Monday, 1 September 2014

Random Radcliffe Gubbins

The Guest List was Radio 1’s short-lived arts magazine show airing in 1993 with Mark Radcliffe as “the pathfinder in the cultural desert”. It ran for 28 weeks every Thursday night from 15 April to 21 October.

This edition from 20 May 1993 features a film review with Mark Kermode, Tom McGrath’s new play about boxer Ken Buchanan, talking about TV with Mariella Frostrup and comedy duo Trevor and Simon.

1993 was a significant year for Mark Radcliffe: the Sony Award-winning Out on Blue Six was also running, having started in 1991, there was the sketch show Skyman – “the Surrealchemist of Sound” – the Radio 5 series Cult Radio and then, from 25 October, the start of the Radio 1 late night show nicknamed The Graveyard Shift.

The new show “presented by a bloke who’s older than the last one” replaced the outgoing Nicky Campbell, who temporarily left the station. Here’s the start of the first broadcast with Mark and Lard.

Fast forward eleven years and Mark and Lard were now leaving Radio 1, Radcliffe heading to Radio 2 and Riley to 6 Music. The departure didn’t go unnoticed and the BBC1 North West arts show Powerhouse was there to witness the event. This programme was broadcast on 26 March 2004.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?

Can you tell your frequencies from your wavelengths? Here’s help from the Ladybird book How It Works: Television.

Published in 1968, I’m guessing, from the stations on the radio dial, the artwork was commissioned the previous year. The text was written by David Carey. The illustration is by B.H. Robinson.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Ross on the Radio

I wonder if Bob Shennan had to complete extra compliance paperwork to get him back on-air? Yes, it won’t have escaped your notice that Jonathan Ross is making a (brief) return to Radio 2 this week, sitting in for Wrighty.

Looking back I’d forgotten that Ross did his Saturday morning show for about 11 years – not a bad run. In fact his radio pedigree goes back even further, to the summer of 1987, when he stood in for a holidaying Janice Long on Radio 1. This clip comes from 22 June 1987, where Jonathan seems unduly concerned about his thumb.

There were other Radio 1 appearances on Singled Out and My Top Ten and contributions to Radio 4’s Loose Ends. Then in 1988 Jonathan was part of the launch team for the overnight Super Station. This clip comes from 23 October 1988.

Wanting to re-create The Last Resort for the radio he was asked to bring a chat show to Radio 1. The Jonathan Ross Radio Show ran for 13 weeks in the spring of 1990 with a script co-written by Danny Baker, music from Victor Lewis-Smith and guests such as Hugh Laurie, Jools Holland, Punt and Dennis, Reeves and Mortimer and Jo Brand.
Ross didn’t return to the radio until 1998, this time on Virgin 1215 and then the following year there was the start of the Radio 2 Saturday morning shows. From about half-way through the run comes this programme from 23 October 2004. I’ve edited out the music from this 3-hour show, aside from a live acoustic performance by Graham Coxon, and it still runs at one hour and 20 minutes: he really did like the sound of his own voice!

It’s the usual mix of stream of consciousness, banter with producer Andy Davies and a quiz that sounds like it was made up during the show, and possibly was. Alongside Graham Coxon, the guests are Julian Clary and Russell Watson.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Farewell Smitty

Last weekend we heard the sad news about the untimely death of Mike Smith. ‘Smitty’ hadn’t been heard regularly on the radio for nearly a quarter of a century. But as the presenter of the breakfast show on both Capital and Radio 1 his time as DJ was fondly remembered.   

There are tributes from Mike Read, Johnny Beerling and others on this week’s Radio Todaypodcast and on this week’s Last Word.  You’ll find a couple of clips from Mike’s shows on Radio 1 over at
From my own archive comes this Radio 1 lunchtime show from 12 March 1984. There’s the Day-to-Day Challenge with Julie from Rhyl, a bit of chat with newsreaders Frank Partridge and Andrew Turner and some great 80s music. Listening back what does come across is Mike’s warm, professional style and one is struck by the clarity of his voice. This is a full hour with the music intact recorded on MW only in the days before Radio 1 had an FM service.  

Mike Smith 1955-2014

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

The Home of Radio

BH. Broadcasting House. How the BBC love their initials and love to tell us about their buildings. And the home of radio has had more than its fair share of programmes about its history and what goes on behind that famous façade.

