Saturday, 4 April 2020

Broadcasting in the Seventies

From today's perspective the furore over Broadcasting in the Seventies seems like a storm in a teacup. But at the time it threatened the corporation with industrial action,  the withdrawal of labour by the Musician's Union and letters from the great and good describing it as a threat to "the unique role the BBC has played in the cultural and intellectual life of the country".

It was fifty years ago this week that a number of BBC national radio programme changes came occurred brought about by the implementation of the policy document Broadcasting in the Seventies. Essentially the plan was to redefine the characteristics of each of the four radio networks: Radios 1, 2, 3 and 4 and move away from the existing mixed programming - a style of programming that had existed since Reith's day. We're now used to tightly formatted radio output but at the time this was both novel and controversial. But, if listeners expected an overnight shift in the sound of the favourite station this didn't really happen and it took years for it to pan out - the result of insufficient funds and insufficient wavelengths.

There were several factors that convinced the BBC to act and shake-up its radio services. Financially the Government was tightening the purse strings and refusing any licence fee increases, whilst at the time the BBC had ambitions to expand their services and to adopt  new technology (the roll-out of colour TV and VHF stereo for instance).  Radio listening figures, particularly those in the evening, had started to fall. There was also a notion to hive off the new Open University programmes, as well as existing schools programmes, onto a separate VHF network paid for by government - something which never happened and continued to lead to AM/FM splits and headaches for schedulers for another couple of decades. The BBC had been forced to start a new pop service in 1967 with the launch of the pirate-replacement Radio 1. And finally, with a view to what might happen, and did arrive four years later, there was the threat of commercial radio competition.

The document, published in July 1969, was part of a process that had started over a year before with a wealth of consultation and working parties during which the Corporation had, for the first time but by no means the last, used independent management consultants, in this case McKinsey and Co.

On streamlining network radio the report had this to say:
"Traditionally, broadcasting has been based on the principle of mixed programming. On a single channel, the public is offered the whole range: news, documentaries, plays, music, light entertainment, serials, sport - all types of programmes, covering all interests and all 'brow' levels.

But experience, both in this country and abroad, suggests that many listeners now expect radio to be based more on a different principle - that of the specialised network, offering a continuous stream of one particular type of programme, meeting one particular interest. One channel might offer pop, another serious music, another talk programmes, and so on". 

When the document was released on Thursday 10 July 1969 the Corporation held staff briefings, press conferences and published a special edition of the staff magazine Ariel. The proposals were discussed on air including an hour long Q&A session on the Third Programme the following Tuesday. This is how that evening's Radio Newsreel covered the news with the summary: "Radio 1 strictly pop. Radio 2 carrying light music from Sinatra to Lehar. Radio 3, perhaps only on VHF, with more classical music and Radio 4 with mostly talk".  The newsreader is Peter Barker and the reports from Brian Curtois and Jim Biddulph.

In 1969 Radio 1 and Radio 2 shared a great deal of programming but, to quote the report, "to their respective fans, Emperor Rosko and Eric Robinson barely inhabit the same planet let alone the same air waves". So Radio 1 was to be an "all-pop network". No surprises here but at the time it still carried some jazz shows. Radio 2 was to play "light music" and to shed some of its speech elements. So Any Questions? and Midweek Theatre moved over to Radio 4, and Woman's Hour would follow two years later. News Time with Derek Cooper was dropped and Your Hundred Best Tunes transferred over to Radio 2 from Radio 4.     

It was the changes to the Third Programme that caused the most uproar, not unlike the protests over the 1957 cut in hours and the introduction of Network Three. Now it was such luminaries as Sir Adrian Boult, James Cameron, George Melly, Jonathan Miller and Henry Moore who supported the Campaign for Better Broadcasting and fired off letters to The Times.

Since the network shake-up in September 1967 the Third Programme title had been retained for the evening schedule of music, drama, arts and talks - the same highbrow mix that had defined the station since its launch in 1946. In addition the wavelengths carried a daytime schedule of classical music as the Music Programme, on weekday evenings there was a Study hour of further education programmes and on Saturday afternoons the Sports Service.

