About The Author
Sarah-Jane Stratford grew up in Los Angeles with a deep love of theatre and literature. After earning a bachelor’s degree in history at UC Santa Cruz, she then obtained a master’s degree in medieval history at the University of York in England.
Her debut novel, Radio Days, set after World War I, brings to life the exciting days of early British radio and tells the story in particular of one woman who finds her voice while working alongside the brilliant women and men of the BBC. Sarah-Jane researched extensively real figures like Hilda Matheson, who she includes in the book, as well as chatted with current and ex-BBC Radio employees.
Exclusively for Foyles, we talked to Sarah-Jane about the exhilaration of writing about the invention of an industry in a world that was changing apace, how the ‘Surplus Women’ took advantage of a changed world and wrought a lot of changes themselves and how radio changed women's lives.
Questions & Answers
What inspired you to write Radio Girls?
It was all Hilda Matheson. I came across her name when researching and did a double-take – really - when I saw that she was the first Director of Talks at the BBC. Not the first woman, but the first person to hold that job. I was intrigued and kept reading and the more I learned about her, the more determined I was to write about her! It was a perfect mesh of my varied interests – media and journalism, the 1920s, and fearless women who break down barriers and take no prisoners. And have great hair.
There was something especially exhilarating about capturing this world and these people, because it was all so fresh and new and exciting. This was the invention of an industry, in the midst of a world that was changing apace, and getting inside that was my version of an extreme sport.
Also, I read an article by Sandi Toksvig in my early days of research, where she cited Hilda as one of several women people should know but don’t. What can I say? I love a challenge. So hopefully that’s a name that can be crossed off the list.
In what ways do you feel your heroine, Maisie Musgrave is a woman of her time?
We think women of the 1920s and of course we think of flappers. Okay, so maybe that’s just me who’s obsessed with the hair, but there you are. However, what interested me in creating Maisie was the reality of most young women in this era, who had limited means and found themselves as pioneers whether they wanted to be or not, because the expected path of marriage and children no longer existed for so many of them. This was the sort of woman I wanted to bring to life – one who was initially more traditional and less confident. So in Maisie, I had a young woman who was intelligent and capable but had a limited education and expectations. And then, given the space and encouragement to do so, she blossoms and discovers that she has a voice and can use it and then it’s game on. Not that there weren’t still a lot of obstacles – and the BBC was unique in allowing at least some women to stay on after marriage – but the so-called ‘Surplus Women’ took advantage of a changed world and wrought a lot of changes themselves.
During your research what was the most interesting fact you discovered about Hilda Matheson?
Good grief, just one? I’d like to mention something that, while not perhaps ‘interesting’ in the sense of her importance, but was hugely significant because it gave me such a strong sense of who she was as a person. Actually, it’s two things, yep, I’m going to be that person. One was from the remembrance of her by Lionel Fielden, where he talked about how she liked to work sitting on her office floor by the fire. I just loved that – it allowed me to see and know her, long before I read her letters. The other is from one of those letters. She often wrote on BBC stationery. On the back of the inner-office memos, the words DO NOT WRITE ON THIS SIDE were printed three times – you have to assume someone did it once and they really wanted to nip that in the bud from then on. Well, on one of Hilda’s letters, under that diktat, she wrote ‘Shall!!’ And that just popped her wide open for me. She was the first to recognize how to make Talks effective – having broadcasters rehearse and speak as though they were talking to friends, rather than lecturing – and packed a lot of achievements into a short life – but discovering what a cheeky, warm, suffer-no-fools person she was made her a total joy to bring to life.
Do you think radio changed women’s lives?
Most definitely. Hilda created programming for everyone, and the broadcasts on literature and poetry helped spur the growth of reading groups all over the country. But she also created a lot of programmes specifically to educate, inspire and entertain women. When the Equal Franchise Act was passed in 1928, she created Questions for Women Voters, with the goal of bringing women up to speed on civics and turning them into well-informed and confident voters. After the election in 1929, she created The Week In Westminster, which was also designed to teach women about the day-to-day doings in Parliament and how policy and law were made. The broadcasters were all women MPs and Hilda specifically set it to air at 11 am 'when women were having their tea' so that they could listen unimpeded. She was also devoted to broadcasts that gave people information they likely would never otherwise have sought, so that even though a farmwife, say, might never travel more than thirty miles from home, she could learn about people and places all over the world.
If there was one moment in BBC history you could go back and experience, when or what event would it be?
I think it would be the first programme of Hilda’s where she knew it was working and she was on the cusp of something enormous. I don’t know what that programme was, but we all have those moments, when something just clicks and you feel it and you know that all the work you’ve put in was worth it because you’ve just nailed it. And for her, that was the beginning of inventing the form – though she was really just focused on getting on with the work. Or I’d have been there on 18 April 1930, when the news report said 'There is no news', but only to see Hilda roll her eyes.
Will we hear more about radio girls from you and what’s your next project?
My editor is pretty keen on getting an answer to the second part of that question! Let’s just say I have a lot of ideas and am homing in on one. Or two. As for Radio Girls, it’s a stand-alone book, but as all my friends know only too well, I’m always happy to go on and on and on about Hilda. And there is some interest in an adaptation – very early days yet, so who knows, but if it does happen, I am not likely to be quiet about it.