Saturday 18 November 2023

Along the Petticoat Line

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 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, fiancĂ© 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

Friday 6 October 2023

LBC – Where News Comes First

This Sunday commercial radio will mark its 50th anniversary on the day that LBC launched in London, with Capital Radio coming along eight days later.

Courtesy of Joseph McTaggart here are some signed LBC presenter photo cards dating from the late 1980s (based on the logo) plus this mid-80s card featuring Brian Hayes. 

Brian moved from Capital, where he’d been producing Capital Open Line and their General election coverage, in 1976 to host LBC’s mid-morning phone-in. He left for BBC Radio 2 in 1990 but was back on London News Talk in 1994.  

In the 1970s Douglas Cameron’s voice was one of the most recognised and most frequently heard across the ILR stations reading the morning IRN bulletins. Cameron had moved to IRN from Radio 4’s Today programme in 1974. Mainly associated with breakfast shows, including the AM Programme with Bob Holness, but from 1996 on drive and then lunchtime before retiring in 2003.  

In 8 October 2013 Douglas Cameron made a one-off return to read the 8am news during Nick Ferrari’s show.

Clive Bull is the only broadcaster in this card collection still on LBC after over 30 years. Clive will be on air this anniversary weekend at 1am.

After previous radio work at Clyde and Radio 2 Steve Jones joined LBC in the late 80s.

Therese Birch was with LBC from the mid-70s initially presenting Jellybone for younger listeners. She was on London News Radio and the revived LBC in 1996.  

After a long radio career at Radio Luxembourg and BBC Radio 2 Pete Murray joined LBC in 1984, continuing to appear on the station until 2002.   

Henry Kelly had two stints at LBC either side of his time at Classic FM (1992-2003).

Mike Allen joined LBC from Capital in 1987. Left in 1994 and was later on Talk Radio and Talk Sport. Died in 2015.

Sue Jameson joined LBC from Radio City. She was LBC’s Arts Editor and heard on LBC Reports. Moscow correspondent for LBC 1989-96 before joining ITV at GMTV, later Daybreak and GMB.

Staying with ILR, from 1992 comes this interview with John Whitney about how he co-founded the Local Radio Association and became the first MD of Capital Radio. John is talking to Sunday Times radio critic Paul Donovan for the Radio 2 Arts Programme on 2 February 1992.

This Sunday Boom Radio will be celebrating the anniversary with some voices from the early days of ILR: Dave Jamieson, Phil Fothergill, Dave Marshall, Michael Aspel and Graham Dene, Les Ross, John Peters, Mike Read, Roger Day, Susie Mathis, Len Groat, John Rosborough, Keith Skues, Gillian Reynolds and Bill Bingham.    

Wednesday 27 September 2023

100 Years of Radio Times (Part 2)


This week the UK’s oldest listings magazine celebrates its centenary. The Radio Times –‘the official organ of the BBC’ – hit the newsstands on 28 September 1923 listing the programmes for the radio stations in London, Birmingham, Manchester, Cardiff, Newcastle and Glasgow. 

The centenary issue – which now carries listings for 86 TV channels and 63 radio stations -  includes an article looking at significant events or personalities in the last century linked to some of the more memorable Radio Times covers. Here are Melvyn Bragg on the birth of television, Dan Snow on WWII, Jonathan Dimbleby on the Coronation, David Hepworth on The Beatles, Professor Brain Cox on moon landings, Angela Rippon on Eric & Ernie, Tony Jordan on the shared experience of watching TV, David Dimbleby on the 97 General Election, Mike Gunton on The Blue Planet, Seb Coe on the 2012 Olympics and Simon Schama on the Covid pandemic.   

Following the disagreement with the Newspaper Proprietors’ Association of the printing of radio schedules (see previous post) Reith and the BBC were determined to take matters into their own hands. In May 2023 the Board of the BBC minuted that “it was resolved that the General Manager make the appointment of an individual to deal with propaganda publicity and the production of a magazine. ”

John Reith sought a deal with a publisher on the basis of a share of profits and a minimum annual sum guaranteed to the BBC. That deal was with George Newnes Ltd who already published Tit-Bits and it was that magazine’s editor, Leonard Croscombe, who became the first editor of the Radio Times. More accurately he was the first joint editor as an article recently added to the Radio Times Archive website notes the BBC also made their own internal appointment for editor in the person of Herbert Parker.   

Croscombe’s grandson, journalist and broadcaster Justin Webb, writes about him There’s also a nod to the magazine’s colourful third editor, “songwriter, spy, Hollywood screenwriter and more” Eric Maschwitz in an article by Paul Hayes (aka Radio Norfolk’s Questmaster).