Under Broadcasting in the Seventies the proposal was to re-badge the whole lot as Radio 3 and to continue the music programming into the evening. The Sports Service was dropped and moved over to Radio 2 to become Sport on 2. Sport wasn't totally lost on Radio 3 however as it still carried Test Match Special.  Meanwhile some speech programming would move over to Radio 4. In addition the idea of having Radio 3 as a VHF only service was floated, with the medium wave frequencies used to supplement local radio expansion. (Radio 3 did finally become FM only in February 1992).    

What also caused upset was the decision to axe the Scottish Symphony Orchestra, the London Studio Players, the BBC Chorus, the BBC Training Orchestra and, heard only on Radio 2, the Northern Dance Orchestra. Earlier proposals from the internal Policy Study group had also put the Concert and the Northern Ireland Orchestras in the frame. In the event there was a reprieve, at least in the short-term. Writing in The Listener Director-General Charles Curran admitted that the Government basically said "You have too many orchestras but we want you to continue to employ them because somebody has to. They are needed nationally".

The Scottish SO continues to this day, the London Studio Players stayed playing until 1984, the BBC Chorus went back to its original name of the BBC Singers in 1972, the Training Orchestra was finally wound up in 1977, the Northern Ireland Orchestra was subsumed into the Ulster Orchestra in 1981 and the NDO became the Northern Radio Orchestra in 1975 but was disbanded in 1980.  

The longer lasting changes were seen on Radio 4 this week in 1970. As well as inheriting some speech programmes from Radios 2 and 3 the proposals saw an increase in news and current affairs coverage and plans to "develop the four main news and magazine periods - breakfast time, lunch time, early evening, and late evening". Today with Jack de Manio and The World at One with William Hardcastle already existed but new to the schedules were the teatime PM "the news magazine that sums up your day and starts off your evening." Replacing Home This Afternoon (a magazine show aimed a older listeners)  and produced by the WATO team, PM was presented by William Hardcastle to cover the hard news and either Derek Cooper or Steve Race (who also regularly hosted Home This Afternoon), who would look after the lighter elements.

There was another half-hour news programme at 7 pm, News Desk with former US correspondent Gerald Priestland and newsreader Meryl O'Keeffe. Priestland describing the programme as "news with a human voice". Finally, taking a more serious tone and a more international outlook was The World Tonight with Douglas Stuart, which replaced Ten O'Clock. Though News Desk was dropped in 1976 - replaced by The World in Focus which itself ended in July 1977 when the Six O'Clock News was extended from 15 to 30 minutes - PM and The World Tonight remain key programmes.

Elsewhere on Radio 4 some other equally long-lasting programmes were launched: Week Ending (1970-98), Start the Week with Richard Baker and Analysis with Ian McIntyre who said of the programme that "our business was to get behind the news and dig and illuminate and go a bit further." You and Yours would follow in October 1970. Music shows didn't completely disappear, there was Steve Race's daily Invitation to Music for instance and occasional classical concerts. 

The report also covered local radio and expected the network to expand to 40 stations, though financial restrictions saw this stall at 20 until 1980. On regional production the idea was the phase out the opt-outs from Radio 4, apart from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales and to restructure the BBC English regional map around eight production centres rather than the old Regional and Home Service ones determined by transmitter range.

In the lead-up to the on-air changes for the week commencing 4 April 1970 the Radio Times printed a series of Q&As with BBC management. Here's the final set with Ian Trethowan, MD Radio and Gerard Mansell, Director of Programmes, Radio.

The magazine also published this example weekday schedule to summarise to give listeners an idea of what to expect. 

So did Broadcasting in the Seventies make a difference. It's an unequivocal yes. Station controllers had inherited  mishmash schedules from the old Home, Light and Third. Listening habits had changed; there was TV to divert you, particularly in the evening, more folk listened in the car and on their transistor radios. No longer would the family sit round the wireless to enjoy an evening of mixed entertainment. In the era of increasing consumer choice radio schedulers had to make it easier for listeners to find what they wanted. Having said that the sound of the networks didn't totally change overnight, it was more of a gradual shift. As Trethowan admitted " the changes were not nearly as dramatic as we made out in public." There was still music on Radio 4, drama serials on Radio2 and current affairs on Radio 3.

