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British propaganda in Brazil during WWII: Antonio Callado and the BBC Latin American Service

During WWII, Latin America was considered by Britain as a region of strategic, economic and military interest (Bratzel and Leonard, 2007), as well as a source of concern due to its large German and Italian migrant communities (Foote and Goebel 2014). Italian and German Radio stations had been broadcasting content in Portuguese and Spanish to Latin American audiences since the mid 1930s, which led the British authorities to decide that actions should be taken to counter Nazi and Fascist propaganda in the region, and to capture audiences’ sympathy and support for Britain (Seul and Ribeiro, 2015; Mansell, 1982). This is the context in which the BBC Latin American Service (LAS) was created in March 1938, with funding provided directly from the Ministry of Information. The first transmission in Spanish and Portuguese took place on 14th March 1938, announcing Hitler’s invasion of Austria (Briggs 1970; Leal 2008). In this sense, the BBC LAS was, from its inception, part of a propaganda war between Britain and the future Axis powers, which began even before war had been declared. In 1939, when the UK declared war against Germany, the BBC was already operating in nine languages.

The programmes broadcast by the BBC Latin American Service (LAS) varied in duration, from only thirty minutes in 1938 to four hours of content in Portuguese and in Spanish every evening by 1943, usually between 7:00pm and 11:00pm (Leal 2008). In 1938, the same 15-minute news bulletins were transmitted in Spanish and Portuguese, and the repetition of content made the LAS transmissions particularly tedious for Latin American audiences, as the reports received by the Corporation show. In 1940, two additional transmitters were installed in Daventry, from which the Overseas Service was operating, meaning that separate transmissions in Portuguese and in Spanish were possible. This development increased the duration of transmissions and the demand for entertainment programmes. In 1943, the length of transmissions was doubled both as the result of technological improvements in Daventry and due to the fact that Brazil joined the war on the Allied side in 1942. This drew more attention to the Brazilian section and allowed it to develop more programmes. In addition to reports on the war, musical interludes, press reviews, book reviews and commentary on the daily lives of Britons during the conflict became part of the transmissions. In order to translate, write and produce these programmes, a plethora of Latin American and Iberian intellectuals were hired by the Corporation, turning them into key contributors to the British war propaganda machine.

Antônio Callado

Antonio Callado

The case of Antônio Callado has potential to shed a very interesting light on the activity of Brazilian intellectuals working for the BBC Latin American Service. He arrived in London in 1941 with a six-month contract and stayed for six years, only returning to Brazil in 1947. In Brazil, he enjoyed a prominent position as a cosmopolitan intellectual with an international career. In the 1950s, he became a well-known theatre playwright and award-winning novelist, and in the 60s and 70s, Callado was arrested three times by the Brazilian Military Dictatorship (1964-85) for being an outspoken socialist. In this manner, he became an emblematic example of an engaged intellectual during the Cold War in Latin America.

The fact that Callado spent this period of time in Britain during WWII was relatively well-known to his critics and biographers, many of whom have argued that this experience had a lasting impact on his work (Leite 1983; Martinelli 2007; Ridenti 2011). What was unknown, however, until very recently, not only to scholars but even by Callado’s family, was the nature of his work for the BBC. It was believed that Callado was working as a journalist and translator, but we know now that one of his main tasks was to write antifascist drama scripts to be broadcast to Brazil. It was the opening of sealed files under Callado’s name at the BBC Written Archives Centre (WAC) in Reading, UK, in May 2014, that brought about an opportunity to reassess his work and formative experiences in Britain in the 1940s. In these files, I found a series of documents produced by Callado and about him (letters, BBC internal memos, and copyright receipts) through which I was able to track down a series of original radio drama scripts written by him to be broadcast by the BBC LAS to Brazilian audiences during and immediately after WWII. These dramas, and the other BBC documents, were unknown to those who had studied Callado previously. My analysis of these scripts has been complemented by material from the Fundação Casa de Rui Barbosa archives, in Rio de Janeiro, including letters, personal documents and diaries of the period, which were equally unexplored.

