Monday 19 October 2015

Round Britain Quiz

A power-hungry citizen; the rent paid in kind by a 12th-century Scottish farmer; and Hollywood Brit ... all sound the same but are spelt differently. Who (or what) are they and why should the lattermost's catch-phrase be appropriate to Round Britain Quiz?

Regular listeners to radio's longest-running quiz will recognise the question style: three cryptic crossword-style clues providing the link to an overall question. And, in typical RBQ style even if you know the answer the trick is, according to one-time exponent of the quiz Irene Thomas, that "it's really a matter of thinking aloud. If you know the answer and say it straight out, it's no fun. You have to amble towards it, and the fun always come when you get lost on the way".

A new series of Round Britain Quiz kicks off today on BBC Radio 4. Starting in 1947 its five-years older than  Brain of Britain, but its roots go back to a wartime cultural exchange between the US and the UK. Here's my brief history of RBQ, which, quite neatly, fits into three parts.

Part 1 The Hale Years

In  April 1944 the BBC's North American Service and the American Blue Network (formerly part of NBC) launched a joint programme called Transatlantic Quiz. The quiz consisted of a chairman and two team members who "traded questions between London and New York with the idea of testing one team's knowledge of the other's country. Some of the questions were cryptic, but many were plain general knowledge." The chairman in New York was Alistair Cooke whilst back in London it was Lionel Hale (both pictured below). Cooke had already appeared in a similar venture the previous year, a transatlantic discussion programme called Answering You

Transatlantic Quiz featured some well-known participants such as David Niven, Peter Ustinov and Joyce Grenfell. But the unlikely star was Professor Denis Brogan, a man who "could identify the most obscure political quotations, or plumb the shadiest depths of American literature." In July 1945 home listeners got a chance to hear the quiz when the Light Programme started to broadcast it. It ran for as further six years, ending its run in 1951.

Meanwhile in 1947 the Light Programme was looking for a similar UK-based quiz and in November Round Britain Quiz was launched, This set the basic programme format for the next fifty years. Each week the two-person London team took on a two-person team from one of the regions -  Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, the West, the North and the Midlands. There were two chairmen, with the London team it was always Lionel Hale (he remained with the programme for twenty years) and with the regional teams Gilbert Harding. Like its predecessor the mainstay of the London team was Denis Brogan, like Hale he put in a twenty year stint. Others on the London team included Hubert Phillips and Cedric Cliffe. Long-time participants for the regions included Jack House and Sir James Fergusson in Scotland and Welsh novelist Wyn Griffith. Following Gilbert Harding's death in 1960 there were a number of short-term replacements before Roy Plomley became the regular second question-master.

Inexplicably following the 1968 series Round Britain Quiz was dropped from Radio 4's schedule. It would be a five years hiatus.

Part 2 Revival and Expansion into Europe  

RBQ's revival was due, in part, to the persistence of a former contestant Irene Thomas (pictured left), the Queen of Quizzes long before Daphne Fowler came onto the scene. Irene, a former Brain of Britain winner , had joined the programme before the end of its 1960s run as one of the London team. Apparently she wrote some "nice but persistent" letters to Radio 4 controller Tony Whitby to bring the programme back. He agreed and assigned the production to BBC Manchester under the guidance of Trevor Hill. The programme returned on 1 April 1973.

Hill recalled that he slightly tweaked the format which saw the introduction of more cryptic "verbal crossword" questions that have become the programme's trademark. "I discovered ... that it was no use for one person to set the questions, however inventive and amusing they might be, and then for another person to pose them. When contestants are seeking clues and guidance the quizmaster has to know all he can about the background in order to 'feed' the teams and often to get their minds working on another tack so that they see the common link between one part of the answer and the other parts".

Setting and asking the questions at the London end was Professor Anthony Quinton and with the regions it was Jack Longland, at the time well-known to listeners for Any Questions and My Word!  The regular London team consisted of Irene Thomas and Professor John B Mays - can their ever have been so  many professors on the same show since the days of The Brains Trust? Later Irene's team mate was Eric Korn.

