When Percy Edgar first considered taking a job in radio, his friends told him broadcasting was clearly nothing more than a passing craze like rollerskating.
It has now been 100 years since he created the first BBC radio broadcast outside London, from a tiny one-microphone studio in Birmingham draped in black cloth, listened to by about 2,000 people.
“Everyone said he shouldn’t touch it with a bargepole. As he put it, it was ‘completely chancy’,” said playwright David Edgar, who only discovered the full details of his grandfather’s career when he uncovered his memoir during lockdown.
“But a whole number of things that went on to become staples of broadcasting he invented in this little tiny studio.”
From that first show on 15 November 1922, Percy Edgar became a broadcasting pioneer, going on to found the Midlands branch of the fledgling BBC and introducing segments like Children’s Hour and Midland Parliament, one of the earliest political debate shows.
David said the recent announcement of cuts to BBC local radio stations would have “alarmed” his grandfather: although he had embraced new technology, he was a firm advocate of the need for representation outside London.
“My grandfather was very committed to specific regional broadcasters,” said David. “So it’s not difficult to imagine his reaction to the reduction in local BBC output.”
After failing to be convinced to move to the capital, Percy once complained: “The ever growing policy of centralisation in London has clearly gone a good deal further and more rapidly than public opinion here is prepared to accept.”
By 1935, 40% of Midlands broadcasting output was made within the region, the highest proportion of homegrown content for any region in the country.
“His story shows just how important local broadcasting was in the early years of the BBC, and how many broadcasting inventions occurred outside London, and perhaps wouldn’t have occurred so quickly without those regional broadcasters,” said David.
David’s grandfather, originally a concert organiser, only fell into radio by chance when an agent from the Western Electric Company, then part of the British Broadcasting Company, arrived in Birmingham looking for someone to provide entertainment for a radio station the company planned to set up in a warehouse in the city.
Percy, who was born in Stafford in 1884, worked at the music shop closest to New Street Station so was the first to be approached. “I was invited to leave [my job] for the chanciest kind of future,” he wrote.
His broadcast on 15 November, which came 24 hours after London’s first broadcast, contained music from four singers, two musicians and two elocutionists performing recitations, making it Britain’s first ever live radio music performance.
A recording of the show, in which Percy also read out the results of that day’s general election, has never been found, and the BBC believes it may never have been recorded.
Percy was also involved in broadcasting a speech by the then Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII, who came to Birmingham in 1931 to visit what was then the largest radio studio in the world, on Broad Street, to launch a Buy British Campaign.
His family only learned these small details of his early career when they discovered a 80-page typescript titled “I Remember”, a memoir of his life published as a series in the Birmingham Post in 1948.
“I knew the bare bones of his story but the details I knew shamefully little about,” said David, who was 24 when his grandfather died in 1973. “It was a stunning discovery. It was reading his memoir which helped me to understand just how pioneering he was.
“As a family we’ve been discussing and following this ever since, so we’ll be celebrating his achievements on the anniversary.”
For David, who achieved great success with an adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby in the 1980s and whose production of A Christmas Carol is currently running at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, the most startling discovery was finding out how much Dickens influenced his grandfather’s life, too.
“For the first 15 years of his leadership of the BBC Midlands region, he would read a Dickens classic, in the sonorous voice I still remember, every Christmas Eve,” he said. “It was, of course, A Christmas Carol.”