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ISR Public Event: 7th May 2021

Critical Studies in Television Workshop:
100 Years of Women at the BBC

Friday 7th May 2021, 1pm BST


Mary Malcolm

Watch the event here: Youtube ISR Playlist

In 2022, one hundred years will have passed since the formation of the British Broadcasting Company, later to become the pioneering public service broadcaster best known as the BBC.

The BBC has had an enormous impact on television culture in its first one hundred years, providing a blueprint for independent publicly funded broadcasting. The BBC has been a testing ground for new developments in broadcasting technology and infrastructure. It has provided space for programme makers to innovate new forms, as well as to display national traditions – and invent some of its own. It has offered important public space to playwrights, scientists, politicians, musicians, historians, performers and many more thinkers to enlighten, to amuse, to infuriate. Its formative mantra of ‘inform, educate, entertain’ has undergone many modifications over time but these aims remain core to its contemporary ethos. Its goal of providing impartial and balanced news, current affairs and analysis has been tested numerous times in divisive political climates. It was born of a patriarchal, colonialist and elitist view of cultural uplift. How has it changed over its long life?

This workshop will explore one specific aspect of the BBC’s history: its relationship with women.

Characterised from early in its life as ‘Auntie’, the BBC itself has been gendered female in the cultural consciousness. But this belies an historically male-dominated institution in which women have often had to fight for their rights to be heard. Recent controversies around equal pay, misogynistic abuse towards BBC personalities and a lack of female representation at the top of the corporation suggest that the institution has far to go in matters of gender equality.

The workshop will present fresh and innovative work-in-progress research on women at the BBC. Our presentations will explore the careers of some pioneering female workers at the BBC. The workshop aims to shed fresh light on influential figures such as Grace Wyndham Goldie and Jill Craigie; to draw attention to careers that are often overlooked – such as gramophone operators or production designers; to re-examine forgotten on-screen personalities; and to consider women’s contributions to prestigious BBC strands such as Play for Today.  We will also think about the tools we use to explore women’s television history, with a panel that focuses on the pros and cons of using interviews as a research method for historical studies.

This event takes place Online (a secure link will be distributed following registration).

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Date: Friday 7th May 2021
Venue: Online (a secure link will be distributed following registration).

Programme: (schedule subject to change)

Time Session
1.00pm Entry to online conference waiting room (zoom is launched so audience can start gathering)
1.15pm Welcome
Professor Jo Crotty, ISR Director, Edge Hill University
1.30pm Panel 1: Women and the BBC working papers
Chair: Vicky Ball
Respondent: Janet McCabe
This session will comprise 10 – 15 minute working papers plus room for discussion.
– Kevin Geddes
– Mary Irwin
– Hollie Price
– Emma Sandon
– Kate Murphy
3.45pm Break (15mins)
4.00pm Panel 2: Doing women’s TV history via interviews
Chair: Vanessa Jackson
Respondent: Elke Weissmann
This session will comprise 10 minute papers plus a panel discussion on the interview as a methodology for women’s media history.
– Tom May
– Jane Barnwell
– Kristyn Gorton + Mark Helsby
5.30pm Summary of the day
Hannah Andrews
5.45pm Close



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Kevin Geddes

Kevin is a PhD Researcher investigating the history and development of television cooking programmes and their early pioneers in Britain, 1936-1976. Specialist in the life and career of Fanny Cradock, with a trio of published papers on her career, contribution and legacy as a television cooking celebrity. Presented at the Third International Conference on Food, Culture and History, Tours, 2017; Communicating Food: An Interdisciplinary Symposium at the University of Chester 2018; at the Dublin Symposium on Gastronomy 2018 and again in 2020; and at the Cookbooks: Past, Present and Future Conference at the University of Portsmouth 2019. Forthcoming chapter in Food and Cooking on Early European Television (Tominc, A. 2021)

Paper title:

‘Common Sense Slimming’ – How the contribution of Joan Robins, televisions ‘afternoon cook’, was reduced by the male-dominated culture of the BBC in the 1950s.


