Monday, 15 June 2020

The Magic Playbox

15 June 1920 is a key date in British broadcasting history. It's the day when Britain began to realise that the radio waves could not only be used for radio telephony and ship-to-shore communications but for the broadcasting of entertainment. It kick-started a growth in the manufacture of radio receiver components and led to the formation of the British Broadcasting Company a little over two years later.

The events centred on Marconi's factory in New Street, Chelmsford which had already been dabbling in broadcasting experiments from its test station at the plant with the call sign MZX (Marconi Zulu X-Ray). Just a year earlier the Marconi Company had successfully transmitted across the Atlantic from a site at Ballybunion in Ireland under the supervision of engineers H.J. Round and W.T. Ditcham. It was Ditcham who had the honour to be the first European voice to be heard over the airwaves on the other side of the Atlantic.

Back at Chelmsford in January 1920 Ditcham and Round had built a 6 kilowatt transmitter (increased to 15 kilowatts in February) using an aerial slung between two 450 feet masts for more experimental broadcasts. Though chiefly used for speech test transmissions another engineer, G.W. White also organised some musical interludes. For this they roped in staff from the factory, two assistants, W. Higny and A. Beeton, played the cornet and oboe, a research engineer played a one-string fiddle and White could be heard at the piano. Vocalists were Edward Cooper, who worked in the mounting shop, the possessor "of a tenor voice of more than average quality" and soprano Winifred Sayer who worked at the Hoffman Manufacturing Co. in the town. Ditcham himself was back at the microphone where he gave "a nightly recital of the railways of Great Britain and their London termini (which) gave much amusement to those who listened".     

Onto the scene comes amateur radio enthusiast, and former wartime signals officer, Tom Clarke who just happened to work as an assistant to Lord Northcliffe, owner of the Daily Mail. The paper had already been reporting on some early wireless experiments and a receiving station was installed in their offices. Clarke had already established a good relationship with Arthur Borrows at Marconi so it's not clear who first came up with the idea of persuading Northcliffe that a public broadcast with a star name would help boost the fledgling media and provide some great publicity for the newspaper. That star name was the singing sensation of the age, Australian opera singer Dame Nellie Melba, who was back in the UK after the war and performing at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden.

Melba was enticed up to Chelmsford with a £1,000 fee, though she was initially reluctant to indulge what she saw as wireless enthusiasts and their "magic playboxes". On 15 June 1920 she took the train up from London accompanied by her son, daughter-in-law and her two piano accompanists Frank St Ledger and Herman Bemberg. The planned broadcast wasn't without its some technical hitches. The studio set up in the main building had to be abandoned following a power surge and they decamped to the experimental shed, taking some rolled-up carpet to help the acoustics in the concrete floored workshop.

On being showed around the plant and looking up at the masts Melba is supposed to have said to Burrows: "Young man. I am Dame Melba. If you think for one moment that I'm going to climb up there I'm afraid you are very much mistaken."     

In his The Story of Broadcasting Burrows described what happened next: " The few hundred experimenters who adjusted their receivers to 2,800 metres on the evening of June 15, 1920, heard promptly at 7.10 p.m. something infinitely more beautiful than a note of mechanical origin. It was a prolonged trill from the throat of one of the sweetest singers of the century. Five minutes later there rippled across the ether the stirring sounds of Home Sweet Home then Nymphes et Sylvains in French and Addio from La Boheme".

Although Burrows didn't relate this there was a break in the transmission and Dame Nellie was asked to return to the microphone where she continued with Chant Venitien, a reprise of  Nymphes et Sylvains and ending with God Save the King.

The short broadcast was heard all over the country by those that had built their crystal sets, including a fair share of wireless operators and electrical engineers, and by those Wireless Clubs that were starting to spring up. "It was a wonderful half-hour" proclaimed the Daily Mail.   

Those listening in mainland Europe also heard the broadcast. Burrows explains: "Next day there arrived from most European countries telegrams containing expressions of wonder and appreciation. At Christiania the signals were so strong that the operator at the wireless station some distance from the town relayed the music by telephone to the principal newspaper offices. In France a phonograph record was actually made in the operating room beneath the Eiffel Tower".

Marconi engineer Harry Dowsett was moved to write that the Melba broadcast was "a great initiation ceremony, and the era of broadcasting for the public amusement ... may be said to have completed its preliminary trails and to have been definitely launched on its meteoric career from this date".   

More successful trails were run by Marconi engineers over the summer of 1920 but it all came to a grinding halt that November following complaints, mainly from the Armed Services, made to the Postmaster General that they were "interfering with important communications" (not dissimilar to the responses made about the offshore pirates four decades later). Others opined that these "stunts" were a "frivolous" use of a national service." Whilst the Post Office continued to grant amateur licences for transmitting sets of 10 watts or less it wasn't until February 1922 that radio broadcast experiments resumed from 2MT from Writtle. Three months later 2LO from Marconi House in London took to the air and a new chapter in British broadcasting started.

