There has been more gripping radio this year and I’ve been pleased to find some recognisable elements both there and on television. While the 1950s’ cultural landscape does still feel quite alien, it’s great to find any small familiar bits. I’m finding television connections at the pictures and at home Radio Times is on hand to tantalise me with descriptions of the programmes I can’t see and hear, while I’m grateful that Radio Luxembourg’s chart is better on the ear than last year’s number ones.
Thursday 5 June
Trooping the Colour
Earlier this year the country gained a new monarch, so this is the Queen’s first Trooping the Colour as sovereign. She had had a practice run of sorts last year when she took the place of the King, who was unable to attend due to ill health.
Although the scheduled programme ran for far longer, I’ve only been able to view about 20 minutes of this. With it being a traditional annual parade, it’s perhaps unsurprising that it seemed like little has changed. Aside from less variety in the types of shots used, I felt I could be watching something more recent. There is the same background silence befitting royal occasions and the commentary is quiet, slow and fairly reverential, while carefully imparting small details about the event.
Thursday 17 July
BBC Light Programme
The Lives of Harry Lime ‘Too Many Crooks’
A couple of years ago I was admiring Anton Karas’s theme for The Third Man (1949) in Radio Luxembourg’s charts, and it appears there was also plenty of contemporary appetite for more from the film. It’s been many years since I saw The Third Man and I don’t remember much, but I think this superb radio series has persuaded me to revisit it.
Harry Lime has a meeting with a bank manager in Hungary, where he’s been offered money to help prevent a bank robbery and ensure the manager’s love rival is the one landed in it. But there are all sorts of double crossings and betrayals going on, with Harry ultimately the only winner. He ensures the police get the right people and has sent a young woman – the manager’s supposedly loyal lover – off on a train, with an implication that Harry may later renew their acquaintance.
The major selling point for The Lives of Harry Lime is Orson Welles, who reprises his lead role from The Third Man, as well as writing several episodes. He portrays Harry Lime earlier in his life, prior to the events of the film. In character, he also provides welcome narration to the story and I found him captivating.
The Lives of Harry Lime isn’t just about the plot; we aren’t following the action of the bank robbery up-close in real-time like we did with the train robbery in The Adventures of P.C. 49 last year. In fact, Harry pointedly tells us we aren’t going to hear the conversation of the would-be thieves because it is “vulgar”. Harry’s narration moves the story on in a humorous style that enhances the programme and really added to my enjoyment. I liked several of his descriptions, including when he set the scene on the night of the robbery:
The moon rises over the city and winks at its own reflection in the Danube. A lot of good Hungarians are in their beds. The others are in a nightclub called the Arizona, dancing the Czardas. They do not come into this story, so we’ll leave them dancing.
This is one of the few ‘outside’ productions that the BBC broadcast at this time. 16 out of the 50 shows made were broadcast, having been produced by Harry Alan Towers’ company, Towers of London – I’ll be hearing more from him in the future.
Thursday 11 December
BBC Light Programme
The idea of a radio programme starring a ventriloquist’s dummy sounds daft, but it’s surprising how well it works when you can easily forget about it. You can’t see Archie, so it just seemed like I was listening to a small boy – without knowing more about the show’s plot background, I’m unsure why they didn’t just go with that.
There wasn’t a particularly clear sitcom-like plot to this episode, yet it still trundled along nicely, though my attention did start to drop off towards the end. Archie’s teacher Mr Brough visits and discovers Archie has had the genius notion of pre-writing his Christmas thank you cards – the idea being that he guilt-trips people into buying him the expensive stuff he really wants. He definitely comes across as a cheeky lad with a habit of telling exaggerated porkies.
There is a steady stream of visitors actually, with voices like Hattie Jacques and Harry Secombe both familiar to me. It seems to be common to interrupt entertainment programmes with a musical performance and I think it’s Max Bygraves here.
I did have the feeling of listening to something from a truly different world when I heard a reference to a mangle. A friend of Archie’s, Monica, pops by and decides they should do Brough a good turn by ironing his trousers and this led to something else that intrigued me. After grabbing the iron Monica says, “I’ll plug it in the light socket, and off up the table…” Left with this image of an iron’s cord hanging from the ceiling, I vaguely recalled a documentary about early electrical systems (mainly that they were massive fire hazards). As electricity was first installed just for lighting, there were no other electrical outlets – or they were limited – so a plug that went into the light socket was used.
