On a BBC Radio 4 Extra all request weekend in August they unearthed an edition of Petticoat Line, the first time one had been broadcast in nearly half a century. Now largely forgotten it was an all-woman panel programme at a time when most programmes were male-dominated and any panel show often included a ‘token’ woman.
In style it sounded like a more light-hearted version of The Brains Trust or even Any Questions? mixed with an agony column of the air. Remarkably it ran for 11 years – I know this because I see I edited its Wikipedia entry to that effect – but what I hadn’t appreciated is that it clocked up just over 250 editions. So what on earth was it all about?
The germ of the idea came from Anona Winn (pictured above) who wanted to call it The Ombudswomen. Listeners would write in with their problems and she, acting as the chairperson, would get advice from a panel of women.
At the time - this was the mid-sixties – Anona was best known to listeners as one of the panellists on the long-running Twenty Questions that had started on the Home Service in 1947. (1) Born in Sydney in 1904 – and the first of many Australian connections in this post - she had trained as a singer and actress and appeared in musicals, revues and panto as well as making early broadcasts on station 6WF. Anona left for London in 1926 and she made her first BBC radio broadcasts in 1928 and even appeared on some early Baird television transmissions in 1933 and 1934. By the time she joined Twenty Questions Anona had already made hundreds of broadcasts, written songs and plays, appeared on stage and in films, cut dozens of gramophone records (the discs described her as ‘The Celebrated Broadcasting Artiste’) and achieved that ultimate distinction of being featured on collectable cigarette cards.
Helping Anona thrash out the format of the new show was ace quiz deviser Ian Messiter, now best known for coming up with the idea for Just a Minute. Ian had previously worked for the BBC before resigning and trying his luck out in South Africa at Springbok Radio. Returning to London he worked for the advertising agency Mather & Crowther before going back to the BBC. He was still making the occasional commercial when he met up with Anona Winn and it was an advert being filmed at the T.V.A. studios in Wardour Street that led to Renee Houston being drafted into the new show. Renee was filming an advert for Flash, a few years before fellow Scottish actress Molly Weir got the gig, when Ian bumped into her. According to Ian he thought that Renee “had few inhibitions” and that “being clever too, she was just the solid earth anchor woman needed to help tame the ingenious Anona Winn”. He also saw how Renee “not lady-like”, “talkative” but “had compassion” would be an ideal foil to Anona, “lady-like but talked too much” and convinced her to join the panel show. The other panellists would be changed weekly.
Renee Houston had been touring the music halls since the 1920s together with her sister Billie as the Houston Sisters, ‘The Irresistibles’. She’d gone solo in the mid-30s performing songs and comedy routines and appeared on BBC radio’s Music Hall billed as ‘Half-singer, half-wit’. She continued to appear on radio variety shows and early television shows throughout the 1940s by which time she’d formed a new stage partnership with Donald Stewart – ‘variety’s sweethearts’ - who would become her third husband. She was in demand as a film and tv actress in the 1950s and 60s, including three Carry On films, before joining the Petticoat Line.
Developing the programme format further it was agreed that the show should be slightly anti-men. This allowed them to drop the title The Ombudswomen and go for Petticoat Line. (2) The programme opened with a humorous question followed by a slightly more serious one. The middle question would “rouse passions” and be something like ‘should we bring back hanging?’ or ‘is fox hunting cruel?’. The next question would bring light-hearted advice from the team and then they’d end with a silly question such as ‘is it right that my husband likes to take a rubber duck into the bath with him?’
The pilot got the green light from Head of Light Entertainment Roy Rich and Bobby Jaye was assigned as the producer. At the recording for the pilot Rich advised the panel not to talk over each other, not to interrupt and, looking at Renee Houston, to “watch your language.” During the recording Renee interrupted, talked over people and said bloody a few times. But Rich relented: “I gave you the wrong steer. You were right, you’re the joker, you’re the wild card. Keep it that way”. Even so Ian Messiter admits that eventually they had to ration Renee to three bloodies per show. Having said that based on the evidence of the recordings below she doesn’t swear once.
|Radio Times billing for the 1st show|
The first edition of Petticoat Line went out on the Home Service on 6 January 1965. Alongside Renee Houston the panel consisted of agony aunt Marjorie Proops, actress Jill Adams and a young Jane Asher (just 18 at the time of the recording).
