What’s on tonight?

The first public television programmed transmissions in the world were sent from the BBC studios at Alexandra Palace in north London. A picture of the transmitter mast would appear at the start of the day’s programmes which were introduced with the words ‘This is direct television from the studios at Alexandra Palace’. Well into the 1950s, the news was introduced by stirring music, Girls in Grey by Charles Williams, and the words ‘BBC News & Newsreel’ revolving around the top of the mast.

On 1 September 1939, a Mickey Mouse cartoon, Mickey’s Gala Premier, was the last television programme to be broadcast by the BBC before the service was suspended due to the imminent outbreak of the Second World War. There were fears that the single VHF transmitter at Alexandra Palace would serve as a direction-finder for enemy aircraft approaching London. Also, there were only about 20,000 viewing families in London and the Home Counties of the regular ‘high-definition’ service with 405 lines that had been first launched on 2 November 1936, and it was a luxury the nation could not afford.

When I was born on 13 January 1946, it was only eight months since the end of the Second World War in Europe. The previous November, David Lean’s film Brief Encounter starring Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard was released, and on the last day of 1945, Britain received its first shipment of bananas since the outbreak of war. Four days after I was born, the first meeting of the United Nations Security Council was held in London; a month later the American dance craze, the Jitterbug, swept Britain; and in early March, Winston Churchill delivered his ‘Iron Curtain’ speech warning of the Soviet Union’s intention to block itself and its satellite states from open contact with the west.

Even if my parents had not otherwise been occupied, they wouldn’t have been thinking about what was on the TV that night as television broadcasts were not resumed until 7 June 1946. One of the first programmes that was then shown, it is hard to believe, was the same Mickey Mouse cartoon from 1939. There again, my parents didn’t get a television until the late 1950s. But I can remember watching the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II on 2 June 1953 on a tiny rented set with a 9″ screen in a crowded upstairs room at my aunt and uncle’s house in Earlsfield, south-west London.

Left: a typical Radio Rentals set from the 1950s with a Bakelite cabinet. Right: a 1950 Bush black and white television set, model TV22, with a 9″ screen and again with a Bakelite body. There was only one channel, the BBC. This was the set from which millions of people watched the coronation in 1953. It was sold at a price between £36-2-6d (£36.12 in decimal currency) and £42 guineas or £44-2-0d (£44.10), about two month’s pay for the average worker.

So if they hadn’t been busy dealing with me or my older brother, they might have sat down to listen to the ‘wireless’. The BBC had been broadcasting on radio, though only in the London area, since November 1922, so by 1946 there must have been a good choice of programmes to listen to. So what was on, and how can I find out?

Luckily, the BBC has just launched a test version of an online searchable archive of the listings that appeared in the Radio Times from 1923 to 2009, which you read about here.

It’s called the BBC Genome Project. 4,469 back copies of the Radio Times have been scanned using optical character recognition software (OCR). The archive is still in its early stages as inevitably many scanning errors have crept into the data, and members of the public are being asked to let the BBC know of these errors, as well as changes to the advertised schedules that would obviously not have appeared in the Radio Times. Nonetheless it is an amazing resource for serious research, to check obscure facts for a quiz, or like me to find out what was on, on a notable date in the past.

Incidentally a genome is the genetic material of an organism, which is encoded in DNA, or in some cases in RNA, and the Human Genome Project is the huge international scientific research project with the goal of mapping all of the genes of the human genome. The BBC says it chose the name because the corporation likened each of its programmes to ‘tiny pieces of BBC DNA’ that will form a ‘data spine’ once reassembled in the archive. I think the BBC use of the word genome is misplaced. Anyway back to the 13 January 1946.

Here is the link to the archive. At the bottom of the page under ‘Browse the issue archive’, you are asked to either ‘Choose a year’ or ‘Choose a decade’. The latter option didn’t work for me so having selected the year 1946, I then selected issue 1163 dated 11 January, the London edition. The contents of this issue then appear, and I see that on 13 January, there are two stations, the BBC Home Service Basic and the Light Programme.