Thursday 25 December
The Flowerpot Men ‘Musical Vegetables’
When I previously explored the 1960s, I explained that I was already familiar with several programmes from the Watch with Mother strand, and The Flowerpot Men is another one of them. Radio Times can’t make up its mind of how to bill the programme yet, so it switches between ‘The Flowerpot Men’ and ‘The Flower Pot Men’. Onscreen, it’s simply ‘Flower Pot Men’. Watch with Mother as a brand won’t actually be rolled out until next year and currently this segment is called For the Very Young, a name I rather like because it leaves it quite open as to who the audience might be. Up until The Flowerpot Men’s first episode last week, Andy Pandy had been the sole occupier of this slot, so it must have been nice for some variety.
I did find myself doubting whether I’d got the right date for this episode. Most guides give this broadcast date, but it isn’t titled in the programme listings and the way we are introduced to Bill and Ben, the eponymous flowerpot men, makes it seem more like a first episode.
One small technicality is that it’s unlikely I was watching ‘Musical Vegetables’ as it originally went out because the earliest broadcasts were live, with the stories only being filmed later – presumably a mixture of technical constraints, costs and then the realisation that these series were highly repeatable.
Like so many children’s series – especially those with some nostalgic attachment – I found The Flowerpot Men very relaxing. There is something about a narrator telling a story that is comforting – you don’t have to make an effort to perceive too much because an adult is there to fill you in. As none of the characters speak English, we also often need the narrator’s extra details to work out what’s going on. It enables you to switch off after a long day at playgroup/infant’s school. As today’s broadcast is on Christmas Day, it’s going out a little later than usual – 16.30 instead of the usual 15.45 – so it’s perhaps a welcome distraction while the grown-ups clear up after lunch.
The pace of the programme is incredibly slow, which is the main reason it is able to fill its 15-minute slot. Bill and Ben, our eponymous flowerpot men, poke their heads out of their pots, clamber out, then wander around a small patch of the garden. Today they have taken an interest in the gardener’s vegetables, but it’s a brief look really before Weed, a plant who sits between their pots, starts calling them back because she’s spotted the gardener. This aspect reminds me of other children’s programmes and worlds like that of the Toy Story films, in which the toys always ensure no human sees them moving, usually returning to the position in which they were left.
Radio Times May 30, 1952. Cover price: Threepence
‘A Writer on the Beat’ [Page 41] [Pilgrim Street box out page 44]
Pilgrim Street is described within Radio Times as a “series of documentaries” and “a series of six documentary stories”. It’s a little confusing because Pilgrim Street is actually one of the first police drama series. There is a reluctance to say this – most of Jan Read’s article gives the impression that these programmes are ‘documentaries’ but it’s not in the wholly non-fiction sense as we understand the description today.
We decided to take our cameras into the streets, the houses, the amusement arcades, and the public houses, where police work begins. Like the P.C. on his beat, we would be prepared for anything that might happen ‘on our manor’ as he would describe his station district.
Only the word ‘stories’ in the synopsis gives us any real clue on the listings page and it takes until the penultimate paragraph of this article for the show’s writer to bluntly state that the episodes are fictional. The emphasis is on providing viewers with as much realism as possible, with Read explaining his research credentials. Even with Read telling us that the series is fiction, it is still difficult to tell whether these programmes are more like dramatised documentaries than dramas.
Authenticity is deemed the most crucial element for this series and the programme is set to take a look at more ordinary police work, rather than the rare and frequently sensationalised murders. It’s intriguing that earlier in the year Cecil McGivern, Head of Television Programmes, thought, “these stories are pretty sordid without doing any real good” while also finding them “ordinary to the point of dullness”. As the series is missing, we can’t properly judge for ourselves.
Made with the cooperation of the Metropolitan Police, it’s safe to say that officers would have been portrayed favourably. Read says the programme aims to depict the police as “helpers and protectors of the public” but I was intrigued that a viewer research report revealed some of the audience thought officers were represented as “rather more polite and patient than is normal”.
‘Five Newsreels a Week’ [Page 41-2]
Historic news as we learn that Television Newsreel is to be broadcast every weekday, with a “composite” edition broadcast on Sundays.
Until now, there have been three editions a week. Philip H. Dorté, BBC Head of Television Films, ponders on some of the concerns viewers might have, including, “Will there be enough news to fill five editions a week?” This seemed a surprising consideration when Newsreel is still only 15 minutes long. However, his article conveys some of the challenges the team faces. With the programme being shot on film, it has to be processed, edited and a commentary added, so we’re told that “a film newsreel can never be entirely topical”.
