Wartime wireless - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

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Wartime wireless

During the war we didn't own a proper wireless, as radios were commonly called in those days, but we had a system called Radio Relay which was hard-wired into our house and the other new houses on Cotton Street. It was not free: every week, Mum or Dad had to call in at the Radio Relay office in Bread Street near Wakefield Cathedral, and pay whatever the fee was. The system provided just two stations during the war: the BBC National Service and the BBC Forces' Programme, selected by a switch fixed to the wall adjacent to the loudspeaker in the living room. Unlike the valve radios of the day, which required up to 30 seconds to warm up after being switched on, Radio Relay was instant on.

From my very first day in the Wakefield house I had been an avid listener to one or other of the two channels provided by Radio Relay: it was our family's only source of news, entertainment and music. Years before I started to write diaries, I used to keep notes on scraps of paper about wireless programmes that I had listened to. For that purpose, the Radio Times magazine that we bought every week, was invaluable. Sadly none of those early notes have survived but these days the Internet is an extremely useful memory-jogger.

The first regular programme I can remember was Children's Hour; it was on every day at 5pm and lasted for the best part of an hour. Looking back, I imagine the hour was a blessing for my parents because my sister and I were so entranced by the programmes that Mum and Dad were able to get on with other things. Uncle Mac, whose real name was Derek McCulloch, was the regular presenter. Derek had fronted Children's Hour from 1933 until he retired due to ill health in 1950. He always ended his programme with the words, "Goodnight children" - long pause - "everywhere." It really did sound as though he was talking to every individual child in the land.

One programme within Children's Hour that I particularly enjoyed early in the war was Toytown - a make-believe town manned by a diverse collection of characters who were always either annoying each other or getting into various sorts of trouble with authority. Each character had a very distinctive voice - necessary because, of course, there were no pictures. The central character, and the one that most children probably identified with, was Larry the Lamb, usually voiced by Derek McCulloch himself. Larry preceded every one of his utterances with a long, plaintive "Baaaa" which I found increasingly irritating after listening to many episodes. Another regular was Denis the German Dachshund. We children knew what dachshunds were because there were quite a few real ones around in the early 1940s; they were usually called Sausage Dogs, for obvious reasons. Being a German dachshund, when Denis spoke he always put the verb at the end of his sentences. Like most children, I didn't understand the grammatical significance of that German language idiosyncrasy; I suppose we just thought it was a peculiar way of speaking. We did, however, try to emulate it when we spoke to each other at play. For example, "I must now home go", and "Have you any sweets got?" I think the novelty of that soon wore off. It seems odd, though, that throughout WW2 a popular children's character on the wireless was German when we were constantly being taught at home and at school that it was our bounden duty to hate Nazi Germany and especially Herr Hitler and all that he stood for.

Other Toytown characters I can remember were: Mister Inventor, whose complicated inventions always seemed to go wrong; Ernest the Policeman, the portly representative of authority; Mister Grouser the Grocer, who was always grumbling about something to do with rationing; and Mister Mayor, about whom I can remember little except that he was very pompous. The writer of the Toytown stories was S G Hulme Beaman who was born in 1887 and died in 1932. What a lot of pleasure he continued to give to many thousands of children long after his death.

The music which opened and closed the Toytown programme was a catchy tune called The Parade of the Tin Soldiers. For a while I used to march around the house, tick-tocking like a mechanical soldier and humming the tune out loud - even when the programme was not on the air. I know now that the tune was composed by Leon Jessel, another German. He was a Jew by birth but converted to Christianity at the age of 23 in 1894. Just before Christmas 1941 Jessel was arrested and handed over to the Gestapo in Berlin; he was tortured and died on January 4, 1942 in the Berlin Jewish Hospital.

Apart from Toytown I also have fond memories of a weekly series of children's nature programmes called Out with Romany. The Romany of the title was naturalist George Bramwell Evens, a Methodist Minister. Romany was usually accompanied on his 'walks' by his friends Muriel and Doris, Rack the dog, and Comma the horse who supposedly pulled the Gypsy caravan they all travelled around in. Evens, aka Romany, died in 1943 and was replaced after a decent interval by Norman Ellison who became known as Nomad. Perhaps, by 1943, I was getting too old for that sort of programme because I didn't care for Nomad and I stopped listening to the programme.

For several hours of every day both the BBC domestic radio stations on our Radio Relay transmitted the same programme simultaneously, possibly as an economy measure but perhaps because of a shortage of material. At set hours they relayed some English-language news broadcasts from the BBC European Service. At least once per day there was a bulletin read at dictation speed; this was for the benefit of those listeners at home and on active war service on land and sea who wrote the news down so that they could post it on notice boards and elsewhere. Towards the end of the war I used that slow-speed bulletin to practice my own skills at dictation and then I got Dad to check my spelling and punctuation.

In between programmes a recording of Bow Bells was used as an interval signal, sometimes playing for several minutes on end. Even though programmes occasionally ended a few minutes early, the next programme always, without fail, started at exactly the scheduled time - an art the BBC seems to have lost nowadays. At the end of the day's schedule, the National Anthem was played (as it still is in 2015 before Radio 4 hands over to the BBC World Service just before 1am). We were told that many families chose to stand to attention at home during the playing of the National Anthem but I don't know if my parents did: I was always in bed long before the nightly close down.

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