Live BBC Concerts in Milton Hall, Manchester - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Live BBC Concerts in Milton Hall, Manchester

Later in August 1951 I wrote a lengthy "Report" which I attached to my diary (see above). There's an item in that special report that still has a sort of relevance today. "Mr Stokes, the British Representative, has come back to London as he received no satisfaction in Teheran". That’s not a misspelling: it’s how Tehran was written in English in those days - presumably to ensure that the central 'h' was correctly aspirated. Iran was always referred to as Persia, and The Gulf as the Persian Gulf. Mr Stokes, later Sir Richard Rapier Stokes, was a Labour politician who served briefly as Lord Privy Seal in 1951 and was MP for Ipswich from 1938 until his death in 1957. The satisfaction he didn't get in Teheran in 1951 was in talks with Mohammad Mosaddeq, the architect of the nationalisation of the Iranian oil industry, which had been under British control since 1913 through the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (which later became British Petroleum and, later still, plain BP).

In the next sentence of that 1951 report attached to my diary I wrote: "The Navy is being prepared for something". I've no idea now what that was but, of course, in the 1950s the Royal Navy had a presence in oceans and seas all around the world. Perhaps they were patrolling the Persian Gulf ready for any trouble concerned with the failed oil talks?

In that same report I also made mention of the fact that a recently imposed ban by the Football Association on live commentaries on the wireless was to be reconsidered. Wireless in 1951 was, of course, synonymous with BBC. The price of a pack of 20 cigarettes was increased by one old penny in August 1951 to 3s 7d (roughly 17 decimal pence). Finally, because of my fascination at the time with comedy programmes on the wireless, I noted that Richard Murdoch took over from Ted Ray as compere of a regular variety programme called Calling all Forces on the BBC Light Programme at 9pm. Tony Hancock regularly made guest appearances in Calling All Forces in 1951/52.

After a few months of weekly violin lessons, by which time I was making rapid progress with my violin technique, Mr Cunliffe arranged for me to attend radio concerts being given by the BBC Northern Orchestra (the forerunner of the BBC Philharmonic) in their first-floor studio in the Milton Hall, Deansgate, Manchester. The doormen, members of the orchestra, and the announcers soon got used to me and eventually they let me into the studio unescorted whenever I turned up - a rare privilege which I valued enormously.

Frequently I was an audience of one and on those occasions I sat on a straight back chair immediately behind the announcer while he sat at a small table a few feet behind the conductor facing the orchestra. These were not public concerts and, because they were invariably broadcast live, I had to remain absolutely silent with no coughs, no squeaking chair, and certainly no applause until after the red light had gone out.

Many of the concerts were broadcast live on the BBC General Overseas Service, the forerunner of the BBC World Service, and in the quieter passages of music I used to imagine that listeners in far-flung parts of the world could hear my breathing. Charles Groves, clean-shaven and un-knighted in those days, was the resident conductor of the orchestra; he was always rather aloof and never spoke to me - somehow, I found that rather fitting for such a well-known maestro. Reginald Stead was the Leader of the orchestra and he almost always had a few words to say to me after the studio had gone off air.

On one occasion I was present when the BBC Northern Orchestra conducted by Charles Groves gave the first broadcast performance of Franz Reizenstein's Cello Concerto - and it was live. I can't remember for certain who the soloist was; I think it was William Pleeth but I can't find confirmation on the Internet. The Internet does tell me that Pleeth once said that the Reizenstein cello concerto was, "one of the finest examples of virtuoso cello writing in contemporary music". Franz Reizenstein and half a dozen of his guests were sitting alongside me in my usual position just behind the BBC announcer. I have to confess that I found the work not to my teenage taste, but it was exciting being there on such an auspicious occasion. I have never heard that cello concerto again from that day to this and there appears to be no recording of it.

One day, before the red transmission light came on, Charles Groves, announced to the orchestra that they were to play the Minuet and Trio of Haydn's 95th Symphony without the second time repeats. Afterwards I asked Reginald Stead what was meant by that. He took the time to show me his score and explain to me about the conventional repeats in classical minuets and trios.

"We were rather short of time this morning," he said, "and so we had to omit the Minuet's second time repeats otherwise we would have been faded out before the end of the concert. Nothing is allowed to keep the news waiting."

There was always something new for me to learn and I lapped it all up.

I checked recently from several different CDs of that symphony and found that leaving out the second time repeats of the minuet would have saved only about 90 seconds. That says something about the BBC's insistence on timing accuracy, to say nothing of Charles Groves' precise tempi, and it also left Roger Moffatt, the resident BBC announcer, with no scope for stumbles. (Roger later worked for several BBC radio stations, including BBC Radio Sheffield. He died in 1986 aged only 59 so he was only 10 years older than me.)

Addition; 05 August 2019: I have just discovered that the Reizenstein Cello Concerto with Raphael Wallfisch and the Konzerthausorchestra Berlin conducted by Nicholas Milton, is available on Spotify – a 2018 recording. I have just downloaded it and will now break off editing this autobiography and listen to it for the first time since its premiere 68 years ago.

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