To my surprise, there was also a considerable gap in the literature about the BBC World Service concerning the Latin American Service, and the material analysed in my PhD thesis (Oxford, 2019)(1) is yet to be further explored by media historians. During my research, I organised, edited and wrote a critical introduction to a volume that collects together the nineteen drama scripts written by Callado while in Europe. The volume was published in 2018 in Brazil.

BBC propaganda campaign

These drama scripts were written by Callado between 1943 and 1947, a moment when the broadcast time allocated to the BBC LAS had increased and entertainment programmes for the service were in high demand. As I could verify in the archives, all the LAS programmes were subject to censorship and followed guidelines set by the BBC LAS Propaganda Policy Committee. This committee was established in late 1940 and its first meeting was on 30th January 1941 at 3:00pm, in an unknown venue, with the presence of personnel from the BBC, the Ministry of Information (MOI) and other agencies, such as the Foreign Office. In these meetings, the BBC, in cooperation with MOI, defined clear propaganda guidelines to be followed not only in the broadcast of news, but also in all other content broadcast by the BBC LAS, including entertainment shows. These guidelines were based on two principles: fear and self-interest. They contained suggestions that transmissions should stress the historical “mutual cooperation” between Britain and Latin America, and the risks that could result from the expansion of Nazi ideology in the region. Another interesting element was the use of religious references to mobilise Catholic Latin American audiences, suggesting that Christian values should be associated with Britain whenever possible, and implying that the “opposite” should be associated with Nazi Germany.

Although Latin American intellectuals were engaging with these guidelines, many of them, like Callado, were also using the BBC as a platform to push their own political agendas. In the specific case of Antônio Callado, this included criticising Brazilian dictator Getúlio Vargas’ New State (1937-45), something that he did in veiled and indirect ways in his scripts, which is something that was far from BBC LAS guidelines, but reveals that these cosmopolitan intellectuals working for the Corporation had different strategies to exercise their agency while still cooperating with British interests.


(1) Honorable Mention, Latin American Studies Association (LASA) – Antônio Cândido Award 2020 for best thesis. The thesis is currently being adapted into a monograph with the provisional title Transatlantic Radio Dramas: Antônio Callado and the BBC Latin American Service.

For more on the BBC LAS propaganda activities, and an analysis of some of Callado’s scripts, which respond creatively to the MOI/BBC guidelines, see my most recent article in Media History: “Propaganda and Entertainment in the BBC Latin American Service During WW2”


Bratzel, John F., and Thomas M Leonard. Latin America During World War II. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2007.

Briggs, Asa. War of Words. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1970.

Leal Filho, Laurindo. Vozes de Londres: memórias brasileiras da BBC. São Paulo: EdUSP, 2008.

Leite, Lígia Chiappini. “Quando a Pátria Viaja: Uma Leitura dos Romances de Antônio Callado.” In O Nacional e o Popular na Cultura Brasileira: Artes Plásticas e Literatura, edited by Carlos Zilio, João Luiz Lafetá, and Lígia Chiappini Leite, 129–235. São Paulo: Brasiliense, 1983.

Mansell, Gerard. Let Truth Be Told: 50 Years of BBC External Broadcasting. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1982.

Martinelli, Marcos. Antonio Callado: um sermonário à brasileira. São Paulo: Annablume, 2007.

Ridenti, Marcelo. “A Guerrilha de Antônio Callado.” In Perfis Cruzados: Trajetórias e Militância Política no Brasil, edited by Kushnir Beatriz, 23–53. Rio de Janeiro: Imago, 2011.

Seul, Stephanie, and Nelson Ribeiro. “Revisiting Transnational Broadcasting: The BBC’s Foreign-Language Services During the Second World War.” Media History 21, no. 4 (2015): 365–377.

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