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.

Tuesday, 5 May 2020

VE75: From Mind My Bike to Evening All

Although best known as the reliable bobby PC George Dixon, Jack Warner was one of the radio stars of World War II in the hugely popular Garrison Theatre.

Born Jack Waters (his sisters were the equally popular Elsie and Doris Waters aka Gert and Daisy) his early career was as a motor mechanic and as test driver at Brooklands. Coming from a showbiz family he became a  professional in the mid-30s partnering up with pianist Jeff Darnell as a comical version of the Western Brothers. He also teamed up with pianist Bobby Alderson who was to accompany Warner on his musical comedy routines for the rest of his life. The pair made a number of pre-war broadcasts on both BBC radio and the nascent television service.  

In late 1939 Warner was approached by BBC Variety Orchestra conductor Charles Shadwell to appear in a show he was putting together with producer Harry S. Pepper. That show was Garrison Theatre in which he played the role of a cockney private. Like that other wartime comedy ITMA, its catchphrases became common parlance: 'Mind my bike!', 'de-da-de-da' and 'little gel' (played by Shadwell's daughter Joan Winters). He would also read aloud letters to 'my bruvver Sid' which became famous for their 'P.S.' gags and the use of the term 'blue pencil' were swear words might have appeared which had the audience in stitches. "Yesterday the colonel caught his thumb in a tank. His only remark was twenty-four blue pencils"

Warner also wrote dozens of comic monologues and songs that he continued to perform for many years like He Didn't Orter-a-Et It, Sealions and Sills, Claude and his Sword, Frank and his Tank and Walkin' Hup and Dahn the Rollway Lines. One of the best remembered is the Funny Occupations song with its tongue-twisting references to a bunger-up o' rat-'oles, a fumper and flattener of fevvers and a caster-up of alabaster plaster. 

Although Garrison Theatre only ran for a year Warner was now a star name. He continued to appear in his comedy persona in Saturday Social, Jack's Dive, Music-Hall and Variety Bandbox. After the war he took up film acting in both comedy and serious roles with The Captive Heart (1946) being his first feature film. An appearance as Joe Huggett in Holiday Camp (1947) and three sequels led to a return to radio in 1953 to reprise the role in the cosy family sitcom Meet the Huggetts. Warner co-starred with film wife Ethel Huggett played by Kathleen Harrison. The series ran until 1961.   

Meanwhile the role in the Ealing film The Blue Lamp as PC George Dixon and the character's resurrection in the BBC series Dixon of Dock Green (1955-76) meant that Jack would be forever remembered as "an ordinary copper who's patrolling his beat, around Dock Green".

In 1978 as part of the Radio 2 series It's a Funny Business, comedy writer and producer Mike Craig talked to Jack Warner about his career. It's not had a repeat since 1990 so here's your chance to hear it again.

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

Friday, 1 May 2020

Ambridge Revisited

Disaster in Ambridge. No, so far the Borsetshire village remains COVID-19 free. But as a result of the pandemic the stock of recordings of the Radio 4 serial have run dry. New episodes are currently being recorded but with a difference as some of the actors record their lines at home (Tim Bentinck, who plays David Archer pictured above). According to The Archers website "Storylines will continue and you will still hear about the comings and goings in Ambridge, but you will hear its residents as you have never heard them before. Instead of multiple characters interacting each episode will have fewer characters and you will have an insight into more of their private thoughts".

These new episodes air from 25 May so to fill a three week gap this month we'll hear a selection of 'classic' episodes from the last twenty years. But while the programme takes a furlough, and for those with a longer memory, here's a chance to go back into the last century.

I've previously written about the night that Grace Archer died in 1955 and the passing of Doris Archer in October 1980. From just three months earlier comes this omnibus edition. The omnibus versions had started in January 1952 on Saturday evenings but moved to Sunday mornings in the summer of 1955. For 30 years they were introduced by Tom Forrest (played by Bob Arnold) who would directly address the listener and regale them with a countryside story and segue into the opening scene. This edition was heard on 24 August 1980 just days after the death of actor Norman Shelley who played Colonel Danby.

