Obituary: Marjorie Anderson

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The Independent Culture
IN 1958, taking over from her wartime colleague, Jean Metcalfe, Marjorie Anderson was made the new presenter of the BBC radio programme Woman's Hour. With her smooth, pleasant, cool voice, she would remain in charge for some 16 years, utterly unruffled as the subjects under discussion grew ever more adult, ranging from the contraceptive pill to abortion, from flatulence to frigidity, the menopause to masturbation, and eventually erupting in the first-ever broadcast by the BBC of a dreaded four-letter word beginning with "F".

"Woman's place is in the home" might at first have made a better motto for the BBC than the one selected to decorate Broadcasting House: "Nation shall speak peace unto nation". Certainly, woman's place was not on radio itself: there had been a Children's Hour from the very beginning in 1922, but a Woman's Hour was apparently unthinkable until 24 years later when the man in charge, Norman Collins, created a 60-minute slot especially for the weaker sex. Timed for the hour from 2pm to 3pm - when, he said, women were doing the washing-up and so had plenty of time to listen - Woman's Hour started on 7 October 1946.

Until then, radio was almost totally a masculine preserve, certainly in the realm of presentation. Even Woman's Hour, billed as "a daily programme of music, advice and entertainment for the home" was originally presented by a man. This was one Alan Ivimey, a journalist and ex-RAF intelligence officer who "specialised in writing for and talking to women". Ivimey at least had a couple of women speakers in his first programme, Mary Marton, who talked about "Mother's Mid-day Meal" and Kay Beattie, who spoke on "Putting Your Best Face Forward".

A special BBC review panel listened to that first programme: Margaret Bondfreed MP, Deborah Kerr, film star, and Mrs Elsie May Crump, housewife, of Chorlton cum Hardy. Their opinions were broadcast the next day. Three months later the male presenter disappeared and a female, Joan Griffiths, took over. Men seldom, if ever, returned.

Marjorie Enid Anderson was born in 1913 in Kensington, London. Her grandfather was the brilliant man who perfected Braille for the blind, her father was an intelligence officer in the Royal Navy. He would die not long after her birth, leaving her mother to fend for herself. She became a dealer in property. Educated at Felixstowe College in Suffolk, Marjorie left school at 16 to take a full secretarial course and study Spanish in her evenings. She followed on with a three-year course under Elsie Fogarty at the Central School of Speech Training and Dramatic Art, in due course receiving a diploma from London University.

Whilst still a student, she auditioned for the BBC and made several early broadcasts in both plays and poetry readings. After leaving drama school she became a teacher herself, giving lessons in voice production and dramatic art at Italia Conti's famous stage school. She made her West End debut in T.S. Eliot's play Murder at the Cathedral, at the Mercury Theatre. This was followed by a tour of the play, which took her to the United States in 1938.

Returning home with the outbreak of the Second World War, Anderson volunteered for service in the Women's Royal Naval Service (the "Wrens"), but failed the medical due to what she would call "a hint of catarrh". She was later diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which would grow increasingly severe as the years went by.

Via her occasional BBC acting work, she learned of a job going for a woman announcer. She passed her audition easily and became one of the first two women announcers ever to sign on for the Overseas Service. For two years she broadcast exclusively to the Pacific Service, which entailed rising at dawn to broadcast live (no recording in those days) to Australia and New Zealand. When the General Forces Programme, renamed in 1944 for what had been billed since 1940 For The Forces, decided to increase its female complement to please its serving listeners, she was transferred to Broadcasting House as the continuity announcer.

An extra bonus was the chance to present two regular programmes. These were Thank You For Your Letters, in which Anderson answered correspondence mailed in by serving men and women, and Forces Favourites. This series, transferred from the Overseas Service where it had begun in 1941 rapidly became the most popular of all the programmes for the forces. It ran, now listenable to all, from November 1943 to April 1946 when it became Family Favourites, then Two-Way Family Favourites with presentation shared between London and Berlin.

In 1945 Marjorie Anderson appeared in the weekly magazine film Pathe Pictorial, showing how her letters programme for the forces was produced and presented, and at the end of the year returned to broadcast drama, acting the role of Frances Courteney in the popular play The Peaceful Inn. The following year, a new highbrow classical music and drama programme was created. Originally known as the Third Programme it began on Sunday 29 September 1946, and Anderson was officially transferred to its staff as both announcer and one of the poetry readers.

After a long career in Woman's Hour, lasting from 1958 to 1973, Marjorie Anderson retired when a new controller of radio decided to shift the programme from its comfortable afternoon slot to a morning one, and its wavelength from Radio 2 (ex-Light Programme) to Radio 4 (ex-Home Service).

Her voice, a shade more contralto than soprano, was much missed, as was her obvious intelligence, although she was the first to admit that her interviews were usually carefully scripted by a researcher and thus were not as impromptu as they seemed to be.

Her husband Anthony Sykes was an advertising executive - he died in 1961. But her retirement was made comfortable by one of her listeners, a widow, Mrs Ethel Smith, who died at the age of 97 and left Mrs Marjorie Anderson Sykes pounds 10,000 in her will.

Marjorie Enid Anderson, broadcaster: born London 7 November 1913; married 1946 Anthony Sykes (died 1961; one son); died London 14 December 1999.