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

Wednesday, 11 December 2019

A Radio Christmas Card


There are lots of familiar voices in this audio Christmas card from December 1989. Familiar, that is, to listeners to the BBC World Service.

This programme is essentially a 40 minute promotion (here trimmed of the music down to 30  minutes) for some regular World Service programmes at the time. Your genial host pouring his guests a paper cup of Bush House plonk is Bob Holness, the regular presenter of the request show Anything Goes.

Popping into the studio are Paddy Feeny (Sportsworld), Andy Kershaw (Andy Kershaw's World of Music), Hugh Prysor-Jones (Newshour), Barbara Myers (Outlook), Ken Bruce (The Ken Bruce Show), David Allan (Country Style), Edward Greenfield (Music Review), Gordon Clyde (The Pleasure's Yours), Sarah Ward (Multitrack), Charles Alexander (Jazz Scene UK), newsreaders Alison Rooper and Brian Empringham, Malcolm Billings (Seven Seas), religious programmes producer Julie Lloyd, John Sugar and Annie Bristow (Megamix).     

A Radio Christmas Card is produced by Dave Tate.

Saturday, 7 December 2019

Flying Doctor calling Wallamboola base



Australia's Royal Flying Doctor Service owes its existence to a forward thinking Presbyterian minister, a young airman and the inventor of the first commercial combine harvester. The service, now in its 91st year, has stimulated writers and film producers to tell stories of medical emergencies but with the added bonus of aeroplanes rather than ambulances and set against the backdrop of the Australian Outback.   

It was the Reverend John Flynn (pictured left) who, in 1911, on a posting to a remote mission in South Australia, was struck by the lack of nearby medical facilities. The inspiration for a medical service of the air came in the form of a letter to Flynn sent in 1917 by a Lieutenant Clifford Peel, a former medical student and at that time a pilot for the Australian Flying Corps. His proposal was to use aeroplanes to ferry the sick and injured. 

The Rev Flynn continued to campaign for an airborne service for the next decade but it didn't become a reality until he received a generous bequest to be used for "an aerial experiment" from the Australian industrialist and inventor Hugh McKay. McKay is credited with inventing and manufacturing the first commercially viable mechanical combine harvester and he set up the Sunshine Harvester Company to produce this and other machinery. Flynn had already teamed up with QANTAS founder Hudson Fysh to get his idea off the ground, so to speak, but the influx of  funds allowed him to properly establish the Australian Inland Mission Aerial Medical Service. By 1942 it was known as the Flying Doctor Service and received the Royal prefix in 1955 following a tour of Australia the previous year by Queen Elizabeth II.

When it came to stories based on the service first out of the hangar was a 1936 Australia/UK co-production film The Flying Doctor starring Charles Farrell and Mary Maguire. It was shot at the short-lived Pagewood studios in Sydney by National Productions with financial and technical support from Gaumont-British Pictures. For many years the  film was considered to be lost, or at least missing its final reel, until it was unearthed during the demolition of the Figtree Film Studios.           

It was two decades later that BBC radio decided commission a series set around the Flying Doctor service, more on that in a moment.


Meanwhile, inspired by the radio programme, British television got in on the act with a Sunday night series of 39 programmes airing on ITV in 1959 and 1960. The Flying Doctor was an Associated British Picture Corporation production for ATV filmed at Elstree and on location in Australia. It starred American actor Richard Denning as Dr Greg Graham, a US medic on leave from a San Francisco research institute who takes over the duties of a blind doctor colleague (played by Peter Maddern).On hand was nurse Mary Meredith, played by Jill Adams and pilot Charley Wood played by the only Australian in the main cast, Alan White.     

The story of the Reverend John Flynn himself was told in an 8-part series on the Light Programme in 1963. Simply titled Flynn, the dramatised account by Rex Rienits starred New Zealand actor Walter Brown.

BBC television took up the story of Flynn and the Flying Doctor service in two series of 5-minute readings that went out on Sunday teatime in November/December 1967 and April/May 1968. Read by Aussie actor Vincent Ball as part of the Sunday Story strand, the first four episodes titled Flynn of the Inland told Flynn's story whilst the second five, Tales of the Inland, looked at other pioneers of the service.

It was the mid-80s before medical tales of the Outback resurfaced in the form of a long running (over 200 episodes from 1986 to 1993) series from Crawford Productions titled The Flying Doctors. It was headed by an all-Australian main cast that included Andrew MacFarlane, Liz Burch, Lenore Smith, Robert Grubb, Lewis Fitz-Gerald and Peter O'Brien. Set in the fictional town of Cooper's Crossing the programme had a more soap opera feel to it, romance amongst the medics was just as important as the medical emergencies. The series cashed in on a boom in Australian produced soaps such as Neighbours, Sons and Daughters, The Young Doctors and A Country Practice.    

In the UK the initial mini-series was shown on Channel 4 but BBC1 picked up the main ongoing series in 1988 and continued to show it until 1997, some four years after production had ceased. All the episodes are available on DVD.