Moving on a few months the programme marked its 30th anniversary with this New Year's Day edition from 1981 as a party is about the start at Brookfield Farm.

The day before that 30th anniversary edition radio critic Gillian Reynolds explored the popularity of the serial in this edition of the Radio 4 arts magazine Kaleidoscope titled An Everyday Story.

In this omnibus edition from 14 February 1982 there's havoc on the roads of Ambridge - though it takes place 'off mic' - with the death of (spoiler alert) Polly Perks. 

From August 1983 Jack Woolley (played by the late Arnold Peters) is hit by the news that his former wife Valerie (they'd divorced in 1974) has just died.

This is a bit of a rarity called Vintage Archers from Christmas Day 1986 as various characters get together over the holiday period and remember times past leading to the replay of some old clips including a reappearance of Grace Archer.

From 1987 yet another programme celebrating the genesis of the The Archers. From the documentary strand The Saturday Feature Barry Norman looks behind the scenes of the programme that was originally introduced as a farming version of Dick Barton. An Everyday Story of Country Folk was first heard on 27 June 1987.

By May 1989 The Archers hit the magic 10,000 episodes. From 25 May this is edition number 9,999.

The following day the special edition features Terry Wogan who's staying at Grey Gables whilst taking part in a pro-celebrity golf tournament. He's greeted by Pru Forrest, played by Judi Dench, a character who was seemingly silent in the 70s and 80s though she'd previously been played by Mary Dalley After this episode Pru once again lost her tongue.

Roland White looks at the programme's history for that week's Radio Times. 

No special guests for the 12,000th episode on 24 January 1997 as we join the action at Grange Farm.

In this Radio Times article from the same week Alison Graham asks whether the serial has come too far away from its roots as "an everyday story of country folk".

A couple of documentaries about The Archers. From 1991 Archers fan and radio critic Gillian Reynolds looks at the first forty years. It includes the voices of creator Godfrey Baseley, BBC executive Jock Gallagher, editor William Smethurst, actors June Spencer (Peggy Woolley) and Tim Bentinck (David Archer) Susie Riddell (Kate Aldridge), scriptwriter Mary Cutler and agricultural advisor Anthony Parkin. Apologies for the iffy quality of this recording.

From December 2000 is this edition of The Archive Hour in which Simon Hoggart looks at the how the development of the characters and storylines has adapted to reflect changing social roles and attitudes.     

Finally some fun from 2001 when the Dead Ringers team pay an affectionate tribute to the show on its 50th anniversary. Starring Jon Culshaw, Jan Ravens, Mark Perry and Kevin Connelly this edition first aired on 1 January 2001.


Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Beat the Chasers

So the question was: Broadcast on radio in 1937, Britain's first quiz programme was a test of what? (a) Mental arithmetic (b) General knowledge or (c) Spelling? This was the question posed to a contestant on last night's Beat the Chasers (ITV). And the answer...

UK radio's first on-air contests were write-in affairs. The first was The Query Programme aired on 2LO on 7 May 1924. Unbilled artistes had to be listed in correct Radio Times billing, the three listeners with the closest entries being invited to the studio at Savoy Hill for the evening. Subsequent programmes, there were seven in all, generously offered five guineas to the most successful entrant and runners-up prizes of three guineas and one guinea.   

Another write-in competition was Puzzle Corner ("Hello Puzzlers") which became a feature of the show Monday Night at Seven (and later Monday Night at Eight) that had started in 1937. The show featured a number of elements such as music, comedy sketches and a short drama, Inspector Hornleigh Investigates being the best known, and, from January 1938, Puzzle Corner. With general knowledge questions, anagrams and a musical medley it proved immensely popular and ran until 1949, by which time it was part of The Family Hour. It got a TV spin-off in 1950 as part of Kaleidoscope and then as a stand-alone show (1953-55).   