Left: this cover of the Radio Times from 23 October 1936 shows the new transmitter at Alexandra Palace. Right: this black and white cover from 17 March 1946, with the sub-title ‘The Journal of the BBC’, still shows the effects of post-war austerity. The top photograph is of HRH The Princess Elizabeth, the future Queen, who was due to attend the launch of the new aircraft carrier, Eagle, in Belfast.

The Home Service provided news, serious drama, discussion, classical music etc, and the Light Programme arose from the wartime success of the BBC Forces and General Forces Programmes and provided light entertainment such as popular drama, comedy, bandshows etc. The Third Programme, predominately classical music, wasn’t broadcast until September 1946. In September 1967, the Home Service became the current Radio 4, the Third Programme became Radio 3, the Light Programme was re-branded as Radio 2, and a new radio channel, Radio1, was added.

The Home Service

13 January 1946 was a Sunday. The Home Service started broadcasting at 7.55am with the General Weather Forecast for farmers and shipping followed by:

8.00 News

8.15 David Java and his Orchestra, with Helen Hill (soprano)

8.50 Music of the USSR. Violin Concerto (Myaskovsky) played by David Oistrakh (violin) and the USSR State Orchestra, conducted by A Gauk, on gramophone records

9.30 ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’. Second of a series of services on this theme, conducted by Dr W A L Elmslie, Principal of Westminster College, Cambridge

10.15 Songs by Liszt. Sung by Henry Cummings (baritone)

10.30 Music While You Work. Coventry Hippodrome Orchestra. Conductor, William Pethers

11.00 Music Magazine. Fortnightly review introduced by Alec Robertson and edited by Anna Instone and Julian Herbage. Beethoven’s String Quartets by Ivor James, Emmanuel Chabrier (b Jan 18 1841) by Constant Lambert; Ferruccio Busoni, the Man and his Art by Mark Hambo

11.45 Band of the Irish Guards. Conducted by Captain G H Willcocks MBE, Director of Music. Irish Guards Regimental March St Patrick’s Day

12.15 Brahms. Sextet in B flat Op 18 played by the Pro Arte Quartet, Alfred Hobday, and Anthony Pini, on gramophone records

12.50 The Week’s Films by E Arnot Robertson

13.00 News

13.10 Country Magazine. Introduced by Reginald Arkell. Music arranged by Francis Collinson and played by the Wynford Reynolds Sextet. Singer, Martin Boddey. Recorded picture by Ludwig Koch. Programme edited by Francis Dillon and produced by David Thonon

13.40 BBC Midland Light Orchestra. Conductor, Rae Jenkins, with Victor Harding (baritone)

14.15 Your House in Order. Series of talks for the handyman by W P Matthew. 3 Fires and Fireplaces

The People’s Palace in Mile End Road was built in 1887, but rebuilt in 1937 following a fire, and it still stands today. This photo is from 1943. Confusingly, Alexandra Palace was initially called The Palace of the People, but was later nicknamed ‘Ally Pally’.

14.30 BBC Sunday Afternoon Concerts. From the People’s Palace, London. Cyril Smith (piano). BBC Symphony Orchestra (leader, Paul Beard), conducted by Constant Lambert, 3.20 app. Interval

16.30 Shakespeare’s Characters Fluellen (From Henry V). Arranged by Herbert Farjeon, and produced by Mary Hope Allen.

16.55 Interlude

17.00 Children’s Hour. The Kirkintilloch Junior Choir, conducted by the Rev John R MacPherson, sings Scottish and other songs. Grace McChlery reads a story The Duchess of Burrow Braes by Lavinia Derwent. Wight Henderson plays music by Bach, Handel, and Scarlatti. 5.50 Children’s Hour prayers.

