Fu Manchu versus the BBC
There was sad news over the weekend. Mark Steyn is no longer published in the British Isles. Lionel Shriver of the Guardian reports:
Let me rue the passing of Mark Steyn's syndication in Britain, for his column has now been dropped by both the Sunday Telegraph and the Spectator. I don't know the inside story, so I can't be certain that the jettisoning of this notoriously conservative Canadian constitutes political self-censorship.
Whatever the real reasons might be, his departure recalls one of the strangest struggles of modern times between a state monopoly and those who would circumvent it. Once upon a time, listeners in a European country gathered around their receivers to tune into radio programs beamed in from across the border. No, the country was not Nazi occupied France. The country was Britain and the "pirate" radio programs were call signed from locations like Brussels. Before the Second World War, the BBC had the sole right to operate radio stations within the UK. The term "pirate" radio referred to broadcasters seen to be stealing
audience from the state monopoly broadcaster, the BBC. ... The English language evening broadcasts from Radio Luxembourg were intentionally beamed toward the British Isles by Luxembourg licensed transmitters, while the intended audience in the United Kingdom originally listened to their radio sets by permission of a Wireless License issued by the British General Post Office (GPO). However, under terms of that Wireless License, it was an offense under the Wireless Telegraphy Act to listen to unauthorized broadcasts such as those transmitted by Radio Luxembourg. Therefore as far as the British authorities were concerned, Radio Luxembourg was a "pirate radio station" and British listeners to the station were breaking the law.
Nevertheless, listen the British audiences did.
By 1938 on Sundays upwards of 80% of the British audience turned their dials away from the BBC to these IBC stations which followed an American format of commercial broadcasting. They were eventually silenced by the advent of the German military taking control of their transmitters in France, Luxembourg and other countries during World War II.
The head pirate was none other than the improbably named Captain Leonard F. Plugge.
a British Member of Parliament who created the International Broadcasting Company as a commercial rival to the British Broadcasting Corporation by using the leased transmitters of stations such as Radio Luxembourg and Radio Normandie in the 1930s. He so enthusiastically endorsed products on his station that he contributed a word to the English language: to "plug" a product.
The Radio Eric site has facsimiles of the full-featured radio schedules provided by the BBC's competitors. The most bizarre part of the "pirate" radio saga was that the transmitters eventually moved to ships or on old military forts after the war, where they broadcast from international waters into the UK. Radio Eric lists the locations of these offshore transmitters as they existed in 1965. This Wikipedia article describes the battle battle between the high-seas pirates and BBC.
WWII silenced all but one of the original IBC stations and Radio Luxembourg continued its nightly tranmsissions to Britain as a commercial radio station featuring American-style entertainment and religion. Beginning in 1964 the first in what became a fleet of 10 offshore pirate radio stations began to ring the British coastline. By 1967 millions were tuning into these commercial operations and the BBC was rapidly losing its radio listening audience.
The British Government reacted by imposing a draconian censorship law which all but wiped out all of the stations by midnight on August 14, 1967. One of the stations called Wonderful Radio London ("Big L") was so successful that the BBC was told to copy it as best they could. The creator of BBC Radio One told the press that his family had been fans of that station. The BBC hired many out-of-work broadcasting staff who had come from the former offshore stations ...
The Radio Eric site describes the final victorious push by the BBC against the pirates:
the new Postmaster General Edward Short immediately pushed through legislation making it illegal for British citizens and companies to work for, supply, or advertise on an offshore radio station. While the bill was going through parliament, the Post Office summonsed all the fort based stations for broadcasting without a licence. The authorities now decided to use the powers gained in 1964 putting the forts within territorial waters. After long court battles all the stations were forced to close. Two forts remained in international waters, and one of these became the place of violent battles, as two stations vied for control. The other was blown up by the British Army in 1967.
The new anti pirate legislation became law on August 15th 1967, and all the stations except Radio Caroline closed down, knowing they could not survive financailly. On the Isle of Man, the Manx government tried to avoid the new law being imposed by Westminster, and a bitter battle ensued. They were forced to ratify the law which came into effect on the Isle of Man two weeks after the mainland.
One of the programs produced in Luxembourg was Sax Rohmer's In the Shadow of Fu Manchu. "In 1936, Radio Luxembourg decided to feature a series of mystery adventures built around a single character. This series would originally be written and supervised by Sax Rohmer himself."
The chimes of old Big Ben, London’s historic clock, ring out. A sharp rap on a door is heard. The door creaks and warns of a stealthy entrance. A girl gasps and piercingly screams. A shot is fired. The Yellow Peril Incarnate laughs terrifyingly and sends shivers through millions of listeners from coast to coast. Dr. Fu Manchu, Mastermind of Crime, is on the air!
Eventually however, the BBC won against Fu Manchu as well.
According to Gordon Payton (a.k.a. “The Sci-Fi Guy”), In 1945, Sax Rohmer wrote a series of eight radio plays for the BBC. Fu Manchu was a bit too politically incorrect for the BBC, in light of England’s large Asian population, and they liked to avoid criticism from any quarter, so Sax created for them a character named Sumuru, who, in effect, was a female Fu Manchu. Described as “a glamorous witch of totally untraceable nationality, heading an international crime organization which employed strange and bizarre devices.” This aired from December 30, 1945 to February 17, 1946. No copies survive, but Rohmer later wrote a series of five books based on his BBC plays.
And that's the way it happened.
In the end, however, maybe Fu Manchu won. The demand for pirate radio stations was eventually killed off by liberalizing entry into the radio station business in the UK. With many more channels to choose from the attraction of pirate radio eventually waned. The BBC triumphed only at the cost of watering down their monopoly.