Book review by Malcolm Baird To appear in the British Vintage Wireless Society Bulletin, Summer 2008

The I.B.C. versus the B.B.C.

And the World Listened….the Biography of Captain Leonard F.Plugge
by Keith Wallis
Kelly Publications, Tiverton, Devon.* ₤22.50, hard cover, ₤12.95 soft cover

This book is not highly technical but nevertheless it contributes significantly to the history of British radio. Leonard Frank Plugge (1889-1981), known to his friends as Lenny, is mainly remembered as an innovator but his life story bears out Shakespeare’s dictum from As You Like It; “one man in his time plays many parts.” These included inventor, imposing military figure, ladies’ man, sophisticated international traveler, man of the people and social host in the swinging society of London in the 1960s.

Keith Wallis traces these parts through his subject’s long life in an excellent, readable biography. The book’s pictures convey the flavour of early broadcasting and they can seem slightly absurd to the cynical modern eye. In one picture, Plugge is in a studio at Nuremburg wearing a checked suit of baggy plus fours and he strikes a solemn pose in front of a horn-shaped microphone of antique design; in other pictures a trip across Europe in a radio-equipped car is shown as a high adventure. These were the young and innocent days of radio.

Plugge had an engineering background but it was in civil engineering and not electrical engineering. His first encounter with radio came in 1922 when he was shown a home-made receiver, and it was love at first sight. He saw the potential of the new medium and he was intrigued by the opportunities for British listeners to tune in to “foreign” stations. He also met my father J.L.Baird who was struggling to develop an even newer medium, television. Plugge and Baird were kindred spirits in that they resented the prevalent high-minded official attitude on the control of broadcasting. Established circles were afraid that it might fall into the hands of commercial companies which might lead to “vulgarity”. John Reith, the first Director General of the B.B.C., was a staunch opponent of anything which could remotely be considered vulgar. The mind boggles at what Reith might have thought of modern B.B.C. programmes if he had lived today.

Plugge felt that the B.B.C.monopoly on broadcasting should be broken and he had the drive and the imagination to do something about it. Broadcast radio on medium waves had a range of several hundred miles and by 1931 Plugge had started broadcasting in English from a makeshift transmitter at Fécamp on the northern coast of France, on a power of 500 watts. Within 2 years the power had increased to 20 kilowatts and the station became known as Radio Normandy. An interesting article on its history, by Eric Westman, appeared in the spring 2003 issue of the B.V.W.S.Bulletin. Plugge’s controlling company, the International Broadcasting Company (I.B.C.) had its head office in London at Portland Place, just a stone’s throw from its rival, the B.B.C.

The book follows Plugge’s life through through its high points in the mid-1930s which saw his marriage to the beautiful Ann Muckleston, his election to Parliament, and the purchase of a luxury motor yacht which was called the LennyAnn. He attended the Coronation of King George VI in “the full dress uniform of an RAF Flight Lieutenant, busby-like headdress and all….” A portrait of him in this splendid attire was hung in the head office of the I.B.C.

After the outbreak of World War II, things were never quite the same. Radio Normandy stopped broadcasting in September 1939, the Lennyann was sunk off Cannes by the Germans, and Plugge’s wife and young son Frank left for the safety of the United States. Plugge had hoped that his expertise in broadcasting could have been of use to the war effort, but this never seems to have happened. According to Keith Wallis the only task that Winston Churchill assigned to Plugge was to deliver a speech of welcome to General de Gaulle, since Plugge was the only M.P. to speak perfect French. Plugge and John Logie Baird renewed their informal contacts in the war years. In 1925-30 Baird had shown that television could be used to detect objects by reflected radio waves (radar) and this may have been discussed between them. Baird also wanted to tell politicians about the success of his independent research on colour and stereoscopic television, while Plugge always liked to be in at the start of something new. Both men looked forward to the eventual removal of the B.B.C.’s monopoly of British broadcasting, but Baird never lived to see it.

Plugge lost his parliamentary seat in the Labour landslide of 1945 and the postwar years were not kind to him. He was a charming and generous man who continued to entertain lavishly as late as the swinging sixties. He eventually received war compensation for the destruction of the Lennyann, but his business affairs fell into disorder and he separated from his wife. In the 1970s, his twin children, Gale and Greville, died violently (in one case murder, in the other case a car accident). Plugge died in Los Angeles at the age of 91, leaving about ₤1100. The Times gave him a respectful obituary and he has been included in the Dictionary of National Biography. This book is the first full biography of Leonard Frank Plugge and it adds colour and fresh insight to the story of Britain’s greatest independent broadcasting pioneer.

* The book can be ordered direct from the publisher at www.kellybooks.net, post free in the U.K.

Malcolm Baird


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