Monday 27 February 2023

Beyond Our Ken

The announcement on 17 January this year sent shockwaves throughout the nation. People were asking: “just what the hell are Radio2 playing at?” Others were saying what a feather in the cap it was for Bauer. Yes, after 31 years on the mid-morning show, Ken Bruce was leaving. And taking PopMaster with him!

Coming as it did on the heels of the departure of Steve Wright (from weekday afternoons at least), Paul O’Grady and Vanessa Feltz, the loss was a major blow for the station. Ken’s show has Radio 2’s largest audience at 8.2m listeners, about a million ahead of the breakfast show. The world really did seem to stop for PopMaster.

Ken has been heard on Radio 2 for 43 years, has been full-time for 38 of them and on mid-mornings for a total of 35 years (a four year run from 1986 to 1990 and then back from 1992). Three decades on the same show on the same station is pretty remarkable so you can understand Ken’s decision to quit whilst he’s ahead, and well before he’s inevitably given the push. No doubt Radio 2’s daytime music policy was also behind the decision.   

Ken got his break into radio by volunteering at Glasgow’s Hospital Broadcasting Service. One of his contemporaries at HBS was a young lad named Charles Nove. In 2018 they got together for an hour as part of an HBS 48-hour charity marathon. Here’s what they had to say:

It was through BBC Scotland announcer Iain Purdon, himself a former HBS volunteer, that Ken got a job as radio announcer. His first broadcast was “a badly read 10 o’clock news” and, typically for that time, his other duties ranged from programme links, introducing concert to reading football results. In 1977, and into 1978, Radio Scotland had Radio 4 as its sustaining service so the announcers were expected to not only introduce any Scottish opt-outs, but to also cover all gaps between programmes emanating from London.  From November 1978, coinciding with a number of other wavelength changes across the BBC network, Radio Scotland became a full single service for all of the country. Ken was one of the voices heard on the opening gala night and he secured both a weeknight show Night Beat – ‘music and chat for your late night entertainment’ – alternating duties with Iain Purdon and later Charles Nove, plus the Saturday morning edition of Good Morning, Scotland with ‘news and interviews, music to suit all tastes, a look at the gardener’s world, information for the traveller and a guide to what’s on in Scotland’.     

By February 1980 Ken was presenting his own afternoon show on Radio Scotland, initially 3 days a week then every weekday later that year. By now freelance rather than on the staff, he switched to mid-mornings in 1981, ultimately achieving a listenership of 500,000, and was then back to afternoons in January 1983. Ken was also presenting the Sunday morning show Beat the Band. The concept here was that listeners would phone in and challenge the studio band, the Bernard Sumner Quartet, to play whatever tune they named. If they didn’t know it the caller could claim a £4 reward.

Ken had already started to make the occasional appearance on national radio in 1980 when he took over the presenting duties from David Findlay, who’d tragically died earlier that year, on the occasional (every 6 weeks or so) Scottish editions of Radio 2 Ballroom featuring Jim MacLeod and his Band.

In 1982 Ken was keen to move south and went down to London to meet Radio 2 boss David Hatch. The result was some holiday cover for Ray Moore on Radio 2’s early show for a couple of weeks that September and a full month the following May. It was something of a baptism of fire on his first day as Terry Wogan, who was due to follow on the breakfast show, had slept in and Ken had to cover for an hour. It got his name known. Ken and Ray’s styles were not dissimilar and their careers would continue to cross until Ray untimely death in 1989. It would be Ken that presented the tribute programme to Ray. 

By now a known name at Broadcasting House it was Incoming Radio 2 controller Bryant Marriott that offered Ken his first regular show on the station, a Saturday late-night show to start in January 1984. Publicising the show in the Radio Times the article opened on the unscheduled Wogan cover and let the rest of the country know about his mammoth three hour and 20 minute afternoon show on Radio Scotland. As to his broadcasting style he described it to be “as natural as possible under the circumstances. I like to think of the people I’m talking to as rather like me. That way it’s easy to relate to them.”

1984 proved to be a busy year for Ken with his daily show in Scotland, weekend commutes to London for the Saturday show as well as covering for Steve Jones on Radio 2’s lunchtime show for a couple of weeks and then a fortnight in for John Dunn at drivetime. The reward was to be offered the prime slot, weekday breakfast starting in January 1985 when Wogan left to start his 3 times a week BBC1 chat show. The move meant an end to his time at Radio Scotland. Wogan’s natural successor had been seen as Ray Moore – David Hamilton’s name was also in the frame – so Ken’s promotion was big news. 

The scheduling of the breakfast show was a little crazy, starting quite late at 8.05 and running to 10.30 am but in the event Ken’s tenure was short, just fifteen months. From April 1986 they’d offered it to ex-Fleet Street editor Derek Jameson. 

To compensate for the loss of the breakfast slot Ken was moved to a weekday mid-morning show, a time that would become his natural home for most of the next 30+ years, The show was mainly requests and dedications (what we now seem to call ‘shout outs’), billed as ‘a mid-morning mix of melodic music, featuring your favourite Golden Moments’.

This was a busy time for Ken. In addition to his regular music shows he also appeared elsewhere on the network. In 1986 he took over as team captain, and later as quizmaster, on the long-running quiz Pop Score. He also chaired The ABC Quiz which ran for six series between 1986 and 1991. From 1997 through to 2018 he was a semi-regular presenter of Friday Night is Music Night.

