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The Story of Captain Peter Pendleton Eckersley
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Writtle Calling - A Radio play recreating the first radio broadcast 14th February 1922

There are no known recordings from the first ten years of radio broadcasting – indeed it was almost impossible with the technology of the day to do so. What we do have are amazing recreations made by Peter Eckersley for the tenth anniversary of the BBC in 1932. Tonights play is based on over 30 years of research and recreates, for the first time, a complete 2MT concert by the irrepressible Capitan Eckerelsey, Britain’s first radio star and DJ. Based on engineers notes, documents and interviews it was recorded at Northwood House in Cowes and the Isle of Wight Shanklin studios in 2021 using actors who had been part of two stage productions based on the incredible story.

It is almost impossible today to imagine a world without radio and its sister medium television. But on the eve of the First World War, when the science of radio was perhaps less than twenty years old, the ether crackled with countless radio signals, but all of them were the monotonous clatter of Morse code.

The Great War of 1914‑18 saw wireless used in many ways and the requirement for reliable communications and reporting, especially upon the fall of artillery shells, meant that the development of radio equipment and valve design moved at an unprecedented rate. Within two years, the science of radio speech transmission developed to the point were by 1918 robust, reliable and portable equipment allowed ground to air and even air to air communication.

In the commercial world, at first the powerful Marconi Company was still convinced that Morse code was the most reliable form of communication between ships and between ship and shore. There was a widely held belief that speech transmission, known then as telephony, had no real place in the evermore crowded ether.

So it was that a group of young engineers, born into the Victorian age, fresh from Military service during the war and working for the very formal and huge Company that Marconi had built, took their stride into history. As the new decade dawned, the time was simply right for radio broadcasting to occur.

In Britain the first broadcasts were, in the great tradition of radio, complete accidents. Two Marconi engineers, H.J. Round and W.T. Ditcham, who ran the high power experimental station at the Marconi Works in Chelmsford first brought entertainment to the airwaves. Their transmitter tests soon became far more than telephony experiments, their regular evenings of music and news, including the famous concert by Dame Nellie Melba, became true firsts in the history of radio. The great lady herself, Dame Nellie Melba, when at the Marconi New Street Works in Chelmsford, in 1920, for her historic broadcast was shown the huge 450 ft. twin masts towering over the factory and the town. It was explained to her that from the top her voice would be heard throughout the world. Her answer is now radio folklore, “Young Man, if you think I’m going to climb up there you are very much mistaken”. The lady sang and was heard throughout Europe, but the Post Master General decided that Britain wasn’t ready for broadcasting and in November 1920 he closed the experimental station down due to severe interference.

Then it started again in a small Essex village called Writtle............when on the 14th February 1922, popularly known as St Valentine’s Day, a weak and static laden radio signal crackled out from an old army hut on the edge of a partly flooded muddy field in a small Essex village.

The new art of radio broadcasting had come back to Essex and Britain had gained her first official voice. So it is a small village in Essex that beyond all others claims to be the birthplace of British broadcasting, due to its innovations and regularity of service. It held the first regular schedule licence to broadcast ‘entertainment’ and faithfully appeared on the air every Tuesday evening for half an hour, at eight o'clock in the evening for almost a year. The village is called Writtle, the radio station that ran there was known by its radio call sign of 2MT, (in the WW1 military phonetics of the day; Two Emma –Toc).

But station 2MT was so much more than an experimental radio station. The whole thing was conceived and run by the irrepressible Captain Peter Pendleton Eckersley. A brilliant engineer, ‘PPE’ and the 2MT team offered its listeners impromptu comedy sketches, the first ever broadcast radio play, dedicated children’s five minute spots, impersonations, guest artistes, burlesque entertainments and even parodies of grand opera. Nothing like it had been heard before - it was a new type of entertainment for a new world and it made history.

With the power behind the microphone being Marconi engineer Captain Peter Eckersley, Britain’s first ‘DJ’ brought an amazing light-hearted spirit and comic skill to the new art of radio broadcasting. His sheer joie de vivre bubbled across the ether and he was not only the first, but also talked to his listeners as if they were in the room with him - and his listeners, estimated at over 20,000 people loved him and the station.

Peter's love of 'sound effects' would find him playing records pivoted at some other point than their centre, inventing wireless noises, banging half-filled milk bottles, inventing new characters and always singing bad songs, very badly.... this was essentially a Goon show some 40 years early. From their chaotic planning meetings in the Cock and Bell Pub and then having to push the pub piano down the narrow muddy lane on a wheel barrow it was clear from the outset that 2MT was something different.

Writtle and 2MT was in business, and the business was broadcast entertainment, making people laugh and smile and wonder, as radio entertainment now came into their lives. It was the voice of a man called Peter Eckersley, speaking against the background static. He forced headphones to be clamped tighter to the listeners’ ears and demanded that the gentlest of adjustments to the cat’s whisker be made. To the listeners, each Tuesday night was to become radio night, Two Emma Toc Writtle night. It was a regular night, to be spent in their homes with their families, sharing the magic of radio broadcasting, with new friends, from a faraway place.

In fact, it was so different and so successful that the young Writtle radio engineers work led directly to the formation of the famous London radio station ‘2LO’ and in less than a year the British Broadcasting Company. Peter Eckersley quickly became the BBC’s first Chief Engineer, and he took most of the Writtle pioneers with him to build the National Broadcasting service from the ground up.

Today, as we fast approach the centenary of the Birth of British Broadcasting it is perhaps a little humbling to think that our entire modern age of media, broadcasting and even the internet started in a small Hut in Writtle. It all came about because some young engineers had the audacity, humour and technical skill to invent the art and science of radio broadcasting as we know it.

Hello CQ, Hello CQ this is 2MT Writtle Calling............

The Cast and Crew

 • PETER ECKERSLEY - Olly Fry

 • ARTHUR BURROWS - Simon Lynch

 • NOEL ASHBRIDGE - Jason Harris

 • NORA SCOTT - Anna Mallard

 • NARRATION - David Stradling

 •  ADDITIONAL VOICES- Joanne Thornton, Tim Wander

 • Written and Directed by Tim Wander

 • Sound Engineer Kev Weeden.

 • Recorded at Shanklin Studios, Isle of Wight

 

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