Saturday, 29 March 2014

Radio Lives – Hubert Gregg

If you were listening to BBC Radio 2 on a Friday evening a decade ago you may have been forgiven in thinking you’d been transported back to the days of the Light Programme; a time before the Beatles, Elvis and the invention of rock ‘n’ roll.  Thanks for the Memory celebrated a 78 rpm world; the era of the Great American Songbook, Al Bowlly stepping up to the microphone in front of Lew Stone’s Band. Of Tin Pan Alley, repertory theatre, concert parties and dining at the Café de Paris with Noel Coward.  The nostalgia-monger was Hubert Gregg: broadcaster, composer, actor, director, producer and writer.

Hubert was ideally suited to Thanks for the Memory. Not only did he have “a retentive memory” but, in many cases, he’d either met or seen the performer at the time, in a career that lasted over seventy years.   In this post there’s a chance to hear once again some of those shows for “Wireless Two” as I canter through the Gregg radio broadcasting highlights that span from 1933 to 2004.
Hubert Robert Harry Gregg was born in 1914 in Norfolk Road, Islington. Within the sound of Bow Bells, so his song Maybe It’s Because I’m a Londoner – “there’s a magic in the fog and rain” -  is apt. The Gregg family hit on hard times and had an itinerant existence moving from town to town no less than fifteen times in eighteen years. But young Hubert was fascinated by the stage and screen, taking part in a talent contest – singing “Eat more fruit! Don’t eat mutton, don’t eat lamb.” – and watching the silent flicks. A scholarship to St Dunstan’s College secured his education and any spare time was spent watching variety acts at the local theatre or playing piano in the school dance band. His first stage appearance, in 1928, was an amateur production of If Four Walls Told.

But Hubert’s real theatrical education came from an audacious act when he was just seventeen. After a Shakespeare performance at the Old Vic he hung around the stage door to collect his autographs and, summoning up courage asked of actor Robert Harris:” I hope you won’t think me mad but do you think it humanly possible for me to become a member of the Old Vic?”  He didn’t join the company but he was introduced to Eric Earnshaw-Smith who became his mentor. Hubert went on to study at the Webber Douglas School of Singing and Dramatic Art and then, with encouragement from Roger Livesey, joined the Birmingham Rep.
It was during his time with the Birmingham Repertory Theatre Company that Hubert made his first broadcast, on 25 October 1933, when the Midland Regional Service of the BBC broadcast an excerpt from Foranzo’s comedy Cabbages and Kings.  The following year, realising that others in the profession “were queuing up for acting auditions in broadcasting” he secured a part in Booth Tarkington’s Beauty and the Jacobin alongside Pascoe Thornton, Barbara Couper, Rosalinde Fuller, Leslie Perrins, Norman Shelley and Eric Anderson. “Herbert (sic) Gregg, a newcomer, did well” said the Evening News. It was the start of Hubert’s broadcasting career.  Writing in his autobiography he has able to say that by late 1934 “the BBC was now paying my rent and feeding me. I played in plays, I read poetry, I read the Bible; I took part in Schools programmes and in Children’s Hour; I read books, I was a narrator and a chronicler and would have been happy to be a general vocal dogsbody provided it paid the odd guinea or guinea and a half.”

In November 1935 came an offer to become a part-time announcer on the Empire Service to fit around his other BBC commitments, causing a headache for Chief Announcer Joe Shewen. On one occasion, Hubert recalled, on duty at Broadcasting House in the middle of the night he was summoned to the telephone by a phone call from Winston Churchill. “You’re the only person in authority in the building”, informed the uniformed attendant. “I’m working on my speech on the India Bill. Last week Sir Samuel Hoare took twenty-five minutes. Am I expected to limit my speech to twenty?” asked Churchill. Unsure of what to advise, “I’m only the announcer…” Hubert paused and then ventured “But if I were you, I’d go on until I’d finished. They won’t turn you off.”
But the pull of live theatre proved too great and Hubert gave up his BBC staff job when he got a call to play in Hugh Miller’s revival of Johnson’s The Alchemist. It only ran for week but Hubert continued to work freelance for the corporation for the rest of his career. 

