Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Beat the Chasers

So the question was: Broadcast on radio in 1937, Britain's first quiz programme was a test of what? (a) Mental arithmetic (b) General knowledge or (c) Spelling? This was the question posed to a contestant on last night's Beat the Chasers (ITV). And the answer...

UK radio's first on-air contests were write-in affairs. The first was The Query Programme aired on 2LO on 7 May 1924. Unbilled artistes had to be listed in correct Radio Times billing, the three listeners with the closest entries being invited to the studio at Savoy Hill for the evening. Subsequent programmes, there were seven in all, generously offered five guineas to the most successful entrant and runners-up prizes of three guineas and one guinea.   

Another write-in competition was Puzzle Corner ("Hello Puzzlers") which became a feature of the show Monday Night at Seven (and later Monday Night at Eight) that had started in 1937. The show featured a number of elements such as music, comedy sketches and a short drama, Inspector Hornleigh Investigates being the best known, and, from January 1938, Puzzle Corner. With general knowledge questions, anagrams and a musical medley it proved immensely popular and ran until 1949, by which time it was part of The Family Hour. It got a TV spin-off in 1950 as part of Kaleidoscope and then as a stand-alone show (1953-55).   

But the first quiz game to be battled out on air in real time, and the subject of that Beat the Chasers question, was a Spelling Bee broadcast as part of Children's Hour on Thursday 25 November 1937. Billed as An Inter-Regional Spelling Competition the Radio Times tells us that "this is an experiment which, it is hoped, will prove amusing. Mac (Derek McCulloch aka Uncle Mac) will conduct a spelling competition for boys and girls in several different regions simultaneously, and listeners will hear how the competitors got on".

The idea obviously caught on and in January 1938 the BBC entered into a co-production with NBC in the States for an adult version called Transatlantic Spelling Bee. Teams from Harvard & Radcliffe College played Oxford University with question-masters Tommy Woodrooffe (UK) and Pail Wing (US) overseeing proceedings. The US team won by 28 points to 24. The cameras of Pathé News were there to record the event.

A further transatlantic version was held in March followed by further UK-only inter-city competitions chaired by Freddie Grisewood, some dialect versions ("none of the words will be found in the Oxford dictionary") and even a TV version on the pre-war BBC service. 

The idea on was revived on BBC radio during the war under the chairmanship of Ronnie Waldman pitting together teams such as Actors v Actresses or GIs v Tommies, and post-war with Lionel Gamlin being the most regular 'spelling-master'. UK broadcast spelling bees fizzled out in the early 50s but they remain popular in the US with the National Spelling Bee running since 1925 with TV coverage for the last 20-odd years on ESPN.    

Thursday, 16 April 2020

Pause for Thought

Radio 2 has been pausing for thought for half a century now. The two or three minutes of faith-led reflection is a surprisingly enduring programme element on an increasingly pop-orientated network, like some Reithian religious hangover. On a busy, frenetic breakfast show such an item can feel anachronistic and in danger of leading to a clunky gear change. But equally it can be seen as a welcome moment to take stock, consider others, to literally pause for thought.

Pause for Thought first aired at 8.55 am on Monday 6 April 1970 and replaced the weekday editions of Five to Ten. It was just one part of the religious output on BBC Radio 2 at the time that included two services on Sunday: People's Service (1945-80) just before Family Favourites and the long-running Sunday Half-Hour (1940-2013). Generally speech-based, Pause for Thought was initially not always led by a minister or religious representative. Depending on the theme for the week actors, writers and musicians made regular appearances. In the first few months we heard from Cliff Richard, Derek Nimmo, J.B. Priestley, Larry Adler and Joyce Grenfel. The programme proved to be very popular with an audience in excess of 1 million and an anthology of talks from the series published by the BBC - available for 25p from all good bookshops.      

Schedule changes in October 1972 meant that Pause for Thought was no longer a stand-alone programme but part of the Early Show at 6.15 am and repeated during Terry Wogan's breakfast show at 8.45. By 1990 there were three daily editions with an extra slot in the wee small hours during what was then Night Ride. Whilst the talks had always been pre-recorded the overnight and early ones were now on tape but the breakfast show edition was live.

