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.     

It's perhaps not surprising that neither an audio recording or written record have been kept of that first edition of The World at One. I don't have any recordings of Bill Hardcastle presenting it either. 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)

Tuesday, 22 September 2015

That Was the Week - Part 4

How well do you remember the news events of 1982? September 1982 in particular? Yes Thatcher was in power. Yes there'd been the Falklands War earlier that year. But beyond that...

On a personal note I was just about to start the third and final year of my degree so was no doubt getting ready to knuckle down to some hard studying!! But not too busy to commit these three classic long-running topical comedy shows to tape. Yes, this is a rare opportunity to listen to The News Huddlines, The News Quiz and Week Ending all from the same week in 1982.

Firstly a typically lively Thursday night edition of The News Huddlines from 23 September. With Roy Hudd is Chris Emmett and Alison Steadman. There'll be more about The News Huddlines next month.  Amazingly even six years after resigning as PM, the team still wring some humour out of Harold Wilson, but then Chris did a great Wilson voice. A highlight is Alison's reading of Di's Diary.

Next up is Week Ending from Friday 24 September with David Jason, David Tate, Nicky Henson and Tracy Ullman.  Subjects for comedy include the TUC day of action, the Middle East, unemployment and a certain Royal Wedding.  There's that old standby of comic observations in the David Attenborough style.  In all honesty there's little here that raises a smile, not sure if it's the passage of time or that this is a duff edition. 

Finally the Saturday lunchtime edition of The News Quiz. In the chair is Barry Took. Taking part are Russell Davies, Hunter Davies,  Sue Cook and, here amply demonstrating  the comedy value that he imbued, Alan Coren.  Reading the headlines, complete with accents, is Peter Donaldson.  Note that the panel totally fail to answer what Took acknowledges as a "difficult question".  

Anyone checking the BBC Genome listing for this edition of The News Quiz will spot that Stan McMurtry was billed to appear rather than Hunter Davies. I've submitted this information to the Genome team. 

Friday, 18 September 2015

That Was the Week - Part 3

When Miles Jupp kicks off the 88th series of The News Quiz tonight he'll be the fifth chairman in the programme's 38-year history, following in the footsteps of Barry Norman, Barry Took, Simon Hoggart and Sandi Toksvig.   

In the mid-70s BBC national radio offered any number of general knowledge quizzes, from Brain of Britain and Top of the Form to Forces Chance and Town and Country Quiz  but nothing with a current affairs slant.

The idea for a quiz about the news was first pitched by Nicholas Parsons - himself no stranger to topical radio comedy after performing in Listen to this Space - to a young BBC comedy producer, one John Lloyd. A suggested team captain was Gyles Brandreth and the suggested title was Keep Taking the Tabloids.

The notion of a topical quiz was not an entirely new one, BBC2 had already broadcast Quiz of the Week that Ned Sherrin had chaired some seven years previously.  The only similarity between the two programmes would be the reliance on Private Eye team members; Richard Ingrams, John Wells and Willie Rushton appeared on the TV version with both Ingrams and Wells becoming regulars on the eventual radio incarnation. 

The pilot of Keep Taking the Tabloids was not a success. Lloyd reckoned that the news needed a serious title and a more serious approach. So on 1 April 1977 a new pilot, this time under the title of The News Quiz, was recorded. The panel consisted of Alan Coren - who would of course rise to be the show's star turn for the best part of three decades - Ingrams, Russell Davies and Nigel Dempster. The chairman was Barry Norman and the newsreader John Marsh. This is how it all sounded. Note the nod to Parson's original title which gets a deserved groan.   

The News Quiz got the green light and the first edition aired on Radio 4 on Tuesday 6 September with the same participants as the pilot except for the substitution of Nigel Dempster for Clive James. You'll notice the first transmission date was a Tuesday, odd for a quiz about the week's news; but which week? It moved to a Saturday for the start of the second series in 1978 but didn't find its current Friday night 6.30 pm slot until major Radio 4 schedule changes were implemented in April 1998. 

The News Quiz was launched fully formed and required very little tweaking over the years: two teams of two with questions over three rounds. News cuttings read by a Radio 4 newsreader and panellists reading out their favourite news story at the end. And of course the sig tune of Leroy Anderson's The Typewriter. The only real change has been the gradual shift from the quiz format to an outright comedy format. Listen back to early editions and the majority of the panellists have a journalistic background. They sometimes scrabble around for an answer or, as was often the case with Richard Ingrams, totally fail to know anything about the news story.

