Thursday, 3 May 2018

Listen to the Band

The sound of brass band is quintessentially British, from the working class traditions of works and colliery bands to the bandstand concert in the park and the seaside where, as we all know, they play "Tiddely-om-pom-pom!" Think too of the military bands playing at parades, Remembrance Day or Trooping the Colour.

One of  the victims of this month's Radio 2 schedule reshuffle is Listen to the Band (presenter Frank Renton pictured above).. Even though there is still a strong brass band tradition in the UK with good grass roots support from young players the decision has an air of inevitability about it with the programme offering little in the way of new material and having been pushed further and further to the margins of the schedule.

Listen to the Band has been running weekly on BBC Radio 2 since 1976 but the title is of a much older vintage tracing back to 1941. That show along with Bandstand (in its various incarnations), Music While You Work and Marching and Waltzing have showcased brass and military bands for decades.

The 1928 BBC Handbook features the BBC's in-house Military Band
The first broadcast of a military band concert, the Band of HM Irish Guards, was as far back as 23 January 1923. Some of the regional stations had their own military bands, the one at station 2ZY in Manchester was conducted by Harry Mortimer, more of whom later. In 1924 2LO's musical director Dan Godfrey formed the 2LO Military Band, later known as the Wireless Military Band and then the BBC Military Band. The band's regular conductor was Bertram Walton O'Donnell, nicknamed 'Bandy' and then, following his untimely death from pneumonia in 1938, by his brother Percy O'Donnell. It became the main broadcasting military band, heard most weeks and playing both established pieces and music specially commissioned for it. It was disbanded, as a cost-saving measure, in 1943.   

Alongside the in-house bands were the usual suspects such as Grenadier Guards, Royal Marines, the central Band of the RAF, various police bands and, post-war, the National Military Band.      

On pre-war radio broadcasts the stations would often cover the brass band competitions, including the national one from Crystal Palace (later at Alexandra Palace) and the Belle Vue contests in Manchester. Some of the famous colliery and works brass bands were also heard and continued to be featured in dozens of post-war programmes and these still perform to this day (albeit with slightly changed names): Foden's Motor Works, Black Dyke Mills, the Brighouse and Rastrick, Fairey Aviation Works and Grimethorpe Colliery.

When Music While You Work started in 1940 it regularly included military and brass bands, through it tended to favour the former. In later years one of the Wednesday editions was given over to one of the military or brass bands.

Such was the importance given to this music genre that in July 1936 the BBC appointed Denis Wright to the post of Supervisor of Brass and Military Bands within the music department. A former teacher and then music editor at Chappell & Co he introduced some innovations in the broadcasting of this type of music. Realising that much of the music was written to be performed outdoors he re-arranged pieces for studio performances.  He also changed the band formation to provide a better sound balance. Wright moved on to the Corporation's Overseas Services music division in 1942 and post-war continued to write and arrange for brass bands.  

One of the biggest names in banding is, of course, Harry Mortimer. From a very musical family - his father Fred conducted the Luton Band and then the Foden's Motor Works Band and made dozens of broadcasts until his death in 1953 - he played cornet and trumpet for Fodens and a number of orchestras including the BBC Northern Orchestra (now the BBC Philharmonic). He was also encouraged to conduct and to compose and by 1942 was asked to take over the post of Supervisor of Brass and Military Bands following the departure of Denis Wright.

Under Mortimer's purview he introduced a number of programmes featuring brass and military bands the most significant of which was Listen to the Band. (The title Oh, Listen to the Band had previously been used during the war for a programmes with bands played out on record).  Starting in February 1943 it featured a different band on each show and ran weekly on the Home Service, at first on Sunday mornings but then settling into a Saturday afternoon slot through to March 1963.

Harry Mortimer introduces the 1964 series
of Listen to the Band
Listen to the Band returned in September 1964 for a 3-month series, this time over on the Light Programme. By now Harry Mortimer had retired from his BBC post but was still heavily involved in brass band music and he presented the new series. It was back again in October 1965 but this time using one of the other preferred BBC titles for brass and military band music, Bandstand (later billed as Saturday Bandstand), with Harry and then Paul Martin "inviting you to Listen to the Band."

With Mortimer leaving the BBC responsibility for overseeing this music fell initially to each of the regions and then in 1965 to Geoffrey Brand and later William Relton until he moved on to manage the BBC Symphony Orchestra in 1970.  

When the Light became Radio 2 in late September 1967 the original title was back in use but now announcer John Dunn was presenting followed by Jimmy Kingsbury between 1970 and 1972 when the programme was dropped. In the summer of 1972 brass and military bands were now only included in the show Brass and Strings and Other Things (later just billed as Brass and Strings) performing alongside the likes of the BBC Radio Orchestra or the BBC Midland Radio Orchestra, all linked by one of the staff announcers.   

In October 1976 Listen to the Band returned to Radio 2 and has remained on air ever since. By now Charlie Chester was presenting, though I'm not aware that he had any particular interest in the music and, in a nod to its history, the first band was the Morris Concert Band conducted by good old Harry Mortimer.

Here's a clip of Charlie with Listen to the Band from 26 January 1982 featuring the Western Band of the RAF.

There's a complete edition of the programme with Charlie Chester presenting  over on the Masters of Melody website. Dating from 27 July 1977 it features the Band of the Women's Royal Army Corps.

This edition dates from 11 May 1977 and features the Hammonds Sauce Works Band. 

In 1987 composer and brass band conductor Roy Newsome took over presenting duties followed in 1995 by Frank Renton who had considerable experience of both brass and military bands.

In this edition of Listen to the Band from 4 February 2016 Frank talks to trombonist and arranger Bill Geldard.