Though the times have varied over the intervening years the three weekday editions of Pause for Thought continue to this day, overnights in a pre-recorded version on OJ Borg's show and then two different editions live during Vanessa Feltz's and Zoe Ball's shows. No longer produced in-house by what is now the department of Religion and Ethics, its contracted out to TBI Media.

Over the years some of the contributors have become established radio names; I'm thinking of the likes for Rev Frank Topping, Rev. Roger Royle, Fr Brian D'Arcy and Rev. Ruth Scott. Here are a selection of recordings from the last 50 years:

This is an early example from August 1970 in which actor Peter Pacey reads from a selection of the recent translation of the Apocrypha.

From December 1984 a decidedly more light-hearted affair for Terry's final breakfast show (the first time around) from the BBC's Religious Affairs Correspondent Gerald Priestland who was a regular contributor with his Priestland's Postbag.    

Although the Pause for Thought mainly used outside contributors BBC religious department staff also appeared including producers David Winter and John Newbury. A programme favourite for many years was Roger Royle who would consider listener's letters in what was titled Royle Mail. This edition dates from  February 1985.

From January 1986 a slightly more fanciful affair from religious author Stuart Jackman.

By the 1990s the live editions had become more of a conversation between presenter and contributor to make the change of pace and topic less jarring and often adding an element of humour. From Wogan's return in January 1993 this is Rabbi Hugo Gryn.

Ruth Scott was a hugely popular contributor who sadly died last year. Here she is with Terry in April 2006.

Anglican Bishop Rob Gillion uses the fact that Wogan has just been voted the station's Ultimate Icon as the springboard for his talk in October 2007.

Bringing things up-to-date and marking the PFT's 50th anniversary last week is writer and comedian Paul Kerensa who kindly name-checked me in his opening remarks. Paul is speaking to Amol Rajan who was covering the breakfast show.

When Pause for Thought started in 1970 it was replacing the existing daily religious slot Five to Ten which, it won't surprise you to learn was on at 9.55 am. Originally billed as "a story, a hymn and a prayer" it started on the Light Programme in December 1950. The Radio Times explains that the aim "has been to provide those who are busy at work with an opportunity for a brief recollection of the great spiritual truths of Christianity - something healthy and helpful to brood on during the day". The stories were mainly but not exclusively biblical, the hymns recorded for solo and choral verses with organ accompaniment and a short prayer "short enough for a housewife to pause and join in without risking the cooking and a worker to do the same without inviting the sack." This example of Five to Ten dates from April 1958.      

I can't leave the subject without also briefly mentioning Thought for the Day over on Radio 4. It too is fifty years old this month having replaced Ten to Eight sandwiched in-between the two editions of Today, which it turn replaced Lift Up Your Hearts (1939-65), or Lift Up Your Skirts according to one episode of I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again. Thought for the Day has had more of a controversial history than Pause for Thought, and I'll cover that in a future post.  

Saturday, 4 April 2020

Broadcasting in the Seventies

From today's perspective the furore over Broadcasting in the Seventies seems like a storm in a teacup. But at the time it threatened the corporation with industrial action,  the withdrawal of labour by the Musician's Union and letters from the great and good describing it as a threat to "the unique role the BBC has played in the cultural and intellectual life of the country".

It was fifty years ago this week that a number of BBC national radio programme changes came occurred brought about by the implementation of the policy document Broadcasting in the Seventies. Essentially the plan was to redefine the characteristics of each of the four radio networks: Radios 1, 2, 3 and 4 and move away from the existing mixed programming - a style of programming that had existed since Reith's day. We're now used to tightly formatted radio output but at the time this was both novel and controversial. But, if listeners expected an overnight shift in the sound of the favourite station this didn't really happen and it took years for it to pan out - the result of insufficient funds and insufficient wavelengths.

There were several factors that convinced the BBC to act and shake-up its radio services. Financially the Government was tightening the purse strings and refusing any licence fee increases, whilst at the time the BBC had ambitions to expand their services and to adopt  new technology (the roll-out of colour TV and VHF stereo for instance).  Radio listening figures, particularly those in the evening, had started to fall. There was also a notion to hive off the new Open University programmes, as well as existing schools programmes, onto a separate VHF network paid for by government - something which never happened and continued to lead to AM/FM splits and headaches for schedulers for another couple of decades. The BBC had been forced to start a new pop service in 1967 with the launch of the pirate-replacement Radio 1. And finally, with a view to what might happen, and did arrive four years later, there was the threat of commercial radio competition.