Jack Longland left the programme in 1976, to be replaced by Gordon Clough. Familiar to Radio 4 listeners for PM and The World at One, Gordon contended that RBQ was "one of the hardest jobs I have to do in radio. I have to aim at creating questions which contain at least one part that the audience at home can answer without too much trouble". 

Here are a couple of recordings from the mid-80s. From 19 August 1984 this first programme features Irene Thomas and Eric Korn on the London team and Patrick Nuttgens and Paddy Fitzpatrick representing the North. Asking the questions are Gordon Clough and Louis Allen, who replaced Anthony Quinton between 1983 and 1991.

I recorded this edition on 26 September 1985 when the competing team for the Midlands was John Julius Norwich and Peter Oppenheimer. The London team had a fearsome reputation for winning, but here the Midlands team, and in particular Peter Oppenheimer, show their mettle.    

Such was the success of the revived Round Britain Quiz that it spawned two spin-offs. First there was Round Europe Quiz (3 series 1977-81) with Irene Thomas and John Julius Norwich representing England taking on teams from France, Italy Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Denmark Austria and Poland. Gordon Clough and Anthony Quinton continued in their inquisitorial roles. Producer Trevor Hill recalls that the idea came from network controller Ian McIntryre who asked him to widen his quiz horizons. "needless to say each European I saw had to have, in the first instance, a very good knowledge of the English language plus the ability, when I tested them, to take part in and enjoy that essentially English pastime of doing crossword puzzles."    

The second spin-off was our old friend Transatlantic Quiz (7 series 1976-86). Again it was populated with the usual suspects: a London team of Irene Thomas and John Julius Norwich, questions posed by Louis Allen and Anthony Quinton (later Gordon Clough). In the States the team was Brendon Gill and, for the most part, Shana Alexander.  

When the 1995 series of Round Britain Quiz came to an end it dropped off the schedules. The death the following year of Gordon Clough seemed to finally have put paid to the programme's return.

Part 3 Slimmed Down but Not Dumbed Down

But you can't keep a good quiz format down and in 1997 RBQ returned reinvigorated and with further tweaks to the format. Gone was the resident London team, they now had to compete on an equal footing like everyone else. Gone indeed was Irene Thomas ("I loved every minute of it" she told Sue Lawley, "I could have gone on doing it all the time"). This slimmed down version now had just one question master, Nick Clarke who was not expected to devise the questions himself. There was some debate as to whether the questions had been dumbed down with Roland White noting in the Radio Times that "the pool of knowledge has been widened". Listening again to the 1980s editions I'm inclined to agree with him.

Nick Clarke's tenure lasted until 2005 (he died the following year) when again the programme's future hung in the balance. It did return, of course, from June 2007 with Tom Sutcliffe now posing the questions.

Tom is back at 3 pm today when Round Britain Quiz returns with Scotland and Wales competing.

And the answer to the question posed at the start of this post, culled from a Radio Times article written  by Nick Baker in 1985, refers to a power-hungry citizen, think of Citizen Kane played by Orson Welles in 1941 film. The rent paid by Scottish farmers was called, assuming you know your Gaelic, as Cain. That Hollywood Brit is one Michael Caine (who back in 1985 had yet to return to live in the UK). All of which should lead you to his supposed catchphrase "Not a lot of people know that", though he has denied ever saying it.

The UK Game Shows website lists some of the Round Britain Quiz question masters but then they didn't have the benefit of the estimable BBC Genome, The full list is as follows:

Lionel Hale 1947/1949-68
Gilbert Harding 1947-60
Leonard Sachs 1948
Robert McDermott 1948
Philip Hope-Wallace 1948
Peter Watson 1949
Howard Marion-Crawford 1957
Lionel Gamlin 1957
Stephen Potter 1960-61
Kevin Fitzgerald 1961
Edward Ward 1961
Michael Flanders 1961
Roy Plomley 1961-68
Patrick Harvey 1962-66
Anthony Quinton 1973-82/92-95
Jack Longland 1973-76
Gordon Clough 1977-95
Louis Allen 1983-91
Nick Clarke 1997-05
Tom Sutcliffe 2007-2021
Kirsty Lang 2022