There was a no comedians rule which original co-producer (who had previously worked in the BBC's News Cuttings Library so was well-placed to look after the show) Danny Greenstone says was observed "because it would be too simple to simply populate the show with comedians, there were too many good ones around and we wanted The News Quiz to be very different and to stand out." They didn't want comics to "twist the news story to provide themselves a feed for the gag that they want to do".

Certainly by the time that Barry Took succeeded Barry Norman in 1979 the show was already evolving with Took keen to ensure that panellists drew out the humour from the subject matter:"The joy of The News Quiz is that while the questions are not especially difficult for the working journalists on the team to answer, their reaction to the question and their way of answering it reflects in many ways their own individual journalistic style".

This edition of the programme is a News Quiz of the Year. The year in question is 1989. Taking part are Alan Coren, Richard Ingrams, John Wells and Kate Adie. In the chair is Barry Took, reading the headlines is Brian Perkins and the producer is Armando Iannucci. This recording was made on Saturday 23 December 1989.

In 1990 former News Quiz producer Harry Thompson went off to BBC TV to produce the TV equivalent in Have I Got News For You? taking with him panellist Ian Hislop. It took the radio show another six or seven years before it regularly employed a resident comedy contributor with Jeremy Hardy and Andy Hamilton joining the rota. These two are now the longest-serving panellists, along with journalist Francis Wheen who first appeared in 1994.

One of the show's constants is the use of the otherwise formal sounding Radio 4 newsreaders. Former newsreader Charlotte Green said that they "love to take part because the programme allows them to play the part of a court jester to the hilt, reading out comically surreal cuttings from the newspapers". One of Charlotte's favourites was: "Shoplifters are becoming ever more exotic in their choice of goods. In New York, light-fingered Sybil Serth was rushed to hospital with hypothermia, after concealing six frozen quails in her bra and four more in her knickers. 'My son must have put them there when I wasn't looking,' she later explained".

In 2002 The News Quiz celebrated its 25th anniversary with an extended edition of the programme and an edition of The Archive Hour presented by Matthew Parris titled Headlines, Deadline and Punchlines, You'll also hear contributions from John Lloyd, Danny Greenstone, Alan Coren, Richard Ingrams, Harry Thompson, Ian Hislop, Simon Hoggart, Roy Hattersley, Charles Kennedy, Jeremy Hardy, Lucy Armitage and Linda Smith. 

Outgoing News Quiz chair Sandi Toksvig talked about the shows evolution in 2008: “If you hear some of the early programmes, they’re not funny. People would be asked about a story, they’d answer and they’d get two points.” That same Daily Telegraph article explained that "purists will be happy to learn that the contestants get no prior warning of the questions. The wiser ones will prepare gags on the week’s events – but aren’t allowed to take anything written into the Thursday night recordings. Toksvig is equipped with one-liners from a team of writers, but relies on ad-libs for 'around 40 per cent' of her contributions. The producer then has to edit an hour and a quarter’s worth of material into 28 minutes. (Sharp-eared listeners will notice that this sometimes has strange effects on the already fairly arbitrary scoring system.)"

According to Toksvig, in a Radio Times interview earlier this year, the first thing she did when she took over as presenter in September 2006 was "to get rid of the person who kept score ... the listeners never heard her but she sat right in the middle between the host and the newsreader". She acknowledged that "it's not even a quiz. We never needed a scorer at all because the host makes the points up."

And finally a 2005 edition of the show chaired by Simon Hoggart with Alan Coren, Andy Hamilton, Fred MacAulay and the much missed Linda Smith. Reading the headlines is Charlotte Green. This programme aired on Friday 1 July 2005.

Like Simon and Sandi before him, Miles is a poacher turned gamekeeper, moving from contestant to chairperson. Already he hopes to "tweak" the guest list, suggesting a return to a more mixed panel. "I would like to get some politicians on, particularly those who are capable of actual thought and speech. I want to make sure we keep having journalists on, too. They really go for the stories, whereas comedians tend to pick around the periphery of a news item and make jokes in the margin, which is valid. But journalists talk about the news stories in a way that makes them more accessible." As to how long he'll stay with The News Quiz, "it's open-ended", he told the Radio Times. "I'm just thinking about my first series, and doing the best job I can do, The news is different every week, so there's no reason why it can't feel fresh for quite a long time." 

