Thursday 27 August 2015

The Not So Famous Five

It was described as a "hotch-potch", a "rag-bag" and even a "junk-heap" before it even went on air. It was Radio 5, the BBC's "education and sport channel" that launched twenty-five years ago today.

Radio 5's life was brief, just under four years on air, and short of a handful of programmes that transferred to its successor station Radio 5 Live or to the telly, it remains BBC radio's forgotten network. In this post I hope to revive a few memories.

The new station was born out of necessity rather than satisfy some long-term BBC creative policy. Having been forced to drop the simulcasting on FM and AM for Radios 1, 2 and 3 it was a case of using or losing the old Radio 2 frequencies of 909 and 693 kHz. (1) So in 1988  plans were made to launch a fifth radio network, the first since Radio 1 in 1967, as a sort of "leisure channel" bringing together sports coverage (from Radio 2), continuing education, schools and Open University programmes (from Radios 3 & 4) and, it was later decided, some new children's and youth programming. It was also to be the new home of Test Match Special, though in the event it stayed on Radio 3 for a while longer. Any gaps in the schedule would be filled with World Service programmes such as Outlook and Meridian.

The controller of Radio 5 was to be Patricia Ewing, (pictured above) who'd been Head of Radio Sport since 1984, and the launch was given as some time in 1990.  On the day the station went live The Guardian (2)  published Pat Ewing's Diary of a radio launch. Here are some extracts:

August 1989: A year to launch, although I don't know that at the time as the start date of Radio 5 is to be determined by the dates that the Government decides BBC radio should relinquish two wavelengths and stop simulcasting.
As I have just left the sports department, I have spent much of my time in the past five months visiting schools and colleges around the country - from Falmouth to Glasgow, from rural to inner city. The main objective has been to find out how schools and colleges use BBC radio's educational output but I find it has begun to formulate many of my ideas for Radio 5. Teachers tell me how difficult it is to teach children to listen in the television era and yet primary school libraries are stocked with cassettes of stories. Young people tell me that they want programmes which give them a voice and reflect the whole of the UK.  
November 1989: The building of Radio 5's operational suite is about to begin. This suite is to consist of two studios, a workshop and a phone-in area - our research showed young people wanted phone-ins on a national basis. To run it, we are planning to introduce a new category of staff - programme managers who will provide technical and operational support but will also work more closely with the production teams and take on certain production responsibilities. The Educational Broadcasting Council has expressed concern about schools radio transferring from FM to medium wave. So audience research has sent questionnaires to every school in the country in order to identify the number of schools that have only FM receivers and BBC engineers have developed a small convertor that enables medium wave to be received on the FM receivers. Gaynor Shutte joins as Editor, Radio 5.
April 1990: The north region has offered to provide a daily programme on Mondays to Fridays from 4.35 p.m. to 7.20 p.m. and all the regions have agreed to combine forces to provide a youth programme from a different region each night.
Andrew Parfitt joins as assistant editor. His main role is to produce our breakfast programme - a speech-based information programme - but in between time, he will also be helping to look after idents, trails and the running of the operational suite.
August 1990: We have completed a week of dummy Radio 5 programmes except for sport, who are still broadcasting for real on Radio 2 MW.
The press have questioned and queried the wisdom of Radio 5 - they don't like the mixture of output but they want us to keep everything that already exists. The young and young at heart appear to approve our aims and ambitions but others are very sceptical. Why should the BBC try to provide speech programmes for a younger audience, they ask?
The answer is that no one else is giving younger listeners the same choice as adults during the evening. By using radio strengths with plays, stories and feature programmes with a mixture of music, we will introduce a new generation to speech radio.

In May 1990 Pat Ewing spoke to Paul Donovan of The Sunday Times (3) about the launch schedule: "I interviewed her in the grey and burgundy office she has inherited from the controller or Radio 3 (good omens here for the continuance of cricket) and which she has decorated with framed dust jackets of Enid Blyton's Famous Five books, framed photos of the drink Five Alive and a framed movie poster of The Five Pennies, just to concentrate the mind".

Donovan discovered that schools programming on BBC radio was being halved, from 466 to 224 hours a year. At the same time programmes for children and youngsters was being boosted to four hours a day, way more than existed at the time on Radio 4 with less than an hour a week for Listening Corner and Cat's Whiskers.  "A substantial number of schools are simply not taking the BBC's programmes any more", said Ewing because "many teachers regard them  as a passive way of learning".

With Radio 5 launching on Monday 27 August 1990, a Bank Holiday in the UK, the  first day's schedule was not typical of the normal weekday line-up, uncluttered by schools programmes and any sports coverage. Here's how the first full week panned out, as reprinted in The Independent (4).

On a weekday out of 18 hours broadcasting about 4.5 hours came from other stations: the World Service (though by the summer of 1992 this simulcasting was reduced to just 30 minutes per day), Radio 3's Lunchtime Concert and Radio 4's soap Citizens.

If you'd have been listening in the early hours of the 27th you'll have heard this tape loop of Radio 5's programme trailers all linked by Jon Briggs.

The first billed show at 9.00 am was aimed at young listeners, Take Five. This pre-recorded edition was presented by Bruno Brookes but the usual hosts were Tommy Boyd, Ross King and Andy Crane, with Michaela Strachan joining in 1992. But sneaking in beforehand, interrupting announcer Peter Donaldson, were that delightful comedy duo Trevor and Simon, popping over from BBC1's Going Live.

The first voice heard on air at 9.00 am - "Hallo, good morning, welcome to Radio 5" - was that of five-year-old Andrew Kelly, from Blackpool. Listen out too for a DJ audition tape sent in by a twelve-year old Matthew Wrighton - is this the same Mat Wrighton that would work for Kix96 and Vibe FM?

