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Roaring Twenties? Europe in the interwar period
Roaring Twenties? Europe in the interwar period

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Activity 8

Compare Beryl Heitland’s letter to the Musical Times in 1933 (quoted at the end of the previous section) with the extract below, from an autobiography written by two sisters describing their childhood in a working-class district of Lincoln. What are the major differences in the experience of listening to the radio which each source describes?

It is not easy now to remember what life was like before radio and television and, certainly, the coming of the wireless made a great deal of difference to us. It was not just the listening that mattered it was also the talking about it afterwards.


Mother looked down her nose at those ‘who had it on all day’ and we were encouraged to choose our programmes and none was allowed to be switched on while homework was in progress. Mother always listened to the Morning Service and we all kept quiet during Children’s Hour and the News. We sometimes listened to plays and nearly always to Variety programmes of the Music Hall kind.


We listened of course to all the outside broadcasts of the great events and Mother loved listening to Howard Marshall’s cricket commentaries; a taste she never lost. We were never much interested in racing apart from the commentaries on the Grand National and the Derby but we did listen to Wimbledon in the heady days of Fred Perry and Bunny Austin and Dorothy Round. And sometimes we listened to football and rugby on the radio. These last were best done with a Radio Times picture of the pitch divided into numbered squares to help the listeners to know just where the action was taking place. Over the hubbub of the cheers and shouting and the excited account of the commentator would come a calm and clinical voice saying ‘Square One’ or ‘Square Four’ and you knew just where you were!

(Skinner and Purchase, 1989, pp. 169–71)

Specimen answer

The first major difference that I could spot was the family- and home-centred experience of listening in the autobiography, compared with the (unwanted) communal experience in Heitland’s letter. For Heitland the radio was background music, but for the Skinners radio programmes captured the household’s full attention, and were events to be talked about or even sometimes part of a multi-media experience involving the Radio Times. Heitland was implying that the dance music was put on solely to appeal to working-class people (‘the proletariat’): the Skinner family enjoyed the ‘improving’ elements of radio output as well as the ‘Music Hall’. Mrs Skinner did seem to share some of Heitland’s snobbery though – feeling superior to ‘those who had it on all day’.


It’s easy to find evidence of class-based prejudices like Heitland’s about the social impact of ‘working-class’ culture – but we mustn’t forget that within social classes, people like Mrs Skinner also had opinions about what was the proper way to live. Notions of respectability and appropriateness could cut across class boundaries, and they were often linked to opinions about which forms of popular culture were the most acceptable.

Let’s tease these issues out a little more to gain a full appreciation of the experience of the radio during the interwar years. Patterns and practices of listening varied between and within social classes and they varied over time. Broadcasts at the start of the 1920s were most often received on crystal sets through a single pair of headphones when the listener was within a relatively short distance – i.e. about 15 kilometres – from the transmission tower. Over the next few years, valve sets (such as that in the photograph), which could be plugged in to the mains supply of electricity, emerged and eventually, by the end of the decade, these came with loudspeakers. As these valve sets were more sensitive, the geographical reach of broadcasting was extended. They were also expensive, at least in the early years, and those who wanted to listen were also required to purchase an annual licence.

But these financial considerations did not prevent the working classes, or those based in more rural locations, from tuning in. The licensing statistics tend to obscure the sheer numbers of those with access to radio. Although in both Russia and Italy private ownership rates were low, many people listened to broadcasts in public spaces: in Russia programmes were broadcast over loudspeakers, while in Italy radios were commonplace in cafes and factories (Wasserstein, 2009, p. 235). In contrast, Britain and Germany boasted higher rates of private ownership – in 1932, 4.3 million licences were issued in Germany and 5.2 million in the United Kingdom – but especially in the 1920s, when costs were still significant, these figures failed to capture a large number of people listening in ‘illegally’ (Führer, 1997, p. 731; Pegg, 1983, p. 7). Crystal sets, for example, could be bought as kits and constructed at home. One woman from Warrington in north-west England, interviewed as part of a local history project, remembered that she used to buy radio parts for her husband:

When it was his birthday, or when Christmas came, I used to give him parts for his wireless, d’you see. I’d put fourpence away every week to save up to get him the bits he was after. All the family – not just me – bought him these different parts for it and he built it up himself.

(Quoted in Moores, 1988, p. 28)

As suggested by the interviewee, men and women could experience radio differently. One British social commentator remarked that ‘it seems to women that the last thing men want to do with their wireless set is to listen in. They want to play with it, fiddle with it incessantly’ (quoted in Beaven, 2005, p. 203). Especially with the addition of loudspeakers on receivers, listening was the primary experience of women, many of whom tuned in while completing household tasks, challenging the boundaries between work and leisure time. Some have argued that this use of the radio, as background noise, was also distinctively working class; in contrast, the middle-class family would tune in at specific times and listen attentively.

Age, gender, class and geographical location similarly fragmented the superficially homogenous cinema audiences. In many countries across Europe, cinema-going reached its heyday during the interwar period. Yet the statistics often bear this out in an unexpected way. If we take Britain as our example, which was said to have the highest rate of cinema attendance, there were approximately 1,600 cinemas in 1910, around 4,000 in 1921 and just under 5,000 in 1939 (Jancovich et al., 2003, p. 85; Pugh, 2009, p. 229). On the surface, these statistics suggest that, if anything, the cinema craze slowed down during the interwar years. But what they don’t tell us is that cinema construction had changed: in 1912 the average cinema had 600 seats; by the late 1920s and 1930s, new cinemas with 2–3,000 seats were being built. We might expect that patronage by the majority of the large cinemas that were under the management of three companies would have homogenised the cinema-going experience, but historians have shown that this was not the case. At least three different types of cinema, which attracted different clienteles, existed in British cities: prestigious city-centre cinemas, which showed first-run films and were expensive; new, luxurious suburban cinemas, attracting the local middle-class and skilled working-class families; and cheap, inner-city cinemas, located in older working-class neighbourhoods and often referred to as ‘fleapits’ (Jancovich et al., 2003, p. 87). Moreover, even in those cinemas that boasted a socially mixed clientele, ticket-pricing strategies ensured that audiences were segregated by class (Richards, 1984, p. 15).

Corey Ross has argued that similar distinctions existed in the cinema audiences of interwar Germany. Middle- and working-class Germans not only patronised different cinemas, but their behaviour within these establishments represented a great contrast: working-class patrons ‘came and went at any time during the screening, frequently ate, smoked and drank as if they were at home’, and shouted, laughed and roared through the films (Ross, 2006, p. 170). The cinema also offered different experiences for the young and more mature: while many youths found in the cinema a convenient location to pursue courtship, for many married women the cinema expanded available leisure opportunities as, unlike the public house, this was a venue she could respectably attend with her husband or even alone (Beaven, 2005, p. 193). Finally, the location of cinemas, primarily in urban centres, did limit the extent of the experience of modern cinema-going. Levine (2004) has shown how cinema could be exported to the countryside of France. In contrast, Ross has argued that, as only 1,462 of the 63,507 towns with populations under 10,000, in which over half of all Germans lived, had any cinema at all, this medium could in fact widen the cultural gap that existed between urban and rural populations (2006, p. 162).