Sunday 11 February 2024

Wogan House

Wogan House falls silent this month as engineers continue to decommission the BBC Radio 2 and 6 Music studios. The stations have been based in what was then Western House since 2006, at the time of the Broadcasting House re-development. Prior to that there were some production booths in the building. Radio 2 and 6 Music have been moving into new studios back over in NBH, with the daytime news bulletins now coming from studio WG1. Any late-night revelries in the BBC Club, also in Wogan House, ended in December 2023 prior to its move into the existing Media Cafe area by the end of April.

Studio 6A in Wogan House (2018)

The BBC first occupied Western House in 1953 and for many years it was the home of the Designs Group of the Engineering division. A car showroom remained on the ground floor premises until the early 60s. Later the Recorded Sound Effects Library moved in. 

Western House in 2015. The following year on
16 November 2016 it was renamed Wogan House

The lease for the building will transfer to Landmark Space who propose to use it as ‘flexible office spaces’. It will be known as 99 Great Portland Street.

Studio 6B (2024)

Studio 4D (2024)

As far as I’m aware the last 6 Music show from Wogan House is today with Gideon Coe, in for Cerys Matthews. The last Radio 2 shows are this coming Friday.

Friday 9 February 2024

Not the A to Z of Radio Comedy: I is for In One Ear

I first heard Steve Brown on Radio 4’s late-night live comedy show In One Ear. His songs, musical skits and attempts to paint himself as the “affable sex symbol” were an integral part of the show. Press releases of the time also described him variously as “a good natured Nicholas Ball”, “the versatile Brown” and “the man who wrote the press release”.  

In One Ear enjoyed a run of three series of live Saturday late-night shows (plus a recorded pilot and a Christmas special) between 1983 and 1986. It brought together a cast of four: Nick Wilton principally an actor though also in revue and a scriptwriter, stand-up comedian Helen Lederer, musician Steve Brown and actor Clive Mantle. Mantle’s height (6’5½”) and his role at the time as Little John in ITV’s Robin of Sherwood was the subject of much ribbing in the show.     

Before In One Ear both Nick and Steve had worked together a number of times. In 1982 they appeared in the Perrier award-winning show Writer’s Inc. alongside Jamie Rix and Vicky Pile. Rix would go on to produce In One Ear and Vicky wrote for it. (Nick’s first professional role was in the farce Simple Spymen directed by Jamie’s dad the veteran farceur Brian Rix).  Wilton and Brown also worked together in the Spring of 1982 in a two-week run at the Fortune Theatre of News Revue, an attempt at a musical satire show with Wilton in the cast and Brown at the piano. In July 1982 there was a limited run of Ha Bloody Ha! at the Gate in Notting Hill. This sketch and music show also featured Jan Ravens, at the time a radio comedy producer (Week Ending etc.). The following year she and Steve would marry (they divorced in 1993) and from 1986 to 1988 they were part of the Sunday morning Brunch crew on Capital Radio (CFM) with Roger Scott, Jeremy Pascall, Paul Burnett and later Angus Deayton.

Steve’s first radio gig was as a song writer on the 1982 sketch show Three Plus One. Produced by Jan Ravens it also featured the musical talents of Philip Pope, already an established performer on Radio Active. This led to Steve working with Philip on future series of Radio Active and, a few years later, on Spitting Image.  

The cast recorded the pilot of In One Ear in April 1983 but it had to wait until December for broadcast. By then a series had already been commissioned to run the following May and June. Nick Wilton was already appearing in another Radio 4 comedy show, the Grant and Naylor scripted Son of Cliché (1983-84). This show would win the 1984 Sony award as Best Light Entertainment Programme, Radio Active having bagged it the year before. In 1985 it was the turn of In One Ear.  

To introduce the first series in May 1984, Radio Times staff writer David Gillard wrote this article. By the way, take the reference to The Goons as the last live comedy show with a large pinch of salt. That show was, to my knowledge, always recorded, though interestingly enough the In One Ear team do reference The Goons in the pilot episode.  