But the first quiz game to be battled out on air in real time, and the subject of that Beat the Chasers question, was a Spelling Bee broadcast as part of Children's Hour on Thursday 25 November 1937. Billed as An Inter-Regional Spelling Competition the Radio Times tells us that "this is an experiment which, it is hoped, will prove amusing. Mac (Derek McCulloch aka Uncle Mac) will conduct a spelling competition for boys and girls in several different regions simultaneously, and listeners will hear how the competitors got on".

The idea obviously caught on and in January 1938 the BBC entered into a co-production with NBC in the States for an adult version called Transatlantic Spelling Bee. Teams from Harvard & Radcliffe College played Oxford University with question-masters Tommy Woodrooffe (UK) and Pail Wing (US) overseeing proceedings. The US team won by 28 points to 24. The cameras of Pathé News were there to record the event.

A further transatlantic version was held in March followed by further UK-only inter-city competitions chaired by Freddie Grisewood, some dialect versions ("none of the words will be found in the Oxford dictionary") and even a TV version on the pre-war BBC service. 

The idea on was revived on BBC radio during the war under the chairmanship of Ronnie Waldman pitting together teams such as Actors v Actresses or GIs v Tommies, and post-war with Lionel Gamlin being the most regular 'spelling-master'. UK broadcast spelling bees fizzled out in the early 50s but they remain popular in the US with the National Spelling Bee running since 1925 with TV coverage for the last 20-odd years on ESPN.    

Thursday, 16 April 2020

Pause for Thought

Radio 2 has been pausing for thought for half a century now. The two or three minutes of faith-led reflection is a surprisingly enduring programme element on an increasingly pop-orientated network, like some Reithian religious hangover. On a busy, frenetic breakfast show such an item can feel anachronistic and in danger of leading to a clunky gear change. But equally it can be seen as a welcome moment to take stock, consider others, to literally pause for thought.

Pause for Thought first aired at 8.55 am on Monday 6 April 1970 and replaced the weekday editions of Five to Ten. It was just one part of the religious output on BBC Radio 2 at the time that included two services on Sunday: People's Service (1945-80) just before Family Favourites and the long-running Sunday Half-Hour (1940-2013). Generally speech-based, Pause for Thought was initially not always led by a minister or religious representative. Depending on the theme for the week actors, writers and musicians made regular appearances. In the first few months we heard from Cliff Richard, Derek Nimmo, J.B. Priestley, Larry Adler and Joyce Grenfel. The programme proved to be very popular with an audience in excess of 1 million and an anthology of talks from the series published by the BBC - available for 25p from all good bookshops.      

Schedule changes in October 1972 meant that Pause for Thought was no longer a stand-alone programme but part of the Early Show at 6.15 am and repeated during Terry Wogan's breakfast show at 8.45. By 1990 there were three daily editions with an extra slot in the wee small hours during what was then Night Ride. Whilst the talks had always been pre-recorded the overnight and early ones were now on tape but the breakfast show edition was live.

Though the times have varied over the intervening years the three weekday editions of Pause for Thought continue to this day, overnights in a pre-recorded version on OJ Borg's show and then two different editions live during Vanessa Feltz's and Zoe Ball's shows. No longer produced in-house by what is now the department of Religion and Ethics, its contracted out to TBI Media.

Over the years some of the contributors have become established radio names; I'm thinking of the likes for Rev Frank Topping, Rev. Roger Royle, Fr Brian D'Arcy and Rev. Ruth Scott. Here are a selection of recordings from the last 50 years:

This is an early example from August 1970 in which actor Peter Pacey reads from a selection of the recent translation of the Apocrypha.

From December 1984 a decidedly more light-hearted affair for Terry's final breakfast show (the first time around) from the BBC's Religious Affairs Correspondent Gerald Priestland who was a regular contributor with his Priestland's Postbag.    