Dedicated to Danny Greenstone who sadly died last month.

Quotes from:
Hunting through the headlines by James Walton (Daily Telegraph 25 September 2008)
And finally... by Kirsty Lang (Radio Times 20 June 2015)
Here is the news by Patrick Foster (Radio Times 12 September 2015)
Laughter in the Air by Barry Took (Robson Books 1981)
The News is Read by Charlotte Green (Robson Press 2014)

The News Quiz did make an unsuccessful transition to TV as Scoop. Two series were broadcast on BBC2, the first in 1981 chaired by Barry Norman, the second in 1982 with Richard Stilgoe.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

From Our Own Correspondent

"This is the BBC Home Service. From Our Own Correspondent. We are broadcasting now the first of a new series of programmes in which BBC correspondents will deal with current affairs as seen from their own posts in various parts of the world ..."

So began the introduction, sixty years ago on 25 September 1955, to what would become a radio institution. From Our Own Correspondent provides "correspondents with an opportunity to say a little more: to provide some of the context to the stories they're covering, to describe some of the characters involved and some of the sights they see as they watch events unfold". (1) 

In 1955 FOOC offered a rare opportunity for longer more reflective and more personal talks on world events outside of the usual reports for the Radio Newsreel programmes - at the time most other news bulletins were just a straight read-through by the newsreader. 

The programme's approach was summed up by journalist Misha Glenny: "radio correspondents often feel as though their wings are clipped. A piece for the six o'clock news lasts between forty-five seconds and one minute fifteen (the latter if you are on a ver big story) which means that you may say nothing but the bare minimum. If you are producing a feature, your own sentiments are invariably, and correctly, drowned by sounds effects and other voices. It is only through FOOC that the BBC correspondents are able to communicate directly and personally with their audience". (2)

To mark the programmes sixtieth anniversary the Radio 4 today broadcasts a discussion on Foreign Reporting: Past,Present and Future presented by Owen Bennett-Jones. This will also go out on the World Service. In addition Kate Adie presents an additional eight editions of FOOC, the first airs today. 

But for this blog post I'm going back to the thirtieth anniversary in 1985 with this special edition presented by the BBC's former diplomatic editor Angus McDermid. In From Our Own Correspondent-The World 30 Years On you'll hear:
  • ·       Ian McDougall on the U-2 incident (1960)  
  • ·       Robert Elphick on Czechoslovakia (1968)
  • ·       Tim Sebastian from Gdansk, Poland (1980)
  • ·       Clive Small reviews East-West relations
  • ·       Philip Short in Syria (1973)
  • ·       Gerald Butt surveys the Middle East
  • ·       Martin Bell on the Biafran War
  • ·       Mike Wooldridge on Africa
  • ·       Anthony Lawrence in Vietnam (1970)
  • ·       Philip Short on the trial of The Gang of Four in China (1980)
  • ·       Mark Braine surveys China today
  • ·       Christopher Serpell on the Common Market (1969)
  • ·       Stephen Jessel reviews EEC history
  • ·       Martin Bell in El Salvador (1981)
  • ·       Robert Tyrer on Latin America
  • ·       David Willey from Naples
  • ·       Ian Mitchell in Bonn (1976)
  • ·       Michael Elkins in Jerusalem (1978)
This programme was broadcast on Radio 4 on Wednesday 25 September 1985.

(1) FOOC producer Tony Grant in his foreword to Kidnapped and Other Dispatches by Alan Johnston (Profile Books 2007)
(2) From Our Own Correspondent: The First Forty Years edited by Tony Grant (Pan 1995)

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

The Night Grace Archer Died

Thursday 22 September 1955, and British broadcasting was on the verge of a new era: commercial television was launched. Admittedly it was only in the London area and, it was estimated, just one set in five was tuned to 'Independent Television'.