For an introductory Radio Times article producer Bobby Jaye asked Anona Winn to explain the programme’s format. And remember here that this was two years before the creation in the UK of the Parliamentary Ombudsman.
An Ombudsman is a Scandinavian chap who listens to citizens’ grievances and grumbles and tries to put things right. The Petticoat Line will be four women discussing the grievances women have against men and the complaints that men make about women – with me in the chair to see fair play for both sides, we hope! They may be satisfied or enraged, but at least these sex-war problems will get an airing. Some will end in a laugh, while others will remain as a big headache for ever.
This first recording of Petticoat Line comes from the 6th series broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 11 November 1969. Joining Anona and Renee are Sheila van Damm, Margaret Powell and Judy Innes. Van Damm, daughter of Vivian van Damm owner of the infamous Windmill Theatre, came to acclaim due to her motor rallying exploits in the 1950s. Margaret Powell had come into the public eye following the publication of her memoir Below Stairs recounting her time in domestic service which supposedly inspired Upstairs, Downstairs. Judy Innes was a journalist for the Daily Mail.
Anona Winn, ever the grand dame of panel shows, would insist on the stage lighting being just so, presumably for the benefit of the studio audience rather than those at home. “She need not have bothered,” exclaimed Terry Wogan who chaired the World Service version of Animal, Vegetable or Mineral?. “We recorded ...in the Playhouse Theatre on the river near Charing Cross, and the front two rows were usually made up of Lascars, brought in out of the cold by the Seaman’s Mission”.
The second recording comes from the penultimate 11th series broadcast on Radio 4 on 26 February 1975. On the panel are Marjorie Anderson, presenter of Woman’s Hour, comedienne and actress Beryl Reid and writer Janet Hitchman.
Petticoat Line did not shy away from difficult subjects, listen to the discussion on adoption in the second programme, but there’s a sense in which the often homespun philosophy often espoused by Renee Houston wins out. Note how, in the first programme, the team are quick to blame ‘the young’, an obvious and perennial group at which to point a wagging finger, as the lack of a Christmas Day broadcast from the Queen (we now know this was the Queen’s own decision). Judy Innes, the relative youngster on the panel, though she’d be 32 at the time of recording, is in the minority here.
The discussion on foreign aid is fascinating – and still pertinent today - with Margaret Powell arguing that payment was justified as Britain had milked many of the countries at their expense, Anona Winn’s reply as to the benefits of Britain’s colonial past is telling.
Over its run Petticoat Line featured 200 panellists many of whom were actresses and journalists. Occasionally a politician would be asked on, Margaret Thatcher and Barbara Castle for example. If the panel seemed be slanted towards middle-aged women of a ‘certain age’ they did try to tip the age balance with the likes of Jane Asher, Joan Bakewell, Erin Pizzey or Anthea Askey.
|Radio Times billing for 4 October 1972|
The panel may have been all-female but the producers were always male. The first producer, Bobby Jaye, would go on to head up the radio Light Entertainment department. Next was John Cassels, at the time producing Roundabout for the Light Programme whose other credits would include Twenty Questions and the early series of I’m Sorry I Haven’t a Clue. Looking after production from 1969 to 1973 was Chris Serle, later better known as one of Esther’s boys on That’s Life! He was also producing Radio 2’s Late Night Extra and would also work again with Ian Messiter on the Radio 4 panel game Right or Wrong. In the last three years production duties fell to Alastair Scott Johnson, mostly associated with The Navy Lark, Trafford Whitelock and John Bridges.
Despite the long runs of each series Petticoat Line was not universally praised. According to David Hendy in Life on Four it “sounded more like a showcase of arch 1950s-style femininity. Winn’s faithful following among older listeners protected the programme from the Controller’s axe since, as (Tony) Whitby put it, he would be hanged ‘from the lampposts of Bond Street’ if she was removed. That did not stop others in Broadcasting House from damning the programme as ‘unendurable’, and its contributors as ‘female dinosaurs’ who belonged not to the last generation, but to the generation before the last’.”