But the real issue was financial. Although the final report put such considerations well down the list it still talked of predicted annual deficit in the radio budget of £4.5 million by 1974. The figure in the earlier McKinsey report was worse with an £8m deficit forecast by 1972. The Corporation had been frustrated in its attempts to get an increase in the licence fee by Wilson's government which was too embroiled in devaluation issues and cabinet in-fighting. At a Downing Street meeting in 1966 the PM had told the BBC  "drastically to prune its expenditure".    

Typically the BBC fudged and delayed any economies but by the time of the 3-day week and the oil crisis it was squeezed even further and broadcasting hours were trimmed back and programme sharing invoked between Radios 1 and 2 and between Radios 3 and 4.    

I'll leave the final word on this to listener Frederick Chamberlain who sent in his A Listeners Prayer to the BBC in 1968:

Were I in charge of the BBC,
The Radio Programmes - they would be-
Channel 1 - Pop all day; low brow sounds, to some quite gay.
Channel 2- that would go-harmonic music for the medium brow.
Channel 3-Symphonic noise, for the high brow girls and boys, Prose and Poetry, Opera too, not for the many but just for the few.
Channel 4-Would surely be -talks-religion-plays and views-odds and ends and of course the News.
And so-all-would be satisfied-
Not one listener ere denied.

The full document and an article on the evolution of BBC radio post 1967 by Dr Alban Webb is on the History of the BBC website.

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Can I Take That Again? - Part 5

Yesterday broadcaster Steve Martin tweeted "BBC colleagues - recreate the NBH experience at home by randomly changing the thermometer (thermostat) and releasing some pet mice".

A mouse you say? In the studio? Yes, unexpected rodent sightings did seem to be commonplace around the BBC and I've dug out audio evidence of a couple of incidences.

First, the now infamous mouse-related episode up at Media City in January 2013 during Shelagh Fogarty's 5 live show. As guest Mike Linnell spots the unwelcome intruder there are girlie screams from Shelagh as she hops onto her chair in a scene reminiscent of an old Tom and Jerry cartoon. "It's on the bloody table," she exclaims.

This all happened just a month after another mouse had popped up during Kate Kinsella's weather forecast, presumably from a London weather studio, during Iain Lee's BBC Three Counties morning show. This one is "quite sweet actually" as Kate rejects Iain's suggestion to despatch it with a book or a block of wood.   

Thursday, 5 March 2020

The Village Loudspeaker

Local radio is under the cosh at the moment. Commercial stations dominated by the Global/Bauer duopoly relentlessly head towards networked shows and centralised production. In my home town the Viking FM breakfast show comes from Sheffield, 70 miles away, and just last week the rockin' church in Preston closed its doors.  That said the number of stations on offer, on DAB and online, continues apace. Last year hardly a month passed without yet another fresh addition to one of the existing brands.  Localness hasn't been totally abandoned as this year OFCOM are expected to announce further community radio licences this month.  

Meanwhile the BBC is feeling particularly unloved both by the Government and the public whose perception of the Corporation barely extends beyond Question Time and the Today programme. Calls to 'scrap the licence fee' always overlook the funding model for radio in general, and BBC local radio in particular. But BBC local stations continue to demonstrate their worth. Consider the coverage of the flooding in the last three weeks - and how often is it that adverse weather shows the strength of a truly local service? - with some commendable reporting on many stations.  And only last week Radio Cornwall's Donna Birrell wrote of the important personal connections that radio makes when relating the story of 'Clara from Bude'.

Local radio did enjoy something of a golden age in the 1980s and 90s when new stations were coming on stream, AM and FM services were splitting, broadcast hours expanding and budgets increasing. But it wasn't always like this. The birth of a BBC local radio network was years in development with co-funded experimental stations run of shoestring budgets and reliant on Radio 2 and Radio 4 programmes to fill the holes in the schedule. Independent local radio, when it finally arrived, offered a true livelier alternative to those lucky enough to have a station in their area but, hamstrung by regulatory restrictions , struggled to make a profit and was not averse to some BBC-style programming like Swops and Trades and Late Chemists Rotas. 