Finally Caroline Frost recounts how the Radio Times stills proves indispensible to the National Grid, the police and continuity announcers.   

Saturday 23 September 2023

100 Years of Radio Times (Part 1)

The Radio Times was “launched in a fit of pique”. So says Joe Moran writing for the listing magazine’s 90th anniversary edition. This week the Radio Times celebrates a full century on the nation’s newsstands. In this post I am dipping into the magazine’s history to look how it marked its 90th.

In his article Moran continues: “In January 1923, the Newspaper Proprietors’ Association announced that it would be charging the three-month old British Broadcasting Company the standard advertising rates for publishing its radio listings in newspapers. Although the newspapers capitulated the following month, realising that not including broadcasting schedules would affect their circulations, the BBC’s general manager, John Reith, was irritated by their attitude and it gave him an idea.  On 10 September he wrote in his diary: ‘Everything is now in shape for a BBC magazine, and from various alternatives I chose Radio Times for the title.’”

From the 28 September 2013 edition here’s a look at some classic Radio Times covers over the decades.

I’ve written about the Radio Times before back in 2013 considering my own archive of back issues and looking at the first issue in The Bradshaw of Broadcasting.

In the next post a look at some of the pages of the centenary edition. 

Tuesday 5 September 2023



Fifty years ago the UK had joined the EEC, the IRA was bombing London, a Cod War with raging with Iceland and mortgage rates were running at 10%. In the midst of this, on 10 September 1973, BBC Radio 1 launched its extended news programme, Newsbeat.   

Newsbeat was, according to network controller Douglas Muggeridge "something I wanted to bring in for some time. We shall not flinch from covering any sort of news story." A cynic will also spot that the BBC’s timing may have also been influenced by other events, the start of independent local radio just a month later.

Airing for 15 minutes twice a day on weekdays at 12.30 pm, during Johnnie Walker’s show, and at 5.30 pm during Radio 1 Club (Rosko’s Round Table on Fridays) Newsbeat extended Radio 1’s news coverage beyond the existing 1 or 2 minute bulletins on the half-hour.      

Mike Chaney, who’d been with the Corporation for 14 years, was drafted in as the programme’s first editor. (1)  He told the press that Newsbeat “will be a new sound on Radio 1 - and, we hope, a fresh approach to radio journalism. Newsbeat will be direct, outspoken, un-solemn and always ready for a laugh!" Mike’s deputy was Colin Adams who’d been at Radio Sheffield and then news editor at Radio Humberside. Both would go onto work on Radio 4’s Today programme, Mike as editor and Colin as deputy editor. (2)  

’s first presenters were Ed Stewart and Laurie Mayer (ex. Radio London) with Ed initially doing four days a week and Laurie one day. Although Ed didn’t have a journalism background he was chosen to make the programme seem part of the network and less of an intrusion.  

Drafted in as news producers were Karolyn Shindler and Roger Gale. Gale had also been at Radio London with Laurie Mayer and had spent some time in the mid sixties bobbing up and down in the Irish Sea working for Radio Caroline North and then Radio Scotland. Was it coincidence that Radio Caroline had also billed its news bulletins as ‘Caroline Newsbeat’?    

Ed continued on Newsbeat until January 1974 by which time Richard Skinner had joined from Radio Solent. Together with John Walmsley (from Radio Brighton) who joined in February 1974, Laurie and Richard presented Newsbeat for the most of the remainder of the decade.

The Newsbeat format remained unchanged for six years by still using Radio 2 announcer/newsreaders to do a straight read of the headlines. That ended in November 1978 just before the wavelength changes and a planned extension to Radio 1’s hours. (3) In the event, due to industrial action, the schedule didn’t change until late January 1979 when an extra 10 minute Newsbeat was added at 9.50 pm. (4) By this time, though still mostly reliant on Radio 2 newsreaders, Newsbeat was providing some Radio 1 bulletins throughout the day and the early evening. (5)  It wasn’t until September 1980 that Radio 1 had totally separate news bulletins read by the Newsbeat team on weekdays. (6) They still shared on weekends until 1984 (anyone have an idea of the exact date?).  

Other voices you’ll have heard presenting Newsbeat or reading bulletins during its first decade include Peter Mayne (from 1978), Stephen Cape (1979),Neil Bennett (1979), John Andrew (1980), Bill Bingham (1980), Andrew Turner (1980),Ian Parkinson (1981), Janet Trewin (1981) and Frank Partridge (1981).