Within months of its opening in 1932 John Watt was offering A Tour of Broadcasting House. I’ve already posted about The Second Tower of Babel narrated by Wynford Vaughan-Thomas in 1982. From 1997 comes this BBC2 documentary One Foot in Broadcasting House in which historian and broadcaster follows one day in the life of the building. There’s a rare chance to hear part of George Posford’s specially composed music composed for the opening  and we hear some fascinating anecdotes about that famous Prospero and Ariel statue. The programme was broadcast on 7 November 1997.

In 2006 Sir David Hatch returned to BH for an edition of Radio 4’s The Archive Hour. This programme, The Home of Radio, was broadcast on 18 March.

For that week’s Radio Times Sir David Hatch recalled his time at Broadcasting House and wrote this article:

Every weekday morning for 15 years I walked into Broadcasting House (BH) at 6.55 am, en route as controller of Radio2 (CR2) to see Ray Moore coming to the end of his shift. By then his belt was undone and he was bantering with Terry Wogan on the inter-studio link, limbering up for the live handover.

Later, as CR4, I called in on Today during the 7 am news bulletin to chat with Brian Redhead and John Timpson. Later still, as MDR (By now you’ve cracked the code – all BBC jobs were known by their initials. An engineer in external services information and operations was known as EIEIO. I’m not kidding!) I went to all five networks. Terry Wogan, God bless him, had returned from his TV chat show and Redhead and Timpson had morphed into Jim Naughtie and Sue MacGregor. The last two speak affectionately of BH on The Home of Radio.  

My first programme from BH as a producer was called Roundabout, and went out live on 1 April 1964. The first record went on at the wrong speed – 45 rpm not 33⅓ - and I thought my career was finished. Fortunately, those were the days when you were promoted for incompetence in the hope that, eventually, they would hit on something you could actually do.

Walking under Eric Gill’s statue, through the heavy gold double doors into the imposing half-moon reception hall, thrilled me every day. Gill was asked to provide statues of Prospero and Ariel, but is that what he sculpted? The local MP, and Lord Reith too, thought Ariel’s willy over-generous. Was it snipped? It was said that on Prospero’s back Gill had carved a girl’s face. True or false? Myths and legends abound before one has even entered the building.

An old girlfriend of mine, who had unceremoniously dumped me 20 years previously to marry a dentist, turned up in reception to meet me one day. I had set my face to cool and indifferent, only to discover that she was excited and in awe of what she was seeing – Robin Day, Denis Healey, Kenneth Williams, Robert Robinson, and Jimmy Young all in the space of five minutes. “It’s an amazing place,” she said. “Yes,” I said nonchalantly. And I thought “And it’s a bit more glamorous than a dentist’s waiting room.”

There’s more about Broadcasting House as well as Savoy Hill, Lime Grove and Television Centre in The BBC Tour presented by Nick Baker on BBC Radio 4 Extra on Saturday 9 August.  

Broadcasting House illustration by Mark Thomas at Central Illustration Agency as used in the Radio Times 3 November 2012.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

It’s That Man Again, Again

During World War II he was probably only second in popularity to Winston Churchill. He was a comedian who poked fun at the establishment and kept the nation laughing. His show was filled with more catchphrases than The Fast Show decades later. His death was mourned by millions, and thousands lined the streets for his funeral. He’s now largely forgotten. That man was Tommy Handley.

Listening back to old episodes of It’s That Man Again (1939-49) – though few of the 300+ were kept – the clever word play from scriptwriter Ted Kavanagh is much in evidence, as is Handley’s rapid gunfire delivery. But with the passage of time some of the puns and broadly drawn characters that constantly drop in and out of the action make it hard to understand why the audience were whooping with delight. Today’s PC brigade would have apoplexy about Ali-Oop and Signor So-So.
One of the best remembered characters was Mrs Mopp, her cry of “Can I do you now, sir?” was one of the many ITMA catchphrases to enter the common vernacular. This scene dates from a 1942 show, make of it what you will:

F/X Door Opens
Tommy Handley: Well if it isn’t Mrs Mopp, the char with the bald-headed broom
Mrs Mopp (Dorothy Summers): Can I do you now, sir?  
TH: Yes, Mrs Mopp, I want you to pacify my landlady, Cheap Chat.
MM: Her sir? I wouldn’t lower me dignity by talking to her. She’s a woman, that’s what she – a woman!
TH: You confirm my worst suspicions.
MM: What I could tell you about her and her daughter!
TH: Some other time, Mrs Mopp. What about her daughter? Anyway, she threatens me with expulsion.
MM: How dare she! You’ve never had it, have you sir?
TH: No – I’ve had brewer’s asthma and a touch of the tantivies, but never expulsion.
MM: I could let you have a nice combined room, sir. It may not be clean, but it’s comfortable. My present lodger’s been pinched again.
TH: What – between the mattress and the ironwork? I’ll think it over. I should be very happy in Maison Mopp.
MM: I’ll get rid of the pigeons before you move in. Ta-ta for now.
TH: Hotpot for stew.
FX: Door closes

