They are perhaps not the most glorious moments in the history of the BBC , as executives turned down a young David Attenborough for a job and described David Bowie as “devoid of personality”, unlikely to improve with practice.
They are, nevertheless, part of history.
So the BBC is to include rejection letters sent to and about Britain’s national treasures in an exhibition to mark its centenary, with 100 objects that have defined it.
David Bowie, pictured on the BBC's Top of the Pops in 1974, was dismissed as 'not particularly exciting' by the corporation in 1965
Credit: Gijsbert Hanekroot/Redferns
David Bowie's audition review
BBC History has curated the 100 artefacts it believes will encapsulate 100 years of broadcasting, telling the “inside story of the corporation” and offering a “rich insight” into “the familiar and not-so-familiar”.
It will include a rejection letter sent to Mr Attenborough, now its best-loved television presenter, and a scathing audition panel verdict on Bowie as he attempted to get on their radio playlist.
A job application from Lord Reith, “aged 33 ⅓”, to become the first managing director of the BBC in 1922, will be put on show with his diary confession that he – like all of the nation – knew nothing about broadcasting at that point.
The self-deprecating items, intended to illustrate the quirks of the BBC over the decades, are matched with other moments of radio and television history.
The shirt worn by actor Colin Firth in Pride and Prejudice
Roy Plomley’s 1940s proposal letter for Desert Island Discs will be included, describing the gem of an idea that went on to become the long-running Radio 4 favourite, as well as a press cutting from the 1930s describing how the BBC had been inundated with applications from all over the world after announcing it was going to appoint its first female television announcer.
Later exhibits from the 1990s include the white shirt worn by Colin Firth when he played Mr Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, marking the moment the period drama genre went from Sunday tea time cliche to the “sexiness” injected by screenwriter Andrew Davies and now “firmly lodged in the national consciousness”.
The online exhibition will feature photographs of the items, some of which are still owned by the BBC, and others borrowed from museums and the original owners or their descendants.
It marks the 100th anniversary of the BBC, the only major public service broadcaster to reach the milestone.
The Strictly glitterball
Roughly split between the ten decades, it will be based around five themes: “technology that changed our lives”; “programmes that brought us together”; “Iconic and British”; “a diverse and changing Britain”; and “opening up a wider world”.
Robert Seatter, the BBC’s Head of History, said it was designed to set readers, listeners and viewers on a “journey of discovery”, with the collections showing how the corporation has changed over a century.
Previously focus had been on the change in technology from the invention of radio, television, colour television and the internet.
“But there are also other stories,” he said. “The BBC is much more varied, rich, diverse and actually it is reflecting the story of all of us. It’s that amplification of social history.
David Attenborough's rejection letter
The broadcaster caused a sensation in the 1930s when it advertised for its first female television announcer
“We’re all part of it. This is what we’re trying to give back: looking at the BBC’s story as Britain’s story.”
The objects relating to children’s television through the ages would be particularly emotive, he said. He hoped it would prompt viewers to recall their own treasured memories of the radio and small screen.
The earliest items are Lord Reith’s letter and a crystal radio set for blind listeners from the 1920s.
The most recent is an online Covid tracker and the walker used by Captain Sir Tom Moore for his £40million walk for NHS charities.
Captain Tom rose to fame after his daughter got in touch with their local BBC radio station as part of a phone-in about people helping their communities.
Captain Sir Tom's Moore's walker
David Attenborough’s 1952 job application and David Bowie’s 1965 audition showed how the BBC both “got it wrong and got it right”, said Mr Seatter.
The corporation turned down the inexperienced Attenborough for a radio producing job with a simple “rejected” stamp but later invited him to apply for a television training scheme, setting him off on his natural history broadcast career.
Bowie appeared before the “bespectacled men” of the BBC Talent Selection Group, which described him as “devoid of personality” and “amateur”, with his sound “not particularly exciting”. He would “not improve with practice”, they predicted.
His audition, Mr Seatter said, included a cover of Mary Poppins’ soundtrack “Chim Chim Cheree”, noting he went on to become one of the world’s biggest stars after being better advised on his music selection.
The exhibition will go live on the BBC website on Jan 3.