Marconi radio broadcast that 'changed the world' to be recreated

By Nic Rigby
BBC News

Published
Dame Nellie Melba taking part in the historic broadcastImage source, Tim Wander
Image caption,
Australian soprano Dame Nellie Melba gave her name to the dessert Peach Melba, made for her at the Savoy (colourization by CRHnews)

An opera singer is to recreate the first-ever live worldwide radio broadcast by a professional performer, exactly 100 years on.

World-famous soprano Dame Nellie Melba made her historic broadcast from a disused packing shed on Marconi's site in Chelmsford, Essex, on 15 June 1920.

Acclaimed singer Anna Steiger is to recreate Dame Nellie's performance in the city.

"It's hard to imagine. It must have been incredible," she said.

Historian Tim Wander said Dame Nellie's broadcast was "the moment the world changed".

Key figures involved helped set up the BBC two years later.

Image source, T.R. Wander and GEC-Marconi
Image caption,
One of the Marconi engineers involved in the historic broadcast was Peter Eckersley, the BBC's first chief engineer

Radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi came to Chelmsford in 1898, at first developing machines to send messages via Morse code for ship and transatlantic communication.

After World War One, Marconi's engineers started looking at broadcasting voices and entertainment.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Italian electrical engineer and nobel laureate Guglielmo Marconi brought the wireless apparatus with him when he came to England at the end of the 19th Century
Image caption,
Arthur Burrows, Marconi Company's head of publicity, later became the BBC's first director of programmes and first on-air news bulletin reader

Mr Wander, author of From Marconi to Melba, said Daily Mail newspaper baron Viscount Northcliffe decided to sponsor the first-ever live professional performance.

"When Dame Nellie was first asked, she did not want to do it. She said 'My voice is not a subject for experimentation'," he said.

"But then Northcliffe offered her £1,000 [about £45,000 today] - not bad for 20 minutes of singing - then she agreed."

When Arthur Burrows, Marconi's head of publicity, showed Dame Nellie, then 59, the 450ft (137m) radio masts, she is reputed to have said: "Young man, if you think I am going to climb up there, you are greatly mistaken."

Marconi celebrations

Image source, Chelmsford City Council
Image caption,
The radio play The Power Behind the Microphone: The First Radio Broadcast Centenary, includes a recreation of the historic 1920 broadcast
  • BBC Essex is broadcasting a Marconi Special on Monday from 18:00 to 22:00 BST, including a live link-up with Chelmsford Civic Theatre where Anna Steiger will recreate the historic performance at 19:10 BST
  • Alan Pamphilon has produced a virtual walking tour from Marconi's first factory in Hall Street to his second premises at New Street

Mr Wander said: "She was heard all over the world, in Sweden and France and Germany. and even the Royal Flying Corps in Iran heard her clearly.

"You can't imagine the impact it had. In Paris the signal was so good that in the Champs-Elysses they broadcast it and people were dancing in the streets.

"When Dame Nellie realised her voice had been heard by thousands and thousands of people, she said: 'But they haven't bought a ticket or bought a record.' All the people were listening for free."

Image source, Tim Wander
Image caption,
The 15,000-watt experimental tube transmitted Dame Nellie's voice from Marconi's headquarters in Chelmsford (colourization by CRHnews)

Alan Pamphilon, who has led history walks around Chelmsford, said young people using mobile phones today did not realise they stemmed from Marconi's work in Chelmsford.

"The city is where the electronic age started," he said.

Mr Wander and Felicity Fair Thompson have co-written a play about the broadcast, originally intended to be staged at Chelmsford Civic Theatre as part of the Essex 2020 festival.

But due to the Covid-19 lockdown, it has been turned into a radio play, to be live-streamed with a performance by Steiger.

Image source, Anna Steiger
Image caption,
Mezzo-soprano Anna Steiger has worked with the English National Opera and Dutch National Opera and appeared at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, London

She said: "At that time opera singers were like rock stars are now. Dame Nellie could not be more famous, with foods such as Peach Melba named after her.

"She comes across as a little divaesque but I was thinking of playing her a little bit more charming."

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