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The BBC and the Spirit of Ariel


Prospero and his spiritual servant Ariel from Shakespeare’s The Tempest appear prominently on the BBC’s Broadcasting House building. ‘Ariel’ was the name of the BBC’s in-house magazine, which ran for decades until 2011. Ariel serves the magician Prospero, who rescued him from a tree in which he was imprisoned by a witch, Sycorax. Prospero controls Ariel with gentle reminders that he saved Ariel from Sycorax's spell, promising to grant Ariel his freedom. Ariel is the tool of Prospero throughout the play, eavesdropping on other scenes, using his magical abilities to cause the storm in Act One which gives the play its name, and foiling other characters' plots.

It is tempting to see the whole thing as an allegory: Prospero is ‘the Establishment’ or at least that arm of it known as the British Broadcasting Corporaton, and Ariel is the medium of the airwaves, radio and television, through which the organisation monitors public opinion and broadcasts material to control and manipulate the populus according to its designs. Conspiracy theories aside, there may be some truth in the image.

The British Broadcasting Company was founded in 1922 by a group of six electronics companies that were building radio sets and were eager to make radio programmes to provide content for them. By 1927, a Royal Charter was granted, and the Company had become a Corporation destined to grow into the world's largest public-service broadcaster. The potential had clearly been seen by someone: a centralised body capable of reaching into every home in the country and transmitting a series of messages in various formats would have had an appeal for any government.

Radio ‘infiltrated’ the country, boosted by its vital connecting role during the war. By 1062, there were three national networks: the Home Service, the Light Programme, and the Third Programme. After a break because of the war, television transmissions resumed in 1946. The BBC dominated the airwaves until 1955, when the commercial channel ITV opened in Britain, transmitting an altogether lighter and less ‘stuffy’ range of material which captured the attention of a growing television audience. Until the appointment of a new Director-General, Hugh Carleton Greene, in 1960, the BBC was considered by many to be stagnating and certainly representative of the stir-rigid class system in the country. By that time, TV sets were a feature in nearly 80% of UK homes and were rivalling radio in terms of popularity. Post-war Britain was cheering up and the 1960s promised a ‘loosening’ of the old class system that had received a possibly fatal blow during the war.

Was the BBC’s Ariel being freed from its stuffy Establishment obedience? Was ITV a kind of ‘Caliban’?

What happened next would seem to suggest it.

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