The art of living dangerously

The sign on the door of one of the BBC Radio Light Entertainment offices reads: ‘Prefects Common Room. Knock before Entering’. Inside, the wine bottles and paper cups on the table suggest St Trinians, though the assembled ‘prefects’ seems a studious bunch. Here, in earnest conclave are the producer, writer and performers of In One Ear – radio’s first live comedy show since the Goons.

‘Above all, we have to justify going out live at 11.30,’ producer Jamie Rix, tells his team. ‘We’re not going to hide behind the format – we’re going to be different and we’ve got to be dangerous. The audience at home must be unsure about which way we’re heading. We must constantly take them by surprise by going off at unexpected tangents.’

The programmes’ tongue-in-cheek publicity poster describes In One Ear as ‘somewhere between alternative cabaret and a puerile adolescent undergraduate revue’. Jamie, in a more serious moment, prefers to call it ‘cabaret revue with a satirical element’. The four performers Nick Wilton (late of Carrott’s Lib), stand-up comedienne Helen Lederer, Radio Active songwriter Steve Brown and actor Clive Mantle –share the burden of providing Rix with ‘seamless comedy’.

Though occasionally adopting another persona, they will all be playing themselves – or, at least what they see as their ‘radio selves’. Nick is ‘paranoid and politically naive’; Helen is ‘slightly embarrassed and neurotic’, modest Steve ‘a romantic crooner and an affable sex symbol’, while Big Clive (recently seen as Little John in ITV’s Robin of Sherwood) is ‘the thick-set, strong-voiced type’.

Jamie Rix, who produced Radio Active and The Best of Bentine and was once a writer on Not the Nine O’Clock News believes they have the recipe for a controversial, hard-hitting comedy success, though there will be no attempt to shock for shock’s sake. ‘We’ve been put into a slot where we can offend the least people-just before the Shipping Forecast’ he says with a grin. ‘But we’re not out to offend. We’re out to challenge.’


So here is that first episode from Saturday 12 May 1984. Although Radio 7/Radio 4 Extra have repeated some episodes I’m not aware that this was been heard since. The show doesn’t entirely eschew BBC comedy traditions as there’s a parody poking fun at the recent Granada tv series The Jewel in the Crown and a Fats Waller gag straight out of I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again. “It’s time for comedy....”

From a couple of weeks later comes the third show. It includes Steve and Nick singing Hello Alexei, referencing Alexei Sayle’s ‘Ullo John! Gotta New Motor? that had charted a couple of months previously. Hello Alexei was itself released as a single on the Red Door label at the end of 1984. The B side Nobody Ever Listens to the B Side featured Nick doing his John Cooper Clarke impression as he had done in the pilot episode. The single didn’t chart.      

Steve Brown’s death at the age of 66 was announced last week.

In One Ear episode guide:

All programmes (except pilot) broadcast live at 2330 on Saturday night

Pilot: Tuesday 27 December 1983

Series 1: 12 May 1984 to 30 June 1984 (8 programmes)

Christmas Special: 22 December 1984

Series 2: 16 February 1985 to 6 April 1985 (8 programmes)

Series 3: 30 November to 1 February 1985, except 21st and 28th December (8 programmes)

The In One Ear poster comes from Nick's website

Thursday 1 February 2024

Tale of the Goat and Compasses

This week BBC Radio 4 Extra begins a repeat of the recently recovered second series of Wrinkles, the 1981 sitcom from Grant and Naylor starring Tom Mennard and Anthea Askey. For a comedian with nearly 30 years of experience under his belt the 1980s were a busy period for Tom as he undertook an increasing number of acting roles.

Born in Leeds in 1918 Tom Mennard had appeared in amateur children’s pantomimes. His wartime service was in the Royal Engineers and he also played in Divisional Concert Party Shows. On demob he found work as a bus conductor and then driver with Brighton & Hove Omnibus Co. but the pull of the theatre meant he still performed in amateur revue whenever he could. His time on the buses sounded like an episode of the LWT sitcom with Mennard getting into trouble for his comic antics, telling stories to the local kids rather than taking the bus out and impersonating a ticket inspector. 