So back to the start on 10 September 1973. The first edition came during Johnnie Walker’s lunchtime show so he, for one, wasn’t happy with having to stop the music for 15 minutes. “Just as I got the rhythm and atmosphere going, it would all stop”. The schedule at that time had Johnnie start at 12 noon, then Newsbeat at 12. 30 followed by another hour and fifteen minutes of Johnnie. At 2 pm it was over to David Hamilton. The BBC seemingly didn’t retain the first edition in their archives. Fortunately the teatime edition on day two, during Radio 1 Club with Alan Freeman did make it into Sound Archives.   

This edition shows the light and shade, the mix of serious and lighter items, that the team was aiming for. So we get the financial pressures on mortgages, the aftermath of the Pisces mini submarine rescue mixed with a lad who got into trouble for having a David Bowie haircut and a champion butty maker. The reporters include Steve Bradshaw (another ex-Radio London recruit), Nick Ross (at the time also reporting for The World at One) and Mike McKay. Newsbeat also relied on reports from BBC local stations so there are contributions by Tony Cartledge (Newcastle), Ernie Brown (Cleveland) and Dennis McCarthy (Nottingham). The newsreader is Peter Latham.

From Radio 1 Vintage here the story of Newsbeat

(1) BBC publicity of the time of his appointment to Newsbeat seemed obsessed with Mike Chaney’s offspring stating “he is married with 12 children whose ages range between 20 and 4”. Similarly when he joined Today in 1976 the press release read: “Mike Chaney is married and lives in Dulwich. They have 12 children, 3 from his previous marriage, four by his wife and another 5 by his wife’s previous marriage”.

(2) Another Radio Humberside staff member, Paul Heiney, would also move down to join Newsbeat as a reporter. He too moved onto Today when Mike Chaney left.  

(3) Sheila Tracy was the last Radio 2 newsreader to read the headlines on Newsbeat on Friday 10 November 1978.

(4) The first 9.50 pm edition was Monday 29 January 1979 read by Peter Mayne.

(5) The Newsbeat bulletins at 11.30 am and 4.30 pm allowed whoever was presenting that day to plug the main programme the following hour.

(6) The first separate news bulletin was at 7.30 am on Monday 1 September 1980 read by Andrew Turner. 

Wednesday 9 August 2023

Composer of the Week

There are, by my reckoning, eight BBC radio programmes that started in the 1940s that are still on air (see note 1). The second oldest of those Composer of the Week, which started life as This Week’s Composer, was first scheduled on the Home Service on Monday 2 August 1943. It was, according to the BBC “an innovation which proved that lovers of serious music are awake in large numbers as early in the morning as 7.30 a.m.” The first week’s programme featuring Mozart was just a short (only 25 minutes) morning musical interlude. It has now been running for 80 years.   

The running order for that first programme lists the two movements of Mozart’s Violin Sonata No. 27, his Violin Sonata in B flat major and ending with Violin Sonata No. 42 in A flat major. The two latter pieces feature the violin playing of Yehudi Menuhin. Subsequent week’s featured all the greats of classical musical (see note 2).

Like many of the gramophone programmes of that time there was no presenter as such and links were provided on scripts to be read by whichever continuity announcer was on duty that day. This was how the programme ran for the next half century. It was only when the role of the Radio 3 announcer was changed in 1992 that named presenters were associated with the programme.

Post-war, in September 1945, the start time was shifted on two hours to 9.30 am and it remained a mid-morning fixture in the schedules until 1995 when it was shifted to its current midday slot. The only exception to this was in the late 40s (September 1947 to April 1950) when it was “promoted” to an evening slot after the six o’clock news “a much more convenient time for most people than the early morning”.

In the early 1960s the BBC was seeking to utilise the daytime frequencies of the Third Programme for “programmes of serious music” in a service that would be called the Music Programme (note 3). It was also a case of use it or lose it with a BBC committee concluding that “the unused time on the Third Network was a standing invitation for as take-over bid by commercial operators”.

 The Music Programme was phased in during 1964 after much discussion with the Musician’s Union, who objected to an increase in needletime to play more gramophone records, and the rejuvenation of the BBC Symphony Orchestra.  Amongst the programmes transferred over from the Home Service to the Music Programme in December 1964 was This Week’s Composer (note 4). The Music Programme title lingered even when it became Radio 3 in 1967 and was finally dropped in April 1970 but The Week’s Composer had found its new 9 am home that it would occupy for the next 31 years.  

In January 1988 the title of This Week’s Composer was flipped over to Composer of the Week. Then four years later changes were afoot at Radio 3 as a third of the continuity announcing team were made redundant (Malcolm Ruthven, Tony Scotland and Peter Barker) with the remaining staff taking on new presenter/producer roles (Andrew Lyle, Piers Burton-Page, Chris de Souza, Paul Guinery, Penny Gore and Susan Sharpe). 

