A Virgin Pictures production, it is particularly well known for its proper 1980s soundtrack. A revolutionary brick being developed by the film’s protagonist reveals a direct influence from The Demi-Paradise (which concerns a revolutionary propeller).
In this heart-warming scene we have a young woman, Madeline, played by the American actress Virginia Madsen, rehearsing with her cello. The camera drops down to show the apartment below where a personal computer is sitting on a desk chirping away to itself as if by magic with no user in sight. Madeline, rehearsing the Minuet #4 in G Major by Christian Petzold, begins to hear a mysterious tone coming from downstairs singing along and harmonising with the notes as she plays.
A camera shot through the fish tank positions Madeline as if she too is immersed in the water, beside her goldfish. This appears to indicate that Madeline, like the fish, is unaware of her environment. She hears the tone singing along with her cello, but she has no idea as to its true source. Marshall McLuhan observed that we don’t tend to perceive new technological environments because like the water in the fish tank, they are immersive. It is only when a fish is removed from its environment that it understands the effects and importance of water.
I only knew you for a while
I never saw your smile
’Til it was time to go
Time to go away (Time to go away)11
Because the new environment is invisible, we tend to perceive the old media environments that are revealed as the new environments’ content.12 This is why a film about a computer provides such revealing insights into radio.
This 1984 film benefitted from an audience unfamiliar with home computers, much like the early BBC listening public yet to build up immunity to their new radio environment. The enchanted computer (rather than a radio or television) was a useful device to make Electric Dreams more fairytale-like. Arthur C. Clarke’s oft-quoted third law of prediction (1973) is that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable [or less distinguishable] from magic. This law may have been influenced by a statement in a 1942 short story by science fiction author Leigh Brackett: ‘Witchcraft to the ignorant… Simple science to the learned’.13
The original spell cast by radio was to implode and compress space, immediately creating a feeling like claustrophobia for early radio audiences.14 The acoustic characteristics of the natural environment of the Surrey woods provided ample auditory space countering this effect.
This sense of claustrophobia pressured the BBC towards development of an artificial echo effect to be used in studio productions. In their patent for this effect, H.J. Round et al (including A.G.D. West) wrote:
It is well known that certain acoustical reflections add to the beauty of sound of musical instruments, but hitherto the provision of such acoustical reflections have been limited by practical considerations, and in practice it has been found very difficult to obtain a pleasing degree of ‘echo’ without it being excessive in small buildings.15
As the voice of the computer in Electric Dreams, actor Bud Cort had to deliver his entire performance from inside a box on the set; his co-stars were never allowed to see him during filming. The director was afraid that if the other performers associated a person to the voice, they would react to it as if they were talking to a human being instead of a computer and the difference in reaction would show on camera.16
The computer’s name is Edgar, which appears to be an abbreviation of Edward Elgar. Its role as Cyrano composer is reinforced by the presence in the soundtrack of the overture from The Thieving Magpie (1817), an opera by Gioachino Rossini. It was reported that the opera’s promoter had to lock Rossini in a room the day before the first performance to write the overture.
Rossini was famous for his writing speed, which relates to the fact that data can be processed very rapidly by Edgar.
McLuhan observed in 1967:
As we move into a world of integral, computerised knowledge, mere classification becomes secondary and inadequate to the speeds with which data can now be processed.17
It was with radio that the move began out of the world of data classification established by print towards integral information and pattern recognition—such as the interplay between nightingale and cello or as visually indicated by the changing geometric patterns on Edgar’s screen. With the advent of radio broadcasting, the environment itself became a teaching machine made of electric information.
Echo and Narcissus
While ably recreating the delight of the Nightingale experience for a mid-1980s audience, this scene from Electric Dreams is also a retelling of the classic myth of Echo and Narcissus. The computer plays the role of Echo trying to capture Narcissus’ (Madeline’s) attention with fragments of her own ‘speech’, speech represented by the notes from her cello; all musical instruments being extensions of the human voice.
As in the myth, unrequited love is a central theme, illustrated by Madeline’s longing stare into the heating grate after their duet. ‘Do you hear me down there… That was just beautiful’, calls Madeline. There is no reply.
The metallic square heating grate representing the interface between Madeline and the magical electrical world beyond recalls the Faraday Cage, its open/close lever reminiscent of the knife switch used to turn the Marconi-Sykes microphone on and off. The grate leads to a ventilation shaft, a dark echo chamber adjoining the two apartments. While sound is allowed to pass through this system with the grate open; vision and touch are excluded, evocative of the intimate auditory environment and implosion of space created by radio.
Like the Nightingale broadcasts, the scene from Electric Dreams recreates an environment reminiscent of the pre-broadcast era of radio—point-to-point ship-to-shore communication. In the 1920s and 1930s radio communication was commonly done by telegraph key using Morse code. These signals could be readily received on consumer sets. The communication between musician and distant Nightingale becomes a metaphor, a new ‘take’ on the conversation between distant Morse key operators, as does the scene in the film. Madeline, the artist, is ‘at sea’ as indicated by the presence of the fish tank, while the computer is on shore. Morse key operators competed to see who could send and receive the most words per minute, and many had a ‘style’ which could be recognised by other experienced operators.