Coming to the attention of singer Donald Peers, who was touring in Brighton at the time, he suggested Tom go for an audition with the BBC; he was successful and made an appearance on the BBC tv’s Show Case (15 March 1954) presented by Benny Hill. On advice from Hill he auditioned at that well-known training ground for budding comedians, London’s Windmill Theatre. Successful only on his third attempt Vivian Van Damm told him to commence in the show starting in one hour, he stayed there for a year.

Variety and theatre work followed such as the Moss Empire’s New Faces of 1956, the Fol de Rols-“the famous song and laugh show”- Masquerade (this was alongside Pamela Cundall, later Mrs Fox in Dad’s Army), summer seasons back up in Yorkshire at Bridlington and Scarborough and, perhaps most significantly in the touring revue show Music for the Millions. Starring in the show was his idol Robb Wilton, then nearing the end of his career. Wilton’s style of delivery of his famous monologues heavily influenced Mennard’s act, especially his meandering Local Tales. (see below)

 Alongside the theatre work there were tv spots including Camera One and The Good Old Days and dozens of radio appearances throughout the 1950s and 1960s on Midday Music-Hall, Workers’ Playtime, Variety Playhouse, Holiday Playhouse and London Lights.

from Panto Archive

In the latter half of the 1960s Tom hosted regular seasons of Old Tyme Music Hall in Newquay and on Radio 2 in 1968 acted as the chairman on Come to the Music-Hall, a radio equivalent of The Good Old Days. Panto work included Goody Two Shoes at Hull’s New Theatre in 1969 which I was in the audience for (oh no you weren’t!). His co-stars were local lad Norman Collier, Jimmy Thompson and McDonald Hobley.

Comedy panel show work followed in the 1970s with regular gigs on You’ve Got to Be Joking (Radios 2 & 4 1977-80) and Funny You Should Ask (Radio 2 1978-80). From 1980 the majority of Tom’s work was as an actor mainly on tv but also in the two series of Wrinkles (Radio 4 1980-81). Wrinkles was made in Manchester by the veteran comedy producer Mike Craig. Writers Rob Grant and Doug Naylor were apparently introduced to Tom Mennard by Mike Craig in the BBC bar. Grant recalls: ‘Tom was a naturally funny guy, with a unique and distinct delivery. He was always “on”. But not one of those annoying, not-really-very-funny people who are always straining to get a laugh: he was actually funny. He would play practical jokes constantly, weaving some fantastical story to innocent, hapless bystanders without making them the butt of the joke. I once saw him on his knees outside a closed lift door, shouting “Well how did you get stuck down there?” That kind of thing.’

In Wrinkles Mennard plays the handyman in an old people’s home. His co-star was Anthea Askey, daughter of big-hearted Arthur who Tom had worked with year’s earlier. He’d appeared with Anthea in Dick Whittington at the Sunderland Empire just the year before. Also in the cast were Ballard ‘Morning Fawlty’ Berkeley, David Ross, Gordon Salkilld and Nick Maloney. After a successful pilot a series was commissioned to air in April and May 1980. A second series followed in November and December 1981. The BBC dumped or otherwise lost the tapes of Wrinkles but off-air recordings were returned and series one was repeated late last year and the second starts today.    

It was around this time that Tom was also given his own series on Radio 2. Local Tales was a series of short monologues, each about 13 minutes, that aired at intervals from 1981 to 1987. The scene was his local pub the Goat and Compasses and the rambling stories were about Tom and his mates Harry, Charlie and Fred. 