I mention all this because BBC Radio 4 Extra are today repeating – for the first time – the earliest surviving recording of ITMA. However, it’s not one of the regular editions but is a recording of the stage show performed at the Palace Theatre, Manchester and first heard on the Home Service on 18 May 1940. The stage tour, produced by the bandleader and impresario Jack Hylton, went on the road shortly after the second series had ended but was not deemed a great success.

Returning in 1941 the programme hit its stride: “a basic, if slim, storyline, sustained by an endless procession of crazy characters through the overworked door – often for no particular reason – each of whom introduced himself with the requisite catchphrase. Although he was the central figure, there was no strict division of comic and feed between Handley and this cavalcade; roles were interchangeable and laughs evenly distributed.” 

Tommy Handley himself had been a radio star from the earliest days of broadcasting. Born in 1892 he’d seen service in the First World War and became involved in concert parties. After the war he briefly formed a double-act with Jack Hylton. From 1921 he toured the music halls with The Disorderly Room, a sketch written by Eric Blore – Blore himself now best-remembered for his comic roles in the RKO films Top Hat and Shall We Dance. Handley performed the sketch in his first broadcast in 1924, a relay of that year’s Royal Variety Performance.

From 1925, having passed a BBC audition, Handley was regularly heard on the wireless in shows such as Radio Radiance (his first regular broadcast was 22 July 1925), Handley’s Manoeuvres, Tommy’s Tours and Hot Pot. In 1930 he formed the double act North and South with Ronald Frankau; they would later become Murgatroyd and Winterbottom, specialising in pun-laden topical commentaries on current events. In 1936 he appeared on Radio Luxembourg in Tommy Handley’s Watt Nots.

By the late 30s the BBC’s head of variety was looking for another “fixed points” comedy series to follow the hugely successful Band Waggon, and for Tommy Handley to be the star. The team of Handley, Kavanagh and producer Francis Worsley came together - meeting over at the Langham Hotel in Portland Place - to create It’s That Man Again. 

Still popular in its post-war incarnation ITMA featured in the 1947 edition of The World Radio and Television Annual reproduced below:

But ITMA wasn’t universally admired. Within the BBC there was much discussion about whether the jokes crossed the line and caused offence. One listener wrote to the Radio Times and opined: “I am constantly amazed by the number of otherwise intelligent people who rave about this programme. I have tried to discover some sort of level of culture or intelligence from which ITMA fans are drawn – but in vain.”  But the programme got the Royal seal of approval when one edition was recorded before a delighted Royal Family in 1942.

The behind the scenes discussions and memos are revealed in this programme from 1979, The ITMA Files, based on documents in the BBC Written Archives. Narrated by Gordon Snell, the readings are by Douglas Blackwell, Martin Friend, Garard Green, Roger Hammond, Godfrey Kenton, Peggy Paige and Eva Stuart. Unfortunately my tape of this documentary suffered from numerous audio dropouts. I have rectified most of these but about five minutes of the middle of the programme, from 17:55, are missing. The ITMA Files was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on 24 December 1979. 

ITMA came to an abrupt end in January 1949 with the death of Tommy Handley. It’s not overstating the case to say that the nation mourned. As for Ted Kavanagh he’d formed the literary agency Kavanagh Associates that included amongst its signings Denis Norden and Frank Muir. I wonder what happened to them?

At Tommy Handley’s memorial service at St Paul’s the then Bishop of London spoke for those thousands that turned out to pay their respects: “He was one whose genius transmuted the copper of our common experience into the gold of exquisite foolery. His raillery was without cynicism, and his satire without malice. From the highest to the lowest in the land people had found in his programmes an escape from their troubles and anxieties into a world of whimsical nonsense.”

Tommy Handley 1892-1949

“Don’t forget the diver…”  

The ITMA Years, The Woburn Press 1974
The World Radio and Television Annual, edited by Gale Pedrick, Sampson Low, Marston & Co Ltd 1947
Radio Comedy 1938-1968 by Andy Foster & Steve Furst, Virgin Publishing 1996  

Thursday, 24 July 2014

Radio Lives - Peter Sellers

If I had to choose my Desert Island Movies then amongst the collection would be a film starring that great comic actor Peter Sellers. But not a Clouseau or the tour de force that was Dr Strangelove. Nor the Boulting Brothers films that catapulted him from radio star to film star. No, it’s the film where Sellers, as Dodger Lane, plans to break out of jail and commit an audacious robbery in Two-Way Stretch. The perfect rainy day movie. 

