Friday, 28 November 2014

The Debussy Connection

So was a Debussy tune used as a radio jingle? I’m convinced so, and no it’s not one on Classic FM.

I was prompted to ask this question whilst listening to the current edition of Counterpoint – Radio 4’s music quiz with Gambo back in the chair this week. Up came a question in the specialist round about Claude Debussy:

The Snow is Dancing immediately triggered a memory. I was sure I’d heard it before used as a theme or jingle on BBC local radio, perhaps Radio Cleveland or Humberside. Guessing it was used in the 1970s then the chances were it was a version created by the Radiophonic Workshop, who seemed to be behind many early local radio idents.
An online search uncovered an electronic version, but from American composer Ruth White, rather than the Radiophonic crew. This is what I heard:   

By now I was convinced I remembered the tune from Radio Humberside. Fortunately I’d already digitised a number of my early Humberside recordings for their 40th anniversary in 2011 so I dug out one of my extra hard drives and after trawling through it I chanced on this short news clip:

That was it! A Radio Humberside news jingle based on Debussy’s The Snow is Dancing. If not it sure sounds very similar.    

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Band Aid – Thirty Years On

Thirty years ago today a group of pop singers and musicians were corralled into a studio in West London at the behest of Bob Geldof to record Do They Know It’s Christmas?  It quickly became the UK’s best-selling single of all time (until surpassed in 1997) and, if only briefly, suggested that pop music really could change the world.

This is the story of that day and how the track was put together at such short notice – the record was released just four days later. In Feed the World – The Band Aid Story you’ll hear from Bob Geldof, Midge Ure and others. This documentary was broadcast on BBC Radio 1 on 6 November 1994. It’s introduced and produced by Trevor Dann.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Back to Square One

Amongst the tributes paid to the late James Alexander Gordon, who died earlier this year, was that from Radio 5 Live’s John Murray:

He was always so friendly and charming, and interested in what you did. The funny thing is, he didn’t follow a team – he was no great football fan. The one time we went to a match together was in 2007. It was the 80th anniversary of the first football commentary, when a grid was printed in the Radio Times for listeners to follow. To mark the occasion we did a grid commentary together on 5 Live Sports Extra – James was so thrilled to be chosen to read out the numbers of the squares where the ball was. It’s a lovely memory I have of him. He loved being a part of what we did, a part of history of BBC Sport – and he played a very significant part in that history.
The 80th anniversary match was in recognition of the first radio commentary on Saturday 22 January 1927 – with Arsenal playing at home to Sheffield United. Commentary on that match came from Teddy Wakelam, but to help listeners follow the play a second, unnamed voice, called out the number of the square in which the ball was currently in play. The numbered grid, the idea of BBC producer Lance Sieveking, was printed in that week’s Radio Times (above). No recordings exist of that match but here’s Wakelam commentating in the 1930s:

The 2007 game again saw Arsenal at home, this time to Manchester United. Introducing proceedings on Sunday 21 January on BBC Radio Five Live was Eleanor Oldroyd. ‘Normal’ commentary on Five Live was by Alan Green whilst the ‘grid’ commentary on Five Live Sports Extra came from John Murray (above) with James Alexander Gordon calling the numbers and summaries from Bob Wilson and, oddly, singer David Gray. Here’s part of that afternoon’s coverage:

Those numbered squares are often cited as the origin of the phrase “back to square one”, but this is by no means certain. After all for one team passing the ball into square one would be moving play forward and not back.

For the record that 1927 game ended as a one all draw. The 2007 result was Arsenal 2, Manchester United 1. And by a fluky coincidence Arsenal play Manchester United this coming weekend. You'd almost think I planned all this!

Monday, 17 November 2014

Visual Radio

It’s a multiplatform world, we are told. The BBC is “reinventing radio for a new generation” with initiatives such as Radio 1’s launch on the BBC iPlayer last week and Radio 2’s Sounds of the 80s appearing on the Red Button – more of the latter on the recent Radio Today podcast 

But just sticking a camera in a radio studio doesn’t make great telly, and that’s the challenge for broadcasters. I’m reminded of such an experiment with Scott Mills’s Radio 1 drivetime show some seven years ago. It wasn’t live, but shown on BBC Three in the small hours of the following day. Here’s Mills, Chappers, Laura and ‘the one who doesn’t speak’ on Monday 17 December 2007, shown at 1.25 am on Tuesday morning. Not much danger of it being seen then, though I captured a copy. I’ve edited out the music videos.

Friday, 14 November 2014

The Original Offshore Station

Nearly four decades before the launch of Radio Caroline another offshore ship could be heard, well sort of, around the coast of Britain. That ship was the steam yacht Ceto. The year was 1928. Now largely forgotten it could, assuming they’d actually got the transmitter to work properly, have changed the history of commercial radio.

The initial idea sounds a familiar one: fit out a ship with a transmitter and sail it round the coast just outside territorial waters broadcasting music and adverts. It was the brainchild Valentine Smith, head of publicity for the Daily Mail Group. Essentially the whole exercise was to shift more copies of the Daily Mail, the Sunday Despatch and the Evening News.  
Unfortunately transmission tests didn’t go well. Moored three miles off the coast the swaying of the SY Ceto’s transmitter couldn’t produce a strong enough signal. Undeterred Smith decided on a Plan B: remove the mast and replace it with large amplifiers and four powerful Siemens speakers. The ship could then tour the coast of Britain just a mile or two out and ‘broadcast’ to holidaymakers with no more than a giant public address system.

They needed presenter to play in the records – supplied by HMV – and read the commercials. It was a young Cambridge undergraduate named Stephen Williams (pictured centre above in Bournemouth) whose name was put forward. He’d written to Leslie Mainland of the Daily Mail asking if there was anything he could usefully do over the summer recess. Little did he know that this early broadcasting experience would lead to such an illustrious career with Radios Normandy, Luxembourg and the BBC.    
The voyage of the Ceto started at Dundee in June 1928 and then down the east coast, along the south coast and back up the west before ending up off Blackpool by the August Bank Holiday. En route such was the publicity surrounding the vessel that they’d stop off at various resorts to be welcomed by civic dignitaries and ‘broadcast’ special concerts. The Ceto’s final tour of duty took her back round to London mooring up at Tower Bridge on 1 September, by which time Stephen Williams and the crew had visited 87 resorts and coastal towns and undertaken 300 broadcasts.     

The sound equipment on the ‘Musical Yacht’ was dismantled and she returned to pleasure cruising. Williams returned to Cambridge. From a publicity point of view it had been a great success but the technical difficulties were not overcome until a few years later when the short-lived station RKXR broadcast off the California coast in 1933. However, it was a further thirty years before the first true commercial offshore station, in the form of Radio Mercur, launched off the Danish coast, itself inspiring the launch of Radio Caroline some six years later.
You can read more about the SY Ceto on the pages of the Offshore Radio Museum website.

There’s an interview with the late Stephen Williams conducted by Roger Bickerton on the Diversity website.
The illustrations in this post come from the excellent book telling the story of a pioneer of early commercial radio, Leonard Plugge.  And the World Listened is written by Keith Wallis and can be obtained from KellyPublications.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

Fade to Gray

I don’t know if you caught Pointless Celebrities on BBC1 at the weekend but on podium three teaming up with Michael Rosen was writer and broadcaster Muriel Gray.

These days Muriel devotes most of her time to writing but at one point she seemed to be all over the media, most notably on Channel 4’s The Tube and The Media Show. She was also an occasional Radio 1 DJ; in the mid-80s sitting in for Janice Long and John Peel and covering the evening show for a week following the departure of David Jensen.
Prior to her stint deputising for Peel in April 1985 she spoke to the Radio Times’s David Gillard:

That delightfully unpretentious pop picker Muriel Gray tells me she’s been forced to turn her back on one side of her schizophrenic professional life. The demands of broadcasting have been so great in the past few months that Ms Gray has, reluctantly, given up her job as assistant head of design at the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland. Instead, she’s presenting a new, youth-orientated TV show in her native land, preparing a BBC Scotland Schools series and, this week, standing in for her hero John Peel. ‘I’ve given up the drawing board to become the full-time media person I never wanted to be,’ says Muriel. ‘Somehow it doesn’t seem like a job for a grown woman…’
Here, briefly, is Muriel in for Peel on the evening of 3 April 1985. And just in case you didn’t know she was Scottish…

Here’s a reminder of Muriel’s TV work from a time when Channel 4 was not stuffed full of Come Dine with Me and Embarrassing Bodies. This clip from The Media Show comes from 10 June 1987 and features a report on the coverage of the General Election.


Wednesday, 5 November 2014

The Paramount Man of Jazz

One of Britain’s best known jazz musicians, instantly recognisable with his goatee beard, bowler hat and striped waistcoat, Mr Acker Bilk died at the weekend.

Acker was a radio regular over the best part of forty years on programmes such as Jazz Club and Saturday Club and the eponymously-titled Acker’s Away and Acker ‘Arf ‘Our. He also cropped up as a regular panellist on Radio 2’s Jazz Score.
By way of a tribute here’s my recording of the first programme from the sixth series of Jazz Score. Asking the questions is Benny Green, With Acker are fellow jazz musicians, all of a similar vintage: Humphrey Lyttelton, Chris Barber and Alan Elsdon. The programme was broadcast on 7 September 1985.

Acker Bilk 1929-2014

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