BRITISH RADIO COMEDY

Can I do you now, sir?

Dorothy Summers (Mrs Mopp)

1920: Dame Nellie Melba sings on Britain’s first public radio broadcast

1921: The Post Office issues 4000 licenses for people to receive wireless broadcasts

1922: The British Broadcasting Corporation is formed and transmits from November

1923: Issue 1 of The Radio Times is published

1924: “The pips” (Greenwich Time Signal) are first broadcast

1925: Radio Radiance, the first radio revue, starts in July

1926: That Child, the first domestic sit-com, starts its 6-episode run on 12th April

Hello Test, one two three four

Before radio, professional comedy for the working-classes was provided by Variety and music halls. This type of entertainment involved sitting in a large, ornate auditorium watching dancers and singers, their elegant performances linked by an assortment of speciality acts ranging from memory men to quick-change artists, from ‘fumbling’ jugglers to fast-talking comics, all leading up to the climax of a top-of-the-bill turn. Perfect Saturday night family entertainment.

By 1921, a change was in the air. Households were investing in crystal set radios just to listen to Marconi's ‘2MT’ (right). This was a weekly half-hour show in which Peter Eckersley (previously a wartime wireless equipment officer in the Royal Flying Corps) sang, acted, played records and chatted to the listening audience. Radio owners could also tune into American stations and the famous Dutch station, PCGG: all were broadcast from The Hague.

In May 1922 Marconi’s second station ‘2LO’, and the Anglo-American radio station ‘2ZY’ (later known as the Manchester Metrovic) were granted licences by The Post Office. A surge in the sale of radio sets resulted, and within a month, sixty-three wireless societies had expressed interest in obtaining a licence. Acknowledging the importance of the technology, Britain’s Postmaster General, Frederick Kellaway, decided to establish a sole operator, of which he became General Manager. This move was intended to increase radio’s financial viability and listener choice: on the 18th October 1922, the British Broadcasting Company Limited was formed.

The first transmission would be a month later, on the 14th November. This contained news of the General Election, and one story that was very important to the BBC. Frederick Kellaway had lost his seat and would now have to stand down from his role within the new corporation. A young engineer with no broadcasting experience, John Reith, took over the job. Making up for his initial lack of relevant knowledge, Reith would prove to be the backbone of this fledgling company.

In the twelve years that Reith (later, Lord Reith) was in charge, Light Entertainment (LE) was never at the top of his agenda. Despite imposing the famous BBC directive to “educate, inform and entertain”, Reith admitted to a personal “distaste for Variety shows and dance-band singers”.

 

The respectability of radio was paramount: one instance of the Reithian way was to ban Sunday broadcasting before 12.30pm, when listeners were assumed to be in church. His dislike for populist entertainment did not, however, prevent some comedy from entering the radio schedules. The first comedian to broadcast officially was Billy Beer who on 16th November 1922 (the second day of broadcasting), gave the nation a monologue entitled “The Parish News”.

Twelve days later, the British public heard a show called The Cat’s Whisker performed by the cheerful chubby comic, Norman Long. He wowed the listening audience with his ‘home-made’ songs and was asked back immediately, but with a billing change from “A song, a smile and a piano” to “A song, a joke and a piano”, since the fastidious BBC noted that their listeners could not hear a smile.

 

In 1927, Long took part in the first-ever transmission of The Royal Command Performance, and in the first nights of The Savoy Hill Studios shows. His first regular radio appearance was as part of Stanelli’s Stag Party, after which he recorded two series of his own: London and Daventry Calling, and Luxembourg Calling. Both were major hits - Norman Long is said to be the first theatre entertainer ‘made’ by radio. 

Norman Long in 1934 singing the song "30,000 Quid"

The day war broke out

On the evening of 31st May 1923, two new comedy shows were to hit the airwaves: John Henry Will Try To Entertain You at 9.30pm and John Henry Will Try Again at 10pm. They were an instant success and Henry became the first national radio personality. It seems that his soft Yorkshire tones appealed to listeners weary of the 'Oxbridge' accent.

Henry then starred in Our Lizzie, as part of the 1923 Xmas Day radio schedule. This cranked up his popularity, as did the introduction of his wife Blossom into his act. In 1925, they were Britain’s first husband & wife comedy team (above), establishing their An Hour In A Restaurant (left) as the forerunner to all domestic sitcoms.

12th April 1926 was to be another landmark in BBC radio comedy: a six-part series was aired. That Girl starred Mabel Constanduros (left), a comedienne who went on to perform for another twenty years despite the show being dropped after one series. Her star vehicle was the character Mrs Buggins, loved not only by the public but also by Lord Reith. This may explain Constanduros’ status as the first comic to be paid the handsome sum of five guineas a show by the BBC. 

By the late twenties, Lord Reith could no longer ignore the audience in their demands for more radio comedy. Regular variety comics - Willie Rouse, Teddy Brown, Wish Wynne and the unique Robb Wilton (right) - began adapting their routines to fit the medium and secured a steady stream of work from the BBC.

 

A card was handed to all comedians before recording their first broadcast. This read “No gags on Scotsmen, Welshmen, Clergymen, Drink or Medical matters. Do not sneeze into the microphone!’  What might they have made of Frankie Boyle?...

In 1933 the inevitable happened and Lord Reith created a separate Variety department. It was headed by ex-Radio Times editor, Eric Maschwitz, who had enjoyed huge success the previous year as the producer of Good-night Vienna. This was one of the first radio shows to transfer to film, a medium for which it may not have been suited. A story goes that when Maschwitz passed a cinema showing the film and asked the Commissionaire how it was being received, he was given the pithy reply: “About as well as Good-night Lewisham would do in Vienna”.