Radio producer David Hatch recalls a visit to the Playhouse Theatre: “It was an amazing sight – Renee Houston on the left, Anona in the chair, all of them in hats. And an audience in the Playhouse of probably 500! All in hats! You know it was a wonderful sight!”
|Radio Times billing for the 1st edition 28 September 1968|
In 1968 Radio 4 sought to give the men a chance to reply to Petticoat Line in a series called Be Reasonable! Yes, for some reason it was thought that the chaps hadn’t been offered much of a voice so they could get to discuss the same issues as the women. In effect it was an attempt to resurrect the We Beg to Differ format (see below).
Be Reasonable! would pick up on the exact same questions that had been posed to the women and would include a clip of at least one response from Petticoat Line before chairman Michael Smee would offer it over to the men to discuss. So on one edition we get the topics of women cleaning up after men, whether money is best spent on art rather than housing or charity and why are women coy about giving their age. The regular panellist was Humphrey Lyttelton, who on the first edition was joined by Radio 1 DJ David Symonds, Colonel Sammy Lohan (the former ‘bowler-hatted, moustachioed civil servant’ who in the sixties had headed the Government D notice committee) and John Taylor (not sure which John Taylor this is, perhaps the composer?).
Radio listeners in the sixties may have been thinking that they’d heard all this ‘Battle of the Sexes’ type stuff before, and they’d have been right. We Beg to Differ, which had aired during the 1950s (and was resurrected in 1966), was billed as “a lively discussion on subjects which the sexes may disagree with.” Devised by producer Pat Dixon from an idea by actress Charmian Innes it pitted the likes of Kay Hammond, Joyce Grenfell, Gladys Young and Innes herself against actor John Clements (married to Hammond) and Charles Hill ‘The Radio Doctor’ but who was soon replaced by the harrumphing Gilbert Harding. Keeping the peace was chairman Roy Plomley. (3)
We Beg to Differ itself was, according to Gale Pedrick writing for the Radio Times, a kind of Brains Trust with a difference. The format was not too dissimilar to that later adopted for the comedy panel show Does the Team Think?, indeed questions on We Beg to Differ were often posed as “does the team think that.....?” The revived 1966 series played down the men vs women aspect and was just a general talking shop.
|How to Manage Men 31 July 1958|
How To Manage Men was a short-lived series broadcast in 1958/59 described by Denis Gifford as a “pioneering feminist series”. Yet again the initial premise came from an actress, or in this case two Australian actresses, Gwen Plumb and Thelma Scott. Both enjoyed acting success in later Aussie soaps, Gwen in Young Doctors and Thelma in Number 96. Producer C.F. ‘Mike’ Meehan, veteran of such programmes as In Town Tonight and Twenty Questions, described How To Manage Men for the Radio Times: ‘It gives women who have a grievance against men – husband, fiancé or office boss – the opportunity to sit at home without fear of detection, and hear a panel of experienced women offer advice as to how to deal with the offending male’.
The chairperson was actress Jacqueline Mackenzie (4) who read out the problem letters and summed up the ensuing discussion. Each week a different male guest was in attendance ‘to defend his sex, support the male viewpoint and, if he possibly can, try to convince the panel how very wrong they are about the wickedness of men’.
The panel consisted of three actress/singers Frances Day, Diana Decker and Vanessa Lee plus that panel show regular Charmian Innes. Other panellists were Diana Graves and Helen Bailey. Representing the men were the likes of Kenneth Horne, Bill Owen, Gerard Hoffnung and Peter Haigh.
(1) It finally ended on Radio 4 in 1976 with Anona still on the panel
(2) Ian Messiter doesn’t explain where the title comes from exactly but you suspect they were unaware of the Regency slang ‘in the petticoat line’ which referred to associating with women of easy virtue
(3) Playing ‘Comedy Connections’ for a moment Plomley would go onto work with Ian Messiter again as chair for One Minute Please, the forerunner to Just a Minute and the panel game Many a Slip. Charmian Innes would appear on about 30 editions of Petticoat Line and was a panellist on earlier editions of Just a Minute and on We Beg to Differ.