In the 1970s brass band music received something of a fillip when it featured in the UK singles charts. In the 1972 hit You're a Lady Peter Skellern was accompanied by the Hanwell Band and six years later the Grimethorpe Colliery Band appeared on his single Love is the Sweetest Thing. Meanwhile in 1977 the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band reached number two with The Floral Dance with Terry Wogan championing the record on his breakfast show. Later that year Terry recorded his own version, this time with the Hanwell Band, and made a couple of unlikely appearance on Top of the Pops in January 1978.  

The history of brass and military band broadcasting can't ignore another couple of programmes: Bandstand and Marching and Waltzing. Brass Bandstand was a series that ran for a few weeks each year on the Home Service between 1945 and 1954, with regional variations such as Scottish Bandstand, Midland Bandstand and so on. Meanwhile on the Light Programme we had the daily show Bandstand from 1945 to 1950 and then appearing weekly from 1953 to 1964. The title was resurrected again in March 1965 when the daytime Music Programme of the Third Programme extended its hours and included a weekly show alternating brass and military bands. Not surprisingly Harry Mortimer was back again on the first edition conducting the combined BMC (Morris Motors), Fairey and Fodens band. Bandstand continued on Radio 3 until as late as 1988. There are excerpts from the programme on YouTube.    

BBC radio ran a number of brass band knockout competitions between 1961 and 1974. The Northern Brass contest heard only in the North, Midlands and Northern Ireland regions became the national Challenging Brass in 1964 flipping between the Home Service, the Music Programme, Radio 4, Radio 2 and then Radio 3.

The sound of various Salvation Army bands were  heard on Sunday mornings between 1975 and 1979 when Ray Moore presented Banners and Bonnets.

Marching and Waltzing provided, as the title suggests, a mix of waltzes played by a light orchestra and marches played by a military or brass band. It started on the Home Service in 1940 and for the first decade was a record programme. By 1950 it started to regularly feature the Raeburn Orchestra on the waltz side under the direction of Wynford Reynolds who had, during the war, being the organiser of Music While You Work.   

By the early 60s Marching and Waltzing was back to being a record only show but got a new lease of life on the Light Programme with a couple of series in October 1965 and October 1966 in a joint production with the World Service - with World Service announcer Peter Reynolds providing the introductions. Geoffrey Brand, the brass band conductor and BBC producer who had taken over Harry Mortimer's old role as Supervisor of Brass and Military Bands, writing in the Radio Times was quite effusive about the programme and the pictures it conjured up: "Parade grounds filled with soldiers in red tunics moving in perfect formation; armies marching into battle to the sound of the band; or perhaps a Carnival procession with its gaiety and excitement, all being headed by a band playing a march. In contrast the waltz - and the soft lights and smooth sounds of the orchestra in the ballroom. Lovely evening gowns colourfully float across the floor as dancing couples glide rhythmically to the lilt and charm of the music."    

Marching and Waltzing made a return in September 1967 on the newly launched Radio 2 with Jimmy Kingsbury announcing the various brass and military bands plus the BBC Midland Light Orchestra under Gilbert Vinter - himself a composer who'd written a number of pieces for brass bands during the sixties.  Later the BBC Northern Ireland Orchestra was the main outfit providing the waltzes. It was again dropped in 1970 but made one last gasp between 1980 and 1984 with various staff announcers looking after the programme and one of the main orchestras being the London Studio Players led by Reginald Leopold and conducted by Iain Sutherland.    

In this edition of Listen to the Band from 25 April 2017 Frank Renton recalls the Marching and Waltzing era.  

And here is an edition of Marching and Waltzing kindly provided to me by Paul Langford. Paddy O'Byrne introduces the Band of the Coldstream Guards conducted by Lt Col Richard Ridings and the Orchestra led by Reginald Leopold and conducted by Marcus Dodds. It was broadcast on 4 August 1981.

Local radio didn't ignore brass band music and a number of BBC stations used to have programmes devoted to it. Up in Yorkshire I know that Radio Leeds had Brass Tacks with Mike Meadmore and Great Northern Brass with Barrie Davenport whilst Radio Sheffield had a regular competition called Bold as Brass. BBC Radio Durham had Brasstime and Radio Birmingham ran a competition titled Birmingham Brass. Commercial radio was less interested though in the 1970s Radio Clyde had The Sound of Brass with Bob Mason, Radio Forth used the same title for programmes presented by Bill Torrance, at Radio Hallam Roger Moffat looked after Best of the Brass and even Viking Radio when it started in 1984 had Viking Bandstand.  

Although Listen to the Band has long since dropped brass and military band sessions, relying instead, for the most part, on commercial recordings, the axing of the programme has rightly been seen as a blow to the banding world. Although Radio 2 has promised to support the annual Young Brass Awards as part of Friday Night is Music Night this leaves the only radio programmes dedicated to playing this kind of music as David Hoyle's Yorkshire Brass on Radio Leeds and Paul Hunt with The Sound of Brass on BBC local radio in the south west. Listeners on the Isle of Man can hear Manx Radio's Time for Brass with Ian Cottier and both Angel Radio and Serenade Radio occasionally play music of this genre. As for Frank Renton he'll continue to feature brass band music in a  fortnightly online show from called Frank Renton: Still Listening to the Band. 

The final edition of Listen to the Band airs on Tuesday 8 May. Phillip Hunt will be marking the end of the programme on the 13 May 2018 edition of Sounds of Brass  

For an informed opinion on the demise of the programme see Iwan Fox's article for 4barsrest

Reference material:
BBC Genome
The Modern Brass Band from the 1930s to the New Millennium by Roy Newsome (Ashgate Publishing 2006)

Music While You Work by Brian Reynolds (Book Guild Publishing 2006)

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