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Listening to BBC


Naidia Woolf with her older sister Sandra as evacuees in 1939

As a child during the Second War I enjoyed listening to radio adaptations on the BBC. (By the time I was nine or ten I was already a voracious reader, with most of my pocket money spent on second-hand novels.) Each weekday, I'd sit in front of the radio to listen to "Children's Hour," which aired at four or five in the afternoon, and be enthralled by the mystery and magic of such classic children's stories as The Princess and The Goblin (by George MacDonald) and The Secret Garden, the much-beloved children's novel—and my childhood favorite—by Frances Hodgson Burnett. Other favorites included immortal novels such as Alexandre Dumas's The Man in the Iron Mask and The Three Musketeers, and Victor Hugo's The Count of Monte Cristo and Les Miserables.

From age seven I took piano lessons, which introduced me to the world of classical music. Many of the programs I listened to, including "Children's Hour" and "Drama Night," used classical music as their theme music. Listening to those programs developed my knowledge and love of great world music. Each time I hear Sir Arnold Bax's Tone Poem, Tintagel, Debussy's La Mre, Richard Strauss's tone poem, Don Juan, Mendelssohn's Fingal's Cave, or Vaughn Williams's The Wasps, my mind is flooded with images of hungry, oppressed French peasants, gallant musketeers on chivalrous missions, or the man in the iron mask in The Count of Monte Cristo, imprisoned for years on a desolate island; and a delicious shiver runs down my spine whenever I hear Ravel's Mother Goose Suite or the eerie opening movement to Saint Sans's Carnival of the Animals. I once heard Edward German's Overture to Nell Gwynn on the radio and spent the afternoon trying to remember whether it was the theme music for "Mrs. Dale's Diary" or "Women's Hour." (As both titles suggest, these were popular, long-running week-day shows for "stay-at-home moms."

Whenever I visited my grandparents, who lived behind my father's shop, I'd find my hard-of-hearing grandmother, with her ears "glued" to the radio set, listening to one of those programs.

In a February 1998 letter to the editor of British Heritage—an American magazine catering mostly to ex-pats—I asked readers to contact me if they'd like to share memories about their favorite BBC radio programs during the war. I also mentioned how much I loved listening to the adult drama series which, I thought, were broadcast on a week night, beginning at eight o'clock. When the clock struck the half hour, my mother would insist I go to bed, which meant I would miss the end of the show. She was worried that I would be too tired to go to school, the next day. Sometimes I'd win the battle; sometimes she would. Incredible though it may seem.

Over the next four months I queried British Heritage readers about the time slot and identity of those drama programs. Several wrote to say that they were on "Saturday Night Theatre," popularly known as drama night—if that were the case, why do I remember arguing with my mother about staying up late? One sly gentleman suggested that I was really thinking of "Dick Barton, Special Agent" or "The Man in Black," with Valentine Dyall. Both programs contained breathtaking adventures and always ended with not-to-be-missed cliff hangers. So it's more likely that what I really wanted to stay up for was not something "classy," such as serious drama, but a "who dun it!"

Many former Brits mentioned how popular, long-running shows, such as "ITMA," "The Tommy Handley Show," and "Much Binding in the Marsh," kept their spirits up during those difficult times. When I posed the question, "What did ITMA stand for?" several wrote back to say "It's that man again—you know, Tommy Handley!"

One reader listed a long list of radio programs, such as "Monday Night at Eight"—"It's Monday Night at eight o'clock, oh, can't you hear the chimes? They're telling you to take an easy chair, so settle by the fireside, pick up your Radio Times, for Monday Night at Eight is on the air." One segment featured the fictional character of Inspector Hornleigh, who always solved major crimes. Another of his favorite radio shows was "In Town Tonight," the opening for which was the sound of Piccadilly Circus with a flower seller saying, "`Violets, lovely violets, sir,' then a voice and the screech of tires and the compere saying, `Once again we stop the roar of London's mighty traffic to bring to you some of the people who are In Town Tonight.'" The same individual wondered if I remembered some of the characters in ITMA, such as Whippet Quick, the cat burglar, Fumpf, Colonel Chinstrap, and the diver, "I'm going down now, sir," or Flanagan and Allen and "The Crazy Gang." When I asked if Bernard Miles was the man who always launched into that infuriating but comical spiel: "The day war broke out, my missus says to me ..." he told me, no, that was Robb Wilton. Other personalities he remembered included Sandy Powell, "Can you hear me, Mother?" Jack Warner, "Mind my bike," and Arthur Askey, with his lugubrious "I thank you."

Another fan of "Monday Night at Eight" also enjoyed "Quiz Time" with Ronnie Waldman, produced by Harry S. Pepper ("Hello puzzlers!"), and "The Blue Light," "set in an underground of spookily deserted tunnels, possibly a forsaken London Underground . . . with its "great air of threat and tension." She reminded me of the dramatization of Beau Geste (by English author P.C. Wren) on Saturday Night Theatre. "There was no need for a TV screen," she told me, "because your imagination created everything in your mind's eye, just as it does when you're engrossed in a book."