You can hear more about the 100th anniversary of this famous broadcast today on BBC Essex and Chelmsford Community Radio.

Listen out too for the fourth episode of Paul Kerensa's new podcast series The British Broadcasting Century.

Tim Wander's play The Wireless Sings is on YouTube.

David Lloyd has written a blog post about Nellie's First Drivetime Show.

Read about this and much more in Charlie Connelly's excellent Last Train to Hilversum.

Monday, 8 June 2020

The Voice of Them All

Dead Ringers is back on air this week on BBC Radio 4 and yet again we can enjoy the searingly accurate and topical impressions from Jon Culshaw, Jan Ravens, Lewis MacLeod, Debra Stephenson and Duncan Wisbey.

The art of mimicry for satirical purposes really dates from the satire boom of the 1960s. But impressionists were heard on the radio prior to World War II, though they were sometimes referred to a 'character impressionists' offering comic voices of character types rather than specific people. Names such as Elizabeth Pollock, Lawrence Anderson, Herbert Douglas, Doreen Pullen crop up as well as Billy Carlyle, wife of comedian Claude Dampier aka 'The Professional Idiot'. But perhaps the best known of the pre-war impressionists were Florence Desmond and Beryl Orde who both took off Hollywood stars, with Mae West being a particular favourite.

From the mid-40s and throughout the 1950s the radio audiences were wooed by the vocal dexterity of impressionist Peter Cavanagh, billed as 'The Voice of Them All'.

Born in 1914 Cavanagh left school to take up an apprenticeship in the motor trade, later joining the sales team of an accessory firm and then an electrical manufacturers. At the same time he pursued his musical ambitions as a singer, winning a gold medal at the Guildhall School of Music and becoming a concert artist.

During the Second World War he was attached to the Royal Army Medical Corps Staff Band where he would compere some of their performances. Asked to tell the odd joke between numbers he also offered a to do a couple of impressions, one of which was Harry Hemsley's family of four children, at the time famous on Radio Luxembourg's Ovaltiney's Concert Party.

Radio fame beckoned after his debut on an Army series Private Smith Entertains. One of his most famous impressions was of Monty, Field Marshall Bernard Montgomery, who Cavanagh already bore an uncanny resemblance to. As his repertoire of impressions developed he would end his act by doing a rapid run through of his 'guest stars' saying cheerio and then end with himself as the voice of them all (not unlike Mike Yarwood's "and this is me"). His most famous routine was to do a potted ITMA show as all the regular characters; his voice for Tommy Handley being uncannily accurate. (He would play him in The Tommy Handley Story which was broadcast ten years after his death and impersonate him in a special edition of LWT's Frost on Saturday in 1969 ).    

Other voices he became well known for included Winston Churchill, Gilbert Harding, Robb Wilton, Jimmy Edwards, Norman Wisdom, Malcolm Muggeridge, Sir Mortimer Wheeler, Henry Hall, Duke of Edinburgh, Bernard Miles, Harry Worth and Eamonn Andrews.

In the post-war period as well as theatre and summer season work Cavanagh was regularly heard on BBC radio doing the usual round of variety shows such as Variety Bandbox, Music-Hall, Workers' Playtime and Blackpool Night. In 1948 he co-starred with Peter Brough and the perennially naughty schoolboy Archie Andrews in Two's a Crowd. Recorded with no audience, no orchestra and no supporting cast it was set onboard the cruise ship S.S. Celebrity. All the crew and passengers were film radio and theatre stars all played by the two Peters.  

Peter starred in a number of occasional radio shows titled The Voice of Them All but his television work never went beyond guest appearances apart from a short BBC series in 1955 in which he "introduces an entirely new approach to the study of impersonation". During the 15-minute show he would "demonstrate by applying his own well-known talent of mimicry, not only by voice but in some cases by appearance, and one of his victims may even be present in person to be mimicked side by side and to join him in a vocal duet."    

His love of cars and motor sport came in useful in 1957 when he presented a series of features on motor racing as part of the children's BBC tv show Studio E, named after the Lime Grove studio from which it was broadcast. He seemed to be a hit with the kiddies as he also appeared on another children's show Focus.   

Radio appearances in the 1960s were infrequent and by which time the likes of Peter Goodwright and Mike Yarwood had picked up the mantle. But he was briefly back on air in the early 70s as one of the panellists on Radio 2's impersonation-fest The Impressionists alongside Goodwright and the nostalgia series Sounds Familiar and Funny You Should Ask.

In 1977 Cavanagh spoke to Mike Craig for his Radio 2 series It's a Funny Business. When the programme was repeated in 1986 Mike recorded a new introduction to recognise the fact that Peter had died some five years before. This recording comes from its 1990 repeat, the last time this programme was heard.  

