Their history is as long as that of public radio broadcasting. They are a constant presence on air but few get the recognition afforded to other on air “talent”. They are the “glue” that holds the programme schedule together. Or, at least that was the case …..
Continuity announcers have been with us in Britain since the 1920s. Names such as Arthur Burrows, Rex Palmer, Cecil Lewis and John Dodgson (the first full-time announcer) graced the airwaves.
|Announcers Stuart Hibberd, John Snagge and Alvar Lidell|
John Snagge also joined the BBC in 1924. His was the voice that announced D-Day, V-Day and VJ-Day. He was also well known for his Boat Race commentaries, a run that lasted, incredibly, from 1931 to 1980.
John Snagge's final Boat Race commentary
Alvar Lidell was first on air in 1932 and is best remembered for “Here is the news and this is Alvar Lidell reading it.” He was part of the Third Programme’s first announcing team in 1946. Older readers may also remember Bruce Belfrage, Frank Philips and Freddy Grisewood (later the first presenter of Any Questions’1948-1966).
Some announcers became well-known personalities through their involvement in comedy and variety shows of the time: Philip Slessor on Variety Bandbox’ David Dunhill on Take It From Here, Wallace Greenslade on The Goon Show, Douglas Smith on Round the Horne, Robin Boyle on The Navy Lark and Richard Clegg on The News Huddlines.
The serious measured tone of the BBC announcer has often been the subject of affectionate humour and spoofs. Spike Milligan gave some very funny lines to aforementioned Wallace Greenslade as well as John Snagge and Andrew Timothy. Barry Took and Marty Feldman did the same for Douglas Smith “who” to quote Barry Took “excelled at inanimate objects, including a sacred volcano, a motor boat, a drophead Bentley, and a semi-detached house.” The false endings on The Burkiss Way could trap the unsuspecting Radio 4 announcer. More recently the Dead Ringers team portrayed a thuggish Brian Perkins and a sensuous Charlotte Green.
The Greenslade Story
Perhaps the best known early announcers on pre-war commercial radio (Radio Normandy and Radio Luxembourg) were Stephen Williams and Bob Danvers-Walker, later the voice of Pathe News.
Of course announcers did more than introduce the next programme or read the closing cast list; most also worked news reading shifts and many eventually went on to present music shows or introduce concerts. It was members of the announcing team that filled the airwaves at the beginning of the day and late at night taking the helm of Breakfast Special and Night Ride for instance.
Cormac Rigby, who joined the BBC in the 60s recalls “what I was joining was a Presentation Department that served all radio networks. So you might do an overnight shift reading the news and Today in Parliament on the Home Service, and then open up the Music Programme the following morning.”
The arrangements for working across all the three networks had operated since 1957, due to economies being required in radio to help the TV service compete against the new commercial channel. This change meant that announcers could join the “inner sanctum of those permitted to do Third (Programme) Continuity.”
The BBC’s Broadcasting in the Seventies policy published in 1969 sought, in part, to more clearly define the roles of the new national networks – Radios 1, 2, 3 & 4 having launched in September 1967 - which, Radio 1 apart, were little changed from their old Light, Third and Home predecessors. One consequence of this shift, implemented in 1972, was the splitting up of Radio Presentation into the separate stations. Each network was to have their own team of announcers and newsreaders. Presentation Editor for Radio 1 and 2 (still sharing much of their programming and the VHF frequencies at the time) was senior announcer Jimmy Kingsbury best known for hosting Friday Night is Music Night. Over at Radio 3 the role went to Cormac Rigby and at Radio 4 Jim Black.
With the separation of presentation duties staff had to opt for their chosen network, or were presumably transferred. Jon Curle, for instance, long associated with the Light Programme and then a presenter on Radio 1 & 2 on Night Ride moved to Radio 3. Peter Donaldson who had also joined Radio 1 & 2 in 1970 and also worked on Night Ride moved to Radio 4. In Peter’s case he cited the music he was allowed to play on Breakfast Special and Night Ride as “dire”. He found himself “in trouble with the management and decided, as I’d always been interested in news – where you can’t ad-lib – to ask for a transfer to Radio 4”.
The use of separate continuity teams or shifts was phased out on Radios 2 & 3 in the 1990s – quietly on Radio 2 but amidst some controversy on Radio 3. I’ll be going into more detail about the teams at Radios 2 & 3 in my next posts. Radio 4 is now the only national network to maintain a full team of announcers (doing live announcements) and newsreaders, both staff and freelance. A similar arrangement is used on the BBC World Service. Radio 4 Extra (formerly Radio 7) uses pre-recorded announcements.
The main audio for this post is an amiable quiz from the late 1980s called The Announcers’ Challenge. Hosted by Michael Aspel the teams consisted of announcers from the national radio networks. In this first programme the Radio 2 team of Patrick Lunt, Jean Challis and Steve Madden take on the Radio 4 team of Charlotte Green, Eugene Fraser and Laurie MacMillan. The programme was first broadcast on Radio 2 on 30 December 1988. This recording is from the repeat on Radio 4 on 2 January 1989.
The programme returned the following year as The Announcers’ Challenge II. Representing Radio 2 are James Alexander Gordon and Steve Madden. The Radio 4 team comprises Laurie MacMillan and Charlotte Green. Radio 3 joined the programme with Peter Barker and Susan Sharpe. The programme was first broadcast on Radio 2 on 26 December 1989. This recording is from the Radio 3 repeat on 1 January 1990.
The_Announcers_Challenge_II (click to download)
The_Announcers_Challenge_II (click to download)
Further informationChris Aldridge writes about being an announcer here
Harriet Cass writes about being a newsreader here
You can see masses of excellent photographs of the BBC’s coverage of the Boat Race on Roger George Clark’s website
I am indebted to Denis Gifford’s book The Golden Age of Radio for some of the historic information in this post.