17.55 General Weather Forecast for farmers and shipping

18.00 News. 6.10 National Savings announcements

18.15 Peter Dawson (bass-baritone), on records

18.30 Brass Bandstand. From the YMCA Hall Manchester. Bickershaw Colliery Band.
Conductor, William Haydock. This week’s visitor, Maurice Johnstone. Announcer, Frederick Allen. Produced by Harry Mortimer

19.00 October Morning featuring Douglass Montgomery. Script by Millard Lampell. Special musical score by Arthur Oldham. Produced by Joel O’Brien. The story of an American soldier home from the wars, sorting out the kind of world he has fought for, as he makes friends with his young son.

19.30 Report on Nuremberg

19.45 Plough Sunday Evening Service. From St Mary’s Parish Church, Masham, Yorkshire. Conducted by the Vicar, the Rev W. Byron-Scott

20.25 Week’s Good Cause. Appeal on behalf of the ATS Benevolent Fund by Leslie Banks. Contributions will be gratefully acknowledged, and should be addressed to [address removed]

Leo Genn appeared in over 80 films, including Green for Danger (1946), The Wooden Horse (1950), as above, The Miniver Story (1950), The Red Beret (1953), Moby Dick (1956), and The Longest Day (1962).

20.30 Allan Aynesworth and Leo Genn in The Man of Property by John Galsworthy. Adapted for broadcasting by Muriel Levy. Produced by Val Gielgud and Felix Felton. Episode 6

21.00 News

21.15 J B Priestley gives the second of three talks on The Secret Dream. His subject tonight is America – and Equality.

21.30 Sunday Rhapsody A Polish Rhapsody. Produced by Stanford Robinson and Harold Neden, with Edward Boleslawski (tenor), Henryk Mierowski (piano). Narration written by Felix Lubinski and spoken by Frederick Grisewood. BBC Theatre Orchestra conductor, Stanford Robinson

22.30 The Epilogue. We beheld His Glory. Psalm 119 vv. 97-104; Luke 2 vv 40-52; The Heavenly Child in stature grows (A and M 78); John 1 v 14

22.38 Time for Verse. A poetry notebook, edited by Patrie Dickinson. The fourteenth number includes an extract from King Lear’; poems by Lewis Carroll, W B Yeats, and Dover Beach by Matthew Arnold. Readers, Carleton Hobbs and William Devlin

23.03 William Byrd. Mass for Five Voices. BBC Chorus, conductor, Leslie Woodgate.
Kyrie Eleison; Gloria in Excelsis; Credo; Sanctus; Benedictus; Agnus Dei. Edited by R R Terry

23.25 Sunday Nocturne. Orchestral music on records

00.00 Close Down

Sunday on the Home Service Reviewed

Being a Sunday, there are many religious programmes. Live orchestras, bands, and singing figure largely, as does classical music played on gramophone records, plus some discussion, talks, and poetry. Although Music While You Work (10.30), continuous live popular music, was broadcast on the Light Programme, it was also broadcast on the Home Service in the mornings. It’s aim, believe it or not, was to help factory workers be more productive. I can still remember its signature tune Calling All Workers by Eric Coates of Dam Busters March fame. Here is a video with a 1963 recording of the half hour programme. The video opens with Calling All Workers, the voice of a BBC announcer, and then a scrolling list of the music played by Anton and his Orchestra, plus some background information.

Domestic topics weren’t overlooked with Your House in Order (14.15) a talk for handymen on fires and fireplaces. There was some Shakespeare (16.40), Henry V, in which John Laurie, a prolific Shakespearean and film actor before the Second World War, plays Captain Jamy. He was of course to go on to play the dour but kind-hearted Private Frazer in the 1968 TV sitcom Dad’s Army. But Children’s Hour (17.00) sounds very dull for the wee ones with Scottish songs and classical music ending with prayers. A play October Morning (19.00) about a soldier returned home ‘sorting out the kind of world he has fought for’ is co-incidentally followed by Report on Nuremberg (19.30), news about the trials in Germany of major war criminals and other prominent members of the Nazi party which took place between November 1945 and October 1946. The Galsworthy play The Man of Property (20.30), based on the first book of The Forsyte Saga, featured Leo Genn, who I remember starring in many films over a long career.