Cooking on television after WWII was mainly for ‘the housewife’ although women themselves were often relegated to ‘assistant’ in programmes fronted by men, such as Philip Harben. Joan Robins was known as the ‘afternoon cook’ (ODNB 2020) and appeared alongside Marguerite Patten on BBC broadcasts of the late 1940s and 1950s. Robins specialised in ‘common-sense’ cookery and programmes on slimming, including a controversial programme with advice disputed by the British Medical Association. However, research has often focused on others, despite Robins’ background with the Ministry of Food and on television, which led to an offer of a senior role in the production of Women’s Programmes. Robins turned this down, and left the BBC completely, claiming it was ‘no place for women.’ Robins was eventually honoured with a OBE for ‘furthering the cause of women in industry’ for her work after the BBC. This paper will look at the forgotten BBC career of Robins, uncovering her contribution as a pioneer of television cooking, before ultimately turning her back on it. Examining primary archival resources including the BBC Written Archives, newspaper and magazine articles, transcripts of television programmes she presented, Robins’ own books and also promotional resources available, this paper will argue that despite portraying television programmes as ‘for women’ in the 1940s and 1950s the BBC itself was not a place for women to flourish. I will conclude that the contribution Robins could have made at the BBC would have been significant, if the culture had been more supportive of women.

Emma Sandon

Emma is a senior lecturer in film and television at Birkbeck, and steering group member of WFTHN. She has published on women in BBC television: ‘Engineering difference: women’s accounts of working as technical assistants in the BBC Television Service between 1946 and 1955’ and the History of the BBC website.

Paper Title

A Backroom Person at the BBC Television Service


This paper will present the working life of one of the ‘backroom persons’ in the BBC Television Service at Alexandra Palace in the 1940s and 1950s. Elizabeth MacGregor was a Gramophone Operator (grams operator), in the sound department in television providing music and sound effects to programmes. She specialised in grams operating in the position of Technical Assistant (TA), a role in the engineering division at the BBC that women were recruited to during and after the Second World War. The role of TA initially involved assisting live broadcasting on the studio floor in camera and sound, managing the central switchboard and the telecine machine. With the gender segregation of jobs that emerged at the BBC after the war, women in TA posts were allocated to either vision mixing or grams operation. Elizabeth MacGregor opted for gramophone operating. She worked in both Outside Broadcasts and in the studio at Alexandra Palace then Lime Grove. Grams operation is a key skill in the broadcasting industry but as a production job it has had little recognition in television production histories. This paper will appraise Elizabeth’s contribution to early BBC television history from her own perspective in an interview. It will discuss her account of the importance of the role of Grams operation and will assess how the role of gramophone operator became gendered and undervalued as a skill.

Hollie Price

Hollie is a Research Fellow on the AHRC-funded Jill Craigie: Film Pioneer project and is based in Film and Media at the University of Sussex. She is an associate producer on Independent Miss Craigie (Lizzie Thynne, 2020), a new biographical documentary exploring Craigie’s life and career, and Hollie’s monograph Picturing home: Domestic life and modernity in 1940s British film was published by Manchester University Press earlier this year.

Paper Title

Jill Craigie: Filmmaker, Writer and Television Personality


In 1949, Jill Craigie wrote to Cecil McGivern, the BBC’s television programme director, stating that she was ‘bursting with ideas for television’. In histories of British cinema, Craigie is best known for directing socially committed documentaries examining contemporary issues of postwar reconstruction (The Way We Live, 1946) and equal pay (To Be a Woman, 1951), and Blue Scar (1949), her only feature film, depicts the process of nationalisation in a South Wales mining village. In the 1940s, she was promoted as ‘Britain’s first woman filmmaker’ and her battles to make and distribute her films received widespread press attention. Drawing on records held at the BBC Written Archives Centre, this paper explores the development of Craigie’s career at the BBC: in the early years of the newly re-established television service, she appeared on a number of women’s afternoon television programmes and, behind the scenes, worked on a ‘dramatised documentary’ about the suffragette movement planned to raise awareness of the struggle for the vote for contemporary women’s rights. Using the BBC’s archival materials to expand on her cross-media career, I therefore highlight Craigie’s enthusiasm for adapting to work in television in this period and, vice versa, the BBC’s interest in her public image as a modern career woman, in her feminist views and knowledge of the suffrage movement, and, by the early 1950s, in her potential as a television personality.

Kate Murphy

Dr Kate Murphy is a Visiting Fellow at Bournemouth University.  Her career spans both broadcasting and academia. She worked at the BBC for twenty-four years, primarily as a producer on Radio 4’s ‘Woman’s Hour‘. She completed her PhD at Goldsmiths in 2011, on the subject of early women in the BBC which subsequently became the book ‘Behind the Wireless: An Early History of Women at the BBC’, published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2016.  She joined Bournemouth University in 2012, to head the BA Radio degree and then developed and headed the BA History degree.  Her research interests continue to focus on women in broadcasting history, particularly in the interwar years.

