Wednesday, 2 May 2018

The Organist Entertains

With the axe falling on The Organist Entertains this month radio loses a programme that's just a year shy of celebrating its golden anniversary and, at a stroke, breaks a tradition of broadcasting organ music that goes back to the earliest days of the BBC.

When radio broadcasts started in the early 1920s organ music was regularly head on 2LO with recitals from Steinway Hall in Marylebone Lane.  Many early broadcasts were church or symphonic organ recitals but increasingly there were transmissions from theatres and cinemas offering listeners the opportunity to hear the full orchestral range of the new theatre organs up and down the country.  

The BBC's first organ was installed in the Concert Hall (now Radio Theatre) in the newly-constructed Broadcasting House. Built by the renowned organ-maker John Compton the concert organ was "the first organ in this country to be designed especially with a view for microphone transmission." Its inaugural broadcast was on 16 June 1933 in a concert of classical pieces played by the BBC Orchestra under conductor Adrian Boult. However, the acoustics of the new building meant it was played infrequently as the organ could be heard in other studios four floors up. Added to which concerts were in turn affected by dance bands rehearsing in the sub-basement, prompting this memo in February 1933. "I understand that on Monday last the second half of the chamber concert in the Concert Hall was badly interfered with by Jack Payne's band in studio BA."    

By October 1936 the Corporation had a second in-house organ, a mighty Compton theatre organ sited at St George's Hall over the road from Broadcasting Hose in Langham Place. The BBC now employed a resident organist, Reginald Foort, a cinema organist who'd been making broadcasts since 1926. He stepped from the position in 1938 and there was a special concert to mark the event on the National Programme on 31 October. Announcer Stuart Hibberd was moved to pen a couple of verses to the tune of Spanish Ladies. It ended "Now let every man drink off his full bumper, And let every man now drink up his port, We'll sing and be jolly and drown melancholy, With 'Here's to the Health of Reginald Foort.'"  

Foort worked in the USA for a while but after the war he continued to make broadcasts for the BBC until the early 1970s. Taking over from him as the staff organist was Sandy MacPherson, the organist at the Empire in Leicester Square. It was Sandy that would sustain radio audiences during the early days of the Second World War when the BBC was unsure what service to provide and apart from news bulletins and official announcements was happy to fill hours of airtime with Sandy at the console. He made 23 broadcasts in the first week and 22 in the second. This prompted some listeners to write in that they would rather face the German guns than hear more MacPherson!

The BBC Theatre Organ itself was destroyed when St George's Hall was bombed in September 1941. Foort loaned the corporation his Möller organ which they then bought outright in 1946 (and subsequently sold  in 1963).

Embed from Getty Images MacPherson  (above) was heard on air in hundreds of programmes until the end of the sixties, his shows included From My Postbag (1939-59), The Twilight Hour (1939-56), Sandy Calling (1940-44/51-62), I'll Play to You (1943-48), Sandy's Club (1962-63), At Your Request (1963-64), Melody Time with Max Jaffa (1965-68) and the long-running Chapel in the Valley (1949-69) a programme of "sacred songs and old favourites from the hymn book" set in the "delightful land of Let's Pretend".  

The BBC's third organ, again built by Comptons, is the one in the Maida Vale studios and very much still in use for BBC Symphony Orchestra rehearsals.

Organ music broadcasts weren't confined to the BBC though. The pre-war Radio Normandy had interludes of cinema organ recitals and Radio Luxembourg featured Reginald Foort and the two Blackpool-based organists Horace Finch and Reginald Dixon, the latter playing listeners' requests in the Cadbury sponsored You Call the Tune.   

Reginald Dixon, dubbed Mr Blackpool, had started playing professionally in 1930 and over a period of fifty years made hundreds of broadcasts at the Tower Ballroom organ. Post-war his shows included Tuneful Tempo and Meet Me at the Tower as well as being a regular performer on the variety bill of the long-running Blackpool Nights (1948-66). His final broadcasts were working alongside Sam Costa on Sam on Sunday (1979-80) where he played the BBC's Theatre Organ from the Playhouse Theatre in Manchester. This was the third incarnation of the BBC's Theatre Organ, a Wurlitzer bought from the Empress Ballroom in Blackpool in 1970 and disposed of in 1985.