Transatlantic Quiz by Lionel Hale in The World Radio and Television Annual (Sampson Low, Marston & Co 1947)
Alistair Cooke: The Biography by Nick Clarke (Weidenfeld & Nicholson 1999)
Over the Airwaves by Trevor Hill (The Book Guild 2005)
Riddled with clues by Nick Baker, Radio Times 5 October 1985
Blimey, even I could get that one by Roland White, Radio Times 16 August 1997
BBC Genome website

Post edited 27 March 2022

Sunday 4 October 2015

The World at One

"The World at One. This is William Hardcastle with thirty minutes of news and comment this Monday lunchtime"

The notion of a radio programme covering both news and current affairs is so common that we regularly use the two terms interchangeably. But in 1965 it was novel and worthy of comment itself when on Monday 4 October, from Studio 3B at Broadcasting House, the BBC Home Service launched a brand new programme, The World at One.

By broadcasting a news bulletin within the programme and then following this with analysis and discussion about the main news stories at a stroke it blurred the lines between news and current affairs. This was an important distinction behind the scenes at the BBC, if not for the listener, as news was in the remit of the News Division and Current Affairs looked after any interpretive programming. And, up until that point, never the twain shall meet.  

WATO, as it eventually became in the acronym-loving BBC, had a new hard-hitting Fleet Street edge thanks to main presenter, for its first decade, William Hardcastle (pictured above). He was a former Reuters Washington correspondent and editor of the Daily Mail. At the microphone his voice was breathless and rumbling. He was described by fellow journalist and presenter Anthony Howard as "an absolutely unorthodox broadcaster; he was an extraordinary phenomenon in that no-one could have been less suited to do what the BBC used to call 'microphone work'."  His questioning style was, according to BBC editor Eleanor Ransome "relentlessly persistent, but seldom rude and abrasive".   

The World at One was immediately popular and by the end of the year pulled in 2 million listeners. By 1968 it hit 3.9 million, making Radio 4's most listened-to programme.

On its launch Brian Bliss set out the programme's agenda in that week's Radio Times:
News is probably one of the most perishable, and at the same time most expensive, commodities of our age. As world communications improve so the news-man's life becomes more demanding. There is now a great appetite for news, but equally a need for information about the news - 'background' as the journalist calls it - and all too often not enough of it is given.
This aspect of the news will be just one of the many features of The World at One which begins on Monday this week and be heard every weekday from 1.0 to 1.30 in the Home Service. very simply, this new half-hour programme will set out to do just what the title suggests - to keep lunchtime listeners abreast of the news. But it will do so in two ways.
In the first place there will always be a news bulletin, but a flexible one of seven to ten minutes' duration according to the flow of news.
The other items in this topical half-hour will be for listeners who want to hear not only the news but also about the news. For this we shall exploit all the mobility and resources of sound radio to bring you voices and topics in and behind the headlines.
At the same time we hope to retain some of the flavour and character of This Time of Day (which ended on October1) and some of its most popular items and contributors will be heard in The World at One. The programme will be presented by the well-known journalist William Hardcastle.   

You'll note that WATO didn't exactly appear out of nowhere but was a follow-on from the early lunchtime show This Time of Day. Broadcast weekdays at 12.10 pm starting the previous December it was a 30-minute "topical programme of sounds and voices" produced by the Radio Newsreel team. Its presenters were an unusual mix of  William S. Churchill, the Earl of Arran, James Mossman, Ludovic Kennedy and William Hardcastle.  For its replacement Home Service controller Gerald Mansell wanted a "harder, terser title" for a programme that would be substantially more "newsy" and altogther "brisker".  WATO would also come from the Radio Newsreel team with Andrew Boyle as its first editor.  

Radio Times 4 October 1985
It should also be recognised that the Home Service had already started to broadcast daily news and comment when an extended 30-minute news programme, billed as Ten O'Clock was launched on 19 September 1960 (initially gaining an audience of 700,000). But The World at One was the start of a gradual expansion of news and current affairs on the Home Service and subsequently Radio 4. It's spin-off programmes were The World this Weekend (1967) and PM (1970); all initially presented by William Hardcastle and all, of course, still running today.     

