A Day In The Life… Sort Of 

16 January 2011 tbs.pm/3239

I think I’ve finally grown up. In the last couple of years I’ve stopped using Radio 1 as my main musical wallpaper. I was possibly R1’s oldest fairly regular listener until I managed to give up the habit. The average age of their audience dropped at least 20 years when I stopped tuning in, and market researchers would’ve had nightmares trying to invent a category to drop me into.

Reaching this milestone made me think about how long I’ve been a radio listener and what I’ve listened to over the years. Music and radio figured in a large part of my existence and my parents have to take a lot of the blame for it. I was a participant in a way of life which existed 40/50 years ago but which has now almost disappeared. We didn’t have a TV at home when I was young (early 1960s); not for any righteous moral reasons, but purely because my parents thought it was “a load of rubbish, waste of time, nothing worth watching” etc etc. Today a no-TV household might be the epitome of cool, but back then it caused me considerable embarrassment, especially at school, because I couldn’t join in the regular Monday morning discussion with other 8 year-olds about what had been on during the previous weekend (even though, amazing as it seems now, there were only two channels two watch).

So the lack of TV at home meant that we made above average use of the radio (and record player). In our house they were both high mileage items. If there was someone in the house the radio was on; silence didn’t exist. And if the radio wasn’t on, the record player was.

When we’d been out during the day and came home in the evening, we’d open the front door, turn the lights on, walk through to the living room and turn the radio on – before anything else was done. Actions like taking your coat off, putting things away, or getting something to eat/drink all had to come later. . . after the radio was on. Today you would enter the house whilst checking for texts, find out how much pointless information has been tweeted, and then switch on Wii to continue destroying the aliens left over from earlier in the day.

Looking back, radio output of those days had the atmosphere of a gentlemen’s club full of wood-panelled rooms and old duffers sitting around smoking pipes and reading The Times. Our house wasn’t quite like that, but we were definitely a living stereotype. You really could find the four of us (mum, dad, sister, me) sitting in the living room on a Sunday afternoon listening to Kenneth Horne, Navy Lark, Jimmy Clitheroe, Ken Dodd; just like they do in those carefully composed 1950s photos of a typical happy family. We were those people. The only difference is that my dad didn’t smoke a pipe, which fathers always seemed to do in the ad man’s ideal of post-war Britain.

There is no formula to explain how some programmes from those days have aged better than others. Thanks to the wonders of Youtube it’s now possible to check whether memory is the great distorter. Horne still seems funny and stands up well today; Navy Lark has its moments, but it seems slower and isn’t as funny as I remember it (although Ronnie Barker stands out as a bright up-and-coming young thing amongst a group of old school performers); I’d hazard a guess that Ken Dodd is still doing the same act today on stage as he was doing on his radio show in the 60s – either you think it’s funny or you don’t; and I suspect Jimmy Clitheroe would now cause total bewilderment as to why or how anyone ever thought that could be classed as “comedy”.

There were programmes by Al Read who my dad rated but I didn’t find funny. I’ve heard clips of him now, and forty years later I got the joke. And I remember Chic Murray who baffled me back then, but listening to his material recently I have elevated him to godlike genius

But before I reached the listening-to-comedy stage, I fell under the spell – along with everyone else of that age – of Listen with Mother with Daphne Oxenford, Eileen Brown, George Dixon, and that evocative Faure piano music which ended the programme. If you were there at the time, there is no more cosy childhood memory than Listen with Mother, nodding to the radio when asked “Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin”. But whilst waiting for it to start, you had to sit through the last few minutes of the Shipping Forecast, which is why members of that generation can get misty eyed about Viking, Dogger, Fisher, German Bight. It’s because we were all 5 year-olds waiting to hear what came next. And when Listen with Mother finished you caught the beginning of Woman’s Hour with Marjorie Anderson. Just the mention of that brings back memories of weekday afternoons in school holidays with the prospect of nothing to do.

In fact school holidays were notable not just for being off school, but because they enabled me to hear the glamorous daytime exotica which I normally missed. In the morning was the record request show Housewives Choice presented by, amongst others Godfrey Winn or Richard Murdoch. But the star turn there was George Elrick who used to sing along to the theme tune – which I suspect would now sound unbearably embarrassing (and one of the few things Youtube can’t help me with).