Sellers’ entertainment grounding was, of course, on the airwaves of the BBC; part of the phalanx of young comedians who came through the wartime ENSA and Gang Show route.

Famously it was Peter gift of mimicry that got him his first broadcast. Friend and scriptwriter Jimmy Grafton recounted the story in The Goon Show Companion:

Impatiently waiting to hear the result of an audition, Peter decided to take a short cut and rang Roy Speer, producer of the popular Showtime programme. A leading comedy partnership at that time was Richard Murdoch and Kenneth Horne. It was the latter’s voice that Roy Speer heard when he answered the phone. After enthusiastically recommending one Peter Sellers as an artist, the voice of Horne handed over to the voice of Murdoch to endorse this opinion. Roy was suitably impressed – until Peter’s nerve gave out and he confessed his true identity. However, he’d done enough to convince Roy, who invited him for an interview. On July 1, 1948 Peter made his radio debut. 
That appearance on the Light Programme’s Show Time – presented by Dick Bentley and billed as “a weekly parade of Variety’s up-and-coming attractions” - kick-started Peter’s radio career. Other broadcasts that year included guest spots on Henry Hall’s Guest Night, Starlight Hour and The Harmaniacs. He was also reunited with Ralph Reader, of The Gang Show fame, in the Home Service show It’s Fine to Be Young – billed as “A Show of Youth”.

In 1949 there was the proto-Goon Show comedy show on the Third Programme. Third Division starred Sellers, Secombe and Bentine along with Robert Beatty, Benny Lee, Patricia Hayes, Benny Hill, Carole Carr, Margaret Lindsay, Robert Moreton and announcer Bruce Belfrage. Sadly none of these Frank Muir and Denis Norden scripted shows survive but perhaps the best known sketch, Balham – Gateway to the South, was re-recorded for the 1958 LP, The Best of Sellers.    

Like Third Division much of Sellers’ radio work has been lost – even The Goon Show has over 100 missing episodes – but he remained a regular voice on the BBC throughout the 1950s, in parallel to his burgeoning film career.

His big break in radio, and one that gave him regular work over five years, was providing all manner of funny voices on Ray’s a Laugh. Starring wise-cracking Ted Ray it first aired on the Home Service in April 1949 and was seen as a direct successor to ITMA – Tommy Handley had died in January of that year.  In each episode Ray would encounter lots of comic characters voiced, in series one, by Sellers, Fred Yule (who’d worked on ITMA), and the fraternal partnership of Bob and Alf Pearson.
One of Sellers’ characters was a small boy known as ‘Soppy’ with the catchphrase “Just like your big red conk” and there was a fruity old girl who would giggle and say “My name’s Crystal Jollibottom, you saucebox!” Later there was the friendly Russian ‘Serge Suit’ (this was certainly no sophisticated comedy).

Peter worked with Ted Ray over five series, from 1949 to 1954, on about 190 shows. Alongside him the cast also included Patricia Hayes, Charles Hawtrey and Kenneth Connor. Connor would go on to provide all the comedy voices, such as Sidney Mincing, when Peter left to concentrate on the Goons and by now Ray’s a Laugh was more of a domestic comedy – Ted Ray with his radio wife Kitty Bluett – than a sketch show.    
Here are a couple of excerpts featuring Sellers with Crystal Jollibottom from series one and an American character Al K. Traz in series five.

In 1950 there was an aborted attempt to find a star vehicle for Peter with the show Sellers’ Castle. Jimmy Grafton takes up the story:
To accommodate the zany characters of the others, Spike and I chose as a setting a ramshackle castle owned by “the twenty-second (FX:SHOT.SCREAM), I beg your pardon, the twenty-third Lord Sellers”. To assist his impecunious lordship in raising money for the maintenance of the estate, Mike was to play a crazy inventor, while Alfred Marks was an impresario with a singing protégé, Harry. Spike was his usual Eccles character (“Who are you?” “I’m a serf.” “What’s that man doing on your back?” “Da- serf-riding.”). Also in the cast were Janet Brown, Peter Butterworth and Robert Moreton. The script of Sellers’ Castle contained a story line with a historical flashback to one of Lord Sellers’s ancestors. In retrospect, the dialogue was a mixture of craziness and corn, but the whole thing had a shape and was tailored to the various talents in evidence at the time. Faith and optimism also played their part!