Yet another British Heritage subscriber still remembered "Toytown"—and the sheep with a "horrible baa-baa" that drove her mother "crazy"—also "The Hills of England," in which "Roman soldiers clanked around and spoke with cockney accents as if they were soldiers or, if officers, as if they were from Oxford [university]!" As a member of the "Radio Club" she was given a nice badge which "sported a beacon and radio beams," and was thrilled when mentioned on "Children's Hour," on her birthday—as were millions of other British children. "All those children's shows at 5 p.m. helped me deal with the loneliness [of being] an only child as I had my tea by myself."

I used to wonder how the people responsible for programming on "Children's Hour" knew when it was a child's birthday—after all, this was way before email!—that it was the work of a poltergeist! However, I just learned—thanks to Mr. Terry Wintrop, this website's gracious administrator/moderator—that due to the overwhelming volume of requests from parents (who subscribed to "Children's Hour" by paying a modest annual fee), birthday greetings were discontinued on the last day of December 1933. Nevertheless I still remember receiving a birth greeting my birthday, even though I wasn't born until a few years, later. I'm assuming that my correspondent was either born in the 1920s, or that like me, she was one of the few lucky ones to be remembered on her birthday.

Several correspondents wrote to say how much they appreciated the legacy of great literature represented by those wonderful BBC drama series. Still others recalled how the popular radio shows, such as "ITMA," "The Tommy Handley Show," and "Much Binding in the Marsh," kept their spirits up during those difficult times. I was amazed by how well readers recalled programs from fifty to sixty years ago. When I posed the question, "What did ITMA stand for?" several wrote back to say "It's that man again—you know, Tommy Handley!" Another reader (the "sly gentleman" I referred to earlier) fired off a long list of radio shows, such as "Monday Night at Eight"—It's Monday Night at eight o'clock, oh, can't you hear the chimes? They're telling you to take an easy chair, so settle by the fireside, pick up your Radio Times, for Monday Night at Eight is on the air." One segment he particularly remembered featured the fictional character of Inspector Hornleigh, who always solved major crimes. Another radio show was "In Town Tonight," the opening for which was the sound of Piccadilly Circus with a flower seller saying, "`Violets, lovely violets, sir,' then a voice and the screech of tires and the compere saying, `Once again we stop the roar of London's mighty traffic to bring to you some of the people who are In Town Tonight.'" He asked if I remembered some of the memorable characters in ITMA, such as Whippet Quick, the cat burglar, Fumpf, Colonel Chinstrap, and the diver, "I'm going down now, sir", or Flanagan and Allen and "The Crazy Gang." When I asked if Bernard Miles was the one who always used to launch into that infuriating but comical spiel: "The day war broke out, my missus says to me ..." he told me, no, that was Robb Wilton. Other personalities he remembered included Sandy Powell, "Can you hear me, Mother?" Jack Warner, "Mind my bike," and Arthur Askey with his lugubrious "I thank you."

Another fan of "Monday Night at Eight" also enjoyed "Quiz Time" with Ronnie Waldman, produced by Harry S. Pepper ("Hello puzzlers!"), also "The Blue Light," "set in an underground of spookily deserted tunnels, possibly a forsaken London Underground . . . with its "great air of threat and tension." She reminded me of the dramatization of Beau Geste (one of P.C. Wren's many adventure stories) on "Saturday Night Theatre," and how it "went on and on. There was no need for a TV screen because your imagination created everything in your mind's eye, just as it does when you're engrossed in a book." She also remembered when she used to draw and paint and how, the next day, she could "remember exactly what was being said on the radio [at that particular moment]."

I once heard from a woman who also listened to the radio adaption of The Secret Garden. Years ago I visited the BBC's little-known audio archives, the repository of many of its original recordings. I also spent time at the sound archives. It was there that I learned that the theme music for The Secret Garden was from Gabriel Faure's Dolly Suite—five simple but captivating piano pieces the composer wrote for his wife. Whenever I hear that music I think of that wonderful children's novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

I was born in Birmingham and have fond memories of that once rather staid (but homely) industrial town. Unfortunately, I seem to be the only person who remembers Beryl Reid who used to say in her nasal but endearing working class "Brummy" dialect, "It's bin so cheerful that keeps me goin'"

Another former Brit wrote to say that, like me, she remembered plays and concerts on the radio that helped her "develop a love of the theatre and music." Adding, "I wonder if the people involved could ever know what a great legacy they left us."

Yet another listened to "Letter from America," a weekly news broadcast from the United States which, as the name suggests, gave the British public up-to-date news on what was happening "over there." Its host was the late, much-loved Alistair Cooke who, for many years, also served as M.C. for the BBC drama series, "Masterpiece Theatre," still alive and well on American Public Television.

Two other ex-pats listened to Radio Luxemburg during WWII. One wrote to say how much she appreciated the BBC keeping us well informed during those "dreadful years." Last but not least: another subscriber to British Heritage—hearing of my interest in war history—sent me a tape containing D-Day dispatches from the Normandy Landings. Whenever I play the recording I get a chill of excitement mixed with shock as I hear the drone of the planes and bombs exploding in the background, and—half-way through—the voices of Field Marshall Montgomery and Supreme Allied Commander Eisenhower. As my correspondent described so aptly, this BBC recording represented wartime history "at its purist, right on the fighting front."

Naidia Woolf
San Francisco, California, USA
formerly from Birmingham - a Brummie!

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