I suspect that much of today’s radio listening is done on the move. People listen
to the radio in their cars and via a range of mobile phones and portable devices,
whilst out and about – travelling to and from work, walking or jogging etc. How
different it was years ago when, during the evenings, we sat as families around our
‘wirelesses’ - just as we sit watching the television these days. Of course, during
the daytime, some radio programmes would lend themselves to accompanying other tasks
- like Housewives’ Choice and Two Way Family Favourites. I wonder how many of you
can remember listening to the latter, while mum cooked the roast dinner and dad read
the Sunday papers?
The reason I mention this is because I have just read a book by Simon Elmes entitled,
Hello Again…Nine decades of radio voices, which has brought back many personal memories
of listening to the radio during the late 40’s and 50’s – perhaps the golden age
of radio! These were the days before television became the staple entertainment
diet of the nation.
My most enduring memories are of the many comedy programmes that filled the airways
– programmes that lightened the austerity of the post war years. Take it from Here
was first broadcast on the Light Programme in 1948. The well known comedian, Jimmy
Edwards, was joined by the Australian comedian, Dick Bentley, and by Joy Nichols.
In 1953, Joy Nichols left and was replaced by June Whitfield and many of us will
never forget her opening words, ‘Oh…Ron,’ in the weekly cameo of the Glum family.
Her fiancé, Ron, played by Dick Bentley, was far from the macho stereotype Australian
of the Crocodile Dundee films of later years! My only recollection of Much Binding
in the Marsh, a sitcom based on an imaginary R.A.F. base, is of the gentle opening
and closing music sung by its stars Kenneth Horne and Richard Murdoch - who did the,
‘tiddlyum pom pom,’ bit. The former went onto have great success in the sixties
with his iconic comedy series, Round the Horne. Broadcast in the 50’s, Life with
the Lyons, was unusual because the stars were a real life American family who had
settled in England during the war. Ben Lyon and Bebe Daniels were accompanied by
their children, Barbara and Richard, though the star of the show was, undoubtedly,
Mollie Weir who played their Scottish housekeeper, Aggie. Ted Ray’s series, Ray’s
a laugh, started in 1949 and co-starred Kitty Bluett. I recall, vividly, Ted’s continuity
lines such as, ‘Here’s the door, I’ll go in.’ At that time, Ted’s sister worked as
cashier alongside my father in a fish shop in Hoylake, Wirral, and Ted used to call
in to see her.
Young people today would be surprised to discover that another popular series of
the 50’s involved a ventriloquist and his dummy – on the radio! Peter Brough and
his dummy, Archie Andrews, starred in, Educating Archie, through much of the 50’s.
I think the success of the series lay, not in the quality of the ventriloquism which,
of course, could not be seen, but in the sound of Archie’s voice which, ideally,
suited that of a mischievous young boy. Tony Hancock, Max Bygraves and Julie Andrews
all took part in the series in their early show business days. Another series involving
a mischievous young boy, which I had totally forgotten about until I read Simon Elmes’
book, was, The Clitheroe Kid, which started broadcasting in 1957. The star was Jimmy
Clitheroe, a diminutive adult who, apparently, dressed up as a boy for the studio
recordings in order to get into character! Simon Elmes observes that Jimmy found
the often thoughtless attitudes of people in those days to someone of his unusual
size difficult to handle. He died, after some personal tragedies, at the early age
of 51yrs from an overdose. The inquest verdict was accidental death.
I have deliberately kept my favourite comedy programme until last. It took me some
time to understand the anarchic, Goon Show, but, once I ‘got’ it, I was hooked! The
early shows involved Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe and Michael Bentine
but the latter left after the first two years. (You may remember his later BAFTA
award winning television series, It’s a square world! ) Along with the rest of the
nation, I waited, patiently, each week for Bluebottle to utter those immortal words,
‘He’s fallen in the water!’ The two jokes I recall most vividly are:
1. The cold war inspired episode when the dramatic observation was made, ‘Natasha
will never walk the streets again! ’ Cue loud musical chord and the chorused question,
‘Why?’ Answer – ‘Because she’s bought a motor scooter! ’
2. Neddy Seagoon declares, ‘I’ll join the navy! ’ Cue at least 5 minutes of the
Radio Orchestra raucously playing snatches from almost every seafaring tune imaginable
– Anchors Away, I’ll join the navy, Popeye the Sailor Man, The Sailors’ Hornpipe,
etc – at the end of which Seagoon announces, ‘No I won’t, I’ll join the army instead
– it’s too damn noisy in the navy!’
Of course, broadcasting in the post war years was far from restricted to comedy.
By January 1957, Any Questions had notched up its 300th edition and programmes like
Woman’s Hour and Book at Bedtime had become enduring jewels in BBC Radio’s crown.
Even the Shipping Forecast became a national institution! How many of us can still
recite the magical names of those shipping areas around our coast – Fair Isle, Dogger,
Viking, Forties, Cromarty, German Bight etc? In 1946, a quiz show was launched which
built up an audience of over 20 million – far outnumbering anything that Chris Tarrant
could muster for his famous television show, Who wants to be a millionaire? The
host was one Wilfred Pickles. (Earlier, in his broadcasting career, this broad speaking
Yorkshire man had caused no small upset when, in 1941, he was chosen to read the
news. His Yorkshire accent was so far removed from the ‘cut glass’ pronunciation
used by other newsreaders it caused outrage among some listeners.) The show was
called, Have a go, Joe, and Wilfred was accompanied by his wife, Mable, who sat,
‘at the table’. The top prize was a guinea (one pound one shilling or, in today’s
money, £1.05) and, to reach these dizzy heights, contestants had to answer four questions
with the prize money ratcheting up from an initial half a crown (two shillings and
sixpence – today, 12 and a half pence). Piano accompaniment was by Violet Carson
who also worked on Children’s Hour and Women’s Hour - before taking on the television
role of the formidable Ena Sharples in Coronation Street.
Drama was also a feature of 40s and 50s radio broadcasting. To date, the longest
running drama in the world, The Archers, commenced broadcasting in 1950. Dan and
Doris were the central characters of the original cast, though they have long since
died. If you are old enough, you may remember the demise of Phil’s wife, Grace,
in a fire – an event that shook the nation and that marked a spectacular coup for
the BBC in 1955! Before The Archers took to the air, we listened, along with 15
million others, to Dick Barton, Special Agent. We also let our imaginations run
riot with Journey into Space, written and produced by Charles Chiltern. The eerie
voice at the beginning was that of David Jacobs and the cast included Andrew Faulds
as Jet Morgan and David Kossof as Lemme, though he was later replaced by Alfie Bass
- both of whom switched, effortlessly, to television in subsequent years.
My reminiscences have covered only a small fraction of the nine decades of radio
voices Simon Elmes writes about in his fascinating book, which traces the history
of BBC broadcasting from its early, tentative days to the modern era. If you are,
or have been, a radio listener at any time in the past or present, you are bound
to find something of interest within its pages.
Simon Elmes’ book, Hello Again…Nine decades of radio voices, is published as a paperback
by Arrow Books, Random House Press.