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".

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Back from the Dead

With the news that Dead Ringers is to return to BBC Radio 4 later this month after a seven year break, here’s a reminder of the faces and the voices behind its original incarnation in 2002.

Meet the Dead Ringers was broadcast on BBC Two as part of their Arena: Radio Ha! Evening on 26 December 2002.

Read more about Bill Dare’s reasons for bringing back the show on the British ComedyGuide website.

Friday, 4 July 2014

More Than Two Can Play

The 1986 Peacock Committee is now best remembered for its proposal that the BBC should privatise Radios 1 and 2. That recommendation was forgotten about, though the idea still continues to appear at intervals. As for the commercial radio sector Peacock suggested that “IBA regulation of radio should be replaced by a looser regime”.

Here’s how BBC Radio 4’s Six O’Clock News reported the Committee’s findings on 3 July 1986. The newsreader is David Symonds, the reports by John Parry and John Sergeant.

A year later the Government issued the Green Paper Radio: Choices and Opportunities proposing changes to the regulatory framework for Independent Local Radio. It also signalled the end to simulcasting on both AM and FM and paved the way for the Broadcasting Act 1990 that saw the launch of the three Independent National Radio stations, dozens of local and community stations and the establishment of the Radio Authority.
This edition of BBC Radio 4’s Analysis titled More than Two Can Play looks at what the future may hold for radio broadcasting in terms of content and the way it’s transmitted. The programme is presented by David Wheeler, produced by Fraser Steel and was broadcast on 20 May 1987.

There are contributions from Chris Dickins, Brian Wenham, David Mellor, Brian West, Jimmy Gordon, Bevan Jones, Clement Freud, Robin Corbett, Sam Brittan, Philip Crooks, Tony Currie, Jocelyn Hay, Monica Sims and Phil Layden.

Monday, 30 June 2014

World Cup 1986, 1990 and 1994

The World Cup returned to Mexico for the 1986 tournament with time difference leading to 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. kick-offs UK time. There was plenty of home nation interest as for the second time running England, Scotland and Northern Ireland all qualified.

Radio 2’s match commentary, all on medium wave, starts with the Group A opener on 31 May: Italy vs Bulgaria. Commentating are Mike Ingham and Peter Jones. Over on BBC1 they precede coverage of the opening ceremony and game with the classic Whatever Happened to the Likely Lads? episode, No Hiding Place. 

On weekdays Radio 2 provides World Cup overnight news at 6.02 a.m., 7.07 and 8.07. There are match reports at 8.02 p.m., 9.02, 12.05 and 1.02 in addition to the normal afternoon Sports Desks at 1.05 p.m., 2.02, 3.02, 4.02, 5.05, 6.02, 6.45 on MW only and 9.55. Also keeping an eye on proceedings in Mexico was Sport on 2, at the time presented by Tony Adamson, and Stuart Hall’s Sunday Sport.

Commentary on the first round matches involving Northern Ireland comes from Mike Ingham and Mark Robson. At the time Mark worked for BBC Northern Ireland and would later move to UTV and then Sky Sports as part of their rugby commentary team. Scotland’s matches were covered by Mike Ingham and Roddy Forsyth with analysis by Denis Law. Print journalist Roddy joined the BBC in 1986 and would become the Scottish Football Correspondent for Radio Sport; he remains a regular on 5 Live’s sports team. 

This is part of a World Cup Special from 3 June 1986. Can anyone identify the theme tune please, it's been bugging me for days and I'm convinced I have a copy of it somewhere.

Meanwhile the England matches had commentary from Peter Jones and Bryon Butler with summaries by Ron Greenwood.  Only England progressed to the second round and then onto the quarter-finals before defeat against Argentina and that famous ‘hand of God’ goal. Commentary on the final on 29 June (Argentina vs West Germany) was again a Jones/Butler commentary.