J B Priestly’s talks drew peak audiences of 16 million during the war, only Churchill was more popular with listeners, though his later talks were cancelled by the government for being too left-wing.

J B Priestley (21.15) was a well-known Yorkshire novelist, playwright and broadcaster. His best known play was An Inspector Calls. Many of his plays were structured around a time-slip, and he went on to develop a new theory of time, with different dimensions that link past, present and future. In 1940, his Sunday night Postscriptpropaganda talks on the BBC were credited with saving civilian morale during the Battle of Britain. The political content of his broadcasts and his hopes of a new and different England after the war helped the Labour Party gain its landslide victory in the 1945 general election. Priestley himself, however, was distrustful of the state and dogma, though he did stand, unsuccessfully, as an Independent Progressive candidate – there was no Labour candidate – for the Cambridge University constituency in 1945. He was a founding member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1958.

It is difficult to believe now but until 1957, the BBC and hence the panel of Any Questions, chaired by Freddie Grisewood above, could not discuss for 14 days any matter that was to be debated in Parliament, so as ‘to preserve the House of Commons as the supreme debating forum in the land’.

I don’t know what the programme Sunday Rhapsody A Polish Rhapsody (21.30) consisted of, but it says the narrator was Frederick Grisewood. ‘Freddie’ Grisewood had a long career as a BBC broadcaster, and was best known for being the host of Any Questions? from its inception in 1948 until 1967. In 1937 he was the commentator for the first-ever BBC live outside television broadcast, the coronation of King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. The BBC had only taken delivery of its first Outside Broadcast unit of two vans a few days before the Coronation, and it was placed at the top of Constitution Hill to catch the Royal Carriage as it went past. No one had any experience of operating it. Freddie Grisewood would recount how just as the Royal carriage appeared in the distance, all the equipment failed. The engineer in charge swore, gave it a hefty kick and it all came to life again so the day was saved.

Close down at midnight seems surprisingly late, but then the last half hour was orchestral music on records. Sailing By, the soothing short piece of light music by Ronald Binge that is played every night on BBC Radio 4 before the late Shipping Forecast, originally at a quarter to midnight, and nowadays at a quarter to one, did not appear until 1967. It’s likely that in 1946 the national anthem was played.

The Light Programme

9.00 News

9.10 Morning Melodies played by Harold Coombs at the organ of the Regal, Kingston

9.40 Arthur Birkby and his Octet

10.10 Programme summary

10.15 Family Favourites. Programme produced and transmitted jointly by the BBC and the British Forces Network in Germany. From London, the tunes you asked us to play. From Germany, the tunes that make them think of you.

Raymond Glendenning was the leading BBC sports commentator from 1945 until his retirement in 1964. He was well-known for his handlebar moustache and for his fast-paced plummy broadcasting style which was evocative of the time.

11.15 As The Commentator Saw It. Association Football. Bolton Wanderers v Bury. Edited version of yesterday’s commentary by Raymond Glendenning

11.30 Music of the Masters. Gramophone records of orchestral music by Cimarosa and Handel

12.00 People’s Service from the West Ham Central Mission, conducted by the Minister, the Rev Paul Rowntree Clifford

12.30 News and Foreign News in brief

12.45 Accent on Rhythm with the Bachelor Girls, Peter Akister, and George Elliott. Directed by James Moody

13.00 Ransome and Marles Works Band. Conductor, David Aspinall

13.30 Kay On The Keys. Kay Cavendish, with her piano

The New York quizmaster, Alistair Cooke, was a British journalist who emigrated to the USA in 1937, and who started presenting Letter from America for the BBC in 1946 which he continued doing for 58 years until a month before his death in 2004.

