21 Blythswood Square was the home of the BBC's Glasgow studios from 7 November 1924 to 14 May 1938. It provided four studios in comparison with the single studio at Rex House in Bath Street.
Before the introduction of simultaneous broadcasting by line, almost all the most famous artists in Britain travelled to Blythswood Square to give their broadcasts. The building also played home to a number of memorable broadcast achievements and milestones:
- The details of the Regional scheme were settled so far as they affected Scotland; Scotland being the first of the BBC regions to put the scheme into effect.
- The first experiment in school broadcasting was carried out (though London was the first to begin a regular service).
There were a number of memories associated with Blythswood Square:
- Singers climbing the steps to intimate that they would not mind broadcasting.
- The lady who came repeatedly to ask the BBC to stop broadcasting as it was affecting her ear-trumpet.
- The families who brought to the commissionaire their complete wireless equipment — aerial, set, batteries and loudspeaker — "Jist tae see if the wireless folk could pit it richt".
- The losers of cockatoos and cats who wanted an SOS.
- The gentleman who offered £500 for a five-minute talk about his carpets.
Transfer of HQ to Edinburgh
With the advent of the BBC's Regional Scheme and its consequent centralisation of programme making, each region was required to think about its accommodation requirements. Glasgow had, since 1923, been considered the de facto Scottish headquarters, but Regional Director [David Cleghorn Thomson] had always felt the capital city to be the more natural home. With the lease on the Edinburgh studio due to expire in May 1930, Thomson seized the opportunity to affect a move and, on 16 October 1929, the Board of Governors approved the transfer of the Scottish headquarters from Blythswood Square to a building in Edinburgh's New Town at 5 Queen Street. Scottish Broadcasting House, Edinburgh would be the new administrative hub of Scottish broadcasting and where the majority of staff would be housed.
The news was met with considerable disappointment in Glasgow and the BBC was quick to try and assuage civic sensibilities, pointing out that the changes were "purely an internal arrangement" and only affected executive and administrative staff. While Scottish broadcasting would be administered from Edinburgh, the BBC was adamant that "this does not mean that Glasgow will lose importance as a broadcasting centre". The press statement went on: "A small staff will administer programmes in Glasgow and watch over the BBC's interests in the West of Scotland. It is at present anticipated that the Glasgow studio will house just as many programmes after the change over as it does at present." Neither Edinburgh or Glasgow, it was stated, would receive preferential treatment in programme-making: "the question of which studio is to house the programmes is only considered in relation to convenience and accessibility".
As a result of the transfer a number of rooms were vacated at Blythswood Square and the main entrance relocated to the side of the building at 268 West George Street. Nonetheless, it was reported that the building would be "reconstructed and fitted out with the very latest equipment" in preparedness for the building and opening of the new Scottish Regional twin-wave transmitter. This included more up-to-date equipment, specially the installation of a 'dramatic control panel' as used for dramatic productions in London and Manchester. This was essentially a mixing desk which allowed the producer to 'fade over' from one studio to another, or superimpose the sounds from several studios upon each other. With actors, sound effects and an orchestra each in separate studios, for example, much more sophisticated productions were possible.
A scheme of modernisation at Blythswood Square had been under consideration for some considerable time, but work was deferred until after the opening of the new Broadcasting House in London in March 1932 to see what knowledge could be gained. By the end of February 1933, however, the Glasgow studios had been acoustically treated and decorated in the modern style, and new equipment installed. Also, a new studio was created for dramatic work, bringing the total number of studios to three.
The studio set aside for talks, gramophone record effects and the creation of ordinary hand effects, had its walls lined with a fibrous composition and its roof domed and treated in the same way to kill the echo. The fibrous material was treated in water colour because the use of ordinary paint would create a 'skin' and defeat the purposes of trying to eliminate the echo.
The 'dramatic studio', meanwhile, had what might be described as 'wooden walls' to ensure perfect sound production. Essentially, strips of wood were attached to the brickwork, which was then covered with wire netting of a small mesh and wool packed in as tightly as possible.
In terms of equipment, the Glasgow studios were exactly similar to those in the new London headquarters, although necessarily on a smaller scale.
In November 1933, following his appointment as Scottish Regional Director, Melville Dinwiddie argued that, in order to re-establish the BBC's prestige in Glasgow, it was essential that the whole of 21 Blythswood Square be occupied by the Corporation. The existing rooms were already becoming limited for space and more were required for the Adult Education Department, which was moving back from Edinburgh.
New control room equipment was installed in 1934 — the control room was reputed to be the most compact in the BBC at that stage —only to be ripped out again for the move to Queen Margaret College.