"Flying Doctor calling Wallamboola base" became something of a catchphrase for anyone listening to the BBC Light Programme series that ran from 1958 to 1963. The Flying Doctor was written by the Australian writer Rex Rex Rienits and proved to be a very popular show, clocking up six series and over 120 episodes.

Rex Rientis had arrived in the UK on the back of some research work he undertaken for the 1949 Ealing Films production of Eureka Stockade, the story of a rebellion in 1854 by old miners in Victoria, Australia. Rex wrote or adapted a number of radio drama serials for BBC radio during the 1950s before being asked to pull together a series set around the Flying Doctor service.

Set in the fictional town of Wallamboola the main character was an English doctor, Chris Rogers, played by Scottish actor James McKechnie. Writing in the Radio Times ahead of the second series Rientis described the lead character as "the son of a small suburban shopkeeper, which means he has had to learn his job the hard way, through scholarship, part-time work and countless hours of sheer hard study. On first impact, most Australians found Chris a little too dedicated and serious-minded; and he found most Australians a little too casual and easy-going. But all that is straightening out now. Mutual understanding has brought mutual liking and respect, and discerning listeners may even note that nowadays a slight touch of Australian slang is apt to creep into Chris's speech." 


Assisting Rogers was nurse Jane Hudson, the daughter of a wealthy Sydney industrialist. "Jane likes to dance, she dresses better than most nurses can afford, she is good at sports - particularly tennis - and her fast, red sports car is the pride and terror of the district". Nurse Hudson was played by June Brunell, who like most of the cast apart from the lead, were all from Oz. However, from the third series in 1960 the main nurse role went to New Zealand actress Rosemary Miller as Mary West. Miller was already well-known as playing Nurse Pat Roberts in ATV's Emergency Ward 10 and by the time she left the soap and joined The Flying Doctor was married to actor Peter Hawkins of Bill and Ben fame.   

The pilot for the Flying Doctor service was Tommy O'Donnell played by Bill Kerr, at the time still acting as Hancock's dim-witted sidekick in Hancock's Half-Hour. O'Donnell learnt to fly as part of the R.A.A.F as a sergeant pilot. His sense of humour is "irrepressible, his conversation is racy, and he admits to two weaknesses - girls and very cold beer."

The series gave plenty of work to many Australian actors, some long resident in the UK, including Bettina Dickson (as radio operator Sally MacAndrew), Ed Devereaux, Lloyd Lamble, Russell Napier, Ray Barrett, Kenneth J. Warren, Maurice Travers, Trader Faulkner, Brenda Dunrich, Shirley Cameron, John Warwick, Charles Rolfe, Aileen Britton and Gwen Burroughs. Some parts were picked up by members of the BBC Drama Repertory Company such as Harry Towb, Norman Shelley, Mary Wimbush and Brewster Mason.

Rientis continued to work for BBC radio during the 1960s writing more drama serials for the Light Programme and then Radio 2 including Pride of the Pacific (starring Bill Kerr as Johnny Pride, skipper of the cargo ship Cleo), Agent X09, Charter Pilot (more Bill Kerr, this time as pilot Steve McFarlane) and The Man from Snowy River. 


The Flying Doctor series, popular though it was - the "Flying Doctor calling Wallamboola base" line even appeared in The Radio Ham episode of Hancock's TV series and there was at least one Flying Doctor annual- it has never been repeated since the early 60s. BBC Sound Archives retained just five programmes in the rather random way they were prone to do. It seems that the BBC Transcription Service issued a grand total of 54 episodes, just under half the total output, of which about 30 are known to have survived. However, no copies are known to be circulating amongst collectors and old-time radio enthusiasts.

So here is a plea. If you chance upon this blog post and you have in your possession, or know of any, off-air recordings of The Flying Doctor radio series please let me know. Alternatively see this post on the Missing Episodes forum, link here.   

The Flying Doctor
All broadcast on BBC Light Programme with some repeats on BBC Home Service

Series 1: 11 episodes July-September 1958
Series 2: 26 episodes March-September 1959 
Series 3: 27 episodes March-September 1960
Christmas Special: December 1960
Series 4: 23 episodes January-June 1961
Christmas Special: December 1961
Series 5: 20 episodes March-July 1962
Series 6: 13 episodes October-November 1963

Retained in BBC Sound Archives: s02e02 The City Orchid, s02e03 SOS for Baldy, s03e10 The Comeback, s03e15 The Rat Trap and s05e02 The Filibuster
 

Wednesday, 4 December 2019

London Calling - December 1983



A glimpse into the past to a time when the BBC World Service provided a full schedule of news, current affairs, sport, comedy, music and drama. These are the pages from the monthly magazine London Calling for December 1983 complete with listings and frequency guides.

There are some much missed music shows here: Anything Goes with Bob Holness, John Peel, Jazz for the Asking with Peter Clayton, classical music with Edward Greenfield and Gordon Clyde, and DLT's A Jolly Good Show.

