A Shot in the Arm by John Sherwood
aka Death at the BBCpublished 1982
[At Broadcasting House in 1937: the BBC is about to broadcast a dramatized documentary about Vasco da Gama]
The engineers in Central control Room buzzed through. A million or more people spread throughout Britain were waiting. He cued the Theatre Orchestra, which was in a studio two floors below. The opening music began coming through the loudspeaker beside the control panel.
Four floors below, the Narrator sat waiting in a cubicle off one of the studios to be used by the actors…
Down at the control panel the mixer, sitting beside Warren, faded down the orchestra and held it under the Narrator’s voice.
In yet another studio on a different floor, a speaking chorus of Common People was waiting to make its contribution. Warren could see none of the forces he was controlling. It was BBC doctrine that a producer who could see into the studios during a dramatic production would be unduly influenced by what he saw, and would make misjudgments. In radio the effect should be judged by ear alone.
The actors, headed by a middle-aged lady who specialised in doing children, launched into the first scene, which dealt with Vasco da Gama’s upbringing.
commentary: In a recent blogpost on John Sherwood’s The Half Hunter I said that I’d read another book by him, part of a series, and hadn’t taken to it. That made a 1-1 draw, I guess, as I had loved The Half Hunter, which is the book with the beatnik party much shared and commented on and featured online.
So now this one is definitely on the plus side: a most enjoyable crime story, featuring people working at the BBC in the late 30s making radio programmes. There is attempted murder, danger and threats in anonymous letters, and then finally a death: but was the dead person the intended victim? There are complicated alibis, and questions over motive and phonecalls. Half way through the POV changes in a most satisfying way, and we can look at the story differently. This is a very good crime story, with an excellent plot.
One of the reviews on the back cover of my copy says ‘Extremely complicated, full of surprises. Some nasty people are depicted in unloving detail, and there is a great deal of suspense as the net closes’, and that is a pretty good description.
And there is added joy in the depiction of the BBC in those days. The book is full of nostalgic and authentic details, and the character of the serious and faintly terrifying John Reith – the Director General and a man with a mission to educate, and puritannical views - hangs over the building as one most certainly gathers it did in real life. Part of the plot concerns a man who will lose his job if his wife divorces him:
‘The ban on divorces isn’t quite as rigid as it was… [John Reith] has made exceptions.’
‘Mostly for people in Variety Department or Television. They don’t matter, he expects them to behave like animals. We’re different.’Radio producers visit Buckingham Palace (it’s a secret but everyone knows) to discuss the broadcasts to be made by George VI (the subject matter of the 2010 film The King’s Speech). The staff and speakers wear evening dress for night time broadcasting
The BBC was dimly aware that people existed who ate in their shirt sleeves at half-past five. But they seldom broadcast and the question of courtesy to them did not arise.There is no news bulletin before 6pm. And at the same time, Herr Hitler is on the rise in Germany…
It’s an interesting (though of course not contemporary) look at a different era, and I liked the way Sherwood rounded off his story.
These are my all-purpose BBC pictures: having worked there myself, I can tell you that the studios looked the same for about 50 years, and it is possible that the people did too (I didn’t work there for 50 years, but I can speak for the time I was there, or visiting, and I have seen pictures from all dates…)
They come from the National Library of Wales, and I am not even going to tell you what year they were taken.