Throughout the 1980s most of Tom’s work was as a actor in a number of tv series, particularly Oh Happy Band with Harry Worth (BBC 1980), Foxy Lady (Granada 1982-84), Open All Hours (BBC 1982-85) and, most notably, as Sam Tindall in Coronation Street between 1985 and 1989. As Sam he would often be sparring with Percy Sugden for the affections of Phyllis Pearce. Sugden and Pearce were played by Bill Waddington and Jill Summers whom Mennard had first met during his Windmill Theatre days. Sam Tindall appeared in the soap, often with his dog Dougal who was, by all accounts, Tom’s own dog, in over sixty episodes. His last appearance was in May 1989. Just six months later Tom Mennard died.  

Back to Local Tales and my recording comes from the final series in 1987. There are five shows on YouTube including this one but I’ve also uploaded it as it includes some continuity. The theme is Johnny Pearson’s Corn on the Keys (KPM 1008 issued in 1966). 

Tracking down the details of all the broadcasts of Local Tales has not been easy due to some inconsistent labelling of repeats and industrial action affecting the printing of the Radio Times. 

3 episodes: 5 March to 19 March 1981

5 episodes: 16 December 1981 to 13 January 1982. All but one of these, the 30 December 1981 programme, are listed as a repeat but given that only 3 episodes were in the first series this can’t be the case.

16 episodes: 21 April to 4 August 1982

8 episodes: 28 January to 18 March 1983

3 episodes: 19 April to 10 May 1983. Not clear if these are new or repeats as the National editions of the Radio Times have reduced listing information.

4 episodes: 1 April to 22 April 1984 (all repeats)

6 episodes: 20 March to 24 April 1985

4 episodes: 27 November to 18 December 1985

6 episodes: 4 February to 11 March 1987

There were selected repeats in late 1989 following Tom’s death and a further six repeated shows in late 1990.

You can hear Tom in a Workers' Playtime revival from 1982 on my YouTube channel here

Sunday 21 January 2024

Radio on Record – Radio Loves You

Writing a song with radio in the title is a surefire way to grab some airplay. With luck that airplay will translate into a hit record. Perhaps that thought was going through the mind of songwriter Paul Battle when, in 1977, he penned Radio Loves You a paean to the joys of listening to the radio “a love affair on the air.”     

Promotional copies of the single were sent round to US radio stations with a stereo mix on one side and a mono version on the flipside, to cater for both FM and AM stations. Paul’s version was released in the States and in Australia by A&M and in Europe, or at least the Netherlands, by CBS. On the B side was another of his songs Baby, I’m Falling in Love With You. Paul Robert Battle (1949-2012) wrote over 200 songs but this song remains his best known.  

But it doesn’t end there because in November of that year another version of the song was released, this time by an act calling themselves Gadzooks. It seems likely that Gadzooks was a group of session players and singers brought together for this recording. Again a stereo/mono promotional copy was circulated. It went on general release on the GRT label with Holiday, written by Jack Grochmal, on the B side. Interestingly the lyrics for the second verse were re-written for the Gadzooks version.

The original lyrics read:

Lovely maid in your Cadillac that day was serenaded by the sounds of I’ll be true,

The three of us were there, no one seemed to care, not the radio, not me or even you.

These were changed to:

You’re feeling down and your chin is on the ground from the hassles in your life from day to day,

Then you hear your song and you start to sing-a-long as the radio blows all your blues away.  

Both songs did get US airplay; according to the comments on YouTube uploads stations WRSU-FM, WCOR, KKUA, KSTN, KACY and KHJ are mentioned. As far as I can tell chart success eluded both releases as they failed to make the Billboard Hot 100 or the Dutch or Australian charts.

My attention was drawn to these recordings when they were featured recently on Jon Wolfert’s weekly show on Rewound Radio. Jon also shows us how the Gadzooks record was used by JAM Creative Productions to create a bespoke version for WAKY radio in Louisville. Here’s how this played out on Jon’s show on 7 January 2024.

The song lived again two years later when, in 1979, Swedish group Säwes recorded it under the title Radion spelar för dig with lyrics by Björn Håkanson (you can find it on YouTube). Säwes seemed to specialise in cover versions as their records also included Let Your Love Flow, Paloma Blanca and RFSU (their equivalent of YMCA).   