Although the Pause for Thought mainly used outside contributors BBC religious department staff also appeared including producers David Winter and John Newbury. A programme favourite for many years was Roger Royle who would consider listener's letters in what was titled Royle Mail. This edition dates from  February 1985.

From January 1986 a slightly more fanciful affair from religious author Stuart Jackman.

By the 1990s the live editions had become more of a conversation between presenter and contributor to make the change of pace and topic less jarring and often adding an element of humour. From Wogan's return in January 1993 this is Rabbi Hugo Gryn.

Ruth Scott was a hugely popular contributor who sadly died last year. Here she is with Terry in April 2006.

Anglican Bishop Rob Gillion uses the fact that Wogan has just been voted the station's Ultimate Icon as the springboard for his talk in October 2007.

Bringing things up-to-date and marking the PFT's 50th anniversary last week is writer and comedian Paul Kerensa who kindly name-checked me in his opening remarks. Paul is speaking to Amol Rajan who was covering the breakfast show.

When Pause for Thought started in 1970 it was replacing the existing daily religious slot Five to Ten which, it won't surprise you to learn was on at 9.55 am. Originally billed as "a story, a hymn and a prayer" it started on the Light Programme in December 1950. The Radio Times explains that the aim "has been to provide those who are busy at work with an opportunity for a brief recollection of the great spiritual truths of Christianity - something healthy and helpful to brood on during the day". The stories were mainly but not exclusively biblical, the hymns recorded for solo and choral verses with organ accompaniment and a short prayer "short enough for a housewife to pause and join in without risking the cooking and a worker to do the same without inviting the sack." This example of Five to Ten dates from April 1958.      

I can't leave the subject without also briefly mentioning Thought for the Day over on Radio 4. It too is fifty years old this month having replaced Ten to Eight sandwiched in-between the two editions of Today, which it turn replaced Lift Up Your Hearts (1939-65), or Lift Up Your Skirts according to one episode of I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again. Thought for the Day has had more of a controversial history than Pause for Thought, and I'll cover that in a future post.  

Saturday, 4 April 2020

Broadcasting in the Seventies

From today's perspective the furore over Broadcasting in the Seventies seems like a storm in a teacup. But at the time it threatened the corporation with industrial action,  the withdrawal of labour by the Musician's Union and letters from the great and good describing it as a threat to "the unique role the BBC has played in the cultural and intellectual life of the country".

It was fifty years ago this week that a number of BBC national radio programme changes came occurred brought about by the implementation of the policy document Broadcasting in the Seventies. Essentially the plan was to redefine the characteristics of each of the four radio networks: Radios 1, 2, 3 and 4 and move away from the existing mixed programming - a style of programming that had existed since Reith's day. We're now used to tightly formatted radio output but at the time this was both novel and controversial. But, if listeners expected an overnight shift in the sound of the favourite station this didn't really happen and it took years for it to pan out - the result of insufficient funds and insufficient wavelengths.

There were several factors that convinced the BBC to act and shake-up its radio services. Financially the Government was tightening the purse strings and refusing any licence fee increases, whilst at the time the BBC had ambitions to expand their services and to adopt  new technology (the roll-out of colour TV and VHF stereo for instance).  Radio listening figures, particularly those in the evening, had started to fall. There was also a notion to hive off the new Open University programmes, as well as existing schools programmes, onto a separate VHF network paid for by government - something which never happened and continued to lead to AM/FM splits and headaches for schedulers for another couple of decades. The BBC had been forced to start a new pop service in 1967 with the launch of the pirate-replacement Radio 1. And finally, with a view to what might happen, and did arrive four years later, there was the threat of commercial radio competition.

The document, published in July 1969, was part of a process that had started over a year before with a wealth of consultation and working parties during which the Corporation had, for the first time but by no means the last, used independent management consultants, in this case McKinsey and Co.

On streamlining network radio the report had this to say:
"Traditionally, broadcasting has been based on the principle of mixed programming. On a single channel, the public is offered the whole range: news, documentaries, plays, music, light entertainment, serials, sport - all types of programmes, covering all interests and all 'brow' levels.