This weekend the documentary The Village Loudspeaker - the nickname Dave Bassett gave Plymouth Sound when it started - reflects on the evolution of local radio. It's a bi-media effort with a half-hour television version on the BBC News Channel and an hour long radio version on Radio Solent on Sunday afternoon.

Here's the TV documentary:

Producer Richard Latto has been digging around in the archives and sourcing material from private collections  to uncover video that's not been seen since its first broadcast. There are also newly-recorded interviews with the likes of Martin Kelner, Johnnie Walker, Les Ross, Graham Dene, Louise Churchill,  Darren Lethem, Tony Gillham, Duncan Warren, Stephanie Hurst, Chris Burns,  John Foster and Graham Mack.  There are over 40 video clips to support this programme on the BBC Radio Solent website here.  

Richard says “This isn’t a definitive history of local radio, it’s a flavour of local radio and a chance to reflect on how it has changed and evolved over the years. With all the recent changes, especially in the commercial sector, local radio has generated a lot of discussion from both industry insiders and listeners, who have heard it evolve at great pace.” 

This is the radio version of The Village Loudspeaker:

Further reading:
Last year David Lloyd asked is there a Future for Local Radio.
On this blog I've written about the first 19 ILR stations and many of the early BBC local stations as they hit their 50th anniversaries. See under the 'Down Your Local' label. See also The People's Radio blog post.
Matthew Linfoot's PhD thesis on the history of BBC local radio (1960-80) is online here.    

Sunday, 19 January 2020

Not the A to Z of Radio Comedy: K is for Keep It Maclean

I see that Crackerjack (CRACKERJACK!!!) is back on television with Sam and Mark breathing life into the 60-odd year old brand. Amongst the faces popping up on the first show from its earlier incarnation was Don Maclean (pictured above).

During the 70s Maclean was partnered with Peter Glaze doing those Crackerjack comedy routines and song parodies as well as providing the comic relief on The Black and White Minstrel Show. By 1977 he was appearing on Radio 2, first on the comedy panel show Wit's End and then with his own sketch show Maclean Up Britain. Here he teamed up with one of his Crackerjack co-stars Jan Hunt, that man of voices Chris Emmett (Week Ending, The News Huddlines and The Burkiss Way), Bob Todd (stooge to Benny Hill and Spike Milligan on the Q series) and Gordon Clyde (the interviewer on The Dick Emery Show and presenter of The Pleasure's Yours on the World Service).     

Don's show made a return in 1980 for a further three series but now re-titled Keep It Maclean. The cast, apart from Todd all returned with scripts provided by Tony Hare who had also written for Crackerjack and would go on to be one of the chief writers on The News Huddlines. The other writers were Howard Imber who'd contributed to Week Ending, TISWAS and Bullseye and later a comedy quiz vehicle for Maclean called The Clever Dick-athlon, as well as Jimmy Mulville and Rory McGrath just before they went off to write and perform on the telly.

From the start of the third series on 5 September 1982 comes this edition of Keep It Maclean. The comedy does, as those programme warnings on Talking Pictures TV sometimes say reflect "the prevailing attitudes of the time". Listen out though for a delightful musical tribute to radio stars of the past sung by Don to the tune of In Party Mood and with lyrics by Frankie Desmond.

Don Maclean continued to appear on Radio 2 comedy shows such as The Press Gang and The Name's the Game before taking over the Sunday morning religious slot Good Morning Sunday in 1990 where he was heard each week for the next 16 years.  

Thursday, 16 January 2020

Are You Sitting Comfortably? (Again)

From the earliest days of British radio the BBC  was keen to keep the children of Britain entertained (and informed and educated too of course). Each of the regional stations had their version of Children's Hour presented by one of the radio uncles and aunts, from 'Uncle Rex' Palmer in London to Kathleen Garscadden as Auntie Cyclone (yes, really) in Glasgow. For ninepence a year those young listeners could join the Radio Circle and receive their membership card and enamelled badge.