Housewives Choice finished at 9.55am, and a mainstream music programme followed at 10am; but in between those two was a five-minute slot known as Five-to-Ten given over to a speaker with a vaguely religious background. It was really Thought for the Day under another name. Just the kind of thing any sensible eight-year-old would run a mile from. But sometimes the speaker was David Kossoff, and then I was mesmerized. The only person who might ever have converted me to religion. He sounded like the classic kindly uncle and I could’ve listened to him talking for much longer than his allocated five minutes. But he was talking about morals…and religion…and God…and life. Even back then I was slightly embarrassed that I found myself listening to this. But as a captivating speaker, to this day I don’t think I’ve ever come across anyone else who could hold my attention on a subject I thought I hated.

In the mid-morning you encountered Music While You Work, where every piece of music was transformed into a happy, jaunty singalong to keep the factory workers happy whilst engrossed in their efforts to defeat the beastly Germans (didn’t that all finish 20 years ago?). You were then transported into the genteel world of Mrs Dales Diary, with its cascading waterfall-harp music. It seemed to be populated entirely by very old people, and was like listening to your grandparents talking to their neighbours.

The glamour of the factory reared its head again in the lunchtime variety show Workers Playtime, introduced by Bill Gates (before he invented computers). I’d hear it when I came home from school at midday, and even then I envisaged an audience in the works canteen wearing overalls and flat caps, with tin mugs of tea, smoking Player’s cigarettes from a packet which had the sailor with a big beard.

The romantic image of working class man was further reinforced by Have a Go with Wilfred Pickles. Instead of being in t’factory this came from church halls and community centres, but still with a decent quota of Park Drives and headscarves. Then you realise that word association comes into action in a big way for a lot of memories. Mention Have a Go and I immediately carry on into “with Mabel at the table, Harry Hudson at the piano”. It all seemed very homely and happy, almost like being in someone’s living room, probably because it actually was. Get normal people to talk about their normal lives, sing a normal song, and then give them a prize of five shillings for doing it.

And the actual contraption on which we listened to everything was amazing. It was a radiogramme, which you opened from the top and reached down inside for the controls, like a chest freezer today. Big brown bakelite thing with hinged lid on the top and metal grille on the front. Take out all the innards you could have hidden several people inside. The nature of its construction meant the sound quality was very good, if a bit boomy and deep; totally the opposite to the tinny transistor which prototype teenagers were sticking to their ears in the early 60s. Not only was I hearing more radio than most kids, I was hearing it in much better quality too.

One of the slightly more bizarre memories was going to my grandparents on a Sunday afternoon for tea, and to keep the youngsters happy my granddad would have the radio on, meaning that we’d hear Alan Freeman doing Pick of the Pops. Quite surreal in those surroundings because my granddad certainly didn’t like that sort of music. He was into Italian opera and Jim Reeves; the kind of person who would say “one of the Beatles has been killed, somebody trod on him on the pavement..” which was still considered vaguely amusing in 1964 when the fab four were on their way up.

Then later on Sunday evenings, if you felt a bit suicidal there was Sing Something Simple to accompany your mood. Featuring the Cliff Adams Singers with their phenomenal ability to make every song sound exactly the same, i.e. monks with a plainsong. Difficult to imagine something like Herman’s Hermits “I’m into something good” being performed as a mournful lament, but that’s the kind of feat Mr Adams and his jolly crew could achieve. Ironically, the musical accompaniment to their output was provided by Jack Emblow on accordian who survived the ordeal and is now considered a very cool guest artist if you are making an album

A similar mood was achieved by the effervescent Alan Keith with Your Hundred Best Tunes. Presented by him for over 40 years, its success was due to it being totally unchanging. With his slow, measured speech, it was the product of a bygone era even then. It gave the traditional listeners a sense of security and calm, reinforcing the belief that only old people were allowed to listen to it. Even my parents, who weren’t exactly radical, thought it was a bit sombre.

In total contrast to Alan Keith was the noisiest man on radio, Billy Cotton with his Band Show. That programme really used to scare me, because he seemed to shout everything, sounding quite aggressive and unpleasant. Most references to Billy Cotton will remind you that he shouted “Wakey wakey” at the beginning of the programme. I often heard this on a Sunday lunchtime, but I never worked out what he was actually saying. It just sounded like a loud noise, a Tarzan yell, totally unintelligible as real words. It’s interesting to wonder if other people had the same problem; that Billy Cotton’s so-called trade mark was not actually understood by many listeners

And like most studio-based music programmes of the time, it consisted largely of Mr Cotton and his crew doing their interpretations of old-time classics and modern hits of the day (remember this was pre-Beatles). Another reminder of how the BBC in the early 60s seemed to cater for age groups of 0-5 and 50-100, with nothing in between.

