Time flight: 1951

A journey around the media of 1951

There is little choice of television in 1951 – not for the viewers for the obvious fact that there is only one channel, and even less choice for me because I’m limited by what survives. Accessing archive radio has proved challenging too, which makes me glad that there is at least one additional commercial listening option.

I’ve been really curious to sample some of Radio Luxembourg’s output – any, in fact. It seems like this fantasy station that I’ve only heard of – at least I have vague pre-conceptions about BBC radio; this era has been sampled in documentaries, films and various television programmes, while some of it is still frequently repeated on Radio 4 Extra, and you can explore even more online. In comparison, Radio Luxembourg feels elusive.

 

 

Friday 19 January
BBC Home Service
Letter From America
LISTEN ON BBC SOUNDS

Alistair Cooke has been sending his radio letters from the US since 1946. I’ve listened to a small number of them before, partly just because I was intrigued by the notion of him doing these regular weekly programmes for over half a century. In this edition, I’m particularly interested that he’s informing us about television in America.

Alistair tells us that the newspapers in the US have recently begun giving television half a page, which is just as long as the radio schedules are given. “It used to be a little corner in a single column with the stations opening for business around five in the afternoon and going off at ten,” he says, which isn’t too different to how BBC Television is currently operating – except television in the US now begins at 9am and is on air until midnight.

In contrast, in the UK television is certainly not considered on par with radio at this time; television only gained its own department within the BBC last year – previously it had come under the radio departments. It also seems astounding that the television schedules appear to have rapidly expanded across the day in a way that won’t happen on this side of the pond for over 30 years. We’re told that “they start at nine in the morning with a programme called Morning Chapel and The News, and then end at midnight with The News,” but I do wonder about the quality of what’s going on in between.

 

 

Sunday 25th February
Radio Luxembourg
Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh

The BBC has had to begrudgingly accept Radio Luxembourg’s existence. The station broadcasts across Europe in several languages, with its English language service going out during evenings and for longer on Sundays.

Before the war, the BBC had unofficially let it be known that artists who appeared on Radio Luxembourg were unlikely to be offered more work from the BBC. This turned out to be a rather poorly considered gesture, with several artists choosing Luxembourg, and the BBC soon realised they were shooting themselves in the foot by excluding some of the most successful and popular artists from their service.

Despite a wartime break, Radio Luxembourg has gone from strength to strength. Its burgeoning listening figures have resulted in growing revenue from an increasing number of sponsors. I haven’t been able to pin down the sponsor for Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh, though I’ve found reference to a chocolate company, and Rowntree’s and Fry’s have been among those sponsoring other programmes. The general arrangement for the station at this time is that the sponsor pays Radio Luxembourg for the programme’s airtime, but it also pays the performers and the producers of the programme material.

Just from hunting for an episode, I’d learned that Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh is set on an RAF base. It’s odd to be listening to a programme that started during the war. Much Binding in the Marsh had begun on the BBC General Forces Programme before moving to the Light Programme and would only spend one of its seven series on Radio Luxembourg.

I am presuming the money was a big attraction – two of the show’s stars, Richard Murdoch and Kenneth Horne, were offered £50,000. I don’t know what the BBC were paying but that seems like a phenomenal amount of money for 1951. It’s surprising that the show then returned to the BBC – all the more so considering the Corporation’s ongoing antipathy towards a commercial station that appears to have effectively stolen their product. It does make me wonder what went wrong to tempt the performers back to the BBC.

So many post-war things I’ve encountered seem to feature the services. Undoubtedly, this appealed because they had recently been a common if not prominent part of many people’s lives – and still were because National Service would last until the early 1960s. I think that while most people might have wanted to move on from the war, they had fond memories of comradeship, or at the very least they could relate to the same experiences.

I rather enjoyed Much-Binding-in-the-Marsh because so much of it was wordplay. It would take a few more episodes for me to get a handle on the various characters; although there weren’t too many, they seemed to come in and out very fast without chance for me to quite determine who they were.

 

 

Monday 30 April
BBCtv
Henry Moore
WATCH ON BBC ARCHIVE

A documentary on sculpture would not have been my ideal viewing selection as I’ve no interest in the art world, and I did think I might find this examination of Henry Moore a bit of a chore.