13.45 Transatlantic Quiz. America v Britain: a contest to find out who knows more about the other’s country. London: Professor D W Brogan, John Foster MP, Quiz-Master Lionel Hale
New York: Christopher Morley, John Mason Brown, Quiz-Master Alistair Cooke (BBC recording)

14.15 Music Parade. The Combined Stoll Theatres Orchestra (by permission of Prince Littler) under the direction of Reginald Burston, with Peggy Desmond. Presented by Michael North. (BBC recording)

15.00 Armchair Melodies with Helen Hill, Edmund Hockridge, and Charles Smart at the theatre organ. Introduced by Sandy Macpherson

15.30 Maurice Winnick and his Orchestra

16.00 A Conjurer in Cranford from Cranford by Mrs Gaskell. Reader, Alan Howland

16.15 Sunday Serenade. Ronnie Munro and his Orchestra, with Daphne Keif, Diane and Alan Dean.

17.00 Think On These Things. Weekly programme about favourite hymns.

17.15 These You Have Loved. Records of well-loved music, selected and introduced by Doris Arnold.

18.00 Variety Band-Box. An entertainment for Forces overseas. Shirley Houston and Donald Stewart, Dagenham Sea Cadet Corps Band, Sylvie Saint Clair, Willy Carlisle, Betty Scott, Fred Cooper Trio, Evel Burns, Violet Carson, Billy Milton in Composer Cavalcade with Rita Williams. BBC Revue Orchestra conducted by Frank Cantell. Introduced by Margaret Johnston. Produced by Cecil Madden. From the Camberwell Palace

19.00 News

19.10 Interlude

19.15 The Richard Tauber Programme. The celebrated singer, composer, and conductor in a weekly half-hour of music with the George Melachrino Orchestra. Guest artist Alan Murray. At the piano, Percy Kahn. Presented by Ronald Waldman (Richard Tauber broadcasts by arrangement with Bernard Delfont)

19.45 Grand Hotel. Albert Sandler and the Palm Court Orchestra, with Parry Jones (tenor), in a programme of the kind of music that you hear in the Palm Court of your favourite hotel

ITMA stands for It’s That Man Again. The title is taken from a contemporary phrase about the ever more frequent news-stories about Hitler in the lead-up to the Second World War. The programme follows the adventures of Tommy Handley, above, a popular comedian at the time, as he undertakes a series of fictional bizarre jobs that involved working with odd people.

20.30 Tommy Handley in ITMA. Recording of last Thursday’s broadcast on the Home Service

21.00 Sunday Half-Hour. Community hymn-singing from St. John’s Congregational Church, Ipswich. Hymns introduced by the Rev W Vine Russell; choir directed by Norah Howlett; organist, Margaret Frost

21.30 Shadow of Sumuru by Sax Rohmer. Produced by Noel Iliff. Episode 3 The Dumb Man. Sumuru: Anna Burden, Mark Donovan: Robert Beatty, Dr Maitland: Ralph Truman, Inspector Ives: Arthur Bush, Philo: George Merritt

22.00 News

22.10 Talking With You. D R Davies

22.15 The Twilight Hour. A programme of melody, introduced and played by Sandy Macpherson at the theatre organ.

22.45 In A Sentimental Mood with Reg Leopold and his Players, and Jack Cooper

23.15 Quiet Rhythm. Records chosen and introduced by Neal Arden

23.50 News

00.00 Close Down

Sunday on the Light Programme Reviewed

What is extraordinary about this listing is the amount of music that is played, whether it’s big bands, orchestras, request programmes or records. And, other than Family Favourites, there are no women presenting the programmes.

Jean Metcalfe speaking to members of the public outside Clarence House awaiting the wedding of Princess Margaret in 1960. She met and then married Cliff Michelmore when working on Family Favourites. From 1950, she presented Woman’s Hour, and from 1971 until 1979, If You Think You’ve Got Problems, a programme in which a broad range of human problems were discussed, many of which would not have been allowed when she worked on Woman’s Hour. The BBC objected to one of her programmes, on lesbianism, as it would be going out on a Sunday.