In 1937 Hubert got the opportunity to appear as Kit Neilan in a Broadway production of Rattigan’s French Without Tears. This American sojourn also gave him time to explore the latest musicals and entertainers on both coasts and he was fortunate to see the likes of Benny Goodman, Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway, Tommy Dorsey and Fats Waller. 
An edition of Pond's Serenade to Beauty listed in
Radio Pictorial 26 August 1939
Back in London the following year there was more radio work for the BBC as well as appearances on Radio Luxembourg as the announcer on Pond’s Serenade to Beauty (sponsored by Pond’s Cold Cream) featuring the music of Van Phillips and his Orchestra. Taking care not to alert the Corporation of his work for the commercial station – the programme was also transmitted by Radio Normandy -  he used the pseudonym Michael Riley.  Post-war Hubert would again work for Luxembourg, albeit indirectly, producing radio dramas on behalf of the Young and Rubicam advertising agency.

But it was song-writing rather than broadcasting that gave Hubert his early fame. Although he wrote nearly 200 there are two which remain his legacy: I’m Going to Get Lit-Up and Maybe It’s Because I’m a Londoner. The first was a typical rousing wartime number, the idea coming to him after he was called up for duty as a private soldier and posted to Lincoln.

On this particular morning we were discussing London. One lad had been on leave there and mentioned the severity of the blackout. They had eased the restrictions quite a bit so that there were fewer deaths from walking the dog but it was still a blackout and the bloody Hun had caused it – this was the tenor of the conversation. In happened to say “I’m going to get lit-up when the lights go up I can tell you!”. My lazy song-writing brain stirred and began to move into action. 

The song was not long in being made public, Hubert performed it at an All-Forces concert broadcast from Thornaby in Yorkshire just days later. The double meaning of the title appealed to the wartime sensibilities, though the BBC were initially reluctant to broadcast it. It was a couple of years later that it was finally published at a time when it was chosen by theatre impresario George Black for the show Strike a New Note. The song was assigned to a young South African singer named Zoe Gail. In time Zoe would become the first Mrs Gregg. Incidentally one of the earliest clips of Hubert in the BBC’s archive comes from a 1949 edition of In Town Tonight where roving reporter Brian Johnston spoke to the composer and introduced Miss Gail who belted out the song from the balcony of the Criterion Restaurant overlooking Piccadilly Circus. The occasion: the lights going on in London’s theatreland after going ‘dark’ days in the early days of the war.  
Maybe It’s Because I’m a Londoner was one of those songs composed in a trice, about twenty minutes as it happened, and then tucked away in a drawer and forgotten about.  Two years later Jack Hylton was bringing the Crazy Gang back to London and wanted a song for Bud Flanagan. Out came the London song. Hylton was willing to pay one hundred for the exclusive stage rights but Hubert insisted on five pounds per week, terms that were grudgingly agreed.  Together Again would run for four years but it all ended messily for Hubert when Hylton sued him for £1500. It transpired that “some comedian in Scunthorpe or somewhere had been singing [it] on stage”.    

Meanwhile, back in war-torn London, a chance meeting with actor Stephen Haggard led to more radio work, this time on programmes broadcast to the German Forces by the clandestine Political Wartime Executive. Haggard, who’d trained in Germany, was on the lookout for anyone with microphone experience and at least a grasp of the German language. Hubert was not fluent but “with a little practice I would rattle off seven or eight minutes of scripted German in such a way that a Hun would be hard put to it to see through the ruse.” During his time with the PWE, working on the programme Sending for die Deutsche Wehermacht, he was roped in the supplement the cast of the film In Which We Serve, his first credited film role.
An appearance in Saturday-Night Theatre on the
Home Service 18 November 1950
There’s one literary work that runs like a thread throughout Hubert’s career and that’s Jerome K. Jerome’s much-dramatised comic novel Three Men in a Boat. Hubert recalls how when asked to appear on the Light Programme’s Saturday Night On the Light (“a radio kaleidoscope of words and music”) he chose to read extracts from the book.  Apparently “the reception was phenomenal.”  So much so that he was immediately invited to ‘Jerome’ on Henry Hall’s Guest Night and then Hall’s television show Face the Music. For this performance he chose to wear a bowler hat and, as a result, was offered the film role of the bowler-hatted Mr Pusey, duped by the wily crew of the Clyde puffer, in the Ealing comedy The Maggie.