Of course Ken has also been linked with the radio commentary for the Eurovision Song Contest for over three decades. He took over from Ray Moore in 1988 and has covered them all since. Prior to that he had been involved with A Song for Europe when he was the Scottish spokesperson in 1978 and first appeared in-vision in the role in 1983. He continued to be associated with A Song for Europe for many years, either providing the radio commentary whilst Terry Wogan covered the TV side or in previewing the entries on his mid-morning show.    

In this montage of clips you’ll hear Ken from 1984 through to 1990. The recordings date from 18 August 1984, 22 December 1984, 29 December 1984, 27 January 1986, 7 April 1986, Olympics coverage 24 September 1988, 9 February 1989, 2 April 1990, The ABC Quiz 18 August 1986 and the Eurovision Song Contest 5 May 1990.

Over on Radio 4 Ken presented the Saturday morning travel show Breakaway between September 1990 and April 1992. Meanwhile on the BBC World Service he had a weekly 30 minute show starting in May 1988 and running through to August 1993.     

London Calling (May 1988) announces the start of
Ken's BBC World Service show

Ken would occasionally appear as a panellist on radio quizzes or game shows including Some of These Days, The Press Gang, Quote...Unquote and, in this example, On the Air. This was a quiz about radio and in this recording from the fourth series from 1987 he’s appearing with three broadcasting veterans: Michael Aspel, Barry Took and Nigel Rees. On the Air was devised and presented by David Rider.  

It was change again in April 1990 when a reshuffle under yet another controller, this time Frances Line, saw Ken moved to a weekday late show with a 10 pm start, taking over from Brian Matthew’s highly successful Round Midnight.  He was told that it was “a chance to launch a brand new programme into a new area”. Ken saw it as a demotion. It offered some features such as reports from the BBC’s regional correspondents, a short story, a newspaper review but by Ken’s own admission he struggled with the hours. “I was a morning person.”

That show only lasted nine months as from January 1991 he did a swap with Chris Stuart, who’d been looking after the early show since the death of Ray Moore. Finally after a year of early shifts from 6 January 1992 Ken was moved back to weekday mid-mornings with a 9.30 start. Exactly where he’s been ever since, until this week. 

At first those mid-morning shows picked up he’d left off in 1990 with requests and dedications. The main feature was Pick of the Hits (1992-96) with listeners also asked to send in their Pick of the Year letters. 1998 saw a bit of an overhaul as the show gained an extra 30 minutes –Jimmy Young’s show start time being moved from 11.30 to noon – and the introduction of The Headline Hunt (1998-2001), though I’m scratching my head to recall what this was all about. Two others features that year have become part of the radio landscape: Love Songs and, of course, PopMaster. Tracks of My Years would follow in 2000.      

The 2022 PopMaster trophy

On the origins of PopMaster Ken recalls a meeting with his producer Colin Martin. “Colin suggested a quiz might bring some added value to the show, so between us, with the invaluable additions to the think tank of pop maestro Phil Swern, we came up with the format and title for PopMaster.” First heard on 16 February 1998 the format has hardly changed since with its straightforward scoring system, six point bonus questions and the 3 in 10. The prizes have changed, from an inflatable chair, shower radio, Radio 2 watch, CD wallet, digital radio, through to Bluetooth headphones and the much sought after One Year Out Tee Shirt. Showing great foresight Ken, Colin and Phil trademarked PopMaster in July 1998 which is why radio’s most listened to quiz is going with Ken over to GHR.   

On 28 May 2021 Ken hosted a PopMaster rematch between the first ever contestants back in 1998, brothers David and Mark Taylor. It’s not exactly a high-scoring contest.

Ken’s last show on BBC Radio 2 is this Friday (3 March). His first show on Greatest Hits Radio is on Monday 3 April.

In 2020 Ken spoke to David Lloyd for his Radio Conversations series. You’ll find that online on Audioboom, Podfollow etc. in 2013 Tim Blackmore spoke to Ken for the Radio Academy podcast. I’ve uploaded that interview on YouTube.

Here’s Ken in action on this selection of airchecks.

(1) From 18 February 1985 just six weeks into Ken’s run on the breakfast show.

(2) Later that year on 14 November 1985 a scoped version of the first hour of the breakfast show.

(3) From 24 December 1990 Ken is covering the early show a couple of weeks ahead of him taking over the programme.

(4) Moving on a year here’s Ken again on the early show on 17 December 1991.

(5) A mid-morning show from 30 January 2004 with all the regular features. Tracks of My Years features Gary Jules and listeners can vote for the final Something for the Weekend record. Note how PopMaster is in two separate parts and contestants get a choice of three bonus categories.

(6) Almost exactly five years later from 28 January 2009 with Tracks of My Years chosen by Craig David. We hear the tail end of Terry’s show, Lynn Bowles has the traffic and the news is read by Charles Nove and Fenella Fudge.

(7) Ken celebrates his 70th birthday from his home studio in this recording from 2 February 2021.