Jon’s three hour show, a mixture of music and jingle features, can be heard online on Rewound Radio each Sunday at 3 pm US Eastern time.    

Friday 12 January 2024

Not the A to Z of Radio Comedy: W is for Wow Show

In the 1980s any young radio light entertainment producer worth his or her salt was scouring the comedy clubs and the Edinburgh Fringe looking for the next big thing and signing them up for a Radio 4 series.

In 1985, the year in question for this blog post, BBC Radio 4 was already offering listeners the fifth series of Radio Active and the second of In One Ear. It was also the year you could hear the short-lived sketch show In Other Words...The Bodgers (though this did begat Absolutely) and the second series of Don’t Stop Now-It’s Fundation, an early outing for Hale and Pace. And in January 1985 the latest show to join the comedy schedule was The Wow Show.

The Wow Show was written and performed by four young actor/comedians who were already well known for the fringe stage show bearing the same name. The quartet was Stephen Frost, Mark Arden, Lee Cornes and Mark Elliott. Frost and Arden were teamed up as The Oblivion Boys and worked together on BBC1’s Carrott’s Lib as well as appearing on Blackadder, The Comic Strip Presents... and The Young Ones. Cornes also had The Young Ones and the same Comic Strip episode under his belt. Elliott (also billed under his full name Paul Mark Elliott) had more straight acting credits but like the others also popped up in the Comic Strip (the frankly bizarre s02e07 episode Slags which can be found on YouTube).     

The Wow Show
ran for two six-part series in 1985, the first starting in January and the second in October. The producer was Jamie Rix who’d joined the Light Entertainment department in 1981 initially producing Beat the Record, Pros and Cons and Three in a Row for Radio 2 before picking up comedy duties in 1983 on Radio Active, In One Ear and The Bentine Years.

Radio Times 19 January 1985

From the first series comes this second episode titled For Your Hives Only, a surreal tale set in a beehive. There’s a feel of I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again about this show judging by some of the puns and, a couple of minutes in, Lee Cornes as The Queen Beatrix Herself, sounding not unlike TBT’s Lady Constance de Coverlet.

First broadcast on Saturday 12 January and then repeated on Friday 18 January (which is the transmission I recorded) like all of The Wow Show it’s never had a subsequent repeat, the BBC having wiped or dumped the lot.   

Postscript: Since I wrote this post BBC Radio 4 Extra are now due to repeat this very same episode as part of one of their All Request Weekends on 10 February 2024. I understand that some off-air recordings were returned to the BBC. 

Sunday 31 December 2023

Chimes at Midnight

“By that extraordinary economy of association which only sound produces the boom of Big Ben strikes right into the heart of the exiled Englishman. “ So said a pre-war BBC Empire Service pamphlet explaining why its broadcasts were so evocative for many of its listeners, even those who had never set foot in Britain. Indeed, it was noted that for many years the sounds of Big Ben, evoking both the City of London and parliamentary democracy, as well as marking the passing of British time, was rated top amongst listener preferences for many years. (1)  

The chimes of Big Ben have been heard over the airwaves exactly 100 years ago when they were first broadcast to welcome in 1924.A century later folk will turn on their radios or switch on the telly for the midnight ‘bongs’ no doubt followed by a quick and not entirely tuneful drunken rendition of Auld Lang Syne.

Since that first broadcast the chimes of Big Ben have become part of the radio broadcasting furniture whether marking state or royal events, introducing the news, prefacing the silence on Remembrance Day or ushering in the New Year.

Back in 1923 it fell to BBC engineer A.G. Dryland to arrange for the first broadcast transmitted live from a rooftop opposite the Houses of Parliament, recording the chimes amongst the general noise of Westminster.