Two years later he was back in the film studios, this time at Shepperton , for the filming of Three Men in a Boat, with a script by Hubert and Vernon Harris.  Recognising a good thing when he found it he added music and lyrics for a musical version of the tale broadcast on the Light Programme at Christmas 1962 with Kenneth Horne as Harris, Leslie Philips as George, Hubert as J and Percy Edwards barking Montmorency the dog. In fact it was Hubert’s second appearance in a radio adaptation; the first some 18 years earlier in a 1944 version with Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne, better known to radio and film audiences as that cricket-loving duo Charters and Caldicott.
Surprisingly Hubert did very little regular television work.  In his obituaries only two shows are mentioned, both from the 1950s. For the BBC there was the chairmanship of TV Brains Trust though there’s nothing to suggest it was anything other than a handful of appearances as the question master. Similarly over on ITV in 1957 he popped up as chairman of a few editions of Granada’s Youth Wants to Know.  The TV Times billed this as “each week Granada invites to their TV centre in Manchester two celebrities who are experts on a particular subject, but who have opposing views. They will face a barrage of questions from a group of Northern young people”.  Hubert chaired some of these shows between February and March, with the 10 April edition looking at “The H Bomb”, a matter far removed from the world of theatre. (Others in the chair that year were Leonard ‘The Good Old Days’ Sachs and Elaine Grand, later of Thames TV’s Afternoon Plus).

Hubert first started to mine the vein of nostalgia in 1964 with his radio show A Square Deal: “a round of yesterday’s records for the squares of today”. “At the time”, he recalled in his autobiography, “there seemed to be nothing but pop music blaring out of radio sets and I wondered how the millions who, like me, didn’t care for cacophony, were managing.”  The programme, initially going out on the Home Service but transferring, a couple of months later, to the Light, was seen by one critic as “a recuperative refuge” with the delights of “the Andrews Sisters, Roy Fox, Al Bowlly, Nat Gonella, Jack Hulbert and Bobby Howes”.
This clip comes from the programme of 21 March 1966.

A Square Deal
, now on Radio 2, ended in December 1967 but Hubert was back in the summer of 1968, this time on Radio 4, with a weekly afternoon show I Remember It Well. Running for twelve weeks each edition would also ask a well-known entertainer or actor to choose records that had particular memories for them, they included Kenneth More, John Hanson, Danny Le Rue, Adam Faith, Kay Hammond, John Clements and, in the final programme his second wife, Pat Kirkwood.

In January 1968 Hubert took over as host for a couple of months of the Friday night Radio 2 show Now and Then – first heard in May 1968 and originally presented by Alan Dell – which promised to discover “what was popular then is just as popular now … although sometimes there’s a change of beat.”
It’s often overlooked that Hubert’s most popular and long-running show, Thanks for the Memory, wasn’t originally presented by him. It had started on Radio 2 in October 1969 with Gale Pedrick, the picker on Pick of the Week, in the chair. When Pedrick died the following February producer Sheila Anderson approached Hubert to take over the reins, so starting a 44 year run.
A new series of Thanks for the Memory
7 April 1972. Gregg thought the programme title
was "tedious".

A few tweaks were made to the Thanks for the Memory format over the years. Out went the Victorian memories and archive snippets, out went the theme – Beethoven’s Sonatina in C major for Mandolin and Piano – and in came his old A Square Deal theme Time Was by Nelson Riddle. And in, of course, came Hubert himself singing a tune accompanied at the piano by Gordon Langford.  Over time too the scripts became more stylised: the show was broadcast on “Wireless Two” and would be back in “a sennight”. Eventually settling into a Friday night slot, though for many years it darted around the schedule, it became “the Friday night club” with Hubert “in the square chair” often with “jaggers and taggers” to hand. Though it sounded impromptu… those pauses … were all scripted … the page full of dots and dashes.  
Here’s a relatively early recording of the programme, just sixteen years in from February 1986:

Hubert claimed that one of the positive effects of Thanks for the Memory was on record companies. In 1978 he told the Radio Times: When it started, very little vintage material was available on record. Two years of steady nagging at the record people finally convinced them there was a public for their old stuff; now you can find whole racks of wonderful re-issues”.
Such was the success of Thanks for the Memory that Hubert was invited to present other programmes on the network such as the 40-part Hubert Gregg at the London Theatre (broadcast January to October in 1974) and five series of what he termed “a personal spotlight on special people in entertainment” titled I Call It Genius and I Call It Style. The subjects of these programmes were people whose work Hubert adored:“I have seen and heard them play, sung their songs … watched them dance ---in some cases talked and imbibed with them into small hours made great by conversation”.

Billing for a 1955 repeat of The Man About Town. Nearly 50
years later David Jacobs would present a tribute to Hubert

Indeed it was with Jack Buchanan that Hubert imbibed, on gin and tonic, when he was working with the entertainer in the mid-50s. Jack had been a childhood hero of Hubert’s – he’d queued outside the stage door to collect his autograph. Thirty years later he was asked by Jack to provide a weekly song about London – If I Could Take My Pick I’d Pick Piccadilly and so on -  as well as the title song for the 1955 Home Service series The Man About Town   
From the third series of I Call It Style comes this appreciation of songwriter Harry Warren.

And now a later Thanks for the Memory, I’ve no date for this recording:

In his later years Hubert remained busy, still broadcasting, writing and, together with his third wife Carmel (they’d married in 1980), studying for an Open University degree. The final edition of Thanks for the Memory was broadcast on 5 March 2004. Sadly just weeks later, ten years ago today, he passed away.

On 20 April 2004 David Jacobs presented Radio 2’s tribute to Hubert. This programme includes excerpts from Man About Town, Three Men in a Boat and, of course, Thanks for the Memory.

Summing up his penchant for harking back to the past he wrote;” The anecdotes come thick and fast because I love no time more than yesterday. To remember it sees you through today; and it gives you a kind of optimism because you look for the best in today for you to remember tomorrow.”

Hubert Gregg 1914-2004 Au revoir … to you.

With thanks to Carmel Gregg and Paul Langford.

For the Record

As this is a radio blog my review of Hubert’s life and career missies out much of his theatre and film work. For a book packed full of anecdotes I can whole-heartedly recommend his autobiography Maybe It’s Because…? available exclusively from this website:
During the 1930s Hubert made somewhere in the region of 400-500 broadcasts. My research has uncovered details of just under 40 of them showing the range of his work and the many stars (or stars in the making) he worked alongside.