Radio 2 show dates:

Saturday night late show 21 January 1984 to 29 December 1984

Breakfast Show 7 January 1985 to 4 April 1986

Mid-morning show 7 April 1986 to 30 March 1990

Late show (Monday-Thursday) 2 April 1990 to 27 December 1990

Weekday Early show 7 January 1991 to 20 December 1991

Mid-morning show 6 January 1992 to 3 March 2023 

Monday 13 February 2023

Corbett-Smith and his 5WA Comradios

On Tuesday 13 February 1923 from a cramped studio over a cinema opposite Cardiff Castle came the sound of a new BBC station, station 5WA. (1) Anyone tuning in their crystal radio sets to 353 metres will have heard some children’s stories and a concert from the Wireless Orchestra (sounds grand but it was just seven players) and the Carston Quartet that featured Welsh baritone Mostyn Thomas, contralto Gladys Palmer and entertainer Tom Jenkins. There was a brief introduction from John Reith himself (announcing “Hello 5WA, the Cardiff station of the British Broadcasting Company calling”) and speeches from BBC chairman Lord Gainsford, BBC director Sir William Noble and the Mayor of Cardiff, Alderman Sir John James Edgerton Biggs, and two news bulletins.

Station 5WA was the fifth BBC station on air, following 2LO in London, 5IT in Birmingham, 2ZY in Manchester and 5NO on Newcastle. Cardiff was effectively chosen as the base by a 1922 House of Commons Wireless Sub-Committee which proposed a “number of radio-telephone broadcasting stations” in areas centred on London, Cardiff, Plymouth (though in the event this moved to Bournemouth), Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle, Glasgow or Edinburgh and Aberdeen. At the time Cardiff was the most populous city in Wales but still some three decades away from being declared the capital.

The Castle Street premises are now home to
the Mad Dog Brewery & Taproom

One of the men responsible for getting 5WA on air was Rex Palmer, the BBC’s sixth employee who would become station director of 2LO. ‘Uncle Rex’ was sent over from London to find the accommodation, where he leased that studio space at 19 Castle Street. The first station director, appointed by Director of Programmes Arthur Burrows at the end of January, was Frederick Roberts, a well know local musician and conductor. (2) It was Fred that would conduct the orchestra and read those children’s stories on the opening night. However, after the station went on air he lasted just 48 hours, dismissed after being found drunk in his office, presumably still enjoying the launch party hospitality! To steady the ship both Palmer and then Cecil Lewis (‘Uncle Caractacus’ on 2LO’s Children’s Hour) were sent out from London. From 26 March a new station director had been appointed, yet another ex-military type as so many where in the early days of the BBC, a Major Arthur Corbett-Smith.

Corbett-Smith would bring considerable imagination and flair to the station but his “distinctive outlook towards broadcasting” would ultimately see him moved back to London when the BBC bigwigs became more concerned about standardisation and formality.

Born in Cheltenham in 1879 and educated at Winchester and Christ Church College, Oxford Corbett-Smith had a colourful working career before becoming an artillery officer in the First World War. Those jobs included being called to the Bar (Middle Temple) and deputy secretary to the Shanghai Municipal Council. His time in China would prove useful when he provided background assistance for the 1913-14 production of the Anglo-Chinese play Mr Wu at London’s Strand Theatre. (3) He lectured on Public Health Law – his father had been a leading public health reformer – and in 1914 published the book The Problem of the Nations: A Study in the Causes, Symptoms and Effects of Sexual Disease, and the Education of the Individual therein. Post-war he wrote a number of military history books about the conflict and was the director of publicity for the British National Opera where he produced a number of National Opera Handbooks. No wonder that his Who’s Who entry listed his recreation as ‘change of work’.

He had married Neath-born Tessie Thomas, a violinist of some renown, in 1921. She was the daughter of conductor Oscar Thomas who, under the name Oliver Raymond, would go on to conduct the 5WA Station Symphony Orchestra. The Corbett-Smiths had one son and one daughter.   

As 5WA station director Corbett-Smith saw his role as “to energise and innovate”. Assisting him was his deputy, and programme announcer, Norman Settle. Whereas other stations would offer ‘talks’ the Cardiff station broadcast ‘chats’. So there was, for example, a Chat on Gardening, Chat on Bees and Bee-Keeping, Chat on Wireless for Amateurs, and even a Chat on "Five Minutes Exercise for the Busy Man". The station greeting was changed from “Hullo Everybody” to the less formal “Hullo Comradios” or even “Cymradios”. Like all BBC stations they adopted a Children’s Hour but this was later billed as Hour of the Kiddiewinks. (4)

Corbett-Smith would himself take to the microphone with a regular series of chats in which Mr Everyman Looks at the World. In addition, showing a pioneering zeal, he would do some of the continuity announcing, present Children’s Hour, conduct the orchestra, act (including, unlikely as it seems, appearing as Romeo in a re-enactment of the Balcony Scene alongside Marjory Unett as Juliet), produce and direct adaptations of an astounding twenty Shakespeare plays performed by the ‘Station Repertory Company’ and even write Elizabeth, a one act opera. He also composed the Cardiff Station March known as Comradios under the alias Aston Tyrrold (a number of his compositions use this name). He truly was 5WA’s everyman.

The station also ran a regular Women’s Hour (albeit running for 30 minutes). Corbett-Smith would later write that he was an advocate of more women being involved in broadcasting which might in turn encourage more to listen. Of the female listener he reckoned: “A radio item, even more than a good gramophone record, demands concentration in the listener. Women do not concentrate; except in the things which really matter to them-such as motherhood (sometimes), their men folk, dress, and care of the person”. However he laid this lack of engagement as the door of the predominantly male broadcasters: “since radio, both in manner and in matter, is so patently lacking in personality and vivid human interest, it is only natural that woman should find in it little to interest her”. (Modern Wireless November 1928)

BBC chiefs and civic dignitaries gather for the launch of 5WA 

Station 5WA and had regular theme nights and there was an ambitious and strong emphasis on live classical music with performances devoted to composers ranging from Beethoven to Wagner. Writing in the Musical News and Herald a year before joining the BBC, Corbett-Smith had declared that “every town should make an effort to form (an orchestra). Good music is not a luxury but a necessity.”