The document, published in July 1969, was part of a process that had started over a year before with a wealth of consultation and working parties during which the Corporation had, for the first time but by no means the last, used independent management consultants, in this case McKinsey and Co.

On streamlining network radio the report had this to say:
"Traditionally, broadcasting has been based on the principle of mixed programming. On a single channel, the public is offered the whole range: news, documentaries, plays, music, light entertainment, serials, sport - all types of programmes, covering all interests and all 'brow' levels.

But experience, both in this country and abroad, suggests that many listeners now expect radio to be based more on a different principle - that of the specialised network, offering a continuous stream of one particular type of programme, meeting one particular interest. One channel might offer pop, another serious music, another talk programmes, and so on". 

When the document was released on Thursday 10 July 1969 the Corporation held staff briefings, press conferences and published a special edition of the staff magazine Ariel. The proposals were discussed on air including an hour long Q&A session on the Third Programme the following Tuesday. This is how that evening's Radio Newsreel covered the news with the summary: "Radio 1 strictly pop. Radio 2 carrying light music from Sinatra to Lehar. Radio 3, perhaps only on VHF, with more classical music and Radio 4 with mostly talk".  The newsreader is Peter Barker and the reports from Brian Curtois and Jim Biddulph.

In 1969 Radio 1 and Radio 2 shared a great deal of programming but, to quote the report, "to their respective fans, Emperor Rosko and Eric Robinson barely inhabit the same planet let alone the same air waves". So Radio 1 was to be an "all-pop network". No surprises here but at the time it still carried some jazz shows. Radio 2 was to play "light music" and to shed some of its speech elements. So Any Questions? and Midweek Theatre moved over to Radio 4, and Woman's Hour would follow two years later. News Time with Derek Cooper was dropped and Your Hundred Best Tunes transferred over to Radio 2 from Radio 4. Another programme, still running to this day as part of the Radio 2 breakfast show, also started with the religious slot Pause for Thought replacing Five to Ten.       

It was the changes to the Third Programme that caused the most uproar, not unlike the protests over the 1957 cut in hours and the introduction of Network Three. Now it was such luminaries as Sir Adrian Boult, James Cameron, George Melly, Jonathan Miller and Henry Moore who supported the Campaign for Better Broadcasting and fired off letters to The Times.

Since the network shake-up in September 1967 the Third Programme title had been retained for the evening schedule of music, drama, arts and talks - the same highbrow mix that had defined the station since its launch in 1946. In addition the wavelengths carried a daytime schedule of classical music as the Music Programme, on weekday evenings there was a Study hour of further education programmes and on Saturday afternoons the Sports Service.

Under Broadcasting in the Seventies the proposal was to re-badge the whole lot as Radio 3 and to continue the music programming into the evening. The Sports Service was dropped and moved over to Radio 2 to become Sport on 2. Sport wasn't totally lost on Radio 3 however as it still carried Test Match Special.  Meanwhile some speech programming would move over to Radio 4. In addition the idea of having Radio 3 as a VHF only service was floated, with the medium wave frequencies used to supplement local radio expansion. (Radio 3 did finally become FM only in February 1992).    

What also caused upset was the decision to axe the Scottish Symphony Orchestra, the London Studio Players, the BBC Chorus, the BBC Training Orchestra and, heard only on Radio 2, the Northern Dance Orchestra. Earlier proposals from the internal Policy Study group had also put the Concert and the Northern Ireland Orchestras in the frame. In the event there was a reprieve, at least in the short-term. Writing in The Listener Director-General Charles Curran admitted that the Government basically said "You have too many orchestras but we want you to continue to employ them because somebody has to. They are needed nationally".

The Scottish SO continues to this day, the London Studio Players stayed playing until 1984, the BBC Chorus went back to its original name of the BBC Singers in 1972, the Training Orchestra was finally wound up in 1977, the Northern Ireland Orchestra was subsumed into the Ulster Orchestra in 1981 and the NDO became the Northern Radio Orchestra in 1975 but was disbanded in 1980.  