25 October 1933 Cabbages and Kings a comedy in three acts by Foranzo with Cyril Maude and the Birmingham Repertory Theatre Company
14 November 1933 Eleventh Hour a play in one act by Anthony Armstrong
5 July 1934 Beauty and the Jacobin by Booth Tarkington with Pascoe Thornton, Barbara Couper, Hubert Gregg, Rosalinde Fuller, Leslie Perrins, Norman Shelley and Eric Anderson.
6 July 1934 Wuthering Heights by Booth Tarkington
24 September 1934 The Forsaken by Duncan Campbell read by Hubert Gregg
26 September 1934 Troops Leaving Mudros by John Masefield read by Hubert Gregg
27 September 1934 In Lady Street by John Drinkwater read by Hubert Gregg
28 September 1934 Seeing the Wind by Roger Ascham read by Hubert Gregg
26 November 1934 Wuthering Heights
24 December 1934 Four Sonnets by William Shakespeare read by Hubert Gregg
January 1935 The Winter’s Tale “Mr Gregg’s Florizel was charmingly innocent”
22 March 1935 Last Voyage play about Sir Walter Raleigh on the National Programme
11 April 1935 Three Moods of Fame by Lord Dunsany with Hubert Greggg, Gladys Young, Lawrence Hanray
5 May 1935 Henry V cast included Leslie Banks and John Laurie
24 June 1935 Chamber Music & Poetry
10 November 1935 Cut and Come Again by HE Bates. Short story read by Hubert Gregg
3 January 1936 Decision-5 by Mabel Constanduros with Gordon McLeod, Gladys Young, Ursula Marx and Hubert Gregg
6 February 1936 War Calls the Tune by C.K. Munro, cast included George Sanders (Repeated 7 February 1936)
29 March 1936 From the London  Theatre included an extract of William Douglas Home’s Great Possessions starring Arthur Powell, Hubert Gregg, Tully Comber, Geoffrey Keen, Marjory Clark, Jane Welsh, Nigel Clarke and J. Leslie Frith (Repeated 30 March 1936)
10 May 1936 The Tragedy of Edward the Second by Christopher Marlowe. Cast included a young Antony Quayle
19 May 1936 London Wall by John van Druten “Mr Hubert Gregg gave a very plausible sketch of a tiresome, inarticulate and good young man”.
8 June 1936 Socrates by Clifford Bax with Cedric Hardwicke, Anthony Ireland, J.B. Rowe, Hubert Gregg, Miles Malleson, Leslie Perrins, Gladys Young, Leo Genn and others. (Repeated 9 June 1936)
27 July 1936 Selections from the poetry and prose of Sir Walter Raleigh read by Hubert Gregg and John Maude
August-September 1936 The Full Story a 5-part thriller serial by John Watt and Henrik Ege
18 October 1936 Hippolytus with Margaret Rawlings, Hermoine Hannen, Ion Swinley, Lilian Harrison, Gladys Young. With Hubert Gregg playing Hippolytus
25 December 1936 The Christmas Journey-A Masque of the Nativity
24 January 1937 Dr Samuel Johnson with Carelton Hobbs
31 January 1937 The Merchant of Venice – cast included Charles Hawtey
February and March 1937 Children’s Hour plays Tales from the Nordic Sagas by L. du Garde Peach also starring Hay Petrie, Norman Shelley  and Carleton Hobbs
17 February 1937 Children’s Hour with the play Tales of Western Hope by Sybil Clarke.
19 February 1937 The Blue Danube and Why It Was Written with Neal Arden, Henry Hallett and others
25 April 1937 The Trojan Women by Euripides co-starring Flora Robson
9 May 1937 The Kings Anointing compiled and produced by Felix Felton
22 June 1937 National 6 by Jean-Jacques Bernard with Jill Furse, J. Leslie Frith, Marjorie Gabain, Hubert Gregg & Austin Trevor
9 July 1937 The Adventure of the Hansom Cabs. Cast included Felix Aylmer and Robert Newton
22 February 1938 Experimental Hour: Devil’s Dyke, a dramatic poem by Christopher Hassell
6 November 1938 The Winter’s Tale. Cast included Nigel Stock, Miles Malleson, Sybil Thorndike and Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies
24 December 1938 Alas, Poor Ghost. Poetry readings of Thomas Hardy, Walter de la Mare and others read by John Abbott, Nancy Brown, Lillian Harrison, David King-Wood and Hubert Gregg 
February 1939 Children’s Hour production of The Pilgrim’s Progress
7 March 1939 Royal Palaces by L. du Garde Peach. Cast included Maurice Denham and Norman Shelley
24 June 1939 The Church by the Sea. Play by Hugh Stewart with Peggy Bryan, Hubert Gregg and Gladys Young
12 January 1940 Roland written by EA Harding co-starring Felix Aylmer & Francis de Woolf
15 January 1940 Astrophel and Stella with Hubert Gregg as speaker

A Square Deal was first broadcast on the BBC Home Service on 12 November 1964 and transferred to the Light Programme (later Radio 2) from 7 January 1965. The programme ended on 28 December 1967
I Remember It Well was broadcast on BBC Radio 4 from 9 July to 24 September 1968

Now and Then was first broadcast on 10 May 1968 when the presenter was Alan Dell. Other presenters in addition to Hubert were Jimmy Hanley, Henry Hall, Sam Costa, Peter Brough, Joan Turner, Ted Ray, George Elrick and Brian Rix. The final edition aired on 26 September 1969.
Thanks for the Memory with Gale Pedrick was first broadcast on 3 October 1969 with Hubert taking over the following March, though I don’t have the exact date for this one.  A number of online sources incorrectly state that the programme ran from 1972.