Family Favourites (10.15) was the successor to the wartime show Forces Favourites, and some may better remember it by its later name Two-Way Family Favourites. It was a request programme designed to link families at home in the UK with British Forces serving in West Germany or elsewhere overseas. It was very successful and ran until 1980. Notable presenters included Cliff Michelmore, Jean Metcalfe, Michael Aspel, Judith Chalmers, and Sarah Kennedy. Violet Carson in Variety Band-Box (18.00), was a well-known singer, pianist and presenter in the early days of BBC Radio, even presenting Women’s Hour for a while, who later played the matronly Ena Sharples for twenty years in Coronation Street.

ITMA (20.30) ran from 1939 to 1949, and is said to have played a major role in sustaining morale on Britain’s home front during the war, though I think an audience today would find the humour unsophisticated. By poking fun at authority, though not challenging it, ITMA did give vent to people’s frustrations during the war. The programme gave rise to many catchphrases including ‘I don’t mind if I do’, said by a Colonel Chinstrap who turned any remark into an offer of a drink; ‘Can I do you now, Sir?’ said by an office charlady, Mrs Mopp; ‘I’ll have to ask me Dad’ was the response by a character Mark Time to all questions; and ‘TTFN’, meaning Ta ta for now, again said by the office charlady.

Rohmer later rewrote Shadows of Sumuru as a novel titled The Sins of Sumuru, which was published in America in 1950 as a paperback Nude in Mink. Rohmer wrote four other Sumuru novels.

Shadow of Sumuru (21.30) was a more exciting venture, a radio thriller written for the BBC by Sax Rohmer, author of the Fu Manchu novels, about Sumuru, a female super-villain.  Sumuru is a glamorous, beautiful but diabolical criminal mastermind, who is even more outlandish than Fu Manchu. At a time when the role of women was clearly changing, the Sumuru tales deal with anxiety about powerful women. Rohmer portrays Sumuru as representing a different view of the world that might well win out in the end. The series was broadcast over the winter of 1945 and 1946 in eight half hour shows. Robert Beatty, who plays American journalist Mark Donovan in the series, was a Canadian actor who became well-known in Britain for his work in films, television and radio over almost fifty years.

In the dark days of late 1939 and early 1940, Sandy Macpherson’s original signature tune Happy Days Are Here Again was decidedly inappropriate to the times and he replaced it with his own composition, a slow waltz I’ll Play To You.

Roderick ‘Sandy’ Macpherson, who plays the organ in a request programme The Twilight Hour (22.15), was the resident organist at the Empire, Leicester Square from 1928 to 1938, before being appointed as BBC Theatre Organist. When the BBC switched to only broadcasting light music with the outbreak of war, Sandy played up to twelve hours per day. As a result of pressure from listeners and the press however, who quickly tired of this seemingly unending diet of theatre organ day after day, the BBC resumed broadcasting a wider range of music. Sandy was Roy Plomley’s castaway on Desert Island Discs on 29 December 1958. Appropriately he chose Bing Crosby singing White Christmas, and also Julie Andrews singing Wouldn’t It Be Loverly? His seventh choice of record was a recording of Sparkie Williams, the 1958 champion talking budgerigar. It is not known if he chose Sparkie’s recording as his first choice to take with him on his desert island, though his choice of a luxury item was a ‘radio set’.

The cover of the Radio Times on 5 December 1954 features Andrew Faulds (later to become a Labour MP) as Captain ‘Jet’ Morgan in The Red Planet, the second series of Journey Into Space. The spacesuit was used by several of the cast members for publicity photos.

So by 1958, the wireless was no longer a wireless, but a radio. By that time I had been scared by the exploits of Jet, Doc, Mitch and Lemmy, the crew of rocket ship Lunain the Journey into Space series and thrilled by the adventures of Paul Temple, the amateur detective. And someone had told me of Radio Luxembourg on 208 medium-wave – it was to be the forerunner of pirate radio and modern commercial radio in Britain – which apparently played ‘pop music’.


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