Paper Title

Before the War: Women in the Early Television Service


Women played an important role in the early BBC, and this was extended to their work in the early television service. This paper takes an overview of their roles at Alexandra Palace such as Mary Adams, who became the first female television producer in January 1937, overseeing the ‘talks’ output; Mary Allan, who arrived in February 1937 to take responsibility for make-up and wardrobe; Joan Gilbert who moved from radio Variety to work as a production assistant on Picture Page; Una Marson, the first black producer at the BBC who began her career in 1938, also on Picture Page and the first two female announcers, Jasmine Blight and Elizabeth Cowell.

Mary Irwin

Dr Mary Irwin is a researcher within the Division of Media, Communication and Performing Arts at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh. She is currently working on the monograph Love Wars: Television Romantic Comedy, Bloomsbury (2021) and with Dr Jill Marshall (Queen Margaret University) the edited collection This Country: UK Comedy Cultures, Palgrave Macmillan (2022)

Paper title

Grace Wyndham Goldie and the Creation of ‘Current Affairs’ Television


This paper explores the significance of the work and professional legacy of the forceful, highly influential assistant head of BBC Television Talks and Features, Grace Wyndham Goldie. Goldie joined the BBC in 1944 as a radio producer, in 1948 was made a producer in Television Talks and Features, and in 1954 appointed the department’s assistant head. Goldie’s major contribution to the Television Talks and Features Department, and BBC television more generally, was the development of what would come to be known as ‘current affairs’ television. The development of current affairs television was built on the complex processes of innovation and negotiation which took place at the BBC in the late 1940s and mid-1950s. Decisions were made within the Talks and Features Department about how best to cover politics on television. As assistant head of Talks and Features, Wyndham Goldie was central to these processes. She was also in a strong position to develop her own particular vision of what current affairs television should be. She was passionately committed to the creation of a new self-styled ‘neutral’ current affairs television, built upon the veracity of the live ‘unmediated’ image and best achieved, she believed, with the use of outside broadcast cameras. This same passion was not however evident in her attitude to the production of documentary television and she disdained the carefully crafted process of documentary filmmaking which for her was redolent of “the mystique of the cinema and with the sociological hangover of the Grierson documentary tradition”. (It is interesting to note here ‘sociological’ being used as a possible euphemism for ‘socialist’.) She was hostile to employing techniques which might lead to a ‘politicisation’ of supposedly objective representations of events. Wyndham Goldie made it very clear that there was no possibility that the BBC’s new world of current affairs would have any connection with polemicising documentary of the past.

Tom May

Tom is a Post-Graduate Researcher at Northumbria University, in his third year of study of a funded PhD research project constructing a history and analysis of Play for Today (BBC1, 1970-84) with attention to its aesthetics and style, representation and reception. After being raised and schooled in Sunderland, he studied an English degree at Trinity Hall, Cambridge (2001-04), followed by an MA in Film Studies at Northumbria (2004-05); followed by 12 years teaching a range of A Level and other FE courses in Newcastle Sixth Form College. He blogs at May’s Britain and Opening Negotiations and has written for The Conversation and had articles published online about David Edgar’s Plays for Today Baby Love (1974) and Destiny (1978) and Colin Welland’s Kisses at Fifty (1973).

Paper title

Interviewing women about their experiences of working on Play for Today (BBC1, 1970-84)


I will discuss my plans for an edited, 5000-word selection of discussions from interviews conducted over 2020 and 2021 for the ‘Women and the BBC’ journal special edition. I have interviewed a range of women writers and actors who worked on the BBC’s prestigious strand of one-off dramas Play for Today (1970-84), including writer Alma Cullen, producer Margaret Matheson and Tara Prem and actors Anne Reid, Linda Beckett and Jemima Laing. The discussion will include women’s reflections of their practical experiences of what it was like to work on drama productions at the BBC in the 1970s and 1980s. The importance of work spaces and rehearsals will be considered, alongside whether their experiences matched what Madeleine K. Macmurraugh-Kavanagh (in Bignell & Lacey eds. 2014: 191-203) has discerned as PFT’s predecessor strand the Wednesday Play’s ‘androcentric’ creative ethos.
Aspects which will also feature will be women’s distinctive experiences of education and their subsequent experiences of social class throughout life, including working for the BBC. This edited interview assemblage will be contextualised with regard to data of the numbers of women employed as workers on Play for Today. There will also be attention paid to the findings of Dr Melanie Bell and Dr Vicky Ball’s ‘History of Women in the British Film and Television Industries’ project, with especial reference to BECTU interview transcripts of Moira Armstrong, Joan Kemp-Welch, Paula Milne and Tara Prem, three of whom worked on PFT. My workshop discussion will discuss and seek advice on ethical issues of selectivity and the process of editing these qualitative stories of women’s working lives at the BBC.