Italia 90 introduced football fans to Nessun Dorma, John Barnes rapping and the pain of an England penalty shootout. It was Radio 2’s final tournament – Radio 5 would take over all the sports coverage from August 1990 though that station didn’t actually get round to handling a World Cup tournament – and as usual it was on medium wave only and confined to home nation matches; this time England, Scotland and the Republic of Ireland. Theplanned coverage was of the opening game, the semi-finals and the final. With Ireland and England progressing beyond the group stages there was some added quarter-final action too.

Radio 2’s coverage was presented by John Inverdale, who also fronted the Wimbledon programmes when they started, including some joint programmes when the tennis and football overlapped. The Radio Times is a little light on who commentated on which game but the listed team are Mike Ingham, Alan Green, Ron Jones with expert analysis from Denis Law and Ray Clemence.  

With Scotland once again in the running, commentary on those games was also carried on Radio Scotland – can anyone confirm the commentary team? On 16 June there was a clash of 8 p.m. kick-offs so whilst Radio 2 carried England vs Holland, Radio Scotland carried Sweden vs Scotland.

Additional World Cup news, and some commentary, was heard on Sport on 2 with Jon Champion and Sunday Sport with Charles Colville. The Republic of Ireland’s match against Egypt was heard on Sunday Sport for instance.  There was also an extra World Cup Report each evening after the 11 p.m. news.

The final (West Germany vs Argentina) on Sunday 8 July was covered in an extended Wimbledon 90 and World Cup 90 programme from 2 p.m. to about 9 p.m. as the Men’s Singles Final took place that day too.

By the time we get to 1994, Radio 5 Live had arrived – replacing the short-lived Radio 5 - and there was plenty of airtime to fill. Football was more popular than ever due to Sky Sports upping the ante and over on ITV we had the adaptation of the stage play An Evening with Gary Lineker.

The 5 Live coverage was linked by Jon Champion though were it overlapped with Wimbledon we had John Inverdale, or on Tuesday evenings as part of Inside Edge presented by Jonathan Legard. There was also coverage as part of Saturday’s Sport on Five with either Ian Payne or Marcus Buckland and on Sunday Sport with Eleanor Oldroyd. The commentary team in the USA was Mike Ingham, Alan Green, Ron Jones  and Rob Hawthorne. Providing the expert analysis were Mark Lawrenson and David Pleat.

The only ‘local’ interest was the Republic of Ireland so in the first week we also had commentary on Germany vs Bolivia, USA vs Switzerland, Germany vs Spain, Italy vs Norway and Brazil vs Cameroon as well as Ireland’s match against Italy. The final on 17 July (Brazil vs Italy and the first to be decided on penalties) coincided with The Three Tenors Concert from the Dodger Stadium in LA. This was broadcast on both BBC1 and Radio 2.

And that is where I leave the World Cup for the time being. Further posts may follow in four year’s time, assuming I qualify.

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

World Cup 1978 and 1982

1978, and the World Cup moves to Argentina. Just as in 1974 England fail to qualify and hopes are pinned on Ally’s Tartan Army. Andy Stewart charts with Ally’s Tartan Army and Rod Stewart with Ole, Ola. BBC coverage uses the Andrew Lloyd Webber penned Argentine Melody and ITV Alan Tew’s Action Argentina.

All the radio coverage is on Radio 2 and we start to see a gradual increase in the time devoted to the tournament. The weekday 15 minute Sports Desk broadcast at 18:45 is extended to nearly half-an-hour and on days when there’s play an additional Sports Desk goes out at 23:02 just before Round Midnight.

For the first time the opening ceremony and the opening game (West Germany vs Poland) are covered. Commentary (all on long wave only as Radio 2’s music programmes continue on VHF) is by Peter Jones and Alan Parry, with David Francey of BBC Scotland again joining the team for Scotland’s group matches. “Expert comments” come from Denis Law.