The production team has arranged to film Moore at work over a period of months, both in and outside his studio. Therefore, I was surprised by how little we hear from the man himself, which did seem a shame. In a half-hour programme, he speaks for only a few minutes. Instead, we hear from an unseen narrator throughout almost the entire documentary, reminding me of The Debate Continues from last year. Here though, there were sections when the narrator was relaying the artist’s own views and I would have preferred to hear this first-hand.

I liked that there were relatively long stretches of silence at times during montages of Moore’s sculptures. Even music can tell us how we are supposed to feel about something, so it was nice to be given time to simply look and absorb, without having any information or opinions imposed upon us.

What I most enjoyed was the demonstration of how one of Moore’s giant metal sculptures is created, right through from the first designs. I was intrigued to realise that though the design and initial work is the artist’s, the sheer size of the final piece means industrial-style castings are required to be fabricated and then pieced together. While it is undoubtedly largely Moore’s work still, he must be reliant on and trusting of everyone else involved in the process.

From the start of the programme it was clear that Moore’s sculptures are of an abstract style. Despite the explanations provided, some of it looked, frankly, naff to me. I found myself thinking: that is supposed to be a person? That twisted metal or concrete? My imagination can only be stretched so far. Perhaps that’s the problem…

I was reminded of the day our small 6th form English class was walking through the school grounds and our teacher paused to point out a sculpture. It was a huge granite blob and I’d been passing it every school day for over five years. Our enthusiastic teacher told us how this giant misshapen object represented a concept (I cannot remember what), and I just couldn’t see it. No matter how much he tried to help us, I couldn’t accept that this was anything but an eyesore.

By the end of the programme, I had to conclude that Moore’s work simply wasn’t to my taste, yet I had enjoyed learning about the process of its design and construction.

 

 

The Pictures
Old Mother Riley’s Jungle Treasure
Certificate: U

Although the name Old Mother Riley was vaguely familiar to me, I had no idea what to expect from this film. Luckily, Talking Pictures TV provided a brief Who Was Old Mother Riley? intro programme that gave me more of an overview.

Mother Riley is a loud, clumsy old woman, and at the start of the film she and her daughter are working in an antique shop. Mother Riley is visited by a ghost, who directs her to buried treasure he left on an island. I wanted the jungle treasure hunt indicated by the title, but it took an age to get there. The comedy before they leave is all physical and I wasn’t that engaged by it – I enjoyed it more when they boarded a plane and introduced some wordplay.

Mother Riley is an over-the-top character that I might have found grating, except by the time they had landed on the island it was a reasonably sized ensemble cast.

After a jungle trek the group can hear native singing and music. We eventually see one black man in a tribal-style outfit, only for him to turn to a nearby radio and switch off the native music. As the group ponder whether he might speak any English, one of them steps forward and realises he recognises the man – they were at the same public school together. I rather liked this gag for highlighting the characters’ (and possibly the contemporary audience’s) preconceptions, but ultimately it’s all downhill after this.

The depiction of the island’s other natives is appalling as the English visitors behave like people confident that an imperialistic empire is behind them. They quickly find slaves to carry their belongings (as well as Mother Riley) and the suggestion for testing a potentially dangerous water crossing is that the natives can go first.
Despite my reference to a ‘jungle’, this looks like a very cheaply made film; there aren’t many sets and it’s mostly studio bound. The beach set is pretty small and gets used multiple times. We never get so much as a point-of-view shot of the sea and the only time we see the outside of the plane is when it’s blown up in a model shot – which I did admittedly enjoy because: exploding models!

I can see why people got so much joy out of the Old Mother Riley films – this is daft, farcical fun. Old Mother Riley’s Jungle Treasure is the 17th one in 15 years, with one more to follow next year. I haven’t even mentioned the fact that Old Mother Riley is played by Arthur Lucan in drag with his wife, Kitty, playing Mother Riley’s daughter. It was a double act that went back to their music hall days, which makes this an interesting link to much older culture.

 

 

River of Steel
Certificate: U

This fantastic little animation was made in cooperation with the British Steel Council and while it does have a BBFC classification for public showing, it seems more likely to have been made for industrial settings. The steel takes centre stage as we are shown it processed, then how vital it is to our world. We watch infrastructure and homes lose their steel, then get magically restored; everything from bridges and cars to armchairs and nappy pins. It’s lively and colourful and abstract so I found the whole film really engaging.

 

 

The Frogmen
Certificate: U

The Frogmen is about a special underwater section of the US Navy. They’re depicted initially as an arrogant lot, feeling that the skilled and risky nature of their jobs puts them above the ordinary seamen. They clash with their new commanding officer, and this provides a storyline throughout the film.