Popular music was not neglected so listeners could also hear the likes of Viona’s Syncopated Banjo Trio, the Cymmer Colliery Military Band and regular programmes of dance music. An early radio feature, The Magic Carpet, was broadcast over 19 weeks long before the BBC started a Features Department. It mixed speech, song and music with the idea being that listeners would take an audio magic carpet ride to different countries ‘piloted’ each week by a presenter or expert on that country with appropriate musical accompaniment from the studio orchestra. The 1924 series was, said the Radio Times, “highly popular”.   

There’s no doubt that Corbett-Smith’s approach was noted at BBC headquarters. In Broadcasting from Within Cecil Lewis described him as having a personality and determination that “have resulted in a high level of programmes being transmitted from that station, which have assumed a particular character somewhat different from those of other stations, owing to the wide experience and artistic qualifications of their director”. 

The musicians and singers performing the opening concert 

In 1923 it was not possible to receive programmes by line from London until the late summer of that year, so all early programmes were locally produced. The first outside broadcasts, starting in June 1923, were from the Capitol Cinema with the Orchestra conducted by Lionel Falkman. (5) These afternoon programmes, heard 4 or 5 times a week, ran until May 1926. The engineer tasked with broadcasting the music would switch on his control room equipment, go down to the Capitol Cinema (about a 5 minute walk away) and switch on the amplifier and microphone to announce the opening and then go off to the auditorium to watch the film, popping back to make the closing announcement. 

Notable in these early broadcasts was the absence of spoken Welsh. Welsh songs and music were plentiful and filled the schedules but virtually all the speech was English. This situation persisted under the next station director, Ernest Appleton, who, although claiming to be fluent in the language, was reluctant to permit spoken Welsh on the station. In the 1928 BBC Handbook, he rather pointedly writes: “At present various prominent people in Wales are striving to influence broadcasting, but unfortunately they are often divided against themselves”.     

By the end of 1923 land lines between the BBC stations were now well established allowing for the Simultaneous Broadcast of programmes from one station by another, though programmes from London dominated. With BBC management increasingly wishing to stamp a corporate approach across the network some of what were seen as eccentric decisions of Corbett-Smith were frowned upon. In Reith’s words what was important was “the periodic supervision of stations, the inspection on the spot, the rooting down to all details and the setting matters right”. In his mind “only persons of distinction should be allowed to broadcast”. There was also some criticism of the station’s output in the local Welsh press though the Major dismissed this: “We don’t care two little pins for that”.

Some of the BBC staff at Savoy Hill with 
Corbett-Smith pictured bottom-left

In March 1924 – weeks before 5WA moved into larger premises at 39 Park Place – and just a year after his appointment, Corbett-Smith was encouraged to move back to London and offered a central role as Artist Director. At 5WA chats were again talks and “kiddiewinks and comradios were consigned to oblivion”. A later BBC review noted that Corbett-Smith’s “exuberant personality was found to be a little overwhelming for a Station Director’s post”.     

According to Peter Eckersley (the BBC’s first Chief Engineer and yet another creative maverick) “Corbett-Smith was asked to come to Head Office, where he would have more scope” but that “the scope was, in fact, curiously limited so he left.”  Arthur Burrows, more diplomatically said “he was called to London to undertake more specialised work”. (6) Reith would write that the first choice of Station Directors had to be “a matter of trial and error” and that many mistakes were made.     

Whilst Artistic Director, Corbett-Smith did concern himself with a couple of significant areas of programme policy. On the matter of classical music he issued a memorandum with this call to action: “we pour out a mass of educational matter, of talks by notable authorities, of noble music. But all this remains a misshapen and unwieldy mass, with no steady driving force behind it directed towards a definite end”. On the hugely popular Children’s Hour programmes he issued some of the first guidance on how to present to children. He warned that “Buffoonery and noisy ensemble talking must not be permitted” and that presenters should be natural and not talk down to children. A story should be told and not read out, so the presenter was advised to adapt the script themselves to ensure their personality came through. He recommended only expert artists be used and that BBC officials should not do it for their own amusement. An obvious dig at some of the Uncles and Aunties no doubt. (7)       

After only a few months in post as Artistic Director he moved again in December 1924 to the BBC’s Intelligence section; nothing to do with espionage but a team concerned with the criticism of programmes. He was, however, still involved in some programme-making such as what sounds like an ambitious night’s broadcasting in September 1924 with Sportsmen All! ‘a comedy of sporting memories.’ (8) In the summer of 1926 he was back at the microphone with a series of “Six Radio Recitals with Music” on The Sea Affair and Harry Binns. But by that September he’d been dismissed by the BBC in view of his “general attitude, brought to a head during the recent emergency (the General Strike)” and that “it was decided to dispense with his services as a critic at the earliest possible moment”.   