However, the big news in the press the following morning was not just about the first commercials but that there had been a 'Death in the Family' as poor Grace Archer had met her untimely and shocking demise whilst attempting to rescue her horse from a blazing barn. Graces' screams of "Midnight! Midnight!" and Phil's plea "Grace, come back! The roof's collapsing" were heard by about eight million listeners to the BBC Light Programme daily serial The Archers just an hour before Postmaster General Dr Charles Hill and Sir Kenneth Clark, Chairman of the ITA made their inaugural speeches in London's Guildhall.

The opening line-up for ITV in London published in the
new magazine TV Times

The next morning the headline in the Daily Mirror read 'Radio fans weep as Grace Archer 'Died'' whilst the News Chronicle asked 'Why did Grace have to die?'. Even The Times was moved to report 'Death of BBC Serial Character'.    

The events surrounding that fateful night in 1955 are this weekend recalled in the BBC Radio 4 drama Dead Girls Tell No Tales. Written by former Archers scriptwriter Joanna Toye it depicts life in and around The Archers' production office and studio. Amongst the cast is the original Grace Archer played by the now 90-year-old Ysanne Churchman.   

But was the turn of events in Ambridge mere coincidence or, as some claimed, a stunt? At the time scriptwriter Edward J. Mason denied that Grace had died in the cause of publicity rather than art. The Herald, however, pointed out that the death "ensured that The Archers made headlines when 'in all theory' sound radio should have been pushed right off the news pages by the advent of Independent TV."

Mary Crozier of the Manchester Guardian perhaps summed it up best, in verse:

She dwelt unseen amid the Light,
Among the Archer clan,
And breathed her last the very night
That ITV began ...
She was well loved, and millions know
That Grace has ceased to be.
Now she is in her grace, but oh,
She scooped the ITV.

The truth of the matter was that the exact timing Grace's death was no coincidence. Her 'exit' had been planned months before, just not when, or how.  According to Asa Briggs' history of the BBC the decision to kill off Grace had been taken in January 1955, months before her marriage to Phil Archer that Easter. The creator of The Archers, Godfrey Beasley, wrote to Rooney Pelletier, the Controller of the Light Programme, on 10 January that "at a suitable opportunity, either at the end of August or early September, Grace will be involved in a motor vehicle accident which will prove fatal".  
By 11 May 1955 the plan had been hatched by Pelletier in a memo to Denis Morris, Head of Midland Regional Programmes. He wrote: "the more I think about it, the more I believe that a death of a violent kind in The Archers timed if possible to diminish interest in the opening of commercial television in London is a good idea".   

At the same time Briggs observes that this was not the whole truth of the matter. The scriptwriters were also "anxious to cut the number of characters in the series: they felt it was becoming 'cluttered up' and that it would be desirable to introduce 'greater validity' into the situations described".

There was also a degree to which radio was flexing its muscles, showing it was still a force to be reckoned with, despite the rise in television viewing. It's no coincidence that all this happened just two years after the BBC had issued a Ten-Year Plan that concluded that sooner or later "with the growth of television audiences and a consequent shrinkage of audiences dependent on sound alone" there may have to be realignments of the radio services. Did the death of Grace Archer mark the beginning of the end of radio's Golden Era?    

This is what listeners to the Light Programme will have heard that week in September. This edition of The Archers is the omnibus version that was broadcast on the Saturday evening.

As a postscript to this blog post it seems that The Archer's may have made the news in 1955 for other reasons, as an early example of a transfer from radio to television. I stumbled across this aborted attempt to have the folk of Ambridge fill part of BBC tv's Toddler's Truce closedown period in Leonard Miall's Inside the BBC:
At that time, when evening television only began at 7.30 p.m., the Post Office set a strict limit on the number of hours of television that the BBC might transmit each week. However, when ITV started in 1955 the Post Office allowed the evening's viewing to begin at 7 p.m.
Unfortunately this daily increase of thirty minutes' television time was not accompanied by any more studio space or film resources, which were then what limited programme expansion. Every production studio at Lime Grove was fully committed, so Cecil McGivern, BBC Television's Controller, decided to fill the extra time with a quarter of an hour of news originated from a studio at Alexandra Palace, followed by a daily television version of The Archers, produced in Birmingham.
The pilot programmes of The Archers were not up to standard, and at short notice McGivern asked if the Television Talks department could provide a substitute daily programme.
That programme turned out to be Highlight which in turn begat Tonight.