Jane Barnwell

Jane is Reader in Moving Image at the University of Westminster. Graduating from Leeds University and The Northern Film School she began her career at the BBC, before working as a freelance production designer. Her artist films have received commissions from – The Unicorn Theatre, The Women’s Library, The Place, Battersea Arts Centre, Chisenhale Gallery, TAP and the Truman Brewery.Jane has published articles for journals and periodicals including, The Guardian, The Scenographer, International Journal of Production & Costume Design, Journal of British Cinema and Television, The Conversation, Widescreen and The Production Designers Collective. She has sole authored books including – Production Design for Screen; Visual Storytelling in Film and TV (2017, Bloomsbury), Production Design: Architects of the screen, (2004, Columbia University Press) and The Fundamentals of Film Making (2008, AVA publishing). Jane is currently working on a monograph exploring the significance of the design of the home on screen, which is due for publication with Palgrave Macmillan in 2021.

Paper title

Invisible Design: interviewing Moira Tait, former BBC production designer.


I didn’t ever want a signature – I want to be at the service of the script and the character – I’ve got a great belief in invisible design. (Production designer, Moira Tait, 2017)

Moira pursued a career in production design at the BBC during the 1960s and 70s. Her designs credits over this period include -The Marriage Lines (1965-64), A Tale of Two Cities (1965), Doomwatch (1970), The Onedin Line (1971), Z Cars (1972), Colditz (1973), Play for Today (1976) and Happy Ever After (1977). Moira has subsequently been engaged in educating future production designers at the National Film and Television School. She was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the British Film Designers’ Guild in 2016.

The interview explores working practices at the BBC, Moira’s design approach and how these both informed and shaped the fictional spaces created on screen during that time. Through Moira’s insights a unique picture of British television drama during the 1960s and 70s is revealed providing a fresh perspective on familiar series that became part of our visual landscape. The interview shines a light on valuable aspects of the history of the BBC in terms of the context of production and how this impacted on the visual language of television drama. Televisual space constructed according to a BBC sensibility, budget and schedule.

Kristyn Gorton

Kristyn is Professor of Film and Television in the Department of Theatre, Film, Television and Interactive Media. She has published widely on feminist theory, television, film and emotion. Her latest book is Remembering British Television: Audience, Archive and Industry (BFI/Bloomsbury, 2019). She is currently working on a book-length project about Sally Wainwright for MUP.

Mark Helsby

Mark worked in the Entertainment department of BBC Studios for 25 years, latterly as Series Producer of the Mastermind titles, before leaving the Corporation in 2019. He is now a PhD candidate in the Department of Theatre, Film, Television and Interactive Media, researching how knowledge and memory are valued, captured and transferred in the television industry.

Paper title

‘“It was Bauhaus without realising we were Bauhaus:” BBC Women and Youth Programming in the North’


Our talk focuses its attention on a particular moment in the BBC’s history when Janet Street-Porter ran the Youth Programmes department from New Broadcasting House in Manchester. Drawing on six interviews with women who worked in the BBC during that time or just after, Helen Bullough (Head of BBC Children’s In House Productions), Liz Warner (Founder of betty Productions), Rebecca Papworth (Founder of Can Can Productions), Bridget Boseley (Head of Factual Programmes, Spun Gold), Liz Molyneux (Former Commissioning Editor, Factual and Specialist Factual) and Deborah Creaven (Production Executive, BBC Sport), this talk will reflect on why this moment proved such a fertile training ground for women in television. Drawing on Helsby’s experience working in the BBC and Gorton’s research on women in the British television industry, we will also discuss the interviewing process and the significance it plays in academic research.

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Date: Friday 7th May 2021, 1pm BST
Venue: Online (a secure link will be distributed following registration).

Registration:  this event is FREE but please click here to book your place.

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