In October 1990 the programme marked its 25th anniversary with this report from Stephen Evans:

The earliest complete edition I can lay my hands on is from 28 January 1986 during the tenure of Robin Day, who presented it between 1979 and 1987. The newsreader is Pauline Bushnell. Listen out for an appearance by Jim Naughtie, at the time the Chief Political Correspondent for The Guardian and later a presenter of The World at One

Over the past fifty years there have been about a dozen regular presenters of WATO. Below I've listed 27 names that have been attached to the programme aside from Bill Hardcastle. This list is not exhaustive and excludes anyone who's just appeared on a handful of editions.

Ludovic Kennedy, William Davis, Jack Pizzey, David Jessel, Nicholas Woolley, Robert Williams, Gordon Clough, Michael Cooke, Brian Widlake, Robin Day, Peter Hobday, Nick Ross, Susannah Simons, Michael Charlton, John Sergeant, Nick Worrall, James Naughtie, Nick Clarke (to date the longest serving from 1994 until his death in2006), James Cox, Sheena MacDonald, Alex Brodie, Tim Franks, Mark Mardell, Guto Harri, Brian Hanrahan, Shaun Ley and Martha Kearney.

Thursday 1 October 2015

That Was the Week - Part 5

If Week Ending was the Oxbridge Review then The News Huddlines was the end of the pier show. Though poking fun at the week's news, the music hall tradition was never far away from Huddlines, Radio 2's longest-running, and sorely missed, comedy show that first aired 40 years ago today. 

In fact both Week Ending and The News Huddlines are inextricably linked. Huddlines' first producers Simon Brett and John Lloyd had both worked on Ending; Chris Emmett provided the impressions and the same scriptwriters provided sketches and quickies to the two shows.

The story goes, according to Brett, that in 1975 Radio 2 was a comedy desert, full of quiz shows, and "people kept saying 'we need a kind of red-nosed Week Ending', And Roy's was the nose". Co-producer Lloyd, remembers the problems with casting. "We had this title you see - The News Huddlines. And we had to rack our brains for somebody called Hudd who could fit the bill!"

When The News Huddlines launched its star was probably better known on the telly- if only for those Quick Brew adverts ("it's me little perforations") - rather than the radio. Roy Hudd's career had already overlapped the end of music hall and touring variety - he'd worked with his hero Max Miller - and the 60s satire boom with Not So Much a Programme More A Way of Life, so for a weekly, fast-paced "topical review" in front of an audience he was a natural.

Young Roy Hudd got the showbiz bug from his Saturday morning visits to the children's film shows at the Croydon Hippodrome and trips to the Croydon Empire with his Gran to see the her idols - Max Wall, Bud Flanagan, Sandy Powell, Jimmy James, Hettie King and Max Miller. "Even when we were hard up, we'd spend one-and-six on two hours of bloody marvellous escapism".

Called up for National Service in 1955 he got the chance to perform in a revue show titled The Rafter. "The lads liked it - especially my impression in drag, of Lita Rosa." On demob Roy and his mate Eddie Cunningham (they'd first met at a boy's club in Croydon) signed up to join Butlins as Redcoats at Clacton. They billed their double act as Hudd and Kay "as we agreed that Hudd and Cunningham sounded more like a firm of solicitors."

After leaving Butlins Hudd and Kay started touring the variety circuit and managed to get a TV appearance on ABC's talent show Bid for Fame. "Alas we were outbid".  According to Roy the best week's variety they did was at the Finsbury Park Empire in 1959. Topping the bill was Max Miller. "Very good boys", he commended them, and offered to buy them a drink in the theatre bar. Renowned for his parsimony they took him up on his offer. Miller continued to talk about their act and made suggestions on how to improve, but no drinks were forthcoming. More help and stories followed until the doors of the bar burst open at the first interlude. "The first bloke in spotted Max and said, 'Blimey" he's here" What will you have Max?' 'I'll have a large gin and tonic,' Max replied like a flash. 'And what will you have, Roy? And you Eddie?'"

Roy Hudd recalls those early days in conversation with Mike Craig in this edition of It's a Funny Business first heard on Radio 2 on 16 August 1976.   