Monday, 25 May 2020

We Stop for PopMaster

Today Ken Bruce is hosting an All Day PopMaster contest with DJs from the BBC and commercial radio taking part.

PopMaster was first featured on Ken's mid-morning show in 1998, although 1996 is quoted in the quiz book. Two years out! (Oh, how I wanted to type one year out). The idea for the quiz had been suggested by Ken's producer Colin Martin and they enlisted Phil 'The Collector' Swern to compile the questions.  

I've managed to find an example from 2004 where the format was slightly different from the current set-up. Part1 occurred at 10.30 but contestant number two didn't appear until 11.15 and then after another record the Three in Ten. See how you get on with these questions from 30 January 2004. They certainly seem easier than the current question level. 

All Day PopMaster starts during the Radio 2 breakfast show with Dermot O'Leary sitting in for Zoe and the final during Sara Cox's drivetime show.

Sunday, 24 May 2020

Mercia Sound

Forty years ago the second tranche of local commercial radio stations came on-stream. CBC in Cardiff arrived in April and in May 1980 Mercia Sound. Based in a former working men's club in Hertford Place in Coventry it was the third station in the West Midlands, joining BRMB and Beacon.  

Bringing the team together was chief executive John Bradford, former MD at Radio Tees. That team included Gordon Astley, Stuart Linnell, Dave Jamieson, Ian Rufus, Tony Gillham, Mike Henfield, John Warwick, Andy Lloyd and Jim Lee.   

Though the Mercia name was subsumed into Free Radio in 2012 a 40th anniversary reunion had been planned for this month. The coronavirus pandemic put paid to that but, thanks to Coventry community radio station Radio Plus, based in those old Hertford Place studios, there was a six-hour Mercia Sound takeover last night. Taking part were John Bradford, Mike Henfield, Gordon Astley, Dave Jamieson, Stuart Linnell, Tony Gillham, Mark Keen, Andrew Lloyd, Julie Carter-Lowe, Paul Robinson, Clive Parker-Skelhon, Ian Shep Shepherd and Simon McAusland.

The audio has been uploaded by Kevin Sykes who provided much of the archive material.     

Friday, 8 May 2020

VE75: 8 May 1945 Remembered

The official announcement of the end of hostilities in Europe came at 3 p.m. British Double Summer Time on Tuesday 8th May 1945. The country had been holding its breath for the announcement for nearly a week as the news of Hitler's suicide (1st), the German surrender in Italy and the fall of Berlin (2nd) and the surrender of troops in Denmark (4th) all filtered through. John Snagge had presented the final edition of War Report on the 5th.

By Monday 7th May news came from a German radio station at Flensburg near the Danish border of a broadcast by Foreign Minister Count Schwerin von Krosigk that the new Fuehrer Grand Admiral Doenitz had declared an unconditional surrender. In Britain this led to "a good deal of confusion, premature rejoicing and mystification" (Daily Sketch).   The Government had agreed to a delay in the formal declaration until a time that suited both the Russians and the Americans. At 6 p.m. the BBC broadcast that Churchill wouldn't be heard that day. Just over an hour and a half later came the news that the following day the Prime Minister would be speak in the afternoon and that it would officially be Victory in Europe Day. VE Day, and the day after, would be a public holiday and, just to top it all, the pubs would be allowed to stay open until midnight.      

The BBC put into place one of seven different advance schedules they'd drawn up for ten days of victory celebrations. There were special victory editions of some of the most popular shows at the time such as ITMA (V-ITMA for the occasion), The Will Hay Programme (Victory at St Michaels), the variety show Cap and Bells, In Town Tonight, Music Hall, Monday Night at Eight and a series "dedicated to those who made possible this great victory" called Their Finest Hour. The full Home Service schedule for VE Day can be found on the History of the BBC website.     

Writing in his diary BBC announcer Stuart Hibberd remembers how his VE-Day at Broadcasting House panned out:
I was up betimes and broadcasting before breakfast, and later came a busy period in the office of conferences, checking cues and schedules, inserting this and leaving out that, and at all time I was answering for John Snagge while he rehearsed 'Tribute to the King' and Victory Report.
Snagge announced the Prime Minister at three o'clock, I read the six o'clock News - twenty-five minutes of it - with the Prime Minister's recorded speech. The 'Tribute to the King' went excellently. His Majesty spoke very well indeed, but took thirteen and a half minutes, so that. with the National Anthem, played by the Symphony Orchestra in Bedford, it was almost 9.15 p.m. before I began the News.
After dark, we went out to see the flags and floodlighting. There were hundreds of flags, but only a few flood-lit buildings. It was a most impressive scene, with crowds everywhere in the streets and on the pavements. I returned to read the midnight News, which included the King's speech, the first sentence of which I can never forget: "As these words are being spoken, the official end of the war in Europe is taking place..."