But experience, both in this country and abroad, suggests that many listeners now expect radio to be based more on a different principle - that of the specialised network, offering a continuous stream of one particular type of programme, meeting one particular interest. One channel might offer pop, another serious music, another talk programmes, and so on". 

When the document was released on Thursday 10 July 1969 the Corporation held staff briefings, press conferences and published a special edition of the staff magazine Ariel. The proposals were discussed on air including an hour long Q&A session on the Third Programme the following Tuesday. This is how that evening's Radio Newsreel covered the news with the summary: "Radio 1 strictly pop. Radio 2 carrying light music from Sinatra to Lehar. Radio 3, perhaps only on VHF, with more classical music and Radio 4 with mostly talk".  The newsreader is Peter Barker and the reports from Brian Curtois and Jim Biddulph.

In 1969 Radio 1 and Radio 2 shared a great deal of programming but, to quote the report, "to their respective fans, Emperor Rosko and Eric Robinson barely inhabit the same planet let alone the same air waves". So Radio 1 was to be an "all-pop network". No surprises here but at the time it still carried some jazz shows. Radio 2 was to play "light music" and to shed some of its speech elements. So Any Questions? and Midweek Theatre moved over to Radio 4, and Woman's Hour would follow two years later. News Time with Derek Cooper was dropped and Your Hundred Best Tunes transferred over to Radio 2 from Radio 4. Another programme, still running to this day as part of the Radio 2 breakfast show, also started with the religious slot Pause for Thought replacing Five to Ten.       

It was the changes to the Third Programme that caused the most uproar, not unlike the protests over the 1957 cut in hours and the introduction of Network Three. Now it was such luminaries as Sir Adrian Boult, James Cameron, George Melly, Jonathan Miller and Henry Moore who supported the Campaign for Better Broadcasting and fired off letters to The Times.

Since the network shake-up in September 1967 the Third Programme title had been retained for the evening schedule of music, drama, arts and talks - the same highbrow mix that had defined the station since its launch in 1946. In addition the wavelengths carried a daytime schedule of classical music as the Music Programme, on weekday evenings there was a Study hour of further education programmes and on Saturday afternoons the Sports Service.

Under Broadcasting in the Seventies the proposal was to re-badge the whole lot as Radio 3 and to continue the music programming into the evening. The Sports Service was dropped and moved over to Radio 2 to become Sport on 2. Sport wasn't totally lost on Radio 3 however as it still carried Test Match Special.  Meanwhile some speech programming would move over to Radio 4. In addition the idea of having Radio 3 as a VHF only service was floated, with the medium wave frequencies used to supplement local radio expansion. (Radio 3 did finally become FM only in February 1992).    

What also caused upset was the decision to axe the Scottish Symphony Orchestra, the London Studio Players, the BBC Chorus, the BBC Training Orchestra and, heard only on Radio 2, the Northern Dance Orchestra. Earlier proposals from the internal Policy Study group had also put the Concert and the Northern Ireland Orchestras in the frame. In the event there was a reprieve, at least in the short-term. Writing in The Listener Director-General Charles Curran admitted that the Government basically said "You have too many orchestras but we want you to continue to employ them because somebody has to. They are needed nationally".

The Scottish SO continues to this day, the London Studio Players stayed playing until 1984, the BBC Chorus went back to its original name of the BBC Singers in 1972, the Training Orchestra was finally wound up in 1977, the Northern Ireland Orchestra was subsumed into the Ulster Orchestra in 1981 and the NDO became the Northern Radio Orchestra in 1975 but was disbanded in 1980.  