I fancied The Frogmen for the chance to see a young Robert Wagner, who I greatly enjoyed in It Takes a Thief when I visited the 1960s. The rest of the cast were not familiar to me. I was also drawn in by the promised underwater action, which proved impressive for the period and was the highlight of the film for me. Although it mostly consists of the men setting up their explosive charges, later on, there are full on vicious knife fights.

I was reminded of Thunderball (1965), a Bond film that is lauded for its innovative underwater sequences. The Frogmen is certainly far more limited – I think there may have been only a single submergible camera. It also lacks the incidental music that helps make Thunderball’s sequences so exiting and entertaining. On the other hand, the frequent silence, bar the men’s breathing apparatus, does itself provide a tense atmosphere for The Frogmen. Combined with the monochrome visuals, which result in a murky darkness near the ocean floor, such scenes effectively depict the discomforting uncertainty of being alone and vulnerable with the unknown.

 

 

The Record Store

I’m following Radio Luxembourg’s music chart based on sheet music sales. One of the problems with ranking the most popular songs based on sheet music sales is that songs were often recorded by numerous different artists around the same time. Therefore, for some of 1951’s top songs, I’ve listened to a couple of different versions to see how they compare.

Looking through, I’m glad I’m only a visitor to the 1950s because 1951 was not a good year for me in terms of music. There wasn’t much I liked, with some of my hit choices only just making it. The sheet music buyers of 1951 also seem to have preferred the stuff I didn’t as those songs spent far longer at the top of Radio Luxembourg’s chart.

6 January
I Taut I Taw a Puddy Tat
Mel Blanc
★★★★☆ HIT
I was sure I was going to hate this but it’s really fun! I imagine it may have been bought for or by lots of children over Christmas.

 

27 January
Beloved, Be Faithful
Teddy Johnson
★★★★☆ HIT
Until last year, Teddy was a presenter on Radio Luxembourg, but he’s now returned to his former profession and seems to be making a decent go at it. Teddy has a grand, posh voice and his singing style takes me back to watching old films at my grandparents’ house. I enjoyed this upbeat song.

Beloved, Be Faithful
Donald Peers
★★☆☆☆ MISS
Ooh, no – this is far more maudlin than Teddy’s rendition!

 

3 February
The Petite Waltz
Billy Cotton Band
★★★☆☆ MISS
The Billy Cotton Band are popular regulars on BBC radio at this time. I was on the fence for this instrumental – 2.5/5 is probably more accurate. There are tinkly pianos, trumpets, yet nothing stands out and there is no star moment.

The Petite Waltz
Anne Shelton and Dick James
★★☆☆☆ MISS
This version sounds quite different to the instrumental, but I didn’t like it anymore with lyrics.

 

17 February
Tennessee Waltz
Patti Page
★★★☆☆ HIT
Just about a hit for me. It’s a much slower waltz than either of the versions of The Petite Waltz and therefore I couldn’t see it as a dance number. However, I did think it was very relaxing. It spent over two months at the top of the charts so clearly it went down well.

 

21 April
Mockin’ Bird Hill
Les Paul and Mary Ford
★☆☆☆☆ MISS
It makes a change to hear a guitar on a record when so much of the music I’m hearing has traditional orchestras. I found this very twee though and it was like listening to a nursery rhyme.

 

30 June
With These Hands
Nelson Eddy and Jo Stafford
★★☆☆☆ MISS
I played this record numerous times because I couldn’t make up my mind about it, yet the more I heard it, the drearier I found it. I did actually like both singer’s voices together, but the song itself let them down.

 

21 July
My Resistance is Low
Hoagy Carmicheal
★★★☆☆ HIT
Although I liked this, I don’t think the lyrics are particularly good – they don’t convey a great deal. The song sounded like it belonged in a musical, which meant that it felt slightly odd to hear it in isolation.

 

18 August
Too Young
Jimmy Young
★☆☆☆☆ MISS
Slow, soppy and dull.

Too Young
Nat King Cole
★★★☆☆ HIT
Much better. It’s still soppy and fairly slow because that’s the song, but there’s a nice piano instrumental and Nat King Cole is far more engaging.

 

10 November
Longing for You
Teresa Brewer
★★☆☆☆ MISS
Crikey this is a bit too sickly sweet for me.

 

About the author

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H E Cooper is a writer on historical and cult television and pop culture

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