He would write about his time in radio in My Radio Year (1925) and Our Radio Programmes: What is wrong, and why (1926). In the latter he summarised his thoughts on the company that had employed him thus: “Those men were all men of note in commerce and industry, engaged in the manufacture or sale of radio apparatus. Their interests were wholly industrial or commercial. They began the creation of a great machine. They created that machine – and a machine it remains: a machine without a soul. And that is what is wrong with the BBC”.

In the thirties and forties Corbett-Smith continued to advise on matters of public health and wrote a number of books ranging from a study of Lord Nelson and a book of verse (A People’s War) to, and here demonstrating that no topic was off limits for him, the volume Women: Theme and Variations (9) and even Love Technique: an introduction.

Apparently he was in the habit of making periodic announcements in the press about his imminent suicide. Sadly he did follow up on that threat. In January 1945, aged 65, and by now living in Herne Bay, he shot himself. His note to the police read: "I've had a very wonderful life, but I'm too old now. . . . I view with loathing the incidence and stigmata of old age. Age, with rare exceptions, is repulsive to look upon, and its so-called wisdoms are very problematical. Every man and woman at the age of 60 should show cause why he or she should continue to exist. . . ."

So what happened to pre-war radio in Wales? Briefly this. In December1924 5WA was joined by the Swansea relay station 5SX, the last of the BBC’s original stations. By now plans were already in train to move to regional broadcasting, a plan driven both internally with the desire to rationalise station management and to better dictate policy from the centre and externally with the need to rationalise the use of wavelengths under the proposed Geneva Plan (and the later 1929 Prague Plan). Rolling out from 1927, by which time the BBC was now a Corporation, South Wales would be part of the West Region, under the directorship of Ernest Appleton, and based in Cardiff – much to the annoyance of Bristolians on the other side of the channel. Meanwhile North Wales would effectively come under the Northern Region based in Manchester (though a studio in Bangor was opened in November 1935). This meant mid-Wales was not actually in a region at all and left listeners tuning in to the National Programme (5XX) from Daventry. Eventually, with the opening of a second transmitter at Washford in Somerset and a new site at Penmon on Anglesey, in July 1937 it was possible to split off a true Welsh region service. (10)   

(1) BBC Director of Programmes Arthur Burrows recalled that “No amount of shuttering proved sufficient to cut out the rumbling noises of trams passing below.” The studio space was small and, according to a contemporary report on the launch “would not comfortably hold more than the officials, the musicians, and the two or three guests” Most sources say the studio was above a cinema but Davies quotes a source referring to it being above Mr Kinshot's music shop. 

(2) Fred Roberts was 31 when appointed to the job. He’d served as an Army bandmaster and was an experienced concert and theatre orchestra conductor. The Roberts Band was well-known in South Wales and played at dinners, dances and social functions. 

(3) In the programme for Mr Wu (a play written by Harold Owen and Harry Vernon) the producer (and actor who played the leading role) wrote this dedication: “Mr Matheson Lang desires to acknowledge valuable assistance rendered to him by Mr A. Corbett-Smith in arranging details and Customs of Chinese life of the present day in Hong Kong.” Corbett-Smith would also write about The Chinese and Their Music for the September 1912 edition of The Musical Times.

(4) Later as Artistic Director for the BBC he would write in a memo on Children’s Hour that “to adopt a tone of superiority or aloofness is to court immediate disaster”

(5) Lionel Falkman (1892-1963) would later make regular broadcasts (142 in total) with his Apache Band (formed in 1933) on Music While You Work plus dozens of broadcast on the Forces Programme, Home Service and Light Programme simply billed as Falkman. The Capitol Theatre was demolished in 1983. The site is now the Capitol Centre indoor shopping mall.

(6) Writing further about Corbett-Smith in The Story of Broadcasting (1924) Burrows described him as follows: “Major Corbett Smith is one of the new -comers to headquarters, but is one of the senior officials of the company, having spent over a year at Cardiff as director of the Cardiff station. It was evident from the outset that Major Corbett Smith had a distinctive outlook towards broadcasting and an unusual variety of interests, ranging from music, art, and literature to things naval and military. As the programmes developed so it became evident that an artistic director was needed to clothe ideas in appropriate garments and to link harmoniously together the variety of material which is usually to be found in a night's broadcast entertainment. Major Corbett Smith is a strong believer in continuity programmes on special occasions, and has backed his faith by producing feature nights on festivals such as Empire Day. These programmes bear the same relation to broadcasting as the old diorama did to other contemporary forms of entertainment. Major Corbett Smith's brain is never resting. He finds recreation in writing books and composing operas”.

(7) For more on this see The BBC and the Child RadioListener in the 1920s by Zara Healy.

(8) The Radio Times featured this programme in its Gossip About Broadcasting page and at the same time offered yet another glimpse into Corbett-Smith’s past: “With the atmosphere of an English country house of fine sporting traditions, a birthday dinner-party, and a dozen or so famous sportsmen round the tables spinning yarns of old days and singing the famous old songs, there is an entertainment which should certainly make a wide appeal. Sir Theodore Cook, Editor of The Field, will be our host. The programme has been arranged by our Artistic Director, who was by the way something of a notable sportsman in his younger days and so may be presumed to know what he is talking about”.

(9) Publicising this book his publishers claimed that Corbett-Smith had 14 occupations, had written 35 books on 12 subjects and nine musical compositions.

(10) Washford transmitting station (above) was notable for its garden which used to attract many summer visitors. The former transmitter hall, control rooms and office block, a Grade II listed building, is now home to the Tropiquaria Zoo. The site still transmits DAB services and on AM talkSPORT and Radio Wales. The Penmon site closed in June 2021.   