(4) Jacqueline Mackenzie was later, under the name Jackie Forster, ‘a trailblazing gay rights activist’. See article by Marc Saul on the Television Heaven website. There’s also a further Australian connection which may explain Jacqueline’s involvement with the show. Earlier that year (1958) she co-starred in the BBC tv comedy Trouble for Two alongside Australian singer and actress Lorrae Desmond. She also shared the writing credits with Johnny Whyte who would later emigrate to Australia and was a scriptwriter on Number 96.
Petticoat Line series details
The most frequently appearing panellists were: Sheila Van Damm, Charmian Innes, Bettine le Beau, Juno Alexander and Isobel Barnett
Series 1 to 3 broadcast on Home Service, all others on Radio 4. Number of episodes in brackets.
Series 1: 6.1.65 to 31.3.65 (13)
Series 2: 7.10.65 to 31.12.65 (13)
Series 3: 6.10.66 to 29.12.66 (13)
Series 4: 2.10.67 to 25.36.68 (26)
Series 5: 24.9368 to 1.4.69 (28)
Series 6: 9.9.67 to 3.3.70 (26)
Series 7: 7.10.70 to 31.3.71 (26)
Series 8: 29.9.71 to 22.3.72 (26)
Series 9: 4.10.72 to 28.3.73 (26)
Series 10: 3.10.73 to 27.3.74 (26)
Series 11: 9.10.74 to 2.4.75 (26)
Series 12: 29.10.75 to 21.1.76 (13)
Theme music: Fluter’s Holiday by Bert Kaempfert and his Orchestra.
The full list of panellists in order of appearance are: Renee Houston, Marjorie Proops, Jill Adams, Jane Asher, Dee Wells, Francesca Annis, Sheila Van Damm, Anneke Wills, Maureen Cleave, Molly Weir, Melanie Franklin, Serena Sinclair, Lucy Bartlett, Ethel Revnell, Nan Winton, Shirley Summerskill, Beryl Reid, Brenda Bruce, Florence Desmond, Carol Binstead, Cathy McGowan, Joy Adamson, Heather Jenner, Norma Ronald, Louise Dunn, Judy Fallon, Virginia Lewis, Sheila Hancock, Jill Browne, Mary Stocks, Romany Bain, Charmian Innes, Susan Messier, Fanny Craddock, Debbie Bowen, Margaret Powell, Joan Turner, Elisabeth Welch, Isobel Barnett, Libby Morris, Barbara Blake, Katie Boyle, Dilys Watling, Sheila Scott, Anne Edwards, Unity Hall, Frankie McGowan, Janette Rowsell, Ann Meo, Anne Summer, Mary Pemberton, Bettine Le Beau, Miriam Karlin, Pamela Townsend, Vivienne Nixon, Eleanor Summerfield, June Murphy, Irene Thomas, Valerie Ann Fisher, Joan Bakewell, Rita Merkelis, Winnifred Ewing, Deirdre Costello, Danae Brook, Avril Angers, Dee Annan, Ann Nightingale, Beverley Philpotts, Teddie Beverley, Juno Alexander, Jill Fletcher, Barbara Kelly, Diana Dors, Judy Innes, Edwina Coven, Joy Nichols, Katherine Whitehorn, Beverley Walker, Rose Shaw, Mary Kenny, Irene Ward, Aida Young, Drusilla Beyfus, Kay Nash, Sarah Stocks, Jacqueline Mackenzie, Sally Beauman, Margaret Thatcher, Andree Melly, Anthea Askey, Jane Hascom, Anne Shelton, Julia Clements, Lady Dartmouth, Anne Corfield, Hy Hazell, Roberta Rex, Nina Francis, Jenny Russell, Hilary Bamford, Ginette Spanier, Mary Griffiths, Ailey Wands Worster, Molly Kenyon Jones, Olga Franklin, Anna Coote, Bunty James, Barbara Castle, Janet Hitchman, Baroness Masham, Patricia Laffan, Anne Suter, Eileen Fowler, Joyce Lyon, Doreen Stephens, Jean Rook, Nemone Lethbridge, Josephine Douglas, Rosemary Palmer, Evelyn