One of the big name signings for the station came on at 11.00 am when Johnnie Walker presented the mid-morning magazine show This Family Business, which became The AM Alternative from January 1992. At the time Johnnie was working for GLR and had been persuaded to join Radio 5 by producer Jude Howells. GLR manager Matthew Bannister was keen not to lose one of his star DJs so he agreed to let Johnnie present an evening music show five nights a week with complete musical freedom to play whatever he wanted.  Johnnie recalled that his Radio 5 programme "took a little while to bed itself in, partly because separate teams produced each programme, making continuity across the week difficult, but I enjoyed this new style of presentation and, within a few months, I was offered all five shows." (5)

The station's drivetime show was titled Five Aside with the "slightly tarnished old presenter" Martin Kelner. Listen out for the Mark Curry, one of two former Blue Peter presenters to feature on day one.

For much of Five Aside's run - it ended in October 1993 to be replaced by John Inverdale's Drive-In -the presenters were Julian Worricker and Sue McGarry. This clip comes from 31 December 1991. 

The evening shows, very much the youth-orientated end of the day, went under the umbrella title Vox Pops. At 8.25 pm was Euro-Mix in which Caron Keating looked at life and music across Europe. Euro-Mix was one of a handful of shows that lasted the distance on the station, through until March 1994, for most of its run with Robert Elms. (6)

The final show each day (apart from Saturday), before handing over to the World Service, was produced by one of the BBC regions. On Monday it was the turn of the South and West with The Mix presented by comedian Mark Thomas. The Mix ran until March 1993 and for most of that time was presented by Richard Coles. (7) 

It was Wednesday 29 August when I made this recording that provides a more typical line-up. In this sequence you'll hear the station start-up for the day with the somewhat dreary music and a pre-recorded announcement - does anyone recognise the voice? Apparently there were about 40 different musical logos for use during the day. Initially its World Service news and then 24 Hours before the start of Radio 5's breakfast show, Morning Edition, with Sarah Ward and Jon Briggs. The pace is seemingly designed to send you back to sleep rather than wake you up! Jon told me that "we changed a lot of things, including the extremely slow music within a matter of months." The show's producer was Andy Parfitt who promised "something different from the competition. It will be talk-based, like Today, but in between the news bulletins and time-checks it will have a more relaxed approach - longer features rather than snappy news". (8) Sarah and Jon presented Morning Edition until February 1992 when Danny Baker arrived (more of which anon).   

You'll notice the very detailed travel and weather update from Tony Barnfield at the BBC Travel Centre. Popping over from Radio 1 for the newspaper review is Simon Bates. There's also an edition of Poddington Peas. Morning Edition really was a bizarre mix.
Part of the kids radio zone in 1,2,3,4,5 included a story from Wiggly Park "a little urban-sited eco-system" read by Andrew Sachs. Here's an example that I think comes from 1994.

Poor old Radio 5, its days were numbered before it had hardly got going. And the Gulf War was to blame, or in fact BBC radio's coverage of it for six weeks in early 1991 on Radio 4 News FM, nick-named 'Scud FM' and known to some BBC producers and reporters as 'Rolling Bollocks'. "Its shown us there's an audience out there that likes to switch on the news when it wants, even if it listens only for a short time," said Jenny Abramksy, the then editor of news and current affairs. "If we were to set up an all-news station, we'd learn lots from what we've done." (9)

In April 1992 the press were already claiming "BBC plan to close 'unloved' Radio 5".  A BBC internal report (10) claimed that although the station cost £25m a year to run only 1 in 20 listened to it.  It went on to say that the network suffered from poor reception - hardly the fault of the programme planners - was insufficiently funded to offer programmes of a high standard and had a "confused identity". There was talk of replacing it with a new sports service whilst a 24-hour news service could be carried on Radio 4 long-wave. (11) Jocelyn Hay, chairman of the pressure group Voice of the Listener and Viewer denounced the plans: "Whether Radio 5 has got it right I don't know but I do know that I am meeting an increasing number of people who appreciate it. The sport in particular is something that is valued. If the governors decide at this stage that they're going to drop any of the radio services before there is a full public debate, then that will not be in the public interest".

The station did enjoy some successes. In October 1991 the post-match phone-in Six-O-Six (12) became an instant hit. In 1992 there were three series that all eventually transferred to BBC TV: sports quiz They Think It's All Over chaired by Des Lynam, Room 101 with Nick Hancock (via Radio 1) and Fantasy Football League with Ross King.

Radio 5 also got a real shot in the arm from February 1992 with the arrival of Danny Baker on Morning Edition. Danny had been with the station from the start, first on the Saturday lunchtime phone-in sports quiz Sportscall and then the aforementioned Six-O-Six. On Morning Edition he soon developed a great rapport with his on-air sidekick Danny Kelly and the topics for conversation ranged from the obscure and exotic to the everyday interspersed with music selection that went from the popular to the arcane. By the time I made this recording on 22 October 1993 the writing was on the wall for Radio 5 and Baker had a bit of a rant about the direction the station was going in. A week later he was to start on Radio 1 replacing DLT after that famous resignation.

In April 1992 Danny and his team spoke to the Daily Telegraph's radio critic Gillian Reynolds. Producer Andy Parfitt was effusive claiming Baker was "one of the warmest, most exciting, interesting presenters you could work with. Every morning is an adventure". Reynolds wrote that when Baker initially took over Morning Edition "the BBC's original idea was for him to react to the news of the day. He said no. It wouldn't be right, appropriate. He asked for a free hand, got it, used it to do a programme which is a dialogue between him, the other people in the studio and whoever comes on the phone line. There's a bit of music. There are lots of competitions. It is nowhere near as anarchic as it sounds, being the product of much solid work, preparation and co-operation It is as simple as only a real professional can make it". (13)

From 30 June 1992 this is Johnnie Walker with The AM Alternative. Note the use of the more brassy up-tempo imaging. 