Here's Reginald Dixon playing in an edition of Blackpool Nights as heard on the Light Programme on 18 June 1963. The presenter is Jack Watson.

Reginald's retirement in 1970 was marked by a special broadcast concert on Radio 2 with guests Vince Hill and the Northern Dance Orchestra under the direction of Bernard Herrmann. A copy of Goodbye Mr Blackpool has been uploaded to Soundcloud here.

Other organists heard regularly on BBC radio included Douglas Reeve, for many years associated with the Dome in Brighton. He was discovered by Reginald Foort who dubbed him the Wonder Boy Organist and made his first broadcast in 1937 aged just 19. He broadcast regularly until 1980, like Reginald Dixon working on Sam on Sunday and made occasional appearances as late as 1998.

Charles Smart had a similarly long broadcasting career starting in 1935 and continuing through to the early 70s. Pre-war he was the regular organist on Melody Out of the Sky that featured Jay Wilbur and his Band and on the comedy show Band Waggon with Arthur Askey and Richard 'Stinker' Murdoch. Here's Charles at the BBC Theatre Organ at St George's Hall in a sketch from the show recorded in March 1939.

Charles Smart's son Harold was also a well known organist. Aged just 15 he'd been appointed cinema organist at the Odeon in Haverstock Hill and made his first radio broadcast that same year (1937). In the 1950s he would appear with the BBC Show Band under the direction of Cyril Stapleton and the song a minute show Sing It Again and on ITV was the resident organist on the Take Your Pick!  On Radio Luxembourg his quartet could be heard on Smart Work with Gumption (sponsored by Gumption Smooth Paste Cleaner)  and Smart Work. In the 1960s he played on numerous editions of Morning Music and, with various musical combos from a trio to an octet, recorded sessions for Swingalong, Strumalong, Music Through Midnight and Sunday Special. His final broadcast was in 1978 on The Organist Entertains.

Dudley Savage was a cinema organist working for the ABC in Plymouth for decades. He first broadcast in 1938 and post-war was heard playing listeners requests on the Home Service and later Radio 2  in As Prescribed (1948-1976) with the emphasis on requests from "patients in hospital or at home".

One programme that regularly featured cinema organists was Music While You Work (1940-67). Over fifty organists appeared throughout the run including Dudley Beavan (playing on the inaugural programme) , Sandy MacPherson, Robin Richmond, Florence de Jong, Reginald Foort, H. Robinson Cleaver, Donald Thorne, Charles and Harold Smart, Ena Baga and Jimmy Leach who, playing Hammond organ with his group the Organolians, was on the final regular broadcast on 29 September 1967.

Of course there was more than just cinema and theatre organ music to be heard. The Hammond organ and electronic organs were featured in jazz programmes. Concert organ music was on the Third Programme/Radio 3 and later on Classic FM. Church organs were heard on Sunday services and Choral Evensong. In the 1960s you were more than likely to hear a record by Klaus Wunderlich on Housewives' Choice. Specially recorded sessions were made for a whole host programmes from Night Ride (Harry Stoneham's Trio were regulars) to Charlie Chester's Sunday Soapbox. And when local radio started some stations included organ music: local concert organist Arnold Loxam was a fixture on Radio Leeds for many years, Charles McNichol played on Radio Nottingham and Radio Manchester had Pedal, Percussion and Pipes with Alan Ashton. 

This brings us to 1969. Organ music, certainly the playing of popular tunes, was less frequently heard on air. Hundreds of cinemas and theatres had closed and any organs sold off or destroyed. But there was, according to Robin Richmond, a revival of interest in the theatre organ.

Richmond presented the pilot edition of The Organist Entertains on Radio 4 in April 1969 and on 11 June over on Radio 2, what was to be the start of a 49-year run of the programme proper. Both theatre and electronic organ recordings were featured with performances from Harold Smart, Gerald Shaw, Len Rawle and others.    