Post-Butlins the double act split and Roy toured the country in revues and pantomime and, on 17 November 1960, made his first radio appearance on an edition of Worker's Playtime. More radio and TV work followed with further appearances on Worker's Playtime, Music-Hall and The Billy Cotton Band Show but his major break was to be asked by producer Ned Sherrin to join the cast of the TW3 follow-up Not So Much A Programme More A Way of Life(1964-65).

Working alongside David Frost, Willie Rushton, Eleanor Bron and John Bird Roy felt a little daunting. "I was petrified, and really did feel completely out of place with this collection of university-educated, ex-Footlights Revue members, who read newspapers and knew real politicians. They were certainly a clever lot of smart Alecs".  

Roy also appeared in the follow-up series BBC3 (1966), but his first star vehicle was the BBC1 situation comedy Hudd (1965), written by George Evans and Derek Collyer. Roy was an admirer of Jacque Tati and the writers told the Radio Times: "We had in mind the sort of character who could do visual jokes with a minimum of dialogue, rather than the usual verbal jokes, and Roy fitted like a glove".

The BBC were keen to do a second series of Hudd but Roy wasn't. Instead he preferred a revue-style show with sketches and so The Illustrated Weekly Hudd (1966-67) was born.  The cast included Sheila Steafel, Patrick Newell, Doug Fisher and Marcia Ashton (series 2) and contributing to the scripts were Dick Vosburgh, Eric Davison, Barry Cryer, Graham Chapman, Michael Palin, Terry Jones and Dave Freeman. Even so, Roy remained unhappy with the finished product: "I wasn't ready or good enough to be able to headline a show as myself, and not clever enough to do sketches that required top-rate character work".      

Roy continued to appear in summer seasons, panto, West End plays and shows such as Danny La Rue's long run at the Palace Theatre. In 1968 he got his first starring radio series, imaginatively titled The Roy Hudd Show which also featured Sheila Bernette. Yet again Roy seems unhappy with the finished result: "Somehow it didn't quite gel".

The following year there was a 6-part series for Yorkshire TV again titled The Roy Hudd Show and again lacking something:" ...the people hated it." He was on safer ground with his 1971 and 1972 Charles Chilton produced series for Radio 4 Roy Hudd's Vintage Music Hall that built on his love of the old theatre traditions and for which he would later write about and amass a collection posters and song sheets.  

The first inkling that Roy got about the start of The News Huddlines was a call from BBC producer Simon Brett asking "Are you doing anything next Wednesday  lunchtime?" The idea was for a topical revue type show with Hudd as a kind of Kenneth Horne figure doing a monologue at the start and then introducing the sketches. Joining him were Week Ending's Chris Emmett and Janet Brown who'd been in the business since the 40s and had recently been perfecting her impressions on Radio 2's comedy panel game The Impressionists. One wonders if Brett had Roy in mind having seen him on the late-night BBC2 satire show Up Sunday.

The pilot show was recorded on 9 June 1975 and the first edition of the series was heard on Wednesday 1 October that year. The News Huddlines was a hit and proved to be a breath of fresh air amongst Radio 2's array of panel games and indifferent sitcoms. Initially the billed scriptwriters were Peter Spence and David Renwick but like Week Ending it relied on a core of commissioned writers and a whole list of people who would send in gags and sketches.

One such writer was the late Debbie Barham (she died tragically young in 2003 at the age of 26) who submitted lines to Week Ending under the name of DA Barham, as she'd heard that radio comedy was still very much a male preserve. At the age of 19 she sent in a sketch to Huddlines regarding the Holbeck hotel in Scarborough which fell into the sea. "Have you reserved a room?" the receptionist asks. "No, we just decided to slip away for the weekend", replies the guest. "Yes, unfortunately, so did our foundations".  Speaking in 1994 Debbie said "There are certain subjects that fit the formula. Pot Noodles, Jeremy Beadle, Germans and British Rail are perennials".