Children's Hour was aimed at those of school age and it wasn't until 16 January 1950 that the Light Programme schedules listed, for the first time, Listen with Mother a new programme for the under-fives. The notion for such a programme was imported from Australian radio where the BBC's Controller of Talks, and former Director of School Broadcasting, Mary Somerville had heard Kindergarten of the Air, which had been running since 1942.

Broadcast on weekdays at 1.45 pm Listen with Mother was "primarily for the three- to five-year-olds" and consisted of "stories, songs and nursery rhymes and will be opened and rounded off with music". The nursery rhymes were set to music by Ann Driver, presenter of Music and Movement  since 1934 and sung by George Dixon and Eileen Browne, both schools programme producers and broadcasters. It was Eileen who became one of the main presenters of Listen with Mother for the next two decades.

The other main voice on the programme was that of the storyteller who initially would appear on a monthly rotation so that "continuity will grow through hearing a familiar friendly voice each day." Within the first few weeks the actresses Julia Lang and Daphne Oxenford both took turns as the "story lady", joined later by Dorothy Smith. All three stayed with the programme for years.

Those stories, whether it was Roderick, the Little Red Roller, Lambkin and the Butterfly or The Little Cat in the Haystack, were prefaced by the opening words "Are you sitting comfortably? Then I'll begin." Now synonymous with the programme and having long since entered the British consciousness they were supposedly ad-libbed by Julia Lang; but given this was the era when even live programmes were scripted, timed and rehearsed to the second this seems unlikely.   

The other element was music, and it was soothing music designed to let the toddlers nod off whilst mother would put aside her housework and listen to Woman's Hour that followed. In time the soothing music became a regular closing theme, the rather wistful cradle song or Berceuse from the Dolly Suite by French composer Gabriel Fauré.

Listen with Mother tended to use actors, and occasionally singers, as the presenters and storytellers. The list includes Maureen Morris, Catherine Edwards, Lorna Pegram, Sean Barrett, Gladys Whitred (who sang Time To Go Home at the end of Andy Pandy), Auriol Smith (founder of Orange Tree Theatre), Scottish singer Alison McMorland, Sam Kelly ('Allo 'Allo, Porridge etc), Patricia Gallimore (Pat Archer in The Archers), Jean Rogers (Emmerdale's Dolly Skillbeck), Lucie Skeaping (now presenter of Radio 3's The Early Music Show) and, presenting the programme in its closing weeks Tony Aitken and Nerys Hughes (The Liver Birds and The District Nurse).     

This recording dates from 16 June 1965 with Eileen Browne presenting, Julia Lang reading the story of Big Fat Puss-Cat. The continuity announcer is John Dunn. At the time the programme opened with an tune played on the celesta.       

When Listen with Mother started the majority of children's programmes on the radio came within the remit of the BBC's Entertainment Division under the control of R.J.F. Howgill and later Michael Standing. However, Listen with Mother was produced by the School Broadcasting division under R.S. Postgate (seemingly no relation to Oliver Postgate) and then John Scupham. Following the axing of Children's Hour in 1964 Listen with Mother moved over from the Light to the Home Service (later Radio 4 ) where it remained for the rest of its run. In its new berth on the Home it was now followed by schools programmes in term-time or various musical concerts the rest of the year.

Increasingly competition from television meant that Listen with Mother sadly became an unwanted infant, more likely to be heard by 55-years olds rather than 5-year olds and eventually, and inevitably, got shunted around the schedules. In July 1973 it moved on an hour to 2.45 pm to follow Woman's Hour which itself had been shifted over from Radio 2.

When Radio 4 moved over to long wave in November 1978 Listen with Mother now went out at 11.45 am, an odd bit of scheduling just before lunchtime. By October 1979 it was back in the afternoon just after the 3.00 pm news and before Afternoon Theatre. Finally in September 1980 it was back again to mornings at 10.30 am and on VHF only, whilst the Daily Service was on long wave. Radio 4 controller Monica Sims, herself a former children's television executive, saw the programme as "a frightful nuisance" and that it "made the audience, or a lot of the audience, switch off".

