New every morning since 1928

by
02 January 2008

From a fireside chat to something ‘professional and faithful’, the Daily Service on BBC Radio has been on the air for 80 years. David Self finds out why it has survived

Faithful: St Paul’s, Bedford, one of the wartime homes for the Daily Service

Faithful: St Paul’s, Bedford, one of the wartime homes for the Daily Service

AN UTTERLY unscientific straw poll of three priests produced a variety of answers. “What’s that?” “Afraid I’ve never heard it.” “Is it still on?” To some listeners, it is an infuriating interruption to Test Match Special (with which it sometimes shares a frequency), but for the many thousands who constitute its daily congregation, it is a source of real spiritual comfort.

This week, BBC Radio 4’s Daily Service has been celebrating its birthday and the fact that, after 80 years of continuous broadcasting, it is the longest-running programme of its kind anywhere in the world — all thanks to a Watford spinster (she would have accepted the term) who embarked on a tenacious crusade against the BBC’s craggy director-general, Sir John Reith.

  Soon after its foundation in 1922, the BBC began relaying weekly church services — despite the best endeavours of various deans, set against such “vulgarity”. Then, in 1926, Miss Kathleen Cordeux began her campaign, originally for a daily “evensong of the air”.

  After corresponding with almost every senior official, she was told that the BBC were unable to gauge the demand for such a broadcast. She organised a petition, and gained 5000 signatures. Her letters were published in the Radio Times and, while an evening service never seemed a possibility, Sir John Reith eventually agreed that a “short religious service” should begin each day’s broadcasting at 10.15 a.m.

  On the first weekday of 1928, an anonymous curate from St Martin-in-the-Fields (the Revd Hugh Johnston) introduced a hymn, a psalm, and prayers. Seated behind him were the BBC Wireless Singers. There was also, literally, a fireside chat — the Savoy Hill studio had an open log fire. Miss Cordeux’s “dear little morning service” had begun.

  Eighty years on, the format is still recognisable. Since 1993 (when the religion department of the BBC was moved, with little warning, to Manchester) the service has been broadcast from Emmanuel Church in the suburb of Didsbury, where a permanent control room occupies a vestry.

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  The executive producer, Phillip Billson, draws up the “day sheets” for each broadcast some three months in advance — detailing the themes and readings and (planned in conjunction with an adviser) the music. The day before transmission, the presenter emails his or her script to the producer, and details are refined.

  The next morning, a small group of the “Daily Service Singers” (drawn from some 30 professional musicians) gather in church for a rehearsal. The whole team listens to the 9 a.m. news in case events need to be reflected in the prayers. There is a full rehearsal, and then everyone disappears for coffee. Even at 17 minutes to ten, the church may be empty. Presenter, reader, singers, producer, and technicians are in their places in time, however, for the 9.45 a.m. start. The service is transmitted, live, on Radio 4’s long-wave frequency and (in stereo) on digital.

  One of the presenters, Andrew Graystone, who is also director of the Churches Media Council, is acutely aware of his audience: “Every day a listener has been bereaved, lost a job, had a baby, has been celebrating or mourning — and I may be the only person who prays with them that day.”

  He also recalls the day when a couple slipped into the church just before transmission. He spoke to them after the service and they explained that they lived in Saudi Arabia, where Christians cannot meet for worship. They regularly listened on line. “It would be worth doing it just for them.”

  The programme’s evolution into a semi-topical, church-based service, led by a named lay or ordained person, has been gradual. When the BBC moved into its purpose-built Broadcasting House in 1932, a special studio, 3E, was installed in which the presenter faced a lit alcove designed as “an infinite space”. Lord Reith, by now a supporter of the Daily Service, insisted that the studio be consecrated. The Church objected on the grounds that “the profane” (a light entertainment studio) lay beneath it.

  Lord Reith won — but the studio was nevertheless put out of use in the 1940 blitz. The service was subsequently broadcast from Bristol, and then Bedford (once from under a studio table), but found its eventual home in All Souls’, Langham Place — next door to Broadcasting House.

  Lord Reith won — but the studio was nevertheless put out of use in the 1940 blitz. The service was subsequently broadcast from Bristol, and then Bedford (once from under a studio table), but found its eventual home in All Souls’, Langham Place — next door to Broadcasting House.

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  By the early ’60s, it had a regular audience of a quarter of a million. More than 300,000 listeners had bought copies of its special service book New Every Morning (the 100,000th copy had been presented by Reith to Miss Cordeux in 1937). A companion BBC hymn book had sold 90,000 copies. The then head of Religious Broadcasting, Canon Roy McKay, stressed “the genuine pastoral work” done by the programme.

  Although it had always been intended to be ecumenical — and committed to the use of female ministers such as the much-loved Congregationalist, the Revd Elsie Chamberlain — it was only in the time of Canon McKay’s successor, the Revd John Lang (later Dean of Lichfield), that Roman Catholic priests were given permission to lead the worship.

  In other ways Mr Lang resisted change, stressing that the Daily Service was “the only genuine liturgy for broadcasting ever devised”. Indeed, when Canon David Winter joined the department, he found it “a labour-free programme”. “You simply walked across to All Souls’, found the right page in New Every Morning, and read.”

  That worked well, except when a trainee producer on secondment from a local radio station was unable to find the Wisdom of Solomon in his Bible at short notice — and so read the same numbered chapter from the Song of Solomon that happened, in the modern translation provided, to sound remarkably erotic.

  It was in Canon Winter’s time that New Every Morning was dropped, and one broadcast a week became the studio-based topical Act of Worship (now transmitted on Fridays) which uses recorded music and sounds more like a “made-for-radio” programme.

  It was in Canon Winter’s time that New Every Morning was dropped, and one broadcast a week became the studio-based topical Act of Worship (now transmitted on Fridays) which uses recorded music and sounds more like a “made-for-radio” programme.

  Nevertheless, the current Head of Religion and Ethics, Michael Wakelin, emphasises the dual role of the Daily Service: “It needs to work as an act of worship for listeners, but must also be good radio which is enjoyable for the mainstream audience.”

  The greatest setback for the programme has been its confinement to the long wave frequency since the 1990s so that Radio 4 FM can carry a serial reading at this time. Canon Winter believes this “decimated” the audience. Even so, Mr Billson believes the BBC has confirmed its support by broadcasting it on digital radio, and Mr Wakelin argues that “this oasis of calm and reflection is more necessary now than when it was started.” A former producer, Andrew Barr, believes it is both “professional and faithful”, and will survive because it meets a need.

  It may yet make its centenary.

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