The drama on offer includes productions under the Play of the Week and Radio Theatre banner specially commissioned for the World Service under the head of drama Gordon House. Some such as Puss in Boots and Detective had previously been heard on Radio 4. Some ex-Radio 3 programmes also surface: A Closer Look with poet Vernon Scannell and David Munrow's landmark series Pied Piper.

You could also learn English through the lyrics of pop songs in the frankly bizarre Pedagogical Pop. Sadly there are few examples of the programme floating around the web but they're well worth a listen.

Remarkably some programmes from this month are available to 'listen again' on the World Service website. There are about a dozen December 1983 editions of the arts magazine Meridian (over 2,000 in total), with this one presented by Jim Hiley looking at the music of Abba and the latest Bond film. The theme tune for Meridian by the way is Dave Grusin's Mountain Dance. I know this as a couple of years ago I received a query about it from a chap in Seattle. Correspondence from the States about World Service programmes. It's like being Margaret Howard on Letterbox!       























Sunday, 24 November 2019

Happiness and Tears


I only saw Ken Dodd live on stage once. It was the early seventies on a family holiday in Scarborough. The Futurist Theatre was full of laughter that evening. I'm not sure that I'd ever seen my parents laugh so much before or since. Doddy was certainly building his much-famed bridge to his audience that night. Even at that tender age I still recall that certain frisson amongst the audience when they realised they were in for a long session. Would we be able to get back into our holiday apartment in Chatsworth Gardens before the front door was locked? The Yorkshire audience got value for money that night.

At the time for us kids in the audience Ken Dodd was best known for performing with his Diddymen and as a souvenir of the show and that holiday my sister Vanessa and were each treated to a model of a Diddyman. Could've been Dickie Mint, but I'm hazy on that detail. It remained on my bedroom window sill until one day he got knocked off and lost his foot. Even glued back together again his appeal soon faded and he was, more than likely, consigned to the loft.   

Live performances were the lifeblood of Ken Dodd. Though he made hundreds or radio and TV broadcasts from the mid-50s onwards it was his tours of the nation's theatres that kept him coming back year after year long after the regular broadcast work had all but dried up.

Ken got his first radio break, as so many did at that time, on Workers' Playtime. Touring the nation's workplaces every weekday meant the programme had a voracious appetite for seasoned and novice comedians, singers and musicians. That first show on 23 December 1954 came from the canteen of the now demolished Barton power station near Eccles with 'Cheerful' Charlie Chester, singer Carole Carr and the Jimmy Leach Organolian Quartet. He made over 20 appearances on the show as well as other guest spots on Blackpool Night and Midday Music Hall.

First starring vehicle on the North Home Service
on 16 April 1957
By 1957 Ken got his first starring show for the North Home Service in a Northern Variety Parade broadcast called What a Life. It was the start of a long association with the BBC in Manchester with producer James Casey, and later Mike Craig and Ron McDonnell. Over a dozen regular series were commissioned at intervals throughout the 60s, 70s and 80s under a variety of titles from It's Great to be Young to Doddy' Daft Half-Hour or just plain old The Ken Dodd Show.


Doddy's TV shows started in 1959 initially on the BBC and then on ABC with 'Diddy' David Hamilton as his straight man. A Sunday teatime run of Ken Dodd and the Diddymen (1969-70) is probably where I first saw him before that Scarborough show. Although regular series ended after 1977 he continued to guest star on chat shows, panel games, The Good Old Days as well as the oft-repeated An Audience with ... shows in 1994 and 2002.      

As an audio treat here's an edition of Doddy's Different Show, a 6-part Radio 2 series from 1981. Ken is back with his old producer James Casey. In the cast are Peter Wheeler, brother of Geoffrey who'd been the producer on that first Workers' Playtime show; ace impressionist Peter Goodwright who'd starred in Ken's first radio series in 1958; Welsh actor Talfryn Thomas ("Dodd's brother in denistry") a co-star in Ken's TV series for ATV and BBC1 in the early 70s and actress Marlene Sidaway who Casey had already used to work alongside Les Dawson (Our Les), Tony Brandon (The Family Brandon) and Roy Castle (Castle's on the Air). First heard on Sunday 8 November 1981 this is a recording of the Friday 13 November repeat. It's not been heard since.



Of an earlier vintage, and cropping up on Radio 4 Extra now and again, is this show from the Star Parade series. First broadcast in April 1963 it features BBC staff announcer Judith Chalmers as well as John Laurie, Cardew Robinson, Harold Berens and music from The Springfields and the BBC Revue Orchestra.     


In 2006 Doddy spoke to Ed Doolan about his life and career.



To read more about Ken Dodd I can thoroughly recommend the latest tome from Louis Barfe, a man with a deep passion and a great knowledge of 'light' entertainment. Louis's book Happiness and Tears: The Ken Dodd Story is available in hardback from all the usual outlets.            

Ken Dodd 1927-2018

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