On 11 October 1993 the BBC's Governors formally accepted the decision to replace Radio 5 with a 24-hour rolling news and sports service, to be called Radio 5 Live. This meant there was yet another shuffle of the deck with regard to the schools and education programmes which went back to Radios 3 and 4. Sports coverage was one of Radio 5's successes, having had the space in the schedule to expand on the coverage inherited from Radio 2. By 1993 the network had about 2,000 hours of sports broadcasting over the year, its importance to the BBC having increased, for football certainly, due to the loss of rights for BBC TV, e.g. the newly formed Premiership TV coverage going to BSkyB. The biggest loser were those programmes aimed at the younger end of the audience, only 75 hours out of a total of 1,800 hours would survive over on Radio 4. It was the same old argument as when the Beeb controversially dropped Children's Hour in the early 60s. Liz Forgan, managing director of BBC Radio said "The children's programmes are very good quality, but the question has to be asked: if the children are not listening , are we providing the right programmes for them?" (14) 

So when I made this next batch of recordings in March 1994 there was definitely an end of term feeling about the programmes, tinged with a little sadness that all the music and magazine shows were for the chop.

One programme that did transfer to Radio 5 Live was Fantasy Football League. By the time of this broadcast on 14 March 1994 the presenter was Dominik Diamond, accompanied by the man who seemed to appear in every other Radio 5 show, Danny Kelly.

For most of its run Hit the North had been presented by Mark Radcliffe but by October 1993 he'd moved across to Radio 1 to begin the late-night show with 'The Boy Lard'. For this edition on 16 March 1994 the presenter was Rhys Hughes.

As well as presenting The Crunch Liz Kershaw also
hosted Vibe! (Radio Times 28 May 1992)
Radio 5 shut up shop on the evening of Sunday 27 March 1994 but on the last weekday of broadcasting you'd have heard Morning Edition, now hosted by Michelle Stephens, an hour-an-a-half of schools programmes, The AM Alternative, a repeat of Room 101 and then the final edition of the lunchtime phone-in The Crunch. Former Radio 1 DJ Liz Kershaw had only launched The Crunch in November 1993 and she would move to Radio 5 Live co-presenting a Saturday morning show with the late Mark Whittaker.

In September 1991 Radio 5 had started a link-up the British Forces Broadcasting Service, under the title BFBS Worldwide for their BFBS Squad show, the first such regular link-up since the days of Family Favourites. (15) The first presenter was Simon Guettier, followed by  Francis Collings and then lastly Patrick Eade.

Between 4.00 and 6.30 pm it was the final John Inverdale's Drive-In. John, of course, was very much part of the network's sports coverage having presented the last ever Sport on 2, the first and last Sport on Five on Radio 5 and the first edition on Radio 5 Live. His drivetime show also continued on Radio 5 Live as John Inverdale's Nationwide. Here's part of that last Drive-In that also features, yes you've guessed it, Danny Kelly.

The last billed programme on Radio 5 was Across the Line. For the final part of the show Mike Edgar was joined by Nigel and Earl (Ian Crossley, aka Fine Time Fontaine, and Andrew Dunn), the comedy pair of "sorters out extraordinaire" to muse over the demise of the station whilst having a dig at Extending Choice and a certain carrot-topped DJ. The midnight news bulletin and final closedown announcement was read by Ricky Salmon.

Radio 5 actually went out on something of a high. The next set of RAJAR figures showed a weekly audience of 5 million. Noting that the incoming network enjoyed an advertising budget of £1m, as against Radio 5's budget of nought, The Guardian's Anne Karpf reflected: "It wasn't all brilliant, but it was fresh, innovative, and it was there. It's too late to indulge in what-ifs - like what if they'd sent seven million leaflets to the station's prospective audience and hired 2,000 poster sites, the way they're doing for Radio 5 Live? The facts are these. That news is a high-status commodity, over-valued by journalists and broadcasters". (16)

The outgoing controller Pat Ewing, who retired from the Corporation after 21 years service stated that: "Radio 5 is not being axed because it failed but to find a home for the news network. We have put on 250,000 more listeners in each of the last two years, and obviously I am immensely sad that we have not been given more time. Perhaps I should have banged the drum more." (17)

BBC Radio 5
27 August 1990 to 27 March 1994

1 - The BBC Year Book for 1990 describes the launch of Radio 5  thus: "This development, however, was not so much a new venture as a rationalisation of our radio services in preparation for the surrender of frequencies required by the Government for the commercial networks which are to be set up under the terms of the Broadcasting Act". It states that the networks weekly audience was 4.5 million. 
2-Radio reactive:bringing 5 alive today published in The Guardian 27 August 1990
3-Five goes mad for the young published in Paul Donovan's Radio Waves column in The Sunday Times 13 May 1990
4-Not on your wavelength, The Independent 22 August 1990
5-Johnnie Walker's autobiography seems to totally overlook This Family Business or at least confuse it with its successor. He likens the show to "Radio One and a half meets a younger Radio Four". See pp.306-8 Johnnie Walker: The Autobiography (Penguin Books 2008)
6- In 1994 Euromix was a Gold prize winner of a Sony Radio Award in the Specialist Music Programme category.
7 - Richard Coles was also a Sony Radio Award winner in 1992 for Best New Broadcaster. Other station award winners included Danny Baker, both a Sony and TRIC, the Sports team for their coverage of the 1992 Olympics and for commentators Jonathan Agnew, John Inverdale and John Rawling and Sport on Five itself.
8 - Quoted in Not on your wavelength by Robert Hanks (as above).
9-  Quoted in But won't it be a bore without the war? by Michael Leapman, The Independent 6 March 1991.
10- The plans were made public in November 1992 in the policy document Extending Choice which announced "the creation of a radio news network to start in April 1994. The experience of the 24-hour Gulf War radio news, backed by further research indicated that such a network would be welcomed by 25-44 year olds". This document and indeed the BBC's Annual Review overstate the Radio 4 News FM coverage, it averaged 17 hours per day not 24.
11 - The plan for a news service on long wave was, of course, thrown out. Officially some inadequacies in Radio 4's FM coverage were blamed added to which there was a very vociferous public campaign to 'Save Radio 4 on Long Wave'. See pp.344-360 Life on Air: A History of Radio Four by David Hendy (OUP 2007).    
12 - Originally the 6-0-6 slot was just billed as a sport phone-in so on the first edition Danny Baker also talked about chess, cross-country and fencing! The opinions he sought were "the rare, the maverick, the strange". See pp. 187-200 Going Off Alarming by Danny Baker (Weidenfeld & Nicholson 2014)
13 - A rumpled air of success by Gillian Reynolds, The Daily Telegraph, 20 April 1992
14 - BBC cuts children's programmes by Maggie Brown, The Independent, 13 October 1993. The BBC wouldn't see an increase in children's radio programme until the launch of Radio 7 in December 2002 with programmes such as Big Toe and Little Toe. The editor of Radio 7, Mary Kalemkerian, had worked on Radio 5.
15 - Originally launched on the BFBS in November 1990 as Simon and the Squad with Simon Guettier, Rory Higgins, Janet Gerschlick and Alison Taylor.
16 - Going out on a high by Anne Karpf, The Guardian, 29 March 1994
17 - All over the place by Paul Dovovan, The Sunday Times, 27 March 1994