In addition to Scotland’s games (they don’t progress further than the first round) there’s commentary on the Italy vs Argentina game. The only other commentary is the final on 25 June (Netherlands vs Argentina) with Peter Jones, Bryon Butler and Denis Law. 

It’s also worth mentioning an “all-star entertainment” that acted as a prelude to the tournament: Good Luck, Scotland.  Broadcast on Radio 2 on Bank Holiday Monday (29 May) it’s now perhaps best known for featuring the last-ever outing for Steptoe and Son in a specially written 15 minute sketch called Scotch on the Rocks (there’s a poor quality version on YouTube). The hour-long show also featured Ernie Wise, Janet Brown, Michael Hext (Young Musician of the Year), Peter Morrison, Tom Conti, Helen McArthur, The Pipes and Drums of the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and the Max Harris Orchestra. Writing some of the material were Barry Cryer and John Junkin.   

With three ‘home’ countries in contention – England, Scotland and Northern Ireland – the 1982 World Cup coverage had to step up a gear. In the first week from Spain, Radio 2 (now on medium wave) offered a match a day between Tuesday and Friday.

Commentary on England’s games was provided by Peter Jones and Bryon Butler, with expert analysis from Jimmy Armfield. Looking after the Scottish matches was George Hamilton and David Begg with summaries from Frank McLintock. George Hamilton continues to commentate for the World Cup for RTE and is part of their 2014 team. David Begg worked for BBC Scotland and this was his first World Cup. He continued to commentate north of the border until his retirement in 2012. Meanwhile the Northern Ireland commentary was by Alan Green and Peter Brackley. Alan Green had only recently joined BBC Sport and is, of course, commentating at the 2014 for Radio 5 Live. Peter Brackley had been on Radio 2 since the late 70s but this was to be his last World Cup for the BBC as he joined ITV at the start of the 1982/3 season.

With so many games to cover there was, for the first time, a clash of sporting occasions when, in week two, the afternoon kick-offs coincided with Wimbledon. The tennis coverage was presented that year by Mike Ingham (normally it would’ve been Peter Jones), and Mike was also the regular host of Sport on 2 at that time. There were combined Wimbledon/World Cup Special programmes on 25 June and 1 July.  As usual the music continued over on VHF with Ed Stewart and David Hamilton, though both were on holiday on some point that month and cover came from the continuity announcers Don Durbridge and Colin Berry.

As only England and Northern Ireland progressed to the next round and then both failed to go further, there was no other commentary until the final (Italy vs West Germany) on 11 July. Presenting was Mike Ingham with match commentary from Peter Jones, Bryon Butler and Jimmy Armfield.

In the next post 1986 and 1990.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

World Cup 1970 and 1974

The first World Cup of which I have a clear memory of is the 1970 tournament held in Mexico. I’d cut out a full-page colour photograph of the England squadfrom the back of the Daily Express – a broadsheet back then – and sellotaped it to a large board.  England where knocked out by Germany in the quarter-finals. Their record Back Home fared better and made number one that May.

I happen to have one back issue of the Radio Times that covers that World Cup – a photo of Bobby Moore adorns the cover. BBC TV’s daily coverage was hosted by David Coleman, Frank Bough and David Vine but on radio - unlike today’s almost continuous coverage – commentary was wholly concentrated on the home nation games – in this case just England-  apart from the final and one of the semi-finals.

Although we now associate Radio 2 in the 1970s and 1980s as being the home of radio sport, the 1970 World Cup matches were broadcast exclusively on Radio1’s 247 metre wavelength.  At the time this was not as unusual as it may now seem. From Radio 1’s launch in September 1967 it had regularly carried any midweek matches, although, confusingly not all such matches – some still appeared over on Radio 2. For example on 29 May 1968 the European Cup Final (Benfica v Manchester United) was on Radio 1 whilst the following week on 5 June the semi-final of European Nations’ Championship Cup (England vs Yugoslavia) was on Radio 2.