Miall goes on to say:
The Archers may have muffed their own television launch, but with panache they pre-empted the press coverage of ITV's Guildhall launch by having Grace Archer die in a brave attempt to save a horse from a blazing barn. (Donald) Baverstock immediately invited The Archers' writers to be interviewed on Highlight by its initial presenter MacDonald Hastings. Mac introduced the item with the words 'And now for a slight case of murder.' Castigated for causing national grief, the scriptwriter Ted Mason countered by demanding, 'Why blame us? Did people blame Shakespeare for the death of Desdemona?'

Dead Girls Tell No Tales will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday 19 September 2015 at 2.30 p.m.

The History of Broadcasting in the United Kingdom Volume IV: Sound and Vision by Asa Briggs (OUP 1979)
Inside the BBC by Leonard Miall (Weidenfeld & Nicholson 1994)


Recent press coverage of the play Dead Girls Tell No Tales (and indeed the Radio 4 news report above) states an audience for infamous edition of The Archers as hitting 20 million, this is probably overstated by more than 50%. Briggs quotes an audience of 8 million and the BBC Year Book for 1956 states the usual figure as 9 million. Bearing in mind that there would have been no pre-publicity about the tragic storyline (how unlike today's coverage of events on Coronation Street and EastEnders) it seems unlikely that 20 million tuned in.  

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Radio Lives - John Arlott

He was the voice of cricket. In that post-war period when the BBC had a monopoly on sports coverage it was John Arlott's commentary that welcomed in the summer.  When in 1957 radio's Test Match Special began - "don't miss a ball, we broadcast them all" - Arlott and fellow commentator Rex Alston were there to bring the action. John would cover all the domestic Test games until his retirement some twenty-three years later. His last cricket commentary was exactly thirty-five years ago today.   

John Arlott was born and raised in Basingstoke, Hampshire, as evident by that famous Hampshire burr. He had a passion for reading and devoured any material he could lay his hands on: Jules Verne, Dickens, Scott, The Strand. A Double Scholarship to Basingstoke Grammar saw him enjoy mixed fortunes academically and on the sports field- he enjoyed playing both football and cricket. Even during his school years his future career seemed to be mapped out. He took part in school debates and on one occasion spoke about 'the development of cricket from its original games' and gave 'interesting accounts of old cricket matches'. He'd also fill an exercise book with analysis of the scores for Glamorgan, a team he'd chosen as the Cinderella club in the County Championship and underdogs in all their matches.     

John's enquiring mind was not viewed sympathetically by his teachers who saw him 'beyond the pale' and, by his own admission, he was "a bit of a rebel".  His radical views would later see him challenging the political orthodoxies of both the right and the left in his regular appearances on Any Questions?     

His first paid job was in the Town Planning Office at Basingstoke Borough Council and then shortly afterwards as a diet clerk at the Park Prewett Mental Hospital. The attraction of the job was more that the hospital fielded a good cricket side rather than the delights of assessing and ordering provisions.

It was a similar consideration that informed his next career move to join the constabulary in Southampton - a place not too far away from a first class game and where there was a good side within the force. 

There's one amusing incident that Arlott, PC94, became involved in that perhaps presages the famous 1975 'freaker' commentary. Apparently a notorious Southampton flasher would ride his bike past rows of house drawing attention to himself  whilst rattling a walking stick across the fences or iron railings and at the same time shining a torch on 'himself'. One winter's evening Arlott and a fellow copper gave chase to him on their bikes, the pursuit came to an ungainly halt when the bikes and their riders parted company after hitting a tram that had screeched to a stop. Afterwards when John went round to see the youth's mother she remarked: "There's many a woman down the street who would give her right arm for what Billy's got".        

His work in the police force helped John develop his skills of observation, skills that would later infuse his commentary and his sports writing, It was also at this time that he developed his love a poetry, both reading it and writing it; his own verse enabling him to voice some of the horrors he witnessed in the war-torn city.

Illustration by Peter Brookes

In 1942 John published his first book, an anthology of topographical verse titled Landmarks. It also included some of his own work such as Cricket at Worcester, 1938. 'Dozing in the deck-chair's gentle curve/ Through half-closed eyes I watched the cricket/Knowing the sporting press would say/ Perks bowled well on a perfect wicket.'  He continued to contribute verse to periodicals and in 1944 an anthology of his own poetry was published by Jonathan Cape, Of Period and Place.     

