BBC 1940s light entertainment programmes - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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BBC 1940s light entertainment programmes

I recently (2014) listened to a nostalgic half hour programme on Radio 4 about the BBC’s first daily adventure serial: “Dick Barton – Special agent”. Dick Barton played an important part in my childhood. I certainly listened to the first-ever 15 minute episode at 6.45pm on 7 October 1946 on what was then the still new BBC Light Programme. I had just passed my 11th birthday and the ‘wireless’ in our house was on every day virtually the whole time from teatime to bedtime. 6.45pm was a boring time to fill, especially in the dark autumn and winter evenings, between tea and the main evening entertainment - mainly because there was nothing else to do once school homework was out of the way.

The recent programme told me a few things I didn’t know. For example, I had no idea that the BBC had received large numbers of complaints from the general public about the programme content – violence and girls, in particular. I don’t remember anything about Dick Barton’s girlfriend, but she apparently disappeared without trace early on because the BBC was sensitive to the criticisms. The violence remained but it was similar to, and just as harmless, as that portrayed in comics. The BBC had, apparently, not realised that the serial would appeal to children as young as me. The series ran five nights a week, with a Saturday omnibus edition lasting 60 minutes, until the final episode, No 711, on 30 March 1951. I reckon I heard more than 95% of those episodes because 6.45 to 7pm was always reserved in our house, and all my friends’ houses, for Dick Barton. If circumstances really did prevent me listening to one of the evening episodes, and that was a rarity, I made a point of catching up on the Saturday omnibus programme when five 15-minute episodes were squeezed into an hour.

There was no bad language in Dick Barton although I do recall that for a week or two my friends and I adapted the name of one of the regular bad guys, Olly kan Branoff, and used it as a mild expletive. I have no idea how the name was spelled but, when snarled with a heavy stress on the ‘Bran’, it produced an expletive just as effective as most current ones which make use of the ‘f word’! Whenever I hear the serial’s exciting signature tune, Devil’s Gallop by Charles Williams, I remember Dick Barton and I am instantly transported back to my childhood. Sixteen million listeners tuned in every weekday to the exploits of Dick, Jock and Snowy – that was about 1 in 3 of the population! Dick Barton was off the air each year for several weeks for scheduled breaks. (I assumed the actors and script-writers needed a break from time to time.) The 6.45pm slot was temporarily occupied then by a number of other serials; the only one I can remember was called ‘The Daring Dexters’, a very boring story about a circus family. In what turned out to be an inspired move in April 1951 the BBC moved ‘The Archers’ ("an everyday story of country folk") into what had been the Dick Barton slot and it has been there ever since - and is about to celebrate its 65th birthday.

Some of the patter and jokes in the old wireless shows regularly aired these days on BBC Radio 4 Extra will seem awful to folk who did not hear the programmes first time around and many, if not most, of the ‘punch lines’ and ‘catch phrases’ will be meaningless. However, listening to the reactions of the studio audiences when the shows were recorded, it's obvious that they thought those shows were wonderful. (I don't think 'canned' audience applause had been invented then.)

One of my favourites programmes in the 1940s was called Much Binding in the Marsh. I didn’t know then that it was written by two World War 2 RAF types: Wing Commander Kenneth Horne (who later found fame with Round the Horne and Beyond our Ken); and Squadron Leader Richard ‘Stinker’ Murdoch. Kenneth Horne’s first major success was a programme called Ack Ack Beer Beer which apparently ran to 324 episodes between 1939 and 1944. The name derived from the then phonetic alphabet pronunciation of the letters A and B - later Able and Baker, currently Alpha and Bravo. Much Binding in the Marsh first took to the air in March 1944. When we listened to that programme at home I thought that the fictitious RAF Much Binding in the Marsh was something to do with the real RAF Moreton-in-Marsh, the Gloucestershire village close to where my maternal grandfather, who was living with us then, was born. I don’t know whether the RAF base, or its name, inspired Murdoch and Horne or whether Much Binding was a coincidence. (While the name of the Gloucestershire village does not include the definite article, the wireless programme’s name does.)

Much Binding, the programme, always had a strong live musical element which would certainly find no place in today's comedy shows - if only for cost reasons. For example, the programme always ended with Murdoch and Horne singing several verses of a catchy song, usually with at least one verse referring to some contemporary event. Each verse started on one note higher up the musical scale than the preceding one and for the final verse the piano accompaniment was boosted by the full might of the Royal Air Force Dance Orchestra conducted by Ronnie Aldrich - in the early editions at least. That same orchestra later achieved fame by its simpler name – The Squadronaires.

I was reminded of how fashions change when I listened in 2013 to an edition of Much Binding that had originally been broadcast in March 1950. In the space of just five minutes there were references, which the audience clearly understood judging by their reactions, to Schubert's Unfinished Symphony; Benjamin Britten; Sir Malcolm Sargent; tacit – the musical order for silence; Mimi’s aria O my beloved Daddy; Leon Goossens the famous oboist; and a 'light' opera conducted by Sydney Torch.

I recall another very early edition, which I've not heard yet on BBC Radio 4 Extra, when Horne and Murdoch, together with two others and accompanied by the full orchestra, gave a very creditable performance of the Act 1 Quartet, Mir ist so wunderbar from Beethoven’s opera Fidelio. In this very poignant quartet the four soloists, Marzeline, Leonora, Rocco and Jaquino, enter one after the other in a fugato until they are all singing together. Imperceptibly, the four comedians were magically replaced by professional singers. At the age of 7 or 8 I was convinced that the singers were those of the regular cast throughout - until Grandfather put me straight. Still, it was a skilful transition. I still find this quartet, professionally sung, is one of the most sublime pieces in all classical music.

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