Time was called on Listen with Mother in September 1982 and led to much "nostalgic wailing" with letters of protest and a petition handed in at 10 Downing Street, though it's doubtful that Mrs Thatcher was much of a fan. As a report in this sequence shows even Roy Hudd and Christopher Timothy were on hand to raise their objections and Chris Rowe - a song for every occasion - lamented its passing. These clips come from The World this Weekend and Today.  

The final edition presented by Nerys Hughes and Tony Aitken was broadcast on Friday 10 September 1982 ending with a round of goodbyes from the recent presenters.

But Radio 4 didn't totally neglect the under-fives. The following Monday, 13 September 1982 again on VHF only, the five-minute Listening Corner started, offering just enough time for a story. It was a familiar voice too for that first week, that of Tony Aitken.

Listening Corner ran for eight years with stories read by some former Listen with Mother storytellers such as Nerys Hughes and Carole Boyd, some from Play School like Toni Arthur and Fred Harris and guest readers that included Roy Kinnear, Willie Rushton, Kenneth Williams and even Alvin Stardust.

The last edition of Listening Corner aired on Radio 4 on 24 August 1990, though by then it running on repeats. On Monday 27 August Radio 5 launched and scooped up all the children's and school's programmes with the toddlers catered for by Andrew Sachs on 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.      

"Goodbye until tomorrow....goodbye."

Sunday, 29 December 2019

Turn of the Year

So that's another decade nearly over. Where did it go? I can't let opportunity slip by without turning back the clock once again and this time taking you back to the turn of the year exactly four decades ago with this extra large slice of radio comedy.

Throughout the 1970s BBC Radio 4 had a Christmas Day tradition of featuring an hour or so of comedy and music linked together by David Jacobs (1972-77) or Richard Briers (1978-79 & 83). Essentially this was a festive pick 'n' mix of repeated comedy sketches from record or the BBC's own sound archives and comedy or Christmas songs. The 1983 edition (mislabelled as 1978) of Christmas Briers can be found on YouTube.  

For a couple of years Richard Briers also compèred a similar New Year's Day offering, billed as a "Bank Holiday bric-a-brac, a revue of sketches and songs from recent radio shows more typical than topical." The first Turn of the Year show was on 1 January 1979 but my recording comes from the following year.

This edition of Turn of the Year features clips from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Week Ending, The News Huddlines, The Kings Singers, Marks in his Diary, Hello Cheeky, The Grumbleweeds, The Burkiss Way, Aspects of the Fringe, Peter Goodwright, Victor Borge, The Frankie Howerd Variety Show, The Spinners, Listen to Les, Comedy First, Instant Sunshine, I Like Spike, Quote...Unquote, the Philip Jones Brass Ensemble (music has been edited), The News Quiz, The Atkinson People, I'm Sorry I Haven't a Clue, Something Appealing, Something Appalling and Just a Minute.

The linking script is by Barry Pilton and the producer Jonathan James-Moore.

Thursday, 19 December 2019

Walking Backwards for Christmas

You have to hand it to Father Christmas, he's really has got the work-life balance in his favour. One, admittedly knackering, day visiting all the children in world and the rest of the year to put his feet up. Or so it would seem.  

In this interview with Father Christmas, not heard for over 50 years, we get to hear that when he's not organising the gifts for the kiddies ("axes, pistols, do-it-yourself murder kits") or doing battle with traffic wardens when he has to park the reindeer, then he is, in fact, a BBC commissionaire - "the one that stands outside and doesn't open the door for you."
Posing the questions to the man himself is BBC reporter Greville Havenhand in this extract which probably comes from an edition of Radio Newsreel, though I can't date it with any precision.

If you think that Father Christmas sounds a little like Spike Milligan then you'll appreciate this contribution to Punch about his family Christmases and his attempt to disguise himself as Father Christmas that ends in disaster. This article comes the edition of Punch dated 4 December 1974.  

There's more Spike over Christmas on the radio. As well as the Operation Christmas Duff episode of The Goon Show, Radio 4 has a dramatisation of his comic novel Puckoon with Ed Byrne, Barry Cryer, Pauline McLynn and his daughter Jane Milligan.   

With thanks to Tim Havenhand

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