The radio commentary team was Maurice Edelston, who along with Brian Moore, Alan Clarke and Simon Smith had covered the 1966 competition, Bryon Butler, who’d become the radio football correspondent in 1968, and Peter Jones. Peter had joined the BBC in 1966 as a sports assistant and had been involved covering the Group 4 and the quarter-final matches played in the North-East in that year’s World Cup. He joined the rota of presenters of the Saturday afternoon Sports Session in late 1967 and was the first host of Sport on 2 when it started in April 1970.    

The 1970 coverage differs from that four years earlier as listeners were now treated to commentary of the full game for England’s group stage matches, and not just second-half commentary. We did get second-half commentary on a semi-final (possibly Italy vs West Germany) and most of the final (Brazil vs Italy) on 21 June just after an extra programme, Summer Solstice, that followed Alan Freeman and Pick of the Pops.

Here sports journalist Geoffrey Green recalls England’s match against West Germany on 14 June 1970.

For the 1974 World Cup it was Scotland that was the sole representative from the UK. All commentaries were now on Radio 2 long wave. Listeners to Radio Scotland (on VHF and MW) also heard carried the match commentaries. Scotland’s third group stage match was covered as part of that Saturday’s Sport on 2.

Commentary was provided by Peter Jones and David Francey, who was a regular commentator for BBC Scotland, with analysis from Mike England. Presenting the coverage was Alan Parry who’d joined the sports unit from BBC Radio Merseyside in 1973. Apart from Scotland’s matches there were no further commentaries until the final (Netherlands vs West Germany) on 7 July with Jones and Parry.

In the next post 1978 and 1982.

Thanks to Robin Carmody for helping me fill in some of the gaps.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

Stop the World with Francis Matthews

One of the lesser-known programmes in the Francis Matthews CV is the Radio 2 comedy series Stop the World.

Actor Francis Matthews, who sadly died over the weekend, starred in four series of the show that promised to uncover “amusing and bizarre stories from home and abroad”.  Essentially he linked comic skits and one-liners based on stories culled from the world’s press. The style, if not the content, was not dissimilar to the Trends section of Round the Horne; there was even a radio announcer taking part in proceedings, this time the by now retired Ronald Fletcher.
Also assisting Francis were Sally Grace, later a Week Ending regular, actor David Timson and, doing his first radio work, singer-songwriter Richard Digance.

Radio Times 12 October 1980
Stop the World ran between 1979 and 1983 and was a follow-up to the not dissimilar Offbeat with Braden (1978) which perhaps explains the presence of Ronald Fletcher, the regular announcer in Bernard Braden and Barbara Kelly’s 1950s comedy series Breakfast with Braden (and later Bedtime with Braden).  
This recording is episode four of series two and was broadcast on Sunday 2 November 1980. The producer is Alan Nixon. The programme announcer doing the topping and tailing is Tim Gudgin. Listen out for Francis Matthews doing his Cary Grant impression, the basis for his Captain Scarlet voice.

Stop the World
All series on BBC Radio 2 and produced by Alan Nixon.
Series 1 Wednesdays 2202-2230
With Francis Matthews, Ronald Fletcher, Sally Grace, Gregory de Polnay and Richard Digance
Written by Geoffrey Atkinson and Jimmy Mulville
12 episodes 14 November 1979 to 30 January 1980 (episode 7 26 December 1979 broadcast 1302-1330)
Series 2 Sundays 2202-2230
With Francis Matthews, Ronald Fletcher, Sally Grace, David Timson and Richard Digance
Written by Geoffrey Atkinson and John Langdon
12 episodes 12 October 1980 to 28 December 1980
Series 3 Sundays 1702-1730
Cast and writers as above
12 episodes 7 June 1981 to 23 August 1981
Series 4 Mondays 2203-2230
Cast and writers as above
13 episodes 1 November 1982 to 31 January 1983 (not broadcast 27 December 1982)
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