You can hear historian John Davies talking about the history of broadcasting in Wales in this 1994 edition of Meet for Lunch with Vincent Kane.

I’ve only scratched the surface about the life of Arthur Corbett-Smith. I know that he wrote his memoirs, written in the third person, but I’ve not had sight of them. A copy exists at The British Library.

There’s also far more to say about 5WA and 5SX. The best source of information is Broadcasting and the BBC in Wales by John Davies (University of Wales Press, 1994).

The story of the early history of 5WA is told in a ‘2-part sitcom-documentary’ written by Gareth Gwynn called The Ministry of Happiness. Part 1 was broadcast last week and Part 2 airs this evening. It will be available for 30 days on BBC Sounds. Last week Gareth spoke to Mishal Husain on the Today programme. 

With thanks to Dr Andrea Smith and Alan Stafford for their help in tracking down photos of the Major and to Al Dupres for taking the Cardiff photos. The photos of the station opening come from Popular Wireless Weekly.  

Saturday 11 February 2023

Death at Broadcasting House

The door into 7C was flung open, and Hancock burst into the passage. “Come here, Julian, for God’s sake!” he said. “Quickly. There’s been an accident!”

That accident turns out to be murder. The victim is actor Sidney Parsons, alone in studio 7C and on air at the time. But who amongst the cast and staff is the murderer? This is the opening premise of the story Death at Broadcasting House, filmed in 1934, adapted for radio in 1996 and now this week being read on a Book at Bedtime by Tim McInnerny.

Broadcasting House had been in use just over a year and the suite of studios used for drama productions provided the setting for much of the action. The more technically complex the drama the more studios were used for different acoustics, live musicians and sound effects with the main studio overlooked by a viewing room. The whole production would be mixed and controlled from the dramatic control panel.  So it was two people with a good inside knowledge of the building that came up with the germ of the story whilst on a 16-day holiday in the south of France – dictating the 70,000 words to a BBC secretary. Concocting the mystery were friends and colleagues Val Gielgud, at the time in charge of drama at the BBC and Eric Maschwitz, who often wrote under the name of Holt Marvell, the head of the Variety department.

Most sources say that Death at Broadcasting House was published in 1934, and indeed it was published in book form by Rich & Cowan in February 1934. But it first appeared in serialised form in the pages of the October, November and December issues of Modern Wireless magazine in 1933.

Death at Broadcasting House is a story of professional rivalries, illicit affairs, blackmail, Scotland Yard inspectors, amateur sleuthing, gloves and mystery phone calls. The story opens during a live broadcast of the play The Scarlet Highwayman written by Rodney Fleming. Directing is Julian Caird, the BBC Dramatic Director. At the controls is the Balance and Control Engineer Desmond Hancock. The cast of actors includes Sidney Parsons and the husband and wife team of Leopold and Isabel Dryden. The BBC staff include General Sir Herbert Farquharson (presumably Sir John Reith), Stewart Evans of the Programme Research Department , sound effects man Guy Bannister, studio manager Ian Macdonald and studio attendant Joe Higgins. Called in to investigate is Detective Inspector Simon Spears. (Spears would appear in three further books including The First Television Murder set in the BBC’s studios at Alexandra Palace). 

To add extra realism to both the serialisation and book versions we have copies of internal memos, running orders and studio maps, these closely follow the real Broadcasting House layout. We’re also introduced to a new piece of technology that proves critical in cracking the case, the Blatterphone. These steel tape recording devices were really only in use by the Empire Service as they allowed for the re-broadcast of domestic programmes to the world and for programmes to be transmitted in different time zones without calling broadcasters, actors or musicians back into the studio at all times of the day or night. “We blatterphoned the transmission of The Scarlet Highwaymen and we are transmitting it to the Empire in” – he glances at his wrist-watch – “exactly seven minutes’ time.”

The book enjoyed, according to Gielgud, “considerable success” and thought that a film version would be “a copper-bottomed commercial proposition”. Eventually they found a willing producer in Hugh Perceval at the newly formed Phoenix Films. It was filmed over 29 days at the Wembley Park Studios in North London (later used by Associated-Rediffusion and LWT before becoming Fountain Studios and closing in 2017) at a cost of £18,000. Getting a general release in November 1934 it would gross £90,000 at the box office. A shorter five reel version was also issued, presumably to run as a second feature, with cuts to the cameo appearances and all the songs to achieve a 42 minute running time (as against the 75 minutes of the eight reel version). 

One of the dramatic control panels at Broadcasting House.
Photo copyright BBC.

The film was able to pretty accurately portray the Art Deco interior of Broadcasting House with its maze of studios and the dramatic control panel.  The ‘death’ occurs in studio 7C. This really was a studio used by the drama department. It was a speech small studio (19’x19’) and had a totally dead acoustic. 7C was later combined into the larger two-storey drama studio 6A.   

According to Gielgud “expenditure was very sensibly allotted rather to the settings than to the cast.” Gielgud appeared in the film, effectively playing himself, as Julian Caird. The only real stars of the day were Ian Hunter who played the (renamed) Inspector Gregory and Austin Trevor as Leopold Dryden. Donald Wolfit, yet to start his famous touring company, played Parsons and a young Jack Hawkins was Evans. This being a thirties film it was almost obligatory to have at least one song and dance routine and this film offered two, including an early performance from American singing star Elisabeth Welch. Radio stars of the day also make cameo appearances including comedian Gillie Potter and journalist Vernon Bartlett.  