Saturday 15 August 2015

Two Goes Total FM

On 15 August 1990 BBC Radio 2 shed its AM frequencies. It was now FM all the way.

693 and 909 kHz was to be the home of BBC Radio 5, with its launch date of 27 August 1990. Filling that 12-day interregnum was Radio 2's usual sports coverage (Sport on 2 and Sports Desks ) plus an Information Service. Essentially this was a tape loop featuring many of the Radio 2 DJs offering advice to befuddled listeners on how to re-tune to the FM service. On weekdays there were also live phone-in sessions with Derek Jameson, Jimmy Young, David Jacobs, Gloria Hunniford, David Allan and Katie Boyle. .

This is how the service sounded on the morning of 15 August:

The day before Radio 5's launch we had less from Radio 2 and more Radio 5 programme trailers. I recorded this on the morning of 26 August.

In the next post, the sound of Radio 5. 

Friday 14 August 2015

On the Light - Part 9 Roundabout

The notion of a drivetime show featuring music, news, interviews and topical items is a familiar part of radio broadcasting. These are the building blocks of the shows on your local BBC station or those tuning in to Simon Mayo on Radio 2. 

The genesis of this programme mix has a very precise point in time: Monday 13 October 1958 on the BBC Light Programme, with the launch of Roundabout

Roundabout would run on the Light and then Radio 2 every weekday, and for a while on Saturday too, for the best part of twelve years but it is now largely forgotten - with the sole exception of its signature tune, more of which anon.  

Heralding the teatime arrival of Roundabout – the concept of drivetime was some years away at a time when commuting by car was far from the norm and in-car radios even less so -  the Radio Times explained how the programme would fill in this “in-between time”:

On Monday the Light Programme launches its latest innovation, Roundabout. Here Roy Speer acts as spokesman for the team who will produce it and explains what it will try to offer.

Few visitors to Broadcasting House realise that in addition to the eight floors of offices and studios which tower above Portland Place there are three more floors below ground. In the lowest of all – S.B. for Sub-basement – you can faintly hear the rumble of Bakerloo trains rattling between Oxford Circus and Regent’s Park. In this sub-basement is studio S1, from which a new radio programme, Roundabout, will be launched on the air this week.
An empty studio is an impersonal place but I must mention this one – S1- because it contains the widest range of technical devices known to sound radio; and we shall need and use them all for Roundabout.
The new programme will be broadcast every day from Monday to Friday from 5.30 until 6.45 p.m., when millions of faithful listeners keep a nightly date with The Archers.
Plainly 5.30-6.45 p.m. is an ‘in-between’ time for most people; and what we want to do is provide suitable entertainment for that period of the evening – not just once a week, but on five days a week. In some ways it’s the most interesting moment of the day, when housewife and breadwinner meet again after the day’s work. Some of the people we hope to attract will be bustling about to get tea; some will be having it; others will still be on their way home – quite a number may be listening to their car radios; and there are many others, including those who will be getting ready for the evening’s activities.
So Roundabout must have something for everybody; and that’s what we will try to offer. Musical items, and plenty of them, will feature the best there is of every kind; and there will be topical items, interviews, news and weather flashes and useful information for every member of the family. We will be brief; no item will be on air for longer than four minutes and some for no more than a few seconds. We will seek to stimulate, but above all we will try to entertain.
Our five compères are all accomplished broadcasters: Peter King, David Jacobs, Alan Dell, Ken Sykora and Richard Murdoch will put the stamp of their own personalities on their allotted day of the week. A team of reporters will bring you the widest range of human interest stories. Although this will be a flexible programme, some features, such as the Six-Fifteen Spin of popular records and a topical background comment on current news at 6.31, will be at fixed times every evening.
And who, you may ask, is going to do all this?
Well, there are rather a lot of us, I am privileged to head the production team responsible for over six hours of the Light Programme’s output every week and to carry out this bold adventure in programme-making. And this means co-ordinating the efforts of several departments.

In this brief note I have tried to act as the spokesman for the team that will spend so many hours in studio S1. I hope when you hear the programme that you will think out time has been well spent.

As was typical of the time Roundabout had no single host; indeed this was the case for its whole run even though there were a number of broadcasters who became ‘regulars’.  So, as noted above, it was initially a different voice each day – all male of course, no women ever presented the show – and this was the norm until 1961 when the pattern changed to a weekly one.

Roundabout presenters in October 1958
The first presenter was Peter King. Peter started and ended his BBC career on the Overseas Service (later World Service) as an announcer and newsreader but was regularly heard on the Light Programme in the 50s and 60s on shows such as Rendezvous, The Joe Loss Band Show, The Ten-Forty Club, The Late Live Show and Melody Fair.  In 1982 he was called out of retirement to present Calling the Falklands at the outbreak of the war.

Both DavidJacobs and Alan Dell had long distinguished radio careers and I’ve written about them elsewhere in this blog.

Ken Sykora was a jazz guitarist who’d go on to enjoy a successful career as a broadcaster for the BBC in London, Scotland and finally Radio Clyde. He was the long-time presenter of Guitar Club and well as regularly appearing on various jazz shows such as Jazz Session plus Home this Afternoon, You and Yours and Start the Week.