The poet policeman became the broadcasting policeman in 1944 when BBC producer, and former literary editor, Geoffrey Grigson heard of Arlott via John Betjeman. His first talk, on cricket naturally enough, aired under the title An Enthusiast on his Enthusiasm on the Home Service on 23 October 1944. This was sufficiently well received, and for the next couple of years - with the kind understanding of his police superiors - the BBC offered him further talks plus poetry readings and acting performances on both the domestic and overseas services.  In an internal memo Grigson noted: "Arlott's a slowish speaker with a fairly rich Hampshire voice. He takes production very well, and can be bullied with discretion into style and vigour."   

By now John had been attached to the Police Training School, initially in Southampton and then seconded to London, handy for all those broadcasts. He has chosen to represent the police in the broadcast of a Tribute to the King on VE Day. Shortly after he handed in his resignation to join the staff of the BBC as Assistant (English Programmes) Eastern Services at the Overseas Services HQ on Oxford Street.

For the next four and a half years John's production work at the BBC mostly consisted of Book of Verse, a series about poetry featuring poets and writers such as Cecil Day-Lewis, P.H. Newby, Laurence Whistler, Stephen Spender and Dylan Thomas. John made about forty programmes with Dylan Thomas, about whom he observed: "He was an essentially simple person. He liked cricket, Rugby football and beer, jokes, idleness and other men's poetry."

Book of Verse was not only heard on the Eastern Services but enjoyed repeats on the Pacific and North American services and, for a while, was heard in the UK on the Light Programme. The readers included Valentine Dyall, David Jacobs, Robin Holmes, Laidman Brown, Carleton Hobbs and Marjorie Westbury.

John' move into cricket commentary came about, as these things often do, in a casual manner. In 1946 the Director of Eastern Services, Donald Stephenson, wanted to cover some of the matches of the Indian Test tour and asked John if he'd ever done a cricket broadcast.  He replied in the affirmative, referring a talk he'd given on the Home Service called The Hampshire Giants, even though he'd not done any actual commentating.  Arlott passed with flying colours. He soon developed a style of observation suffused with the poetic, allowing him to describe the players and the action in his own inimitable style. Years later, for instance , he would describe a bowler's crab-like delivery was "like Groucho Marx chasing a pretty waitress" and an umpire signalling a bye "with the air of a weary stork". He described his own technique thus: "I talk about what I see. A lot of commentators tend to talk about what they are thinking rather than what they are watching."

As well as providing brief pieces of cricket commentary - this was before the days of ball-by-ball coverage - for Overseas listeners, he also broadcast to home listeners on the Light Programme; his first commentary billing in the Radio Times for the match between Glamorgan and India is on 3 August 1946.  

By now John was combining cricket commentary, and from 1947, football commentary, presenting and producing for the Overseas Service, writing books about cricket and a sports column for the Evening News. He gave up his poetry programmes in 1951 to briefly join the Corporation's Staff Training Unit and in March 1953 left the staff to go freelance.

Those football commentaries are often overlooked. When Sports Report first aired in January 1948, John Arlott was there to report: "The game between Portsmouth and Huddersfield was a magnificent one to watch because both forward lines kept up on the attack and the wing-halves of each side gave them all the support they could possibly want, bringing the ball to them along the ground..." He continued to cover football until the late 50s but his style didn't necessarily suit the game. "His delivery was flat and monotonous. He seemed to concentrate very much on the players rather than the teams for which they were playing, so that if one joined the programme late, it would be difficult to distinguish which way the ball was going."  

TMS 23 June 1962
Much is made of Arlott's cricket commentary style, even though a lot of the available archive material doesn't adequately represent it. Often the longueurs of the game provide as much delight as the moments of action and high drama. It's difficult to describe so I'll leave it to Norman Herd who wrote this précis in the weekly magazine Spotlight:
His sentences are put together with a delightful smoothness and a spontaneous obedience to grammatical laws. He sees in pictures. He sees every player freshly and introduces him afresh at every appearance, no matter how much he may have done so previously... His imagery is remarkably consistent. Watkins, he tells us, is squatting 'rabbit-like' on his heels. Later on, Watkins 'scurries' across. Compton is once again walking and 'doctoring' this almost 'incurable' wicket.

