Friday 13 July 2012

The real origins of Bush House

So Bush House has shut up shop for the first time since 1941.  Sad.  But one thing you won't hear from the BBC is the true origins of the headquarters of the World Service, because it lies in a revolution against their authority at the height of the war.  Frustrated by the bureaucracy of the BBC, the director of the BBC European Service led a kind of coup that made his broadcasts semi-independent of the BBC controllers. 

Noel Newsome was one of the most extraordinary broadcasters of the century.  The BBC never forgave him, kicked him out after the war and never mention his name in the official histories of the period.  He is a reminder that, the great days of BBC broadcasting - the voice of freedom from London broadcasting to occupied Europe - was actually done outside BBC control.

In the first few weeks of 1941, Newsome forged an alliance with the diarist and junior information minister Harold Nicolson, whose concern was to keep propaganda outside the control of Hugh Dalton, the economic warfare minister.  "We'll give you Kirk," Duff Cooper said to Newsome over lunch with Nicolson and, as part of the deal they hammered out, Noel was given as 'advisor' the senior Foreign Office official Sir Ivone Kirkpatrick. It would then be just a short step before Kirk took over completely as Controller (European).

Avuncular and with a small black moustache - not completely different from Hitler's - Kirkpatrick was known to everybody as 'Kirk'. He was a diplomat's diplomat, and an expert on Germany: he had been Chamberlain's interpreter - much to Kirk' disgust - as he signed the Munich agreement in 1938. He was about to become the interrogator of Rudolf Hess, and, unlike his BBC predecessors, he was absolutely clear what he wanted. He embarked almost immediately on an enjoyable feud with Sir Stephen Tallents, who was then the BBC's rather distant Controller (Overseas), having made a name for himself as PR man first for the Empire Marketing Board and then for the Post Office. Kirk was a ruthless political operator, and by October Tallents was out.

Kirkpatrick also saw his role as allowing Newsome to do what he wanted, pioneering his own form of propaganda at the BBC, which was primarily about culture, history and getting the truth out first.  But the part of his job which lasted longest was finding Bush House, which had been built as the headquarters for the American advertising agency J. Walter Thompson, and which Kirkpatrick managed to requisition within a few days of his new role.

The European Service was then based at the former ice-skating rink in Delaware Road, Maida Vale, which had a glass roof.  So Newsome's assistant Alan Bullock (the future historian) was sent as an advance party to their new headquarters at Bush House.  It was not a moment too soon: the Delaware Road studios took a direct hit a few weeks later.

Once the European Service had arrived at Bush House, the maze of corridors and lifts were filled with nationals from every country in Europe, from all the countries which Hitler had invaded. In the labyrinthine corridors, Newsome presided over a miniature Tower of Babel gathered around the Bush House microphones, with all the bizarre disadvantages and petty irritations which that entailed - broadcasting on what was by then two networks for 24 hours a day.  Upstairs was Dalton's Political Warfare Executive (PWE).

Sitting in the vast canteen in the basement, open round the clock, you could catch a glimpse of Jan Masaryk, who would later exit from the first post-war government of Czechoslovakia through a Prague window in 1948, possibly at the hands of the communists.  Or of Dick Crossman of PWE - known as 'Double Crossman' by European Service insiders - whose cabinet diaries so shook the establishment a generation later.  Or of James Bond's creator Ian Fleming, waiting impatiently for his broadcast in German. Or Jacques Duchesne, already a French national hero for his popular European Service programme Les Francais Parlent Aux Francais.

This was then the biggest broadcasting operation in the world. And drawing up in their taxis outside were an array of Europe's crowned, soon-to-be and almost crowned heads - General de Gaulle stooping out of the his car door, hotfoot from his headquarters in Carlton Gardens. Generals Sikorski or Montgomery, ushered in with uniformed assistants. Even occasionally Winston Churchill himself, pondering his radio diatribe in awkward French.  They would arrive along the wide streets leading to the Aldwych, with its boarded up shop windows covered with imaginative murals, along the white painted kerbs for the black-outs, the missing stumps which used to be iron railings, and the posters for Wills Capstan Cigarettes.

Or from the other direction, perhaps, past the shell of St Clement Danes church, bombed six times in the Blitz - its Rector died of grief, they said - and on its blackened walls a poster shouting 'HIT BACK with WAR SAVINGS and STOP THIS'. Then on past the newly-built Gaiety Theatre and the Aldwych underground station, where ENSA were playing concerts in the evening to entertain people sheltering from the raids. Or past the Aldwych Hotel, where senior European Service staff disappeared in the evenings for a quick drink, before returning to watch the hand over to the Night Shift at 8pm.

This was Bush House, and in many ways you could say that it was the very beginning of the European Union, but that is another story.  I'm sorry it has finally been handed back.
See more in my tongue-in-cheek history of the BBC in Eminent Corporations.