Richard Murdoch may seem a surprising choice as we now best know him for his acting and comedy appearances in Band Waggon, Much Binding and The Men from the Ministry, but in the 1950s he was much is demand as a genial disc jockey on Housewives’ Choice.  He remained a Roundabout regular until January 1961 and popped back for the Christmas shows in 1966 and 1967.

An extract from the PasB from Roundabout edition 1,
kindly provided by BBC Written Archives
So what could you have heard on Roundabout? Well unfortunately no recordings of the show exist in the BBC’s archives but the running order has been kept. Those promised “topical items”, all pre-recorded however, included:
Tips for Transatlantic Tourists - from author and playwright  Alan Melville
Can I Help You? – when Roundabout started this was a pre-existing programme (first broadcast in 1950) in which Dudley Perkins, in a kind of proto-You and Yours way, answered listeners questions of consumer issues and the law
Spotlight on a Star - in which Antony Hopkins interviewed Maria Callas. In the first week you’d also have heard Donald Peers talking to Connie Frances, Tommy Duggan with James Thurber, Leslie Bricusse talking to Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca with film star Van Heflin.
The Bilbow Spot - a cinema feature with Antony Bilbow, co-written with Marjorie Bilbow.  Antony, better known as Tony Bilbow, would be associated with Roundabout, providing film reviews, for the length of its run

Adding a further dose of topicality was a “song on the weather” sung by Avril Angers accompanied by Dennis Wilson at the piano and host Peter King reading “amusing anecdotes of news”. 

Musically it was a mix of needletime and non-needletime discs ranging from Perry Como, The Hi-Los and The Mike Sammes Singers to Glen Miller, Duke Ellington and the Halle Orchestra plus some BBC recorded sessions. Most intriguing though were the jingles, yes jingles on the Light Programme! These short interludes, ranging in duration from 5 to 30 seconds, were composed by Joe Roncoroni and Harold Fields and performed by the Dennis Wilson Trio and the Barney Gilbraith Singers.

Initially Roundabout was a Light Entertainment department production so there had to be a script, for the first show the links were provided by Pat Dunlop. The producers were both better known for their comedy work, Roy Speer on The Goon Show and John Simmonds would later work on Beyond Our Ken and Round the Horne.

Also on production duty that first week were Denys Jones, one of BBC radio’s longest serving music producers from 1952 to 1985 who’d later work for Radio 2 on shows for Pete Murray and Jimmy Young.  The other regular producer was Jack Singleton who would go on to start another daily  afternoon magazine show Home this Afternoon on the Home Service and Start the Week on Radio 4, both featuring Ken Sykora.

The on-air team in March 1960
Behind the scenes Roy Speer would initially only allow three hand-picked Studio Managers to work on the programme: Bobby Jaye, John Fenton and Brian Willey. Jaye and Willey had both worked as SMs on The Goon Show. Jaye would become a radio producer from 1961, later rising to the position of Head of Light Entertainment in the 1980s. Both Fenton and Willey would eventually produce Roundabout itself, and we’ll hear from Brian later.

Being a daily show the programme had a high turnover of producers and provided a useful training ground for new recruits. Picking your way through the programme credits you can easily spot those names that would go onto to work their way up the ranks at the BBC such as David Hatch and Frances Line, would move into TV production such as Humphrey Barclay, Roger Ordish and Vernon Lawrence or have long careers in radio light entertainment including Richard Willcox, John Dyas and John Fawcett Wilson.

For the first three years the presenter rota followed the one presenter each day format. In 1959 John Ellison joined on Mondays, and the following year MacDonald Hobley took over on Tuesdays and Jeremy Hawk on Wednesdays.  But from 13 November 1961, when John Anthony (above) joined the team, the programme finally had one full- time throughout the week.

The addition of the Saturday show as reported in
the Radio Times 2 May 1964
I don't propose to track all the presenter changes for the remainder of the programme's run but during  1963 other hosts were Tim Brinton,  Colin Hamilton, Bob Willcox and Robin Boyle. From 2 May 1964 a Saturday edition was introduced with producer Peter Duncan telling the Radio Times that it would continue to feature "gay music interspersed with little light talks".  This extra show ran until December 1965. There were further changes in December 1964 when a new programme Newly Pressed - a forerunner to Roundtable - was added to the afternoon schedule to replace the playing of new releases that had previously been a feature on Roundabout

From 4 April 1966 Don Davis became the fourth regular presenter alongside Messers Anthony, Brinton and Hamilton. It is also in this year that Roundabout changed departments and gained a new editor. Brian Willey takes up the story: 

Before I became Editor, the show was administered by the Light Entertainment Department (under Peter Duncan) but it had been condemned for being too expensive. At a meeting of Heads of Departments my boss, Kenneth Baines, said he was sure it could be done more cheaply and got it transferred to Popular Music Department. I recall being phoned in Blackpool, being there producing a seaside version of Saturday Club, and told, 'When you return, come and see me. I want you to take over Roundabout and, as soon as possible increase its duration - but at no further cost.'  That sent me in a spin and my immediate plan was to sack the script writers and use disc-jockeys who could ad-lib their way through any situation. So that's what transpired.  If I was unsure of their ability it was  a one week contract - but the tried and tested got two weeks. I also recall using much more music and was eventually booking fifteen bands per week to cover the music requirement.

When Brian took over in late 1966 the proposed changes were gradually introduced. Scriptwriters - at the time Keith Harrison and Tony Aspler - were dropped and from March 1967 the programme gained an extra 35 minutes. Brian Willey was quoted in an article by Ernest Thompson in that week's Radio Times: "although Roundabout is essentially up-to-the-minute, presented 'live' by compères experienced in coping with hot news, the radio of speech to music is surprisingly small. Talks never last longer than ninety seconds. 'They're meant to be easy on the ear, like the music,' said the producer. 'The music is popular rather than pop.' Nor is it all disc. Every Roundabout has its studio guests. Now, with more time to play with, we shall call on more studio talent. On Easter Monday, for instance, we have not only Acker Bilk and his Paramount Jazz Band, but the Mexican pianist Pepe Jaramillo and his Latin-American group". 