By the mid-1930s the BBC was broadcasting over two hundred comedy programmes a year, but mainly as live relays from variety theatres and music halls. “The Beeb”, now transmitting from new studios at Broadcasting House, Portland Place, (left) had other radio broadcasters to contend with. Foreign stations, such as Radio Normandy and Radio Luxembourg were airing English-speaking comedy shows including Myrtle And Bertie, At Home With The Halberts and A Question Of Taste. The BBC began to develop a set of tactics to maintain their audience.

Hello playmates!

One of these tactics was to broadcast in the same slot each week, a novel idea at the time. Starting on 5th January 1938 and airing every Wednesday for eighteen weeks, Band Waggon was to become a huge success. The show brought together ‘Big-hearted’ Arthur Askey and straight-man Richard ‘Stinker’ Murdoch (right). Together they formed one of radio’s most celebrated double acts. The early episodes were considered by the management to be mediocre, and by the third show the BBC was considering pulling the series.

Episode 3 of series 3 of Band Waggon starring Arthur Askey & Richard Murdoch

Askey, no stranger to radio, knew what did and didn’t work on the medium, and suggested he could both improve the current script and add some of his own jokes. The result was a more slick and fast-paced show. He gave it a signature tune and began to interact more with the orchestra and its leader, Jack Hylton.

 

A fictitious flat on the roof of Broadcasting House where Askey and Murdoch lived was invented. Punchlines leading to an audience groan were sent to “Chestnut Corner”, a clever device for getting away with bad gags. Regular characters were established such as Mrs Bagwash, her daughter Nausea and Billy The Goat. Catchphrases included “Proper ‘um-drum”, “You silly little man” and of course “AYTHANG-YU”. Askey made Band Waggon the first ‘must-listen to’ comedy show for the BBC.

The BBC had found the winning formula for comedy radio: lead performers, whacky supporting characters and lots of memorable catchphrases. It was this combination that Ted Kavanagh used when he sat down and wrote the most successful BBC radio show of all time. ITMA - It’s That Man Again (three images right) began broadcasting in 1939 and was at its height, heard live by over thirty million people world-wide. It ran for over ten years, producing over three hundred shows and helping to sustain morale during WWII.

The show ran to twelve series, and would no doubt have continued if not for the untimely death of Handley. Three days after recording the 310th episode, he died of a cerebral haemorrhage bought on by high blood pressure. The country was in mourning. Cathedral memorial services for Handley were held simultaneously in Liverpool and St. Paul’s (a first for any performer) and were broadcast live on radio. The Bishop of London, William Wand, said Handley was "one whose genius transmuted the copper of our common experience into the gold of exquisite foolery. His raillery was without cynicism, and his satire without malice”.

ITMA was hosted by the pun-laden Liverpudlian Tommy Handley, who had already been noticed on such radio revue shows as Inaninn, Hot Pot and Tommy’s Tours. Unfortunately, just like the first series of Bandwaggon, ITMA did not go down well with the middle-class audience: they found it generally incoherent, with too many Northern references. But Britain was at war, and the show’s constant jibes about the German army and government made it a favourite among the forces.

The forties became a productive time for the BBC Radio Variety department. Unsettled by war, people tuned in for a morale boost. The department was initially evacuated from London to Bristol where it began to broadcast, but after the fall of France the city was considered unsafe, so Variety was billeted to Bangor in North Wales. It was said the whole department boarded a train at Weston-super-Mare: 204 staff, 514 cases, 175 trunks, 40 bikes, 9 prams, 8 dogs, 8 baby’s cots, 3 cats, 2 hat stands, a parrot and a mangle.  

Other successful wartime shows included Garrison Theatre, Hi-Gang! and Ack Ack Beer-Beer, the last of which introduced the listeners to a young Kenneth Horne. ENSA and the gang-shows proved to be a great training ground for many young comedy writers and performers.

 

Horne himself had been a safety glass salesman before the war, but wrote about military life: his Much-Binding-In-The Marsh was based around the world of the RAF, while Merry-Go-Round was a show catering for each of the three services in weekly rotation. Other radio programmes such as They’re Out and Variety Bandbox were written to entertain the forces overseas but also proved to be popular at home.

Variety Bandbox from 1950

Take It From Here ushered in a golden age for radio comedy, and by the early 50s the BBC was brimming with outstanding shows. These included Fine Goings On with Frankie Howerd, Life With The Lyons, and the star-making vehicle Educating Archie (right). One of Archie’s alumni was Anthony Hancock, who went on to have an enormous hit with the Galton & Simpson series, Hancock’s Half Hour between 1954 and 1959. It was also at this time that a break-through in technology ended the need for a heavy, bulky vacuum tube and gave birth to portable radios with light transistors.

By the end of the decade, radio comedy was being taken seriously. In 1950, the comedians’ weekly visits into family parlours made them household names. Writers and producers were beginning to appreciate the preferences of their working class audiences, creating shows about their lives as seen in Ben Warriss and Jimmy Jewell’s Up The Pole and Ted Ray’s Ray’s A Laugh (left).

 

But the portrayal that really hit home was part of a regular sketch on Take It From Here, written by Frank Muir and Dennis Norden. Each week, Jimmy Edward’s overbearing boozy father would lord it over his family The Glums (left), who were suffering the same post-war austerity as their listeners.

Ying tong ying tong ying tong ying tong...

The world was modernising, and the new listener wanted new comedy. Radio in the fifties was losing its audience to a different medium, television. BBC radio needed something exceptional to keep the public tuned in. Young audiences were keen on the outlandish and bizarre - The Goons was a perfect fit.

 

Although never achieving the substantial audiences