Edward Pawley’s definitive guide to BBC engineering in its first fifty years wrote:  

An important first was the inauguration of the long series of broadcasts by Big Ben. This took place at midnight on New Year’s Eve at the end of 1923 and was treated as an OB. It was followed by regular broadcasts twice a day from 9 March 1924. The microphone and amplifier were at first installed on the roof of Bridge Chambers, Bridge Steer, Westminster. The microphone (a Round Sykes) was enclosed in a biscuit tin filled with cotton wool, but was later transferred (still wrapped in cotton wool) to a football bladder sealed with a rubber solution to guard against the inclemency of the weather and suspended about 15 feet above the bells. 

By 1926 a permanent Marconi-Reisz microphone was installed in the Clock Tower and by the mid-50s they were using STC4035 mics.

Dryland spoke about that first broadcast in the 1936 programme Scrapbook for 1924. That and other audio clips featuring or about Big Ben are included in this short montage.

By the time the Empire Service launched in December 1932 the chimes were heard around the world for the first time and on Christmas Day that year they rang out at 3 pm just before the first live speech from King George V.  

When the first non-English language service, the Arabic service, started on 3 January 1938 the first news bulletin was read after the Big Ben chimes. The worldwide broadcasts of Big Ben became an important feature of the Empire Service (later the General Overseas Service, now the World Service). In the 1946 BBC Year Book a Colonial Governor wrote:

'It was in helping us to overcome this sense of isolation that the broadcasts from home became so valued. Perhaps the biggest thrill we got every day was hearing Big Ben strike. It carried us right back home, right into the centre of things; and yet at the same time brought an almost unbearable nostalgia’

The quarter hour and half hour chimes continued to be heard during the day on the World Service as part of the general continuity as different transmitters switched in and out of the English Service until about 20 years ago. (I’m guessing here, if you know when please contact me).  The BBC's Japanese Service also used to start its broadcasts with the chimes of Big Ben.

For many years the complete bongs preceded the Home Service 9pm news, in what was known as the ‘Big Ben Minute’. But when the main evening news at was moved to 10pm in September 1960 only the first stroke of the hour was heard before being faded out. This practice continues for Radio 4’s 6pm news and midnight news (they were re-introduced instead of the pips around June 1981).  The Big Ben chimes at 10 pm were dropped in April 1970, apart from weekends, when The World Tonight was launched.

In the 1970s you could also hear Big Ben at the start of the days broadcasting on Radios 1 and 2 at either 5.30 or 6.00. This practice ended when Radio 2 moved to 24 hours a day in January 1979. The bells were also heard on Sunday mornings on Radio 3, who obviously liked a lie-in at the weekend, when programmes started at 8 am.   

Until a couple of months ago for just over six years (from August 2017), apart from some special events and New Year’s Eve, the broadcasting of Big Ben was from recordings whilst the Elizabeth Tower and the clock mechanism was repaired and refurbished at a cost of £80 million. The chimes were back in action over a year ago (from November 2022), indeed I heard them in January when I was in London taking the photographs for this post. But it wasn’t until Radio 4’s Six O’Clock News on 6 November this year that live broadcasts returned. The delay was partially to allow the mechanism to ‘bed in’ and also to allow for the installation of four new microphones.

Evan Davis spoke to Parliamentary Clockmaker Ian Westworth about the restoration for Radio 4’s PM programme. 

In 2013 to mark the 90th anniversary of that first broadcast, poet Ian McMillan wrote seven poems for the BBC Radio 4 Extra series Big Ben’s Chimes. The seven programmes, each running at 3 minutes, interspersed McMillan’s words with music and archive recordings. I’ve stitched them together for this omnibus version. The programme producer is Moy McGowan.

Tonight, at midnight, BBC Radio 3 will broadcast an edition of Slow Radio devoted to The Clock. It promises an “hypnotic audio journey, as we tumble inside the delicate mechanism of the clock”.  



The seven episodes of Big Ben’s Chimes are titled: Maintaining Big Ben, Big Ben Seizes Up, Big Ben as an Icon of Britain, Big Ben as Beating Heart, Big Ben - Good News, New Year in War Time and First Broadcast. 