Giorgio Moroder, who wrote the original score for the film, arranged and played the duet between Madeline and the computer. (Moroder also makes a cameo appearance as a radio producer.) Interestingly, he decided to name this piece ‘The Duel’, rather than ‘The Duet’. Given the scene is a flirtatious contest of musical skill being fought between Madeline and the computer, ‘The Duet’ could appear to make more sense as a title. While both duets and duels can be regarded as contests, a duel is a struggle which usually continues until one party is wounded or killed. The title seems another reference to the Narcissus myth which usually ends with the violent suicide or death of Narcissus. Echo is rejected by Narcissus and wastes away until she ‘is heard by all’.
The earliest example of a literary form known as debate poetry (or verse contest) is a 12th–13th century Middle English poem entitled The Owl and the Nightingale. On 14 May 1933, a special Nightingale concert was performed by Beatrice Harrison and broadcast by the BBC to draw attention to the plight of the nightingales, whose numbers were decreasing. The conclusion of the evening was aptly described in an article in The Times:
It was the screech of an owl that silenced the Nightingale’s song.18
A New Environment
In this later scene from Electric Dreams, the computer, now damaged, tries once more to sing its song, again with Madeline in the Narcissus role and the computer in the role of Echo.
The computer’s song has become much weaker. Madeline, having gained access to the apartment below, presses the alphabet keys on the keyboard to help him sing in tune. Patterns on his monitor screen form, like the pool in which Narcissus sees his reflection. The computer’s song suddenly becomes clearer and more beautiful to her than ever before, extending her sense of hearing with a stunning new clarity. Madeline’s tear falls onto one of the microchips on his circuit board.
She withdraws from the apartment after experiencing her narcotic trance, seeking equilibrium, unable to come to terms with this electrical extension of her own image.
While it would appear that the exact opposite behaviour occurred with the one million BBC listeners, and many thousands of enamoured listeners-in who wrote letters to Beatrice Harrison and visited Foyle Riding during nightingale season, their reactions had the same purpose. Pleasure and comfort are also strategies of re-establishing sensory equilibrium when confronted by a new technological extension of ourselves, such as a radio or computer.19
But inevitably we must surrender to these media in order to use them. Such new immersive social technologies, by altering sense-ratios and social patterns, ultimately reinvent the image of a society’s way of life.
Sometimes it’s hard to recognise
Love comes as a surprise
And it’s too late
It’s just too late to stay
Too late to stay20
1 H. Brian and J. Hennessy, The Emergence of Broadcasting in Britain (Devon: Southerleigh, 2005), p186
2 H.J. Round, ‘The Marconi-Sykes Magnetophone: A Description of the Equipment with Details of the Amplifiers’, The Wireless World and Radio Review (November 26, 1924)
3 P. Baker and B. Hance (rev.), ‘Round, Henry Joseph (1881-1966)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004, online edn., September 2010)
4 P. Cleveland-Peck (ed.), The Cello and the Nightingales: The Autobiography of Beatrice Harrison (John Murray Publishers Ltd., 1985), p132
5 Ibid., p131
6 Ibid., p131
7 Radio Times (~21 May 1924)
8 P. Cleveland-Peck (ed.), The Cello and the Nightingales: The Autobiography of Beatrice Harrison (John Murray Publishers Ltd., 1985), p133
9 J. Ellul, Propaganda: The Formation of Men’s Attitudes (Vintage, 1965)
10 M. McLuhan, ‘The Invisible Environment: The Future of an Erosion’, Perspecta, 11 (1967), p164
11 G. Moroder and P. Oakey, ‘Together in Electric Dreams’, Electric Dreams soundtrack (1984)
12 M. McLuhan, ‘The Invisible Environment: The Future of an Erosion’, Perspecta 11 (1967), p163
13 L. Brackett, ‘The Sorcerer of Rhiannon’, Astounding (February 1942), p39
14 M. McLuhan, Understanding Media (New York: Signet, 1964), p262
15 H.J. Round et al, ‘Transmission and Reproduction of Sound’, U.S. Patent 11853,286, Issued Apr. 12, 1932 (United States Patent Office, British Patent application filed May 13, 1926)
16 Electric Dreams page on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) website (accessed 28 November 2012)
17 M. McLuhan, ‘The Invisible Environment: The Future of an Erosion’, Perspecta 11 (1967), p164
18 ‘A Nightingale Festival: Echoes Through the Surrey Woods, Listeners from Far and Near’, The Times (15 May 1933)
19 M. McLuhan, Understanding Media (New York: Signet, 1964), p53
20 G. Moroder and P. Oakey, ‘Together in Electric Dreams’, Electric Dreams soundtrack (1984)