Home, Denise Bryer, Elsie Waters, Doris Waters, Dame Marie Rambert, Beryl Te Wiata, Joan Hall, Jane Lehrer, Hephzibah Menuhin, Nancy Wise, Sylvia Anderson, Renny Lister, Barbara Cartland, Jill Knight, Alice Hemming, Ann Holloway, Yvonne Zackerwich, Maxine Audley, Gwen Grant, Val Hudson, Caroline Coon, Mary Whitehouse, Molly Parkin, Pamela Manson, Hilda Angus-Whiting, Polly Elwes, Gwenda Goldman, Rachel Heyhoe, Esther Vilar, Jonquil Antony, Katherine Hadley, Linda Blanford, Barbara Mullen, Joan Vickers, Renee Short, Zena Skinner, Ninette Mongador, Adrienne Corri, Beryl Grey, Patricia Melly, Diana Cooper, Peggy Cochrane, June Whitfield, Trixie Gardner, Christian Howard, Dr Christine Pickard, Louisa Service, Elizabeth Taylor, Kathleen J. Smith, Nan Kenway, Shirley Becke, Ena Twigg, Peggy Mount, Jean Marsh, Anita Lonsbrough, Betty Knightly, Ann Burdess, Jeanne Heal, Betty Marsden, Marika Hanbury-Tenison, Freddie Bloom, Elaine Stritch, Dame Eva Turner, Anetta Hoffnung, Claudia Flanders, Gabrielle Sherston-Baker, Erin Pizzey, Aimi MacDonald, Jean Kent, Myrtle Simpson, Nikki Archer, Elspeth Rhys-Williams, Elizabeth Chater, Marjorie Anderson, Trudi van Doorn, Carrie Leonard, Pat Jacob, Susan Reynolds, Gretta Gouriet, Doris Hare and Anne Valery
Be Reasonable! series details
Broadcast Saturdays (repeat on Tuesdays) for 28 weeks: 28 September 1968 to 29 March 1969 on Radio 4
Chaired by Michael Smee.
Panellists: Humphrey Lyttelton (appeared in 23 editions), David Symonds (11 editions), Peter Clayton, Col Sammy Lohan, Godfrey Winn, John Taylor, Tony Bilbow, Lord Arran, John Jensen, Barry Took, Tim Brinton, Stuart Henry, Terence Alexander, Cyril Fletcher, Bernard Braden, Alan Pegler, Leslie Crowther, Denny Piercy, David Franklin, Danny Blanchflower, Tony Brandon, Wolf Mankowitz, Donald Zec, Jonathan Lynn, Jon Petwee, Nick Clarke, Kingsley Amis, Brian Matthew, Ian Wallace, The Dean of St Paul’s, Ronnie Fletcher, John Ebdon, Bernard Spear, Val Guest and Milton Shulman.
Theme music: A jazzed up version of Ordinary Man from My Fair Lady by Helmut Zacharias and his Orchestra.
We Beg to Differ series details
All programmes on the Home Service
Series 1: 23.9.49 to 10.3.50
Series 2: 20.10.50 to 6.2.51
Series 3: 3.4.51 to 31.7.51
Christmas Special: 25.12.51
Series 4: 21.1.52 to 14.4.52
New Year Special: 31.12.52
Christmas Special: 24.12.53
Series 5: 28.12.53 to 8.2.54
Series 6: 6.1.66 to 31.3.66 chaired by Kenneth Horne with Michael Denison & Dulcie Gray, John Boulting and Juliet Harmer
Series 7: 7.4.66 to 30.6.66 chaired by Michael Smee with Bernard Braden & Barbara Kelly, Charmian Innes, Steve Race and Bernard Levin.
How to Manage Men
Series 1 broadcast on the Light Programme, series 2 on the Home Service
Series 1: 31.7.58 to 25.9.58 (9)
The male guests were (in order): Kenneth Horne, Peter Haigh, Gerard Hoffnung, John Paddy Carstairs, Stephen Grenfell, Godfrey Harrison, Tony van der Burgh, John Ellison and Bill Owen.
Series 2: 23.12.58 and 8.1.59 (2)
Chaired by Eleanor Summerfield with the panel of Frances Day, Helen Bailey, Diana Graves and Charmian Innes with male guest Bill Owen