More Roundabout time from the Radio
28 March 1967
For the rest of the Roundabout's run many different broadcasters took turns as hosts including Roger Moffat, John Benson, Steve Race, Brian Matthew -who took the lion's share in the last couple of years- Don Moss, Keith Fordyce, Peter Haigh, David Hamilton, Bob Holness, Desmond Carrington, John Dunn and David Gell.

Featured music from the w/c 29 January 1968
Roundabout turned for the last time in April 1970 - by now it was on Radio 2 of course - when a number of schedule changes and programme swaps took place across the four national networks.  Brian Willey again:

I have no idea why it had to die - but the controller, Douglas Muggeridge, wanted rid of it. Brian Matthew and I set about a campaign to win public sympathy to vote for its continuance. We both got severely rapped for apparent anarchy. For its demise I evolved an ambitious plan by taking it around the regions across its final fortnight by producing it in Birmingham on the penultimate Monday, Tuesday would come from London whilst I travelled to Manchester for Wednesday, then London Thursday for preparation in Glasgow on Friday. The following week was a similar routine taking in Belfast Cardiff and Bristol and, of course, in all locations using local talents and presenters.It was a notable ending .

The final edition was on 3 April with Steve Race as compère and there was a suitably celebratory send-off. Former presenters Peter King and Ken Sykors were interviewed as was Tony Bilbow. Musically the proceedings were closed with the Brian Fahey Orchestra playing Show Me The Way to Go Home, The Nigel Brooks Singers with What Are You Gonna Do? (a song co-written by Brian Willey) and closing with Sheila Buxton and the Northern Dance Orchestra's rendition of The Party's Over.

The following week Radio 2 had dropped the idea of a drivetime show, scheduling instead different orchestral music shows each day from 5 to 6 pm followed by 50 minutes of Album Time. It wasn't until October 1970 that a DJ-hosted show re-appeared when Charlie Chester gained a daily show between 4.30 and 6 pm.

The one thing that is best remembered about Roundabout, make that the only thing that is now remembered is the programme's sig tune, The Windows of Paris. In fact when this track got a spin on Clare Teal's Radio 2 show last year this prompted me to research and write this post. Here's Clare playing the Tony Osborne version:  

But this wasn't the only theme tune for the show. Checking the running order for the first 1958 edition it lists: "Dickie Valentine, Alfred Ralston and his Orchestra. Pre-recorded 28.6.1958-TLo 60434. Signature tune: (Beg. and end) Roundabout. The song is credited to Stanley Myers and Leslie Bricuse. So it seems that the first theme tune was in fact Roundabout. Obviously it proved successful enough for Pye to issue it as a single a couple of years later (on the flip side of Standing on the Corner) this time with an orchestra conducted by Wally Stott. This version is also shown as having being played on the final edition in 1970:

However, my experts on sig tunes form that period, Malcolm Batchelor and Colin Berry were convinced that there was a third signature tune: a version of The Windows of Paris played by The Knightsbridge Strings. The tune is credited to Tony Osborne and was produced by Tony Hatch. The track was released in 1960 by Top Rank as the B side of Cry:

Malcolm's research at Caversham does indeed show that this Knightsbridge Strings version was in use on Roundabout by January 1960 and was still used in 1964. However, by late 1965 the Tony Osborne Orchestra recording was played.  

With grateful thanks to Brian Willey and the BBC Written Archives. Thanks also to Colin Berry and Malcy B. 

Wednesday 12 August 2015

On the Light - Part 8 "Music for Everyone"

Friday Night has been Music Night for over sixty years. In the eighth of nine posts celebrating the BBC Light Programme I pay tribute to Friday Night is Music Night, still a fixture in Radio 2's schedule and one that takes the accolade of being the world's longest running live orchestral music show.

First heard on 25 September 1953 (1) the show was created to showcase the BBC Concert Orchestra that had been formed the previous year. (2) The brief to principal conductor Sidney Torch was to create a Friday-night show that would "help people relax after the week's hard work and put them in the right mood for a happy weekend."

The programme's repertoire consisted of that loosely-defined genre of 'light' music, operetta, military music, show tunes with the addition of songs from the Great American songbook, film themes and, more recently jazz classic and pop songs.   

Sidney Torch (above) appeared on Friday Night is Music Night until 1972 but his vision, and indeed, his arrangements remain part of the programme and are often revisited. Other principal conductors have included Vilem Tausky, Kenneth Alwyn, Marcus Dods, Ashley Lawrence, Barry Wadsworth and Robin Stapleton.

Also part of the FNMN repertory company were pianists William Davies and Robert Docker, soprano  Cynthia Glover, baritone John Lawrenson and the delightfully named brother and sister act Vernon and Maryetta Midgley. In the early shows the BBC Men's Chorus would feature; later John McCarthy directed a vocal group called The Friday Knights, subsequently just billed as The John McCarthy Singers.  

Friday Night is Music Night has always toured the country, and occasionally over in Europe, but between 1953 and 1972 its main base was the Camden Theatre. From 1972 until 2002 the usual venue was the Hippodrome, Golders Green.

Like many Light Programme music shows the presenting duties fell to one of the continuity announcers. At first this was Philip Slessor and then from 1958 to 1972 the main presenter was Jimmy Kingsbury with some shows being picked up by John Webster, John Hobday, Robin Boyle (pictured above), David Geary, Frank Phillips, Jon Curle, Bryan Martin, Douglas Smith and Eugene Fraser. Robin would become the main presenter, and, to date,  the programme's longest-serving between 1972 and 1998. When he stepped down the role was fulfilled by Richard Baker, Brain Kay, John Dunn and the current incumbent Ken Bruce, as well as many guest presenters. 