Reviewing the programme's success in 1994, Richard North of The Independent observed that it "sends everybody up rotten with special attention paid to their race, creed and gender, and yet remains affectionate. The Huddlines style of comedy is wholly un-PC ... the Japanese and the Germans remain fair game, deliciously perpetuating the ridiculous war-comic images a generation, now middle-aged, so enjoyed at school. All theatrical agents are Jewish ('Well Jew-ish,' as Hudd has it)."

The early shows were recorded on Tuesday lunchtimes but eventually the programme settled into a Thursday recording/broadcast pattern with a Saturday lunchtime repeat. The scripts were pulled together in the first half of the week and put in front of the cast at 10 am on the Thursday. There was one complete run through and then at 1 pm a recording in front of an audience at the Paris Theatre in Lower Regent Street. "The result is a mixture of high polish and breathless, occasionally hysterical spontaneity".   That Paris audience was generally filled with coach load of pensioners prompting producer John Lloyd to quip: "What has 64 legs and one pair of dentures? The front row of the Paris!" 

In 1994 Huddlines reached a comedy milestone as it became the BBC's longest running scripted comedy show in front of an audience, knocking The Navy Lark off the top spot.  By now Janet Brown  had long left the show, replaced along the way by a number of actresses, including  Norma Ronald and Alison Steadman and, from 1984, June Whitfield, an inspired piece of casting. "No smut could conceivably pass Whitfield's lips," wrote Richard North. "Even in real life , Roy Hudd and the team are forever scheming to sneak serious filth past her scrutiny. They often shock her with their enthusiasm for farts, curries and private parts. 'Oh, they will have their vindaloo jokes' she says".

Chris Emmett presented this history of the show titled Behind the Huddlines. It aired on Radio 2 on 24 March 1994. Taking part are Roy and June, Simon Brett, John Lloyd, Jonathan James-Moore, Mark Robson, Richard Quick, Jeremy Brown, Andy Hamilton, Nick Revell, Alan Nixon, Dirk Maggs and Paul Spencer.

There were two spin-offs series with long-form situation comedy formats. In 1986 Huddwinks from Huddlines writer Laurie Rowley featuring Roy, Chris, Denise Coffey, Fred Harris and David Gooderson. And in 1995 Crowned Hudds, six historical romps penned by Michael Dines, with Roy, Chris, June and Jeffrey Holland.

The News Huddlines clocked up 51 series between 1975 and 2001 and over 20 specials but its demise was in no way planned, or indeed ever recognised on air. By the 1990s Roy was also in demand as actor - see Lipstick On Your Collar and Common as Muck for example - and in 2002 he joined Coronation Street as undertaker Archie Shuttleworth. "The Beeb reassured us, and the listeners, that the radio show would return once I finished my stint in the Street", recalled Roy. "To this day", according to Chris Emmett, "nobody has had the guts to write to Roy and tell him that they were dropping the show". Roy himself relates that a BBC executive took him out to lunch and "told me that they wanted me to be more like Jonathan Ross".

A week after Behind the Huddlines the 36th series of The News Huddlines kicked off. All the elements are there Roy's cheeky asides to the audience and his opening  monologue "so it's snow jobs, no jobs, glow jobs and ...", June Whitfield playing Norma Major as Eth and the Queen Mum as Irene Handl, non-PC jokes about Germans and the Japanese, parody songs, Friggins  (cue whoosh sfx) and Richard Clegg's breakneck reading of the closing credits.  This edition aired on Thursday 31 March 1994 and I recorded the repeat on Saturday 2 April.

The 'replacement' for Huddlines was already on air by the time it came to a halt in 2001. For topical comedy Radio 2 had been offering Punt and Dennis in It's Been a Bad Week since 1999. More on that programme in a future post.

A Fart in a Colander by Roy Hudd (Michael O'Mara Books, 2010)
Prime Minister, You Wanted to See Me: A History of Week Ending by Ian Graves and Justin Lewis (Kaleidoscope Publishing, 2008)

Roy Hudd is not just a funny face by Angela Wilkes (Sunday Times Magazine 8.8.82)
Still Hitting the Huddlines by Richard Johnson (Radio Times 26.3.94)
Heard the one about? by Jonathan Margolis (Sunday Times 27.3.94)
Have they got news for you! by Richard North (The Independent 30.3.94)
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