I’d be curious what brief Newsreel had as it’s apparent that they are never going to be the first to deliver any important news – even the following day’s newspapers are likely to beat them to an audience. It’s not just the time it takes to create the finished product – sporting authorities are reluctant to provide access and when they do it’s with limitations. There is a preference to allow cinema newsreels to screen items first. Television is not exactly being stifled, but there is certainly an air that it should know its place, which is definitely below both cinema and radio.
13 East Street
I wasn’t that enthusiastic about sitting down with this as I’d done a few B-movies recently. However, Talking Pictures TV had a strange dearth of 1952 flicks for several weeks, so while the rest of the world slept in or went to church one Sunday morning, I sat alone in the pictures.
13 East Street opens with a man holding up a jewellery store, then making an escape out the back as the police arrive – they’re very prompt, but we figure out why later on. He legs it down alleyways and across various rubble sites, which I presumed were bombed out as they seemed only partially demolished. Despite ditching his trench coat and trilby, the police catch up with our man and he goes down for the armed robbery.
Prison life looks grim but doesn’t last long as our man Blake and his cellmate Joey escape while being moved by train. Joey introduces Blake to his gang, where Blake quickly proves his tough-guy credentials. It’s only after all this that we discover that Blake is in fact an undercover police officer. I liked how far we followed his story before this reveal as he had made a convincing villain.
He’s got a wife, but is also flirting with one of the gang’s sort-of secretaries – do gangs have secretaries? Well, she’s helping with their business front. Blake then commits a couple of small thefts, yet a few incidents lead him to fall under suspicion. Throughout, a few gang members are unsure if they can really trust Blake, leaving plenty of low-level tension and atmosphere. This all builds to a great climax when the gang takes on a big warehouse job and Blake finds himself vulnerable.
Despite my reservations, I loved 13 East Street. It was fast-paced, tense and exciting. I was intrigued to see it was produced by Robert Baker and Monty Norman, with the former also directing. He would eventually start to be credited as Robert S. Baker and 10 years later the two of them would make The Saint together. It’s arguable that there are elements of the programme here: while we see some input from Scotland Yard, Blake is largely depicted as going it alone; there are fights, getaways and shootouts; and at under an hour and a quarter you could probably cut this down close to 50 minutes for a TV-length episode. There is even a Saint episode with a similar opening plot of Simon Templar getting caught thieving and sent to prison so he can uncover a criminal operation. The Saint is far more glossy, but this was wonderfully grotty.
The Record Store
It’s only towards the end of 1952 that the NME begin to compile a singles chart based on physical record sales (more on that next year) so once again I’m looking at the number ones from Radio Luxembourg’s music chart, which are based on sheet music sales.
The Loveliest Night of the Year
This is a very operatic style performance and seemed lovely background music.
There’s Always Room at Our House
I wanted this to stop as soon as it started. There are hardly any instruments on the record so there is not even an attractive tune to help you cope with these eager Americans welcoming you into their home.
Nat King Cole
Nat appeared last year so I’ve already had a sampling of his fantastic voice. The only downside of this slow number was that it was too short – I wanted to listen for far longer.
A-round the Corner
Upbeat and relentless, this was simply too much of a fun earworm for me to dislike it. With lots of echoing and repetition, it’s an easy one to join in with after only a handful of listens.
Auf Wiederseh’n Sweetheart
Like many, I associate Vera Lynn with the war, so it’s easy to forget that she was young enough to have a career far beyond that too. Although I enjoy her voice, it’s supported here by a choir of others who dominate too much for me. The record itself isn’t great – its lyrics include “we’ll meet again”, which instantly conjures up thoughts of Vera’s most famous record, but also serves to remind us that it’s a far better one.
The Homing Waltz
Inoffensive but also incredibly dull.
Here In My Heart
Oh wow – Al has a big voice to kick this off and immediately grabs your attention. He’s pouring out his feelings and it feels powerful, backed with an impactful orchestra.
You Belong To Me
I’d never even heard of Jo Stafford before I began exploring these charts, but I’m beginning to find I quite enjoy her music. Specifically, it’s her voice, which is slightly sultry in this number as she speaks to a lover, who appears to be going away. The images she conjures up of this lonely traveller are of them in jungles or Egyptian markets, and I did wonder whether she could be addressing a National Serviceman.