The film adopts a lighter tone than the source material, Basil Mason was tasked with writing the screenplay, and it benefits from the production design of R. Holmes Paul and the photography of Austrian émigré Günther Krampf, whose films included the expressionist horror classic Nosferatu (though he was uncredited). Halliwell described the film as an “intriguing little murder mystery with an unusual background”. Elizabeth Welch was less enamoured with it: "It was so awful that I told everybody they should have left Broadcasting House out of the title and released it as Death!” It is the Broadcasting House setting that provides the real interest rather than the plotting and the performances.

Surprisingly the film doesn’t appear to have been shown on television until nearly four decades later. It finally aired on 3 September 1982 – which isI when I first saw it – on BBC2 as part of a season of films marking the BBC’s 60th. That seems to have been its only BBC showing, and perhaps it’s only terrestrial tv showing, unless you know otherwise.

However, the film hasn’t been completely forgotten. In recent years the wonderful Talking Pictures TV have given it the occasional run and in 2013 Network issued it on DVD. A Blu-Ray edition was issued in 2020. At one time it was on YouTube but at the time of writing, it can be found on

Although BBC television never gave Death at Broadcasting House a second showing, BBC radio did revisit it in 1996 as a Saturday Playhouse production on Radio 4 as part of a Cinema 100 season. The play, running at 86 minutes, was adapted by crime writer Sue Rodwell – she would later adapt some of Ted Willis’s Dixon of Dock Green scripts for the radio. Appearing as Julian Caird is John Moffat (radio’s Hercule Piorot) and there’s a star-studded cast: Peter Sallis (Inspector), Graham Crowden (Director General), Jeremy Clyde (Fleming), Roger May (Bannister), Bill Nighy (getting all indignant as Dryden), Diana Quick (Isabel), Julian Glover (Evans) and Nicky Henson (DS Ring). The great thing about this version is that it was recorded in drama studio 6A where the majority of the studio action is set in the original story. This programme has been repeated a couple of times on Radio 4 Extra. You can, at the time of writing, find it on YouTube. Bill Nighy would come across another corpse at Broadcasting House in the 2008 Charles Paris series Dead Side of the Mic.

Back in the present, this week on Radio 4 we get another chance to hear the story, as abridged by Lucy Ellis and read by Tim McInnerny. It can be heard in the Book at Bedtime slot Monday to Friday at 22.45 and will be available on BBC Sounds.

Staying with radio drama history for the moment its worth picking out a couple of programmes that go out today (Saturday). Comedy for Danger (also sometimes just called Danger) by Richard Hughes is regarded as the first play written for radio to be broadcast by the BBC. It was part of an evening of plays produced by Nigel Playfair broadcast by 2LO on 15 January 1924. This short play was set in a mining quarry and the Radio Times suggested that listeners” might well sit in darkness to correspond with the play’s setting, which will also be in the darkness of a mine.” A 1973 re-recording of Danger is repeated for the first time since 1973 today on 4 Extra. Produced by Raymond Raikes it stars Christopher Good, Carol Marsh and Carleton Hobbs. It was originally heard on Radio 3 on 1 October 1973 under the Stereo Drama strand. [Whether Comedy for Danger was the first play written for radio remains in dispute. An earlier contender is the Christmas Eve 1922 2LO broadcast of The Truth About Father Christmas written by Phyliss Twigg. Sadly no script survives so we have no record as to how this was performed]. 

Taking inspiration from Danger is a new drama called Danger 2023 by Michael Symmons Roberts. Here the lights go out on a party visiting a remote 'doomsday' bank deep under the desert containing a vast collection of historical and cultural data about our lives. It’s the Saturday afternoon drama on Radio 4.   

The story of how Danger came to be made was told in last year’s play A Leap in the Dark which is on BBC Sounds. It does, however, contain a number of factual errors that will make any radio or drama historian wince.

About the Authors:

Eric Maschwitz

Eric Maschwitz had a CV that one can only marvel at (pun intended). He was a songwriter and scriptwriter often using the nom de plume of Holt Marvell and is best known for A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square and These Foolish Things and the screenplay of Goodbye, Mr Chip s (1939) for which he has a co-writing credit. He’d worked as a freelance writer for the Hutchinson’s magazine group. In 1924 he wrote the best-selling novel A Taste of Honey a year before he married actress Hermoine Gingold.  He started at the BBC in 1926 in the Outside Broadcasts department. From September 1927 he’d been the acting and then permanent editor of the Radio Times. With the creation of a separate Variety Department in 1933 Eric was offered the head of department.  There he introduced a number of well known programmes such as In Town Tonight, the Scrapbook series as well as opening a new base for variety shows across Langham Place at St George’s Hall.

He and Val Gielgud were already firm friends before working together at the Radio Times. On air Maschwitz contributed to many broadcasts under Gielgud’s department or direct production. Those programmes included talks, plays (including an adaptation of Rupert of Hentzau and Compton Mackenzie’s Carnival), musicals and the romantic operetta Good Night Vienna!   

