Nellie's First Drivetime Show
Updated: Jun 15
A hundred years ago, Australian soprano Dame Nellie Melba made a pioneering broadcast from Chelmsford. In those early days of radio, it was said to be the first ever broadcast by a celebrity. She was the most famous opera singer in the World.
On 15 June 1920 at ten past seven in the evening, Nellie prepared to sing her heart out at Guglielmo Marconi's New Street factory. Let’s remember that back then, evenings were about to become peak time for radio, so this was the equivalent of the ten-past-eight key breakfast show link today. A true appointment to listen.
The prima donna belted out a 'long silvery trill', Home Sweet Home and a few other songs off the A list, with the broadcast closing with the National Anthem. Nel was a big star, as reflected in her fees, and had to be well-looked after with first class travel and a gleaming white Rolls Royce picking up her up from Chelmsford railway station. Other riders included her meal of 'partially cooked chicken'. Thankfully, a sponsor paid the bill – the Daily Mail, on this occasion, whose proprietor had more than a passing interest into the burgeoning medium.
Radio itself had been around for a few years, but its content would be unlikely to reap a Sony award, with speech broadcasts generally amounting to reading out bits from newspapers, much like many 80s ILR jocks. If the paper boy didn't turn up, they'd read out from a railway timetable. Some degree of ad-hoc news coverage and amateur performance did develop, but listeners were hungry for more, and wrote letters to the press criticising the paltry offerings. Thank goodness there was no Twitter. Even then, listeners felt a sense of entitlement of what was broadcast on their radio - and made no secret of the fact.
With the sort of deft creativity for which broadcast engineers are known to this day, Nellie’s microphone was fashioned from a cigar box, housing the sort of Marconi C.100 microphone found back then in telephone handsets. With the aerial masts looming 450 feet high, it is reported the star was prompted to gaze up at the shivering antennae and say: ‘If you think I am going to climb up there you are very much mistaken’. Her performance came from the Marconi workshop, which I hope was tidier than most engineering workshops at stations I've been part of. One imagines the first ever version of the 'keep the place tidy and wash your mugs' memo was duly circulated.
Nellie's voice was heard by radio enthusiasts across the country – and around the World too, given there was little competition for either audiences - or space on the spectrum. Enthusiastic reports of the reception of the 15kW long wave transmissions came in from Iran, New York and Newfoundland. In one town, the broadcast was relayed down the phone to local newspaper offices, maybe becoming the first example of an online radio station. The UK's Postmaster General was less keen, however, being firmly of the view that radio content should be altogether more serious.
Nellie told the Daily Mail that the broadcast was: 'The most wonderful experience of my career', or they may have been the words drafted by the chap with the clipboard in the Marconi press office. The title reported the occasion as the day when: 'Art and science joined hands'. As for the claim to fame? First scheduled programme? First live broadcast by a professional? First ever broadcast by a celebrity? Definition of the feat must have been akin to drafting a Rajar press release.
As ever, the past echoes. The tension between entertainment and information in public service broadcasting. The value of importing a high-profile personality in stunts or specials. The preciousness and cost of talent. The draw of music radio - and familiar songs. The advantage of sponsorship. The link up between press and radio. And, how those valiant local efforts in Chelmsford and Writtle soon gave way to broadcasts from London - where networked programming was swiftly established.
The significance of the broadcast cannot be overstated. Its success helped Marconi and other engineering companies recognise the value of the medium, build their programme and channel offerings - and then become shareholders in the British Broadcasting Company two years later.
Most importantly, of course, Peach Melba was created by a Savoy chef in Nellie’s honour. And it tastes good.
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