And with a feeling of great relief and deep thankfulness for having lived to see the end of a Second World War, I went to bed, and to sleep at once.  (from This is London)

Forty years later former BBC war correspondent Stewart MacPherson (pictured above) presented this programme featuring memories of VE Day. In The Way We Were we hear actuality recordings including eyewitness reports from MacPherson himself. There are fascinating insights from those who lived through that day or played a part behind the scenes including Susan Hibbert who helped type up the surrender documents, Churchill's Private Secretary John Peck, RAF pilot Raymond Baxter, a Wiltshire school girl and a Bevin boy, POW Jack Fraser, Corporal Tom Thorpe and BBC reporters Wynford Vaughan-Thomas and Godfrey Talbot.

But the real coup for this programme was the interview with HM The Queen who, with her sister Margaret, went out onto the streets of London on VE Day on what she calls "one of the most memorable nights of my life". The young Princess had registered for National Service on her 16th birthday and had been commissioned in the Auxiliary Territorial Services.    

The Way We Were was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Wednesday 8 May 1985. It was produced by Caroline Elliott. I've made some minor music edits to this recording. 

This is the last in a series of four blog posts marking the 75th anniversary of VE day.

Thursday, 7 May 2020

VE75: No Going Back

In this post I'm replaying the 1989 feature No Going Back in which former war correspondent Frank Gillard looks at the changes in British society brought about by the Second World War.

He says: "I see World War II as the great watershed of  my own life and a very considerable watershed in British social history. Every echo of 1945 delivers the same message: it wants to be a people's peace, a time for change, a time for communality and universality. Time for more mutual concern and fairer shares. A message arising sometimes out of reasoned argument, sometimes in heated  debate, sometimes in threatening challenge".

The programme looks at some of the major themes in post-war society: the rebuilding of  the economy, housing shortages, the Welfare State, the burgeoning interest in the arts, increased opportunities for secondary and higher education, an appetite for news and current affairs, the mechanisation of agriculture, the start of a new scientific age and the changing role of women.

There are contributions from Lord Asa Briggs, Barbara Castle, Arthur Court, Edna Healey, Tom Hopkinson, Professor Arthur Marwick, Spike Milligan, Professor Howard Newby, Jeffrey Richards, Sir Stephen Spender, Michael Swann & Professor Ted Wragg.

Gillard (pictured above) concludes "our society emerged from the conflict of war more considerate, more decent and more generous. The quality of life was greatly heightened. There was no going back to those bad old days. There was a new spirit abroad in the land after this war, and in my book that spirit still persists to a greater degree than many recognise who've no personal memories of pre-war Britain. The war was not fought in vain".

No Going Back was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 3 September 1989.

This is the third in a series of four blog posts marking the 75th anniversary of VE day. 

Wednesday, 6 May 2020

VE75: How Radio Won the War

In early September 1939 a saloon car fitted up with recording equipment was loaded onto a cross-Channel steamer at Dover. It was driven down to Paris where it was hidden in an underground garage.  Just for weeks later the BBC's young news reporter Richard Dimbleby arrived in the capital to pick up the car. This was the start of frontline war reporting for which the Corporation would be justifiably commended.

In the event during this Phoney War period Dimbleby became bored with what he saw as a lack of action and asked to be reassigned to the Middle East. It fell to his colleague Charles Gardner to witness the air battles over France in the summer of 1940.

Despite some memorable reports from the front-line the BBC was frustrated with the access it was being given in preference to newspaper reporters; whilst at the same time there were internal frustrations within the BBC that it had failed to build up a corps of war correspondents. The turning point came in the Spring of 1943 with the invasion of Oxfordshire. In fact it was a six day mock invasion in an exercise code-named Spartan. The BBC was allowed to cover it with "a view to persuading the services that radio reporters could play a valuable role on the battlefield". To overcome censorship issues correspondents developed a style that evoked the atmosphere of the front-line, providing the colour and human interest without the detail that would worry the censor such as locations and troop numbers. The recorded despatches (which were never of course broadcast) helped convince Sir Bernard Paget, commander-in-chief of Home Forces to allow the BBC greater access. This allowed producers to finalise their plans for the establishment of the War Reporting Unit which would go on to be so crucial in the nightly War Report programmes that started after D-Day in 1944.   

In this programme, the fourth in the series How Radio Won the War titled At Last, Something to Cheer About looks at how the BBC's war reporting changed in the final phases of the war. Narrated by Robert Powell it includes contributions from the always interesting Frank Gillard and Sir Bernard Ingham, who, you won't be surprised to hear, mentions Thatcher and the Falklands.

How Radio Won the War was first broadcast on BBC Radio 5 live on 9 July 1995.

This is the second in a series of four blog posts marking the 75th anniversary of VE day.

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