The longer lasting changes were seen on Radio 4 this week in 1970. As well as inheriting some speech programmes from Radios 2 and 3 the proposals saw an increase in news and current affairs coverage and plans to "develop the four main news and magazine periods - breakfast time, lunch time, early evening, and late evening". Today with Jack de Manio and The World at One with William Hardcastle already existed but new to the schedules were the teatime PM "the news magazine that sums up your day and starts off your evening." Replacing Home This Afternoon (a magazine show aimed a older listeners)  and produced by the WATO team, PM was presented by William Hardcastle to cover the hard news and either Derek Cooper or Steve Race (who also regularly hosted Home This Afternoon), who would look after the lighter elements.

There was another half-hour news programme at 7 pm, News Desk with former US correspondent Gerald Priestland and newsreader Meryl O'Keeffe. Priestland describing the programme as "news with a human voice". Finally, taking a more serious tone and a more international outlook was The World Tonight with Douglas Stuart, which replaced Ten O'Clock. Though News Desk was dropped in 1976 - replaced by The World in Focus which itself ended in July 1977 when the Six O'Clock News was extended from 15 to 30 minutes - PM and The World Tonight remain key programmes.

Elsewhere on Radio 4 some other equally long-lasting programmes were launched: Week Ending (1970-98), Start the Week with Richard Baker and Analysis with Ian McIntyre who said of the programme that "our business was to get behind the news and dig and illuminate and go a bit further." You and Yours would follow in October 1970. Music shows didn't completely disappear, there was Steve Race's daily Invitation to Music for instance and occasional classical concerts. 

The report also covered local radio and expected the network to expand to 40 stations, though financial restrictions saw this stall at 20 until 1980. On regional production the idea was the phase out the opt-outs from Radio 4, apart from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales and to restructure the BBC English regional map around eight production centres rather than the old Regional and Home Service ones determined by transmitter range.

In the lead-up to the on-air changes for the week commencing 4 April 1970 the Radio Times printed a series of Q&As with BBC management. Here's the final set with Ian Trethowan, MD Radio and Gerard Mansell, Director of Programmes, Radio.

The magazine also published this example weekday schedule to summarise to give listeners an idea of what to expect. 

So did Broadcasting in the Seventies make a difference. It's an unequivocal yes. Station controllers had inherited  mishmash schedules from the old Home, Light and Third. Listening habits had changed; there was TV to divert you, particularly in the evening, more folk listened in the car and on their transistor radios. No longer would the family sit round the wireless to enjoy an evening of mixed entertainment. In the era of increasing consumer choice radio schedulers had to make it easier for listeners to find what they wanted. Having said that the sound of the networks didn't totally change overnight, it was more of a gradual shift. As Trethowan admitted " the changes were not nearly as dramatic as we made out in public." There was still music on Radio 4, drama serials on Radio2 and current affairs on Radio 3.

But the real issue was financial. Although the final report put such considerations well down the list it still talked of predicted annual deficit in the radio budget of £4.5 million by 1974. The figure in the earlier McKinsey report was worse with an £8m deficit forecast by 1972. The Corporation had been frustrated in its attempts to get an increase in the licence fee by Wilson's government which was too embroiled in devaluation issues and cabinet in-fighting. At a Downing Street meeting in 1966 the PM had told the BBC  "drastically to prune its expenditure".    

Typically the BBC fudged and delayed any economies but by the time of the 3-day week and the oil crisis it was squeezed even further and broadcasting hours were trimmed back and programme sharing invoked between Radios 1 and 2 and between Radios 3 and 4.    

I'll leave the final word on this to listener Frederick Chamberlain who sent in his A Listeners Prayer to the BBC in 1968:

Were I in charge of the BBC,
The Radio Programmes - they would be-
Channel 1 - Pop all day; low brow sounds, to some quite gay.
Channel 2- that would go-harmonic music for the medium brow.
Channel 3-Symphonic noise, for the high brow girls and boys, Prose and Poetry, Opera too, not for the many but just for the few.
Channel 4-Would surely be -talks-religion-plays and views-odds and ends and of course the News.
And so-all-would be satisfied-
Not one listener ere denied.

The full document and an article on the evolution of BBC radio post 1967 by Dr Alban Webb is on the History of the BBC website.
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