Here is that first edition of The Organist Entertains.

Writing in that week's Radio Times Robin provided some background information:
"The BBC broadcast cinema organ music almost every day. Reginald seemed to be a popular name with the organ stars! We had Reginald Foort, Reginald Dixon, Reginald New and Reginald Porter-Brown. Other great players were Quentin Maclean, Sidney Torch, Harold Ramsay, Frank Newman and, of course, Sandy Macpherson.

Somewhere around 1935, I was about to have built a mammoth travelling pipe organ to tour the music halls, when someone told me about the new electronic wonder that had no pipes and would be far easier to move around. So it came about that I myself bought the first two electronic organs to reach England, and together we blazed the trail in cabarets, dance halls, hotels and music-halls, concentrating on jazz and popular music. There was an overlap period of some fifteen years from 1935 to 1950 when both cinema and electronic organs were popular, but gradually the electronic organ jumped ahead, possibly because it was so easy to transport.

Now there is a great revival of interest in the theatre organ, not only in this country but also all over America. Hundreds of these fine instruments are being rebuilt and re-housed by the ever-increasing army of enthusiasts. Perhaps our new series The Organist Entertains will 'organ-ise' many new friends!

The new series proved popular and a few weeks later this letter appeared in the Radio Times from a T. Whitehead of Keynsham: "Having heard the first two programmes in the new series I have only one comment - magnificent! A thousand thanks to the BBC and Robin Richmond for this opportunity to hear such a range of top players and instruments. I recall with nostalgia the days when theatre organs were broadcast daily, and how thrilling it is to hear their sound again".

Robin Richmond (pictured above) was a natural choice as presenter of The Organist Entertains as he was both an organist of some 30 plus years standing and a regular broadcaster on the Light Programme. He'd started out as an organist at a local mission hall before playing more of the popular dance music of the time. Early professional engagements were in West End revues and he made his first broadcast in 1938 on what was billed as his "Modern Miracle Organ", an early example of an imported Hammond electronic organ.

Rejected for military service during the war he was the organist at the Paramount cinema on Tottenham Court Road, had a dance band at the Hammersmith Palais and was on a 24-hour standby contract to play on BBC radio. An early series was Starlight (1942-45) and he appeared on dozens of editions of Music While You Work with various musical combos. After the war he played and presented his own show Organ Grinder's Swing - he would sign off "from your old organ grinder friend" - and was regularly on the bill of Variety Bandbox. Other broadcasts included Bumblethorpe with comedian Robert Moreton, Morning Music, the BBC tv series Emney Entertains with the rotund actor and comedian Fred Emney as well as providing the musical punctuations on Associated-Rediffusion's Double Your Money.

In the late 40s Robin had also started to present other music shows including Housewives' Choice, Jazz Club, Playtime, Twelve O'Clock Spin and Midday Spin. He also moved into the producer's role on Radio 2's Album Time.

A change of presenter in 1990 as marked
by this Radio Times article

Robin retired in 1980 (he died in 1998) and was replaced on The Organist Entertains by Nigel Ogden. Nigel, like so many of the organists mentioned here, started young. He took up the organ aged 12, inspired by his father who was a church organist and by holiday visits to Blackpool where he saw Reginald Dixon perform. He made his first radio broadcast in 1971 aged 17 on Pedal, Percussion and Pipes and the following year on Radio 2. He continued to play on The Organist Entertains and appear on Radio Manchester throughout the 70s before taking over the presenting role.

On 16 March 1990 Nigel marked his tenth anniversary on the show with this special edition.   

Understandably many listeners and organ enthusiasts were dismayed to hear the news in January that The Organist Entertains  was to be "rested" although there had been some criticism of late that the programme eschewed electronic music in favour of pipe organs. UK radio provides little in the way of outlets for popular organ music though Alan Ashton has a monthly online show and Angel Radio features Hot Pipes in its schedule.  Classical organ pieces can be heard on Radio 3's Choir and Organ.  

The final edition of The Organist Entertains goes out on Tuesday 8 May at 11pm BST.

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