When a producer for the BBC Radio 4 program “The Long View” invited me to commentate on women, political advertising and the 1929 general election, I assumed that she would want me to phone in from my local BBC station, or perhaps, if the Beeb was feeling extravagant, to record the program in a London sound studio with the host, the Guardian journalist Jonathan Freedland, and the various other expert commenters. So, I was thrown for a loop when the she told me that we would likely record at three locations, starting with the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden, where the Conservative prime minister Stanley Baldwin gave his famous speech to the party faithful kicking off the 1929 campaign. I gamely agreed, but couldn’t resist a few jokes to my husband that evening about the uses to which the BBC was putting our license fee.
Yet, when we assembled at the massive Drury Lane theatre on the appointed morning, even amidst the paraphernalia for the current production of Willy Wonka, I began to feel the power of the place. The gates of the chocolate factory notwithstanding, the theatre had changed little from when Baldwin, surrounded by members of his cabinet, took the stage to tell a carefully assembled demographically representative sample of the Tory faithful what his government had achieved over the previous four and half years and what they would do if their mandate was renewed. It was an event planned as spectacle, and, standing in theatre’s royal box, it was easy to appreciate how spectacular it must have been. From Covent Garden, we went across town to the Victoria & Albert, to look at a selection of 1929 campaign posters from the V&A’s collection. I had seen reproductions of the posters before, but standing in front of the originals, they appeared bolder and more vivid. Whether we managed to convey the atmosphere of the theatre or the visual thrill of the original posters over the medium of radio remains to be heard. But, by the time recording wrapped up that afternoon, I had come to appreciate the premium the program put on recording “on location”.
1929 was the first general election to feature multiple party election broadcasts from each of the three main political parties. The listeners couldn’t see their interlocutors, but that did not stop Stanley Baldwin broadcasting in his signature lounge suit, or the flamboyant Winston Churchill, in contrast, recording in a tuxedo, or Megan Lloyd George addressing the microphone in a fur-trimmed coat of the latest style, an archetype of the modern young “flappers” whose votes her party hoped to win. Their attire helped to create an atmosphere, and somehow, they hoped, that atmosphere would make itself felt across the airwaves.
“The Long View: The 1929 General Election and the Art of Political Persuasion” will air on Radio 4 on Tuesday 24th at 9:00am, and will be available online.