This is John providing the commentary, alongside Ralph Richardson, in this somewhat over-romanticised look at the game for a British Council film released in 1950:

John's broadcasts weren't entirely devoted to sport and when Any Questions? started on the West of England Home Service on 12 October 1948 he was on the panel alongside novelist Naomi Royde-Smith, journalist for The Economist Honor Croome and Chief Education Officer for Dorset (later he'd chair My Word) Jack Longland. Arlott was an out-spoken, passionate and witty contributor to the programme though he nearly created a diplomatic incident when, in 1950, he opined that "the existing government in South Africa is predominantly a Nazi one".  He was dropped for a while but continued to appear fairly regularly until the early 1970s. 

Here are some audio memories of John Arlott as recalled on Radio 5 Live's Voices of Summer that first aired on 30 May 2013. With Mark Pougatch are Jonathan Agnew , Vic Marks, Bob Harris and David Rayvern-Allen.

Guilty Party broadcast on the Light Programme 21 August 1962.
This particular edition, along with a few others, can be heard on at least
one Old Time Radio website.
As well as numerous books and essays on cricket, and other sports, John wrote about his beloved Hampshire countryside and about wine - he had a well-stocked cellar at his final home on Alderney. He wrote for many national papers including the News Chronicle, the Observer, the Guardian, the Times and the Daily Mail. He also, naturally, wrote for Wisden.   All this was in addition to his radio and TV commentary work -he'd started to cover TV matches from the mid-50s. Such was his fame beyond the world of cricket that he had plenty of other job offers too from advertising St Bruno tobacco and cheddar cheese to appearing on panel games such as Guilty Party. This programme - on the Home Service and then the Light Programme between 1954 and 1962 - featured John on the panel trying to guess to outcome of an acted out crime and then identify 'the guilty party'. One can only assume his police training came in useful for this role. The format was revived in the 1990s as Foul Play.  

By 1979 John had made up his mind that the following season would be his last. Not only was he tired of meeting all his broadcasting and writing deadlines but his bronchitis was causing him trouble. "My wheezy chest, which does sometimes sound like a pair of bagpipes full of dust." In this interview with fellow commentator Brian Johnston he recalls his career. This was first heard on the Radio 4 special 100 Years of Australia-34 Years of Arlott

His final Test Match appearance was on 2 September 1980 for the Centenary Test against Australia. There was no on-air farewell, no acknowledgment that 34 years of Test Match commentary was at an end. Perhaps he feared he would have choke on his words.   

Radio Times billing for John's final
commentary match 
A number of references to Arlott's final Test Match commentary make the assumption that it was his last ever radio commentary. It wasn't. That followed some four days later when Radio 3 medium wave covered the Gillette Cup Final of Surrey vs Middlesex at Lords. I was reminded of this last year when Charlie Cooke contacted me to kindly offer me his recording of part of that commentary. With him in the commentary box is Fred Trueman and 'The Bearded Wonder' Bill Frindall. You'll also hear Brian Johnston, Trevor Bailey and Radio 3 announcer John Holmstrom. Here's John in action. Listen out for a comment about chanting from the Tavern "born on the wings of ale".

The recording doesn't include John's sign-off but this was related by Henry Blofeld in his Times obituary for John: 
"It was a rare and unforgettable privilege to have had the luck to share a microphone with Arlott in the last seven years of his commentating career. On a Saturday evening in early September 1980, towards the end of the Gillette Cup final, Arlott said simply, 'And after a word from Trevor Bailey, it will be Henry Blofeld.' 
He got up from his seat and pushed back his chair; he stood aside while I sat down and then moved quietly to the back of the commentary-box, where he opened the door and walked slowly out of cricket commentary for ever. As likely as not he went in search of a glass of his beloved claret."

In fact even that match wasn't John's final radio commentary. Not if you count his appearance on Noel Edmond's Radio 1 show on 7 September covering the game featuring Princess Margaret's XI versus President Carter's XI.

John lived out his retirement on Alderney, still writing on cricket, and wine, and making occasional radio and TV broadcasts. But his health was failing and on 14 December 1991 he passed away. The voice of cricket fell silent.  

John Arlott

This post only touches on John Arlott''s life and career. There are a number of books by and about John but the above quotes come from Arlott: The Authorised Biography by David Rayvern Allen (Harper Collins, 1994).
With thanks to Charlie Cooke.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...