The impact on Composer of the Week was that as well as some of the presentation team presenting the programme a number of voices, many new to the Radio 3 audience, would present a week’s worth of programme depending on their specialist knowledge and interests. So we hear composers, musicians, music critics and musicologists including (in the year 1992/93): Lindsay Kemp, Richard Alston, Stephen Johnson, Adrian Thomas, John Thornley (later one of the producers of the programme),  Richard Wigmore, Michael Oliver, Richard Langham Smith, Jeremy Siepmann, William Mival, David Fanning, John Warrack and Roxanna Panufnik.

In the BBC’s Sound Archives there’s nothing of the 45 year run of This Week’s Composer, probably because it was just seen as part of the daily continuity announcement duties rather than a built or pre-recorded programme. One of the earliest recordings of Composer of the Week dates from 1988 and features Mozart. This clip is one the BBC website but is vague as to exact date and who the announcer is. It appears to be the evening repeat on 27 January 1988 (mention of Mozart’s birthday on that date confirms this) of the previous week’s morning broadcast from 20 January 1988. The announcer sounds like Susan Sharpe.

Another 1988 clip here features Donald Macleod presenting the music of three Hollywood greats, Max Steiner, Miklos Rozsa and Erich Korngold.  At the time Donald was part of the announcing team, having joined in 1982. This one is easier to date and comes from Monday 12 December. By co-incidence I recorded much of that week’s programmes but sadly, in retrospect, cut out Donald’s introductions.    

In 1999 Radio 3 decided to give Composer of the Week a dedicated presenter. By now Donald Macleod had left his post as Presentation Editor and was freelance. With the help of the production team he would be responsible for researching and writing his own scripts. Finding the “way in” to a composer’s life is his favourite part of the process. “It’s absolutely not my job to tell people what to think about the music. I’m there to paint pictures and I often start with a visual image”. His first composer, in September 1999, was Edvard Greig and for his script Macleod discovered that “he had a good luck charm that he carried around in his pocket, a little stone frog. I thought it was such a charming image. So I started from there. “  

For the programme’s 70th anniversary in 2013 the team produced a list of the nearly four hundred individual composers and over a hundred groups or schools of composers featured since 1943. They also reached out to listeners to suggest any overlooked composers though, as Macleod explained “it’s often tricky because if a composer is obscure, there won’t be enough music in good performance to fill the best part of five hours.”   

 Marking the 70th anniversary of COTW
Radio Times 27 July 2013 

Here’s a clip of Donald introducing Composer of the Week on the 70th anniversary which featured the music of Robert Schumann.

In a Radio Times feature for the programme’s 80th anniversary a number of programme landmarks were listed:

Composers featured to date Around 1,400

First female composers featured Fanny Mendelssohn and Clara Schumann in August 1988

First black composer Duke Ellington in May 1985

First non-European Four Americans: John Alden Carpenter, Samuel Barber, Roy harris and Edward MacDowell in May 1945

First South American Heitor Villa-Lobos in April 1977

First Australian Percy Grainger in November 1996

First Asian Toru Takemitsu in February 2018

This year Donald Macleod, aged 70, has decided to ease off a little and Kate Molleson has joined the programme. For her first Composer of the Week in May the subject was Gyorgy Ligeti. “We decided we weren’t just going to tell the story straight. I had pianist Danny Driver with me, sitting at the piano, opening the music up in a really unintimidating way”.

Radio Times 29 July 2023

For the programme’s 80th anniversary, last week, Donald Macleod recalled some of the composers he’s interviewed during his 24 year tenure. This is a short clip from the first programme.      

(1) When I write about this I always seem to miss out one programme or another. However, I reckon the other programmes from the 1940s are: Desert Island Discs (1942), Today in Parliament (1945), Woman’s Hour (1946), How Does Your Garden Grow? (1947) which became Gardener’s Question Time in 1951, Round Britain Quiz (1947), Sports Report (1948) and Any Questions? (1948).  

(2) August 1943- February 1944: Beethoven, Schubert, Bach, Haydn, Schumann, Handel, Mendelssohn, Dvorak, Brahms, Elgar, Grieg, Tchaikovsky, Sibelius, Liszt, Verdi, Chopin, Ravel, Cesar Franck, Rossini, Rimsky-Korsakov, Saint-Saens, Berlioz, Puccini, Mussorgsky, Delius, Bizet, Vaughan-Williams,

(3) At the time the Third Programme only broadcast in the evening. In the daytime and early evening, under the umbrella title of Network Three, the BBC also offered the Study Session, the Sports Service (on Saturday afternoons) and Test Match Special. 

(4) Other transferred programmes included Music Magazine, Talking About Music, Your Midweek Choice and Midday Prom.

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