The BBC: A Century on Air by David Hendy

At first glance, David Hendy’s new book on the BBC looks unwelcoming at nearly 600 pages long. The title, too, is a bit underwhelming.

Furthermore, the advance edition has a back page which highlights a list of BBC successes, beginning with Downton Abbey—not a BBC show at all, but one that first aired on a rival commercial channel, ITV. Americans will remember, from decades ago, the major hit Upstairs, Downstairs. That was also assumed to be a BBC show because of its palpable Britishness. It, too, was produced by ITV!

Not so fast, though.

The author knows what he is doing, and has quietly and elegantly written a book which is nothing short of a nonfiction thriller. Hendy takes a controversial subject and with riveting anecdotes offers a forensic cross-examination of BBC executives and their political adversaries. There are enough showdowns in this account to satisfy any Gunsmoke aficionado, with firings and resignations taking the place of gunfights.

Presenters and cast members of the satirical BBC TV series That Was the Week That Was record a sketch, 1963. David Frost kneels at front.

As Hendy explains, the BBC was invented as an opportunity to shape “a new industry, a new institution, a new way of life, a new art form, even.” It was sponsored by the government, but it promised independence powered by dedication and hope. Early feminists were actually present at its creation, one of whom quoted Vita Sackville-West on the tendency of men to regard themselves as the plant and women as the soil. She didn’t last long.

From the outset, Hendy writes, the BBC had to steer “an especially difficult path: between government and people, between conservatives and progressives, capitalists and workers,” and it had to “satisfy everyone.” This high-wire act was the inevitable source of tension that came to be the BBC’s constant dilemma as enemies multiplied.

The BBC cemented its early reputation with its command of radio during World War II and its aftermath, as it delivered radio broadcasting in some 40 languages throughout the world, a kind of cultural imperialism which was unrivaled. But enemies were gathering, outside and inside.

The Suez Canal crisis of 1956 followed the British, French, and Israeli decision to send troops to recover the canal after its nationalization by Egypt. President Eisenhower reacted angrily and pressured the three allies to reverse course. Political careers in England and France were wrecked.

From the outset, the BBC had to steer “an especially difficult path: between government and people, between conservatives and progressives, capitalists and workers,” and it had to “satisfy everyone.”

The BBC had remained neutral throughout. This enraged both former U.K. prime minister Winston Churchill and then prime minister Anthony Eden. Churchill had never forgiven the broadcaster for interviewing coal miners during the General Strike of 1926. Now he continued to insist that the BBC was unpatriotic.

It was not just news-programming judgments that got the BBC in trouble. In 1963 the network aired a brilliant satire program called That Was the Week That Was, or as it was often referred to, TW3. On a Saturday night it introduced England to a bright 23-year-old named David Frost as host of a show that breezily pilloried politicians and even made gentle fun of the royal family. It was an overnight sensation, leaving audiences clamoring for more.

BBC war correspondent Frank Gillard at work, 1944.

But a little over a year later, after just 37 episodes, the government pressured the head of the BBC into canceling the program to avoid embarrassment over the 1964 general election. TW3 was arguably the forerunner of NBC’s hit American satire show Saturday Night Live, which began in 1975. That one is still on the air, 47 seasons later.

The Falklands War precipitated another clash between the government and the BBC. It concerned a different time (1982) and a different prime minister (Margaret Thatcher), but the arguments with the BBC were the same. Thatcher said the broadcaster “had a responsibility to stand up for our Task Force, our boys, for our people,” not raising irrelevant journalistic concerns.

Many British newspapers joined the politicians in skewering the BBC, following their own competitive agendas. The prime minister’s husband referred to the BBC as the “British Bastard Corporation,” and Thatcher herself went so far as to stack the BBC board with members hostile to the network.

Margaret Thatcher appears on Jimmy Young’s BBC Radio 2 show, 1975.

Hendy also reminds us in timely fashion that, as the Soviet Union began to collapse in the 1980s, Gorbachev himself admitted that he came to rely on the BBC for accurate information. Contrast that with Putin today, who has no interest in accurate information at all.

Even as the BBC has continued to produce innovative programming such as Top Gear, East Enders, and Strictly Come Dancing, it has also tried hard to test the potential of the digital world, with the creation of BBC iPlayer. In March 2012, it was voted by YouGov’s Brand Index as one of the U.K.’s Top 10 brands. But once again, regulators prevented the network from developing iPlayer to its full potential for seven years. Its share of the U.K. audience for on-demand video declined from 40 to 15 percent in that time, allowing brands such as Netflix to swoop in.

Hendy’s sensitive and compelling portrayal of the BBC as a unique institution navigating a formidable obstacle course will leave readers wondering how it will survive against competitors with unlimited financial resources. Its budget cuts are relentless, and its staff are under stress from the pressure to do more with less.

And yet with a backdrop of commercial media companies where self-interest so often trumps public interest, the BBC remains an idealistic institution with a staff proud of its history and traditions.

The Welsh poet and playwright Dylan Thomas at a BBC recording studio, 1948.

Hendy is carefully objective in his analysis but empathetic in his tone. If the BBC is to thrive more than just survive, and therefore remain an important soft-power global British asset, it will need the support of statesmen, not politicians!

The author has the last word: A retired nurse during the opening months of the Second World War found her radio set broken for three full weeks. She “declared herself lost as though a friend has gone from the house.” The message, Hendy writes, “climbing through the gates of history to those of us marking the BBC’s centenary is one full of regret over lost opportunities and at the same time a powerful call to arms: a simple reminder that we sometimes never know just how much we need or want something until it is gone.”

Sir Howard Stringer is the former president of CBS and the former C.E.O. of Sony Corporation