The longer lasting changes were seen on Radio 4 this week in 1970. As well as inheriting some speech programmes from Radios 2 and 3 the proposals saw an increase in news and current affairs coverage and plans to "develop the four main news and magazine periods - breakfast time, lunch time, early evening, and late evening". Today with Jack de Manio and The World at One with William Hardcastle already existed but new to the schedules were the teatime PM "the news magazine that sums up your day and starts off your evening." Replacing Home This Afternoon (a magazine show aimed a older listeners)  and produced by the WATO team, PM was presented by William Hardcastle to cover the hard news and either Derek Cooper or Steve Race (who also regularly hosted Home This Afternoon), who would look after the lighter elements.

There was another half-hour news programme at 7 pm, News Desk with former US correspondent Gerald Priestland and newsreader Meryl O'Keeffe. Priestland describing the programme as "news with a human voice". Finally, taking a more serious tone and a more international outlook was The World Tonight with Douglas Stuart, which replaced Ten O'Clock. Though News Desk was dropped in 1976 - replaced by The World in Focus which itself ended in July 1977 when the Six O'Clock News was extended from 15 to 30 minutes - PM and The World Tonight remain key programmes.

Elsewhere on Radio 4 some other equally long-lasting programmes were launched: Week Ending (1970-98), Start the Week with Richard Baker and Analysis with Ian McIntyre who said of the programme that "our business was to get behind the news and dig and illuminate and go a bit further." You and Yours would follow in October 1970. Music shows didn't completely disappear, there was Steve Race's daily Invitation to Music for instance and occasional classical concerts. 

The report also covered local radio and expected the network to expand to 40 stations, though financial restrictions saw this stall at 20 until 1980. On regional production the idea was the phase out the opt-outs from Radio 4, apart from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales and to restructure the BBC English regional map around eight production centres rather than the old Regional and Home Service ones determined by transmitter range.

In the lead-up to the on-air changes for the week commencing 4 April 1970 the Radio Times printed a series of Q&As with BBC management. Here's the final set with Ian Trethowan, MD Radio and Gerard Mansell, Director of Programmes, Radio.

The magazine also published this example weekday schedule to summarise to give listeners an idea of what to expect. 

So did Broadcasting in the Seventies make a difference. It's an unequivocal yes. Station controllers had inherited  mishmash schedules from the old Home, Light and Third. Listening habits had changed; there was TV to divert you, particularly in the evening, more folk listened in the car and on their transistor radios. No longer would the family sit round the wireless to enjoy an evening of mixed entertainment. In the era of increasing consumer choice radio schedulers had to make it easier for listeners to find what they wanted. Having said that the sound of the networks didn't totally change overnight, it was more of a gradual shift. As Trethowan admitted " the changes were not nearly as dramatic as we made out in public." There was still music on Radio 4, drama serials on Radio2 and current affairs on Radio 3.

But the real issue was financial. Although the final report put such considerations well down the list it still talked of predicted annual deficit in the radio budget of £4.5 million by 1974. The figure in the earlier McKinsey report was worse with an £8m deficit forecast by 1972. The Corporation had been frustrated in its attempts to get an increase in the licence fee by Wilson's government which was too embroiled in devaluation issues and cabinet in-fighting. At a Downing Street meeting in 1966 the PM had told the BBC  "drastically to prune its expenditure".    

Typically the BBC fudged and delayed any economies but by the time of the 3-day week and the oil crisis it was squeezed even further and broadcasting hours were trimmed back and programme sharing invoked between Radios 1 and 2 and between Radios 3 and 4.    

I'll leave the final word on this to listener Frederick Chamberlain who sent in his A Listeners Prayer to the BBC in 1968:

Were I in charge of the BBC,
The Radio Programmes - they would be-
Channel 1 - Pop all day; low brow sounds, to some quite gay.
Channel 2- that would go-harmonic music for the medium brow.
Channel 3-Symphonic noise, for the high brow girls and boys, Prose and Poetry, Opera too, not for the many but just for the few.
Channel 4-Would surely be -talks-religion-plays and views-odds and ends and of course the News.
And so-all-would be satisfied-
Not one listener ere denied.

The full document and an article on the evolution of BBC radio post 1967 by Dr Alban Webb is on the History of the BBC website.
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