In this post I have referred to the ‘chimes of Big Ben’ but of course strictly speaking Big Ben is the name of the large 13.7 tonne bell that provides the ‘bongs’ in the note of E. There are the quarter bells varying in weight from 1.1 to 4 tonnes that provide G sharp, F sharp, E and B notes which are set are set to the following lines: “All through this hour, Lord be my Guide. And by thy power, no foot shall slide”

UK Parliamentary blog on Broadcasting Big Ben

BBC Archive page on Big Ben

Saturday 2 December 2023

Broadcasting the Barricades

A little over eighty five years ago, on 30 October 1938, America was in a state of panic. Folk were taking to the highways and driving off into the hills, there were frantic calls to the police and to friends and family, people were taking shelter in their nearest church or arming themselves with shotguns. The cause, a radio broadcast with the breaking news of a Martian invasion, or at least some kind of invasion. Maybe it was the Germans?

Of course we know that most of this did not actually happen. The panic following the broadcast of Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre Production of The War of the Worlds was mainly stoked by the press, unimpressed and unamused by the hype generated by the radio opposition.     

War of the Worlds succeeded due its blurring of fact and fiction and by deploying the grammar of radio broadcasting of the time, ‘we interrupt this program’, portentous bulletins, on the spot reports and so on.

But what US radio listeners wouldn’t have known at the time was that such a spoof broadcast was not a new idea. It had been heard on the BBC some twelve years earlier in a ‘talk’ given by a Catholic priest, the Revered Ronald Knox (pictured above). This talk, titled Broadcasting the Barricades, caused a great deal of public consternation and stirred up a press frenzy though it didn’t quite lead to “panic on the streets of London, panic on the streets of Birmingham.”

There’s no suggestion that Knox’s talk directly inspired Welles and co. but in subsequent interviews he did acknowledge that he knew of its reputation. The BBC broadcast had been reported in the US newspapers at the time with one writing that “we are safe from such jesting”.   

Knox was something of a polymath; his sermons had been published, he wrote about Catholic doctrine, published verse and satirical volumes as well as both writing detective fiction – his first The Viaduct Murder came out in 1925 – and writing about detective fiction – he was a member of the Detection Club and devised his ‘Ten Commandments of Detective Fiction’.    

The idea for what became Broadcasting the Barricades apparently came to Knox during the last election (presumably the General Election of October 1924) as he tried to imagine the news bulletins that might be broadcast during a revolution. This was at a time when the threat of a ‘red revolution’ would have seemed real to many listeners. The Communist Party of Great Britain had not long been formed and with labour troubles already rumbling and the ill-advised 1925 Gold Standard Act the political situation seemed febrile.   

The broadcast, running for 17 minutes in total, was made live at 7.40 pm on Saturday 16 January 1926 from the George Street studios of the BBC’s Edinburgh relay station (call sign 2EH). 2EH broadcast locally produced programmes as well as carrying SBs (simultaneous broadcasts) from London. Knox’s talk was unusual in that it was an SB from Edinburgh heard on a number of other stations, most significantly 2LO in London. It wasn’t, though, broadcast nationwide as 2ZY Manchester, 5IT Birmingham, 2BD Aberdeen and 2LS Leeds did their own thing.  

David Pat Walker (in The BBC in Scotland) describes the programme:

The broadcast had been arranged by Edinburgh’s Station Director George L. Marshall, who had met Knox on more than one occasion and knew of his reputation as an author and humorist. Officially described as a ‘Talk’ it was in fact a lengthy spoof news bulletin, complete with effects, reporting an imaginary communist rising in London.   

At the beginning of the programme some sixth sense made George L. Marshall warn his audience that it wasn’t to be taken seriously but he under-estimated the listeners’ unshakable belief in everything they heard. As grave and utterly unexpected tidings flowed out of headphones and loudspeakers throughout Britain a state of alarm bearing on consternation swept across the country. The National Gallery was in flames. Big Ben had been demolished by trench mortars. A communist revolution was exploding in London and the mass forces of the unemployed had plundered the Savoy Hotel and set it on fire. Finally, as the programme ended, there was a report that ‘unruly members of the crowd are now approaching the British Broadcasting Company’s London station with a threatening demeanour.’

