Scotland

Book charts 50 years of BBC Scotland

Family listening to radio
Image caption BBC Scotland has been in operation since 1923

A book chronicling the first 50 years of the BBC in Scotland is to be published next week.

The BBC in Scotland: The First Fifty Years is written by David Pat Walker, a former acting controller and assistant controller of BBC Scotland.

The book charts the story of the corporation from the first broadcast of station 5SC in Glasgow in 1923 to its golden anniversary.

It also charts the debates over the years about the quantity and quality of the BBC Scotland's programmes for Scottish audiences and output for the rest of the UK.

The BBC was dominated in its early years by a Scot - John Reith, later Lord Reith. First as general manager of the British Broadcasting Company and then director general of the British Broadcasting Corporation.

However Reith's BBC was always, to use the modern term, London-centric. The local broadcasting of the 1920s - with stations in the four main Scottish cities - was soon replaced by national and regional broadcasting as we know it today.

German aircraft

In practical terms, Scotland's role then was always to provide a layer of Scottish programming within the overall mix. Ultimate control - as with the other BBC "regions" of the time- always lay with London.

Indeed, during World War II Scottish broadcasting ceased completely.

BBC Scotland was only able to contribute items to UK-wide services because of fears that different signals from different transmitters would act as a navigation aid to German aircraft.

Image caption Author David Pat Walker was former acting controller of BBC Scotland

Some with an interest in contemporary broadcasting may find certain issues explored in the book familiar.

In the 1940s, the Saltire Society argued that BBC Scotland should compile radio news bulletins combining Scottish, UK and international stories.

A debate echoed in recent years by those who would like to see a so-called "Scottish Six" instead of the network television news from London followed by Reporting Scotland.

Arguments about Gaelic broadcasting and both the quantity and quality of Scottish output also feature.

Commercial rival

The coming of television in the 1950s also brought new challenges for BBC Scotland.

In the first few years of television, only a limited amount of television was produced in Scotland and very little was made specifically for Scottish audiences.

Image caption very little TV was produced in Scotland in the early days

Audiences sometimes regarded the Scottish output as inferior to the material being produced south of the border.

The arrival of STV in 1957 - the first time BBC Scotland had faced legal competition - changed that.

BBC Scotland introduced television news bulletins just as its commercial rival was preparing to go on the air. Opt-out programming started to increase in volume.

By the late 1960s, BBC Scotland's programmes were winning acceptance north and south of the border. But the arrival of colour television in the late 60s threatened that.

For some time, much of BBC Scotland's output remained in black and white while London was producing programmes in colour.

Constant debates

This made it harder to get programmes on the network and threatened to alienate those viewers in Scotland who had invested in the expense of a colour set.

Image caption In recent years there have been calls for a "Scottish Six" TV news programme

The triumphant adaptation of Lewis Grassic Gibbon's Sunset Song in 1971, however, showed that BBC Scotland was more than capable of mounting stunning colour productions for the network - but some programmes made for transmission within Scotland were to remain monochrome for a while yet.

Again, those who complain that BBC Scotland is currently unable to broadcast its own services in HD (a situation set to change in the near future) may find the arguments familiar.

The book ends in 1973, just as the BBC in Scotland celebrated its 50th anniversary.

From a historian's point of view, it is usually necessary to set a cut-off point - a point where it becomes possible to study the past objectively, without a concern over how certain events would turn out.

The years which followed saw the rise, fall and rise again of Scottish nationalism, the creation of Radio Scotland in its modern form and constant debates over the quality and quantity of BBC Scotland's service to Scottish audiences and contribution to the UK TV networks.

That too will make a fascinating book when the time is right to judge the past with due detachment.

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