Eventually they had to accept that teenagers were here to stay, and needed to be amused. I remember hearing the prophets of doom when the great Radio shakeup of 67 arrived; no more Light (or Third) Programme or Home Service. Now all we’ll get is endless pop music.

So to populate Radio 1, the Beeb acquired some of the livelier, younger DJs from the pirate stations to shake the cobwebs at Broadcasting House. But in the eyes (or ears) of its intended audience, Radio 1 was never going to replace the pirates, because they’d had a glamour – real or imaginary – which the BBC could never manufacture.

My story ought to end there, because that change marked the end of an era in British radio (and my childhood) with a belated step into the 20th century. And Radio 1 was worth listening to in its early days, if only for one reason.

That was Kenny Everett. I never heard him on his Pirate Radio London days, but I was a regular listener when he was on Radio 1 before he famously got the sack for his comment about the wife of the transport minister passing her driving test. Those programmes have passed into the realms of legend, but I heard them at the time and the legend is correct. He was compulsive listening. Having conversations with his pre-recorded self using tape multi-tracking, making his own ident jingles and songs. He understood the technology like no-one else back then, and he used it to the full. You didn’t listen to Everett shows for the music – his musical taste was quite bland and conservative – you listened to it for the bits between the records, which were longer and much more interesting.

I doubt anybody does that kind of thing now, because they wouldn’t be allowed to, even though the equipment (and potential) is light years ahead of what he had at the time. Today, so much of prime-time radio content is decided by a computer studying demographics and market research and social categories and whether the listener is A, B, C1, or D2.

They used to broadcast to people, now they broadcast to categories.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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6 responses to this article

Glenn Aylett 24 January 2011 at 5:58 pm

Don’t think the suicidal and sinister sounds of Sing Something Simple ended with the Light Programme. As a boy in the eighties on a long car journey, I used to dread 4.30 and Sing Something Simple on a Sunday. They even managed to massacre a Beach Boys song one afternoon by turning into it into something that wouldn’t have sounded out of place in a seventies horror film.

Darren Stephens 31 January 2011 at 4:53 pm

Sing Something Simple: bang on. It lasted for ever, running up until Cliff Adams died. It marked, as Douglas Adams so accurately described it, the start of the Long Dark Teatime of the Soul each Sunday. And it was the prelude to two hours with “Cheerful” Charlie Chester – never was a man so inaptly named.

The opening bars of SSS were always the signal to mestart swishing the tuning dial over towards Radio 1 for the chart.

Glenn Aylett 31 January 2011 at 5:39 pm

Indeed there is very little left of the traditional Radio 2/ Light Programme fare on Sundays now. I believe Melodies for You is the only survivor from the Light Programme and this isn’t always broadcast.

Yet it is a case of time moving on. The audience for Sing Something Simple, Sounds Easy With Alan Dell and All Time Greats have largely died out now and someone in their sixties would probably want to hear Sounds of the Seventies instead.

Also an interesting radio station for rather anti dulivian pre war music was Radio Newcastle and their expert on pre war music, Frank Wappat. His two shows, The Thirties Club and Stars on 78s, ran well into the eighties.

Chris Taylor 9 January 2012 at 7:07 pm

In 1967 I used to turn on the wireless about 5.15am tuned in to the Home Service and prior to any broadcast starting an introductory tune would start out of the blue before any dialogue. Does anyone know what the tune was called? if indeed it had a name.It was an earthy and mysterious tune. I have tried humming it in the Apps sound hound but no luck.

Steve Gilbert 8 May 2012 at 11:16 pm

Try http://www.radiorewind.co.uk/radio4/theme_tunes.htm

and see if the ‘Skipping Tune’ by Franz Spiegel is what you’re looking for?

Joanne Gray 24 September 2015 at 4:45 am

I was born in 1971, but thanks to Radio 4Xtra (or BBC7 as it was) I was privileged enough to listen to – and thoroughly enjoy – radio comedy popular in the days of the generation before mine. The Goon Show (I am a Spike Milligan fan), The Navy Lark (and its short lived spin off The Television Lark), Round The Horne, The Clitheroe Kid, Much Binding in the Marsh, the Al Read Show and the fledgling Python and Goodies vehicle I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again.

I laughed my socks off at them all and will forever regret being born 20 years too late and missing out on so much more.

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