Graton organised a private recording of excerpts from the script to present to the BBC. To link the excerpts he called on “a fellow officer from my regiment”, the BBC announcer Andrew Timothy, who would, of course, go on to be the resident announcer in the early Goon episodes. Producer Roy Speer was happy with what he heard and the BBC organised a pilot. Unfortunately the show was assigned to Jacques Brown rather than Speer, who insisted on recording with a studio audience. When presented to a radio planning meeting the show was rejected as “too crazy”. Ironically a year later the go-ahead was given for Crazy People, though this time with a studio audience.
Incidentally the Wikipedia page for Peter Sellers quotes Adrian Rigelsford’s 2004 biography (I don’t own a copy) and lists eight episodes of a series titled Sellers Market that aired in 1950. The only reference I can find to this title is that it was part of the Third Division programmes and was a spot in which he played all the street traders.
A very detailed billing for The Goon Show
on 15 February 1955

Meanwhile here’s a selection of radio shows that did make it to air, with the exception of The Goon Show for which there’s any number of books and websites:
Bumblethorpe: Sellers replaced Valentine Dyall in the second episode of this Home Service series broadcast on 19 November 1951. In the cast were Robert Moreton, Avrill Angers, Kenneth Connor, Graham Stark, Spike Milligan, Denise Bryer and Alfred Marks.

The Hundredth Boat Race: “in which Jimmy Edwards and Dick Bentley become involved in Boat Race Day on the towpath”. Broadcast live on the Home Service on 2 April 1954. Also with Arthur Askey, Valentine Dyall, Arthur English, Joyce Grenfel, A.E. Matthews, Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe, Peter Sellers, John Snagge, Terry-Thomas, Ralph Wightman, Jack Hawkins, Rudolf Offenbach, Noel Johnson and Frank Marchant.

The Lid off the BBC: Programme four looked at the Variety Department and in particular The Goon Show. It was written and presented by Wilfred Thomas and broadcast on the Home Service 4 May 1955.
The Listening Room: featured Sellers and some records including I’m Walking Backwards for Christmas and Dance With Me, Henry. Broadcast live on the Light Programme 28 December 1955.

Finkel’s Café: set “where the elite meet to eat” Sellers played the Irish manager Eddie in this comedy from the pens of Muir and Norden. It was adapted from an American series Duffy’s Tavern and also starred Sid James, Avrill Angers and Kenneth Connor. Broadcast on the Light Programme in July/August 1956 there were either eight, nine or ten episodes, depending on the information source. No copies survive.  
Desert Island Discs: Sellers was Roy Plomley’s castaway on 4 February 1957.

Roundabout with David Jacobs on
14 October 1958 with a guest spot by Sellers.
Note the producer credit of Roy Speer who gave
him his radio debut ten years earlier.

Roundabout: when this Light Programme daily show started in October 1958 the Tuesday host was David Jacobs. One of the features for the first few weeks was a “Peter Sellers cameo” in From Our Own Sellers.

Forces Gala Night: programme to commemorate 21 years of the BFBS it included a shorthened version of the Goon’s I Was Monty’s Treble. Compered by David Jacobs it was broadcast on 8 November 1964 on the Light Programme and the General Overseas Service (for the final hour).  
By 1980 Peter Sellers has notched up over sixty film appearances and  was basking in the success of Being There. In July he was in London with plans for a Goon Show reunion dinner when he suffered a heart attack. He died in the early hours of 24 July. This is how the news was reported that day on BBC Radio 4. There are clips from Today presented by John Timpson with reports from Gerry Forsey and Neil Bennett, who speaks to Michael Bentine. The newsreader is Christopher Slade. This is followed by part of a news bulletin read by Brian Perkins. Finally that evening’s Kaleidoscope presented by Mark Storey who talks to Barry Took.

Between 1984 and 1987 Alexander Walker, long-time film critic of the Evening Standard wrote and presented a series recalling “the screen careers of the cinema’s brightest stars” called Film Star. From the second series comes the episode devoted to Peter Sellers. It was first broadcast on Radio 4 on 19 March 1986.

Peter Sellers 1925-1980

Postscript: Actually it was a close call with those Peter Sellers films. The day I completed the final draft of this post I also dug out my copies of The Wrong Arm of the Law - with a wonderful performance from Lionel Jeffries as 'Nosey' Parker - and The Naked Truth - "do you mean to say I get all that with such a small premium".
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