For the programme selection I'm turning the clock back just twelve years when Friday Night is Music Night celebrated it's fiftieth anniversary. Ken Bruce presents the show from the Symphony Hall in Birmingham with the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by Robin Stapleton. This show was broadcast on Radio 2 on 5 September 2003.

1 - In its early days the programme had an appreciative audience of four million (1958 figures). By 1963 it pulled in one and a half million.

2 - It traces its origins to the BBC Theatre Orchestra that was re-formed as the BBC Opera Orchestra in 1949 and then the Concert Orchestra three years later.   

February 2024 note: in April 2020 Friday Night is Music Night moved to Sunday evenings becoming Sunday Night is Music Night. Radio 2 dropped the programme in late 2023, apart from occasional 'special' concerts. From April 2024 Friday Night is Music Night returns on Radio 3. 

Tuesday 11 August 2015

Peter Ustinov

Actor, director, author, playwright, producer, humanitarian, polyglot and raconteur. There were so many facets to the late Sir Peter Ustinov, but what often gets overlooked is his work for BBC radio. The balance is being redressed this coming Saturday as Radio 4 Extra presents PeterUstinov-The Radio Years.

In this three-hour tribute journalist John McCarthy explores the archives and introduces:
In All Directions: A 1952 comedy teaming Ustinov with Peter Jones
Appointment With Daughter: An exclusive interview with John McCarthy and Sir Peter Ustinov's eldest daughter, Tamara Ustinov
Encounter On The Balkan Express: A 1956 comedy for radio by Wolfgang Hildesheimer starring Peter Ustinov as Robert Guiscard
I'll Never Forget The Day: Ustinov on the popular 1950's radio series
Down Your Way: A special edition from 1991 with Ustinov in Leningrad
Quote Unquote: A memorable appearance by Ustinov on the popular quotation quiz hosted by Nigel Rees

Ustinov's radio appearances date back to 1940, mostly in acting roles, but his only major series was the above mentioned In All Directions. In his autobiography he recalls how he and Peter Jones "evolved a comic series for the BBC, which preceded the Goon Show and was like chamber music to the orchestral follies which were to follow. Pat Dixon produced these programmes, and our guardian angels, and consistent inspirers were Denis Norden and Frank Muir, masters of the ridiculous".

According to Barry Took: "Muir and Norden would invent a situation and then Jones and Ustinov would ad lib the dialogue to fit it. It was worked out in advance in Muir and Norden's office, and the results of this ad lib session were transcribed into script form, and then recorded in a BBC studio with further ad libs contributed by Ustinov and Jones".

Took goes on to say that the best-remembered characters "were Morry and Dudley Grosvenor, a pair of Jewish fly-by-nights, always involved in dubious transactions and usually having to run for it with the law in hot pursuit. The theme of the series was the search for the mysterious Copthorne Avenue, and as Morry and Dudley wandered vainly towards their goal their encounters with various people along the way constituted the show".

Ustinov again: "Peter and I invented a couple of characters out of the folklore of London, Morris and Dudley Grosvenor, low characters with high ambitions, as their name suggests. they spoke in the lisping accent of London's East End, and had endless wife trouble with their platinum-haired companions, as they did with the wretched character called simple  'The Boy' who was sent out on dangerous and sometimes criminal errands, in which he consistently failed. These programmes were improvised within a certain framework, and often they reached satisfactory heights of comic melancholy. Foolishly asking 'How's Zelda?' on one occasion, I received the following exercise in gloom from Peter Jones. 

'Zelda? I'll tell you this much, Mowwie, if every evening after work you are hit on the head with a beer bottle with monotonous wegularity mawwiage soon loses its magic.'

The characters, sort of, made the transition to the big screen. In School for Scoundrels (1960) Peter Jones and, this time, Dennis Price play two used-car salesmen Dudley and Dunstan Dorchester.

PeterUstinov - The Radio Years is on BBC Radio 4 Extra on Saturday 15 August at 9 a.m. and again at 7 p.m. 

Quotes from:
Dear Me by Peter Ustinov (Penguin Books 1978)
Laughter in the Air by Barry Took (Robson Books 1981) 

Monday 10 August 2015

On the Light - Part 7 "From a factory somewhere in Britain"

As part of the BBC's effort to support and entertain those on the Home Front it devised a number of series that would visit the factories and workplaces throughout Britain. These were Factory Canteen, Works Wonders and, the best-known and longest-running of them all, Workers' Playtime. The latter ran on the BBC Light Programme until 1964 and is remembered in this the seventh of nine posts celebrating the launch of the Light seventy years ago this week.

First off the blocks was the professional entertainment for factory workers that was taken care of by members of ENSA in Break for Music. It first aired on 1 January 1940 and started a regular weekly run on the Home and Forces Programme from July 1940 (1) until November 1945.

This was followed by the short-lived Factory Canteen starting on the Home Service on 3 August 1940, but not becoming a regular programme (on both the Home and Forces Programme) until the following May. (2)

Factory Canteen relied on the worker's themselves to provide the entertainment as did the much longer-running Works Wonders that was broadcast on the BBC's Home Service between October 1940 and August 1949.

Meanwhile professional entertainment for the factory workers was taken care of by members of ENSA in Break for Music that first aired on 1 January 1940 and then started a regular weekly run on the Home and Forces Programme from July 1940 (2) until November 1945.

Workers' Playtime was produced by the variety department of the BBC under the stewardship of John Watt but the programme had the "blessing" of Ernest Bevin's Ministry of Labour. In the 1942 BBC Year Book he described what happened on each show:

Every Saturday morning, a small band of engineers and artists, some of them world-famous stars, go by bus to a factory or to some big munition-works buried in the heart of the country. There the studio is set up in the factory canteen, a temporary small wooden stage erected at the end of the room, the microphone slung from the roof, and the entertainment given to as many workers as can be packed into the available space. Of course in these big factories all the people cannot get into the canteen at one time, and accordingly the broadcast is relayed throughout the whole of the works so that everyone can hear it. Workers in their homes, too. can hear it and know what is being done to entertain the members of their families who are working so steadfastly for the national effort.