1935: First transfer of staff back to Glasgow
In November 1935, a number of areas of programming activity moved back to Glasgow. Most notably, the entire staff dealing with radio drama was transferred from Edinburgh to Blythswood Square until the new Glasgow premises at Queen Margaret College were ready. From this date most radio plays were acted in the Glasgow studio with an ingenious hook-up system devised to allow contributions from the Edinburgh studios as necessary. Cues could be flashed as easily to actors in Edinburgh as to those at Blythswood Square.
Also moving their offices back to Glasgow were Mr. Keith-Murray, who ran Scottish OBs, and Dr Low, the Education Officer. Meetings of the Educational Advisory Committee also appeared to have been held here. By this time the number of Glasgow staff had leapt to 30 and the building was overcrowded.
It was not long before more space was required and the BBC had to acquire additional premises at 190 West Regent Street. As well as offices, this building was the home of the BBC Club's first dedicated Club room in Scotland, which opened around early 1937.
Move to Queen Margaret College
The BBC considered various locations close to the existing premises at Blythswood Square. They ranged from the Locarno Dance Hall in Sauchiehall Street to the Lanarkshire Bus Company premises in Pitt Street. The location that appealed most was a block of buildings bounded by West George Street and Blythswood Square, virtually the other side of the road from the existing offices. However, within a few weeks of a memo from the Scottish Director, Melville Dinwiddie, indicating his preference, the BBC's solicitors in Glasgow wrote to say that "Glasgow University have discontinued classes in Queen Margaret College and I understand they are seriously contemplating selling the property".
Queen Margaret College, which was situated in the west end of the city in spacious tree-shadowed grounds, offered three times as much studio accommodation as at Blythswood Square.
The last broadcast from Blythswood Square was a farewell programme on the night of Saturday 14 May 1938. The move began the day before when valuable apparatus and documents were removed from Blythswood Square to Hamilton Drive. To allow staff time to settle in their new premises, there were no programmes from Glasgow on the Sunday. Programmes from Queen Margaret College began on Monday 16 May 1938.
On the night of Saturday 14 May 1938, a special valedictory programme was broadcast to mark the final day of broadcasting from Blythswood Square. Farewell, Blythswood Square was devised by George Blake and blended reminiscence, old programme excerpts, personalities and illustrations of technical development over the years. The 15 members of staff, present and former, who took part included figures who had been there from the start of 5SC, such as Mungo Dewar (who had since moved to London), Alec Swinton Paterson (now in Aberdeen) and Kathleen Garscadden, along with others who had joined later, such as Sergeant Gordon the Commissionaire, programme director Andrew Stewart, public relations officer George Burnett and Gordon Gildard.
All the effects used in the programme were done in the manner in which they would have been in years gone by — that is, not by gramophone records, but self-generated. For instance, one of trains heard on the programme was made by running a roller skate along inside a tin bath. Another train was made by releasing 'juice' from a cylinder of oxygen. Coconut shells were much in evidence, for they represented horses' hooves, and a paddle-steamer was done by rolling a hexagonal piece of iron along a piece of wood which had been muffled in cloth.
The Glasgow Herald carried a full review of the programme:
The cheerful clatter of the departing company down the stairs, the chorus of 'Good-nights', the slam of the street door and the final phone call, resounding from bare and echoing walls, was not only effective in itself but also a clever demonstration of the evocative power of modern broadcasting. There was just enough recapturing of the old 5SC days to show how amateurish they were (or, alternatively, how un-exacting were listeners), and to imply that we ought to be grateful for contemporary studio marvels.
- 'Farewell, Blythswood Square!', Glasgow Herald, 14 May 1938, 10.
- Ariel, June 1937, 33.
- 'Broadcast centre in Edinburgh', Daily Record, 22 February 1930.
- 'Scottish BBC changes: Glasgow studio's future', Glasgow Herald, 22 February 1930, 6.
- 'Broadcasting in Scotland: progress and development', Glasgow Herald, 11 June 1936, 10.
- 'BBC's new home in Glasgow', Daily News (Manchester Edition), 23 January 1930.
- BBC Year Book 1934, 335.
- 'Glasgow BBC studios: most modern in British Isles', Glasgow Herald, 23 February 1933, 6.
- 'Broadcasting in Scotland in 1934', Scottish Regional Director's report to Director General, BBC WAC R13/369/2.
- Ariel, April 1937, 24.
- Wireless World, 13 December 1935.
- 'Glasgow - Radio drama HQ', Scottish Daily Express, 20 November 1935.
- Wireless World, 13 December 1935, 616.
- 'Farewell, Blythswood Square!', Glasgow Herald, 14 May 1938, 10.
- Ariel, April 1937, 63.
- Walker, 110.
- 'Farewell BBC studio', Daily Herald, 14 May 1938.
- 'Farewell, Blythswood Square', Radio Times, Issue 762, 6 May 1938, 82. (BBC Genome)
- 'They were more picturesque in the old days', Sunday Mail, 15 May 1938.
- 'A Scottish farewell', Glasgow Herald, 16 May 1938.