Listeners up and down the country sprang to their telephones, convinced that London had been laid waste. The Savoy Hotel was bombarded with calls from the excited relations of guests while the Irish Free State made enquiries through diplomatic channels to discover whether it was true that the House of Commons had been blown up. Later that evening the BBC issued an apology, ‘the BBC regrets that any listener should have been perturbed by this purely fantastic picture.’

Knox himself thought his broadcast so far-fetched that no one would believe it was real. Unlike War of the Worlds, Broadcasting the Barricades, was a one-man affair with only live effects punctuating the story. His characters added to the satirical nature of his theme: Sir Theophilus Gooch, a film actress Miss Joy Gush, Mr Wotherspoon the Minister of Traffic and a Mr Popplebury, the Secretary of the National Movement for Abolishing Theatre Queues.

Some passages were, however, quite dark: “the BBC regrets that one item in the news has been inaccurately given; the correction now follows. It was stated in our news bulletin that the Minister of Traffic had been hanged from a lamp post in the Vauxhall Bridge Road. Subsequent and more accurate reports show that it was not a lamp post, but a tramway post that was used for the purpose.”   

Meanwhile, down in London announcer Stuart Hibberd was working that evening:

I was on duty at Savoy Hill and, as Knox was speaking from Edinburgh, I did not listen at the beginning, but soon so many phone calls from apprehensive listeners were coming through that I had to listen. Obviously the whole thing was a spoof; you only had to listen to sentences like ‘the mob are now swarming into Hyde park and throwing ginger beer bottles at the ducks on the Serpentine’ to realise this; after all, it was night, and bitterly cold, with ice and snow everywhere in the London area. But still the telephone calls came in, and we had to put out a reassuring announcement at the end. Sometime later that evening a call was put through to me from a commercial traveller, who told me that he had only just got home after a very long day. He found the wireless switched on, both his wife and his sister-in-law, who was staying with them, drunk in the sitting room, and his best bottle of brandy empty under the table. ‘What are you going to do about it?’ he inquired.

Twenty minutes after the live broadcast Knox and Marshall were having supper at the Caledonian Hotel when a call was put through from BBC managing director John Reith saying that staff at Savoy Hill had been annoyed by anxious inquiries. On Monday Reith asked for a full transcript by telegram. Marshall despatched office boy Tony Cogle to the post office to telegraph the script to London. It was, he later recalled, the most expensive wire he could remember having sent. In the meantime Knox had by now travelled over to Dublin where he was due to speak and so missed most of the fallout that hit the press on the Monday.

Despite the initial furore there was no official rebuke for Knox; he continued to broadcast through to the 1950s. Indeed at a programme review board the following month the talk had been picked out as one of the ‘outstanding items’ broadcast in January and even Reith himself was pleased with it as it showed that people were listening. The press attention, he concluded, only served to increase the number of public appreciations. Anyway not too long after Broadcasting the Barricades the BBC had far more important issues on its plate with the General Strike.    

The influence of Broadcasting the Barricades didn’t just extend to War of the Worlds. The following year, on 30 June 1927, Australian station 5CL based in Adelaide broadcast what was billed as a Special Broadcast. It too used the device of interrupting a music programme for a news announcement and then special effects to dramatise a supposed invasion. Inevitably the station, the police and the local newspapers were inundated with calls despite the frequent on-air reminders that it was ‘merely a play’,  

In June 2005 Raymond Snoddy looked at Knox’s broadcast and the fallout from it in the BBC Radio 4 documentary The Riot that Never Was. Recreating parts of the original broadcast was Bob Sinfield as Ronald Knox. It was produced by Paul Slade and Nick Baker for Testbed Productions.  

The full text of Broadcasting the Barricades can be found in Essays in Satire by Ronald Knox available on the Internet Archive

You can read more about Father Ronald Knox and the 1926 broadcast on the Planetslade website.

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