Maschwitz was Director of Variety for four years until June 1937 when he left for Hollywood to work for MGM after they’d offered to buy the film rights for his musical Balalaika and a writing contract more than ten times his BBC salary. During the war he was recruited by the intelligence services (SIS, SOE and the Army’s Intelligence Corps).  He was assigned to the British Security Coordination (others included Roald Dahl, Noel Cowerd and Cedric Belfrage, brother of BBC newsreader Bruce Belfrage) where he was head of the forgery section running Station M (M for Maschwitz) in a Toronto suburb. In 1942 as a Major (later Lieutenant-Colonel) he was head of a War Office Broadcasting Section in the Army Directorate of Welfare and Education where he was instrumental in setting up the Field Broadcasting Unit. He moved to the Political Warfare Executive preparing propaganda leaflets from the secret HQ in Woburn Abbey. At the end of the war he helped requisition Hamburg’s Musikhalle as the first HQ for the British Forces Network (later the BFBS).                

Post-war he was Chairman of the Songwriters' Guild of Great Britain which at times put him at loggerheads with his old employer. On the broadcast of popular music programmes he decried they were “flooded with ready-made and degraded American successes” whilst variety shows were all “hectic talk and semi-hysterical laughter.” Nonetheless he rejoined the BBC in 1958 as Head of Light Entertainment, Television and then in 1962 under a special contract as advisor with the title Special Duties (Programmes). He left the Corporation in 1963 to work for commercial rivals Associated Rediffusion as a producer of special projects as well as the comedy series Our Man at St. Mark's. 

Eric Maschwitz 1901-1969

Val Gielgud

Val Gielgud spent most of his working life involved in drama production and was the department head for a remarkable 35 years. He’d started at the BBC in 1928 as an assistant at the Radio Times under Maschwitz’s editorship, though he’d already appeared on air delivering a number of talks. He was an “out of work actor” before joining the Corporation and got the job without an interview, the old boy’s network coming into play as he knew both Maschwitz and the BBC’s head of publicity Gladstone Murray. He worked on the editorial pages including the letter’s page and later admitted to writing a number of letters under various names complaining bitterly about radio drama.

He helped with some of the BBC’s amateur theatrical productions in which even the austere John Reith took part. During rehearsals for the comedy Tilly of Bloomsbury, in which Reith played a drunken broker’s man, Gielgud rebuked him for being late. This actually helped Gielgud’s job prospects when in 1929 they were looking for a new department head. “This fellow Gielgud will do. If he can be rude to me, he ought to be able to tell a lot of actors what to do.” The job was as Productions Director, a wide-ranging brief that included drama as well as the revue and vaudeville section.

By 1933, following the move from Savoy Hill into Broadcasting House the previous year, Gielgud wanted to concentrate on drama “without troubling himself with ukulele players and comedians” so was appointed Director of Features and Drama, with Variety hived off to his chum Maschwitz. Here he set about helping forge a new style of radio drama mixing standard works by the likes of Ibsen, Chekov, Noel Cowerd, Edgar Wallace, Somerset Maughan, and, of course, Shakespeare with more experimental work. He was particularly keen to encourage new writing for radio and declared “the future of broadcast drama lies with authors who are prepared to write directly for the microphone”. (Early 30s drama was often billed as “written for the microphone”). His books How to Write Broadcast Plays and the later The Right Way to Radio Playwriting were standard references for any aspiring radio dramatists. When television came along he was also involved in that, including the first experimental drama production of Pirandello’s The Man with the Flower in his Mouth, broadcast simultaneously on the National Programme and the Baird television transmission in July 1930.    

He still occasionally worked with Eric Maschwitz on programmes such as the ambitious broadcasts over four nights live from Hungary in Night Falls in Budapest (1935). He would direct his rather more famous brother John on three occasions: The Importance of Being Earnest (1936), The Great Ship (1943) and for the Third Programme in 1959 Oedipus at Colonus.

Gielgud was also a prolific writer of both radio plays – such as Exiles, Red Tabs and Mr Pratt’s Waterloo – and novels, usually thrillers. His books, written over a period of about 40 years included series featuring Anthony Havilland and Inspector Gregory Pellew. 

At the start of World War II the drama department was evacuated first to Wood Norton and then to Manchester though difficulties in getting artists to go north meant they eventually moved back to London, occupying studios at Maida Vale. During the war the Saturday Night Theatre strand started (Gielgud would produce over 30 of them), the Drama Repertory Company was re-formed and there were the beginnings of drama series rather than one off productions such as Appointment with Fear in which Gielgud would collaborate with John Dickson Carr.

After the war when the television service re-started Gielgud also had tv drama within his remit, not something he relished and in 1952 he was back to radio with the title Head of Drama (Sound).

One of the post-war developments was the daily serial, notably Mrs Dale’s Diary and The Archers. Gielgud dismissed both, especially the former which he though “sociologically corrupting” as it encouraged “mediocrity of mind” among listeners. Millions listened to both. At the same time he eschewed the avant-garde of the 1950s so he increasingly left the production of such drama to others.    

Looking at his contribution to the BBC, Hannah Khalil wrote (in 2013) of Gielgud’s many contradictions: “he claimed to want to move away from theatre-style productions on radio, but was from a theatre background; he pushed the boundaries and experimented with the form, and yet he was more at home with Shakespeare than he was with contemporary writing; he recognized that radio was for the masses, but he loathed soap operas or anything too populist”.

Gielgud retired from the BBC in 1963, passing over the drama baton to Martin Esslin. 

Val Gielgud 1900-1981

With thanks to Roger Beckwith

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