I Call It Genius was broadcast over two series in 1980 and 1981 with out of sequence repeats sometime combined with editions from I Call It Style until 1985. The working title had been A Touch of Genius but during the show’s preparation that title was used elsewhere on the radio, in fact by Robin Ray over on Radio 4.  
s01e01 04.03.80 Walt Disney (rpt 24.12.85)
s01e02 11.03.80 Busby Berkeley, Part 1 (rpt 16.11.82)
s01e03 18.03.80 Busby Berkeley, Part 2 (rpt 23.11.82)
s01e04 25.03.80 Fats Waller (rpt 07.12.82)
s01e05 01.04.80 Laurel & Hardy (rpt 12.11.85)
s01e06 08.08.80 Gene Kelly (rpt 26.11.85)
s01e07 15.04.80 Maurice Chevalier (rpt 14.12.82)
s01e08 22.04.80 Lorenz Hart (rpt 21.12.82)
s02e01 19.05.81 Cole Porter, Part 1 (rpt 28.02.84)
s02e02 26.05.81 Cole Porter, Part 2 (rpt 06.03.84)
s02e03 02.06.81 Fred Astaire (rpt 05.12.85)
s02e04 09.06.81 Louis Armstrong (rpt 13.03.84)
s02e05 16.06.81 Johnny Mercer (rpt 20.03.84)
s02e06 23.06.81 C.B. Cochran (rpt 19.11.85)
s02e07 30.06.81 Irving Berlin, Parts 1 (rpt 27.03.84)
s02e08 07.07.81 Irving Berlin, Part 2 (rpt 03.04.84)

I Call It Style was broadcast over three series between 1981 and 1985 with out of sequence repeats into 1986. I’m not 100% certain about the running order for weeks four to six of the second series as the industrial action prevented the printing of the Radio Times.
s01e01 24.11.81 Ivor Novello (rpt 01.5.84)
s01e02 01.12.81 Judy Garland (rpt 14.1.85)
s01e03 08.12.81 Paul Whiteman (rpt 03.12.85)
s01e04 15.12.81 Noel Coward & Gertrude Lawrence (rpt 17.4.84)
s01e05 22.12.81 Danny Kaye (rpt 10.12.85)
s01e06 29.12.81 George & Ira Gershwin (rpt 17.12.85)
s01e07 05.01.82 James Cagney & Dick Powell
s01e08 12.01.82 Frank Sinatra
s02e01 15.03.83 Al Jolson (rpt 15.03.83)
s02e02 22.03.83 Jerome Kern, Part 1 (rpt 22.03.83)
s02e03 29.03.83 Jerome Kern, Part 2 (rpt 29.03.83)
s02e04 05.04.83 The Dorsey Brothers (rpt 10.04.84)
s02e05 12.04.83 Jack Buchanan (rpt 15.05.84)
s02e06 19.04.83 Frank Loesser (rpt 07.01.86)
s02e07 26.04.83 Carroll Gibbons (rpt 08.05.84)
s02e08 03.05.83 Duke Ellington (rpt 24.04.84)
s03e01 26.02.85 Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein II
s03e02 05.03.85 Rudy Vallee
s03e03 12.03.85 Vivian Ellis
s03e04 19.03.85 Joe Venuti & Eddie Long
s03e05 26.03.85 Ray Noble
s03e06 02.04.85 Harry Warren, Part 1
s03e07 09.04.85 Harry Warren, Part 2
s03e08 16.04.85 Jessie Matthews

1 comment:

David Beaver said...

Thanks for keeping the memory alive through this site. I'm listening to it in the background now as I work. Any more shows would be very welcome uploads.
I was probably not his target audience - coming to him in my late 30s, but I loved his programme and choice of music. A great loss to broadcasting that hasn't been made up since. Desmond Carrington's replacement is good, but not the same and lacks the unique identity of Hubert's choices. Russell Davis' show is better but broadcast at an awkward time.
Thanks once again.

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