My First Job

Journaling prompt from Elizabeth: Here is a list of possibilities: beginning school, dating, college, marriage, jobs, career, writing, hobbies and particular interests. But, again, the emphasis here is that these are personal notes. You will not be asked to share them with anyone, unless you choose to do so. If anything you find does become something you want to share, please come back and leave your blog addie here in the comments section. I, for one, would definitely be interested in whatever you choose to share. 1954  Fledgling flight:  my first job

At 17, after 3 months secretarial training, I managed to get a job in the BBC, where my sister already worked.  This was mainly due to swift  and accurate shorthand and typing in the fearsome test, conducted by a gorgon of a personnel officer!  Mum took me to Oxford Street and bought me a grey flannel suit with two skirts – one pencil slim and very efficient-looking, and the other one with sunray pleats.  The idea was for that to be my entire office wardrobe, mixed and matched with blouses or a knitted twinset.  Matching shoes, gloves, clutch bag and hat in a yukky lime green completed the outfit. 

     My pay was to be £5 per week.  I’d only been in the job a week when I had a “cost of living” rise to £5.5s.0d., such was the galloping inflation of those days.  Tax and National Insurance amounted to about fifteen shillings, Mum took one pound five shillings for housekeeping, my season ticket on the train was £1, and lunches cost one shilling and fourpence each day in the subsidised canteen. And Dad insisted that I took out an endowment assurance policy for five shillings a week. There wasn’t a lot left over for clothes and entertainment, yet I felt really well paid compared with many of my friends.

     The first day, I caught the steam train at the station not far from home, in all my glory and total trepidation, armed with the Daily Mail, which Dad assured me would not be so ‘stuffy’ as his Daily Telegraph.  The journey to King’s Cross took about half an hour, and if you were lucky, you would find a seat.  If not, you were condemned to swaying about on your feet, clutching at anything handy.  After a while, I became part of a regular group of teenaged commuters who boarded the train further up the line, and saved me a seat.  We’d have crossword-puzzle races or tell shaggy dog stories amid noisy hilarity which must have been a pain in the neck for the bowler-hatted City types! At King’s Cross, I changed to the Metropolitan line and travelled three stops toGreat Portland Street, then walked about half a mile down through the rag trade capital of London  to the elegant Nash terraces of Portland Place, home to a multiplicity of BBC buildings as well as to Broadcasting House itself.   This whole journey seemed to me extraordinarily long and wearisome.

     Arriving at 2A Portland Place on my first day, shaking and very shy, I was sent to work for another formidable lady in a department known as Overseas Liaison.  She dictated some memos to go to various BBC correspondents in far-flung countries, told me to type them with two carbon copies and showed me the black Remington sit-up-and-beg typewriter.  No problem, I thought, and assembled the sheets of flimsy paper, carbon paper and yellow memo paper in what I thought was the right order.  Oops.  No-one had ever told me that the shiny side should face down in the sandwich!  Result, two mirror-writing copies, one on the back of the ‘yellow’.  In tears by this time, I threw myself on the mercy of the boss-lady, who was horrified that I hadn’t learned how to do copies at my expensive secretarial school.  She became all sweetness and light, and showed me a natty way of putting all the papers into the machine backwards and then shoving in the carbons, shiny side towards me.  Hooray!  It worked.  And I didn’t get the sack on my first day.

     I had my permanent posting by the start of the next week, in what used to be The Langham Hotel, transformed into BBC offices after the War, and later still converted into a very posh hotel again.  When I was there it was far from posh – the outside was black with soot, and the inside a uniform brown paint to waist level topped by  dirty cream up to the extremely high and ornate ceiling.  The spacious hotel bedrooms had been partitioned into cramped and ugly offices, some without windows. I was fortunate: mine was on the entresol, and had somehow managed to hold on to its en-suite toilet with washbasin.  This later came in handy when I wanted to wash and brush up for a night on the Town.  A grimy window looked over the central well containing all the hideous service pipes, dustbins and the like.  Not a pretty sight.

     And in ‘my’  office?  A large desk behind which sat a very sophisticated and  good-looking ex-RAF flying ace DFC, DFM, complete with handle-bar moustache,  and uproarious sense of humour which my 17-year-old convent-girl self found wonderfully romantic, if not always comme il faut.  He was also West Indian, which didn’t faze me one iota as throughout my childhood our lovely family doctor was the first and only black man I had seen up to that point.  Squashed into the opposite corner was a dilapidated typing desk, old dining chair and a chipped tin filing cabinet.  

     We weren’t left for long in the Langham – moving to 200 Oxford Street, which had once been the Co-operative department store.  The studios were in the basement, and recording often had to stop while a tube train passed beneath.  Here, the whole West Indian section was housed in one light and airy room overlooking Oxford Street – the main shopping street in London,  known as the West End.  Sharing this delightful room were my first boss, Ulric, plus Ken, the Head of the Section – a gorgeous cuddly bear of a man – George, who was the entire Maltese section, and another secretary, Jenny, who became a great friend.  

     Jenny indoctrinated me with every aspect of the job, which entailed booking speakers and artistes for our twice-weekly broadcasts to the West Indies, typing scripts – usually 4 copies on good paper and 5 on flimsy.  In slack moments we would make up the paper/carbon sandwiches, handy when – as frequently happened – a speaker would come in half an hour or so before recording and dictate straight onto the typewriter.  This could be quite stressful, as no erasures were allowed – they could cause the reader to fluff on any words which might be unclear.  That was quite an incentive to become a very accurate typist!  Later in my BBC career, we were able to use wax stencils, which were much easier, as mistakes could be painted over with a wax fluid, and when dry, over-typed.

     The programmes were recorded on Wednesday and Friday evenings, for transmission at 2300 GMT.  I, as production secretary, sat in a corner of the studio cubicle with the studio manager at the control desk.  My role was to time every item with two stop watches and note any changes on the scripts.  Next day, a Very Important Document, known as the P as B (Programme as Broadcast) had to be typed and distributed to umpteen departments to ensure that the artists were paid, copyright attended to etc. 

     We also recorded the occasional concert on a Saturday evening, of West Indian artists, including Winifred Atwell the ragtime pianist, who gave me some tips when I’d slipped into the studio early to have a practice on the gorgeous grand piano, and she came in unexpectedly.  At the time I was very much into ragtime and jazz. Another contributor was the dishy singer Cy Grant, my first crush!  There were steel bands, concert pianists, calypso singers and story tellers, a magical time for me.  All this evening work meant that I would be walking through London to catch my train, entirely alone late at night.  Those were the days:  I never felt threatened in any way.

     It was a very happy office, with lots of laughter.  Ulric and Ken were cricket fanatics, and in summer they would disappear for hours.  We knew where to find them:  in a studio watching cricket on a TV monitor. They also played in a team called The West Indies Wanderers, and sometimes I’d spend a spare Saturday watching the match.  Once they played a scratch West Indies touring side, including such greats as Warrell, Walcott and Weekes.  Ken later became a test cricket commentator, and many years after I’d moved on to other jobs, eventually becoming a Mum at home, I could listen to his lovely dark brown velvet voice  and look back on my salad days.



All poetry, prose and pictures posted here, except where otherwise stated, is my own, and may only be used elsewhere with my expressed permission. Please don't be inhibited from correcting my bloopers and making suggestions: Most of what I post here is instant, ill-considered and off-the-cuff, in serious need of editing.
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6 Responses to My First Job

  1. sonsy lass says:

    Reading this memoir was a priviledge and a delight, Viv – so many insights into a world which has changed so enormously, in a relatively short time. Beautifully written and kept my interest throughout. I enjoyed it very much and I know I’ll come back and read it again!


  2. Tilly Bud says:

    What a fascinating account, Viv. Interesting details like Winifred Atwell giving you tips make it a brilliant read.

    What a fabulous first job. I’m drooling.


  3. 1sojournal says:

    This is wonderful Viv. So many details and I love your ‘entire’ wardrobe for work. But, what excitement for a teen-ager, a wondrous journey into the adult world. The fact that you didn’t feel poor or put upon says a great deal, not only about you, but about the kind of environment that nurtured your experiences. Thanks for this slice of your existence. My first job was as a dishwasher at a supper club. Not at all exciting, glamous, and my wardrobe was made up of my old school clothes, worn but serviceable. Yours sounds like an unfolding adventure in comparison. Love it,



    • vivinfrance says:

      Glad you enjoyed it, Elizabeth.

      Old school clothes in the UK would be horrible uniform – shirt with tie, box-pleated gymslip, round felt hat with brim …. none of that would have gone down well at the Beeb!


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