Here John Watt, the BBC's Head of Variety, tells the story of Worker's Playtime:

Like the other series in this post Workers' Playtime had a try-out (in January 1941) before running weekly from May 1941 and then thrice-weekly from October that year. During its wartime run the exact location was kept secret (no doubt for fear of providing information to the enemy), hence the announcement that the programme was coming from "a factory somewhere in Britain". Post-war we at least got the general area; "from a canteen in Coventry" or "from a jam factory in Bristol".  

Not all editions came from industrial settings: apparently to celebrate the gathering of record crops in 1942 an edition was broadcast from a harvest field among the Herefordshire hills "when farm-workers, sitting on the grass at sunset, heard famous music-hall artists on a rustic stage decked with hops and corn." (3)

From the start involved in the Workers' Playtime unit were producer and presenter Bill Gates (pictured above) and pianists George Myddleton and Bruce Merryl. Bill remained with the show until the end of its run some twenty three years later. Other regular hosts included Philip Robinson, actors Philip Garston-Jones and Randal Herley and staff announcer Roger Moffat. Regular musical support was provided by pianist James Moody and the Harry Hayward Trio.

The show featured hundreds of comedians, singers and musicians who were prepared to trek across the country for the half-hour performance but (at least from my quick perusal of the BBC Genome website) the cast invariably seemed to include comic Cardew Robinson, impressionist Peter Goodwright, singer Sheila Buxton and a star turn from Ken Dodd. The format was pretty much the same: opening musical act, comedian, singer and finally the star comic.    

With such a high turnover of shows Workers' Playtime provided budding comics and singers with radio exposure. One such was Roy Hudd who got his radio break in 1960, thanks to the intervention of Ken Dodd. Doddy had mentioned to one of the show's producer's James Casey, head of Variety for the BBC in Manchester, that he'd seen an up and coming young comic in a show at Babbacombe.  Based on that recommendation Casey booked Hudd for Workers' Playtime which came from the Ferodo Brake Lining company in Chester-Le-Street and featured top-billing for Jimmy Clitheroe. (4)

Roy Hudd recalled that first appearance in his autobiography:

I had no idea where Chester-Le-Street was, so I travelled there the night before the broadcast and stayed in a B&B. This cost me all the cash I had and the next morning I had to walk a long way to the factory in the rain. My precious stage suit was creased but dry, as were my precious bad parts. When I arrived among the Fereodo brake linings, soaked to the skin, I was greeted by Jimmy Casey who explained that everyone in the show stayed in Manchester and was transported to the venue on the morning of the gig.: the BBC paid for the hotel and the transportation. Thankfully he did spring me the cost of the B&B or I'd never have got back home.
That Workers' Playtime was the first of many I did for Jimmy Casey. I was first spot comic with everyone from Albert Modley (who didn't use a script, just a page from an exercise book with six large lettered words on - the cues for his gags), Ken Platt, Cardew Robinosn, Mrs Shufflewick and yet another hero - Ted Ray. (5)  

James Casey himself remembered his time producing the show when he spoke to the Radio Times in 1982: "Each factory was an event to the workers in a way it could never be today- now that they can go home to a vast choice of televised entertainment. Those workers were incredibly enthusiastic, and there was such camaraderie that it was too easy for comics to get laughs by slipping in jokes about the factory, perhaps mentioning the foreman by name. We had to try to stop them, because there were thousands of listeners out there who might be wondering who 'Charlie' was." (6) 

Workers' Playtime had started as a Home Service show and remained as such until the Autumn of 1957 when from 1 October it switched to the Light Programme. (7) It trundled on until the final edition aired on 6 October 1964 "from a corrugated case manufacturer's at Hatfield, Herts", still with Bill Gates presenting and featuring Anne Shelton Cyril Fletcher, Val Doonican and The Ramblers.
But it wasn't exactly the end. The following week it was back re-badged as Variety on Tour with Bill Gates & co. not just visiting factories but also "Service Establishments and hospitals". You'd have been hard pressed to spot the difference as the first show came from the North - a factory in Hebden Bridge - with a bill that featured Ken Dodd, was presented by Roger Moffat and produced by James Casey. 

Variety on Tour lasted just six months and came off-air in April 1965. But in a nod to its Workers' Playtime heritage top-of-the-bill were Elsie and Doris Waters. As Gert and Daisy they'd often appeared on the show and were the main guests on the one-hour fifth birthday show (along with their brother Jack Warner) and the twenty-first birthday show in 1962. 

This recording of Workers' Playtime comes from a week-long revival on Radio 2 in October 1982 - to coincide with the BBC's 60th anniversary. The Monday to Thursday shows were once again produced in Manchester by James Casey, this time with Peter Wheeler as compère. The stars included Ken Dodd (again!), Harry Worth, Roy Castle and Les Dawson with good old Harry Hayward and his Trio providing the musical accompaniment. But this is the Friday edition from  "a record factory in Hayes" (EMI, of course) with Arthur English, Colin Crompton, Sweet Substitute and the Max Harris Trio. The master of ceremonies is Ray Moore doing sterling work by observing the two rules to get the audience on your side: knock the surroundings and drop in the name of the foreman.   This edition aired on 8 October 1982.

1  - The first edition of the series on 22 July 1940 went under the title Between Shifts and included an introductory announcement by Ernest Bevin. The programme reverted to Break for Music from 29 July 1940.
2 - The final edition of Factory Canteen aired on 23 October 1941
3 - As quoted in the BBC Year Book 1943 p. 32
4 - Broadcast on 17 November 1960 and also featuring Jill Day and Frank Cook. Needless to say the actual factory name wasn't mentioned on air or in the Radio Times billing. 
5 - Quoted from A Fart in a Colander by Roy Hudd (Michael O'Mara Books 2010)
6 - Quoted in Playtime again by Kenneth Robinson in the edition dated 2 October 1982
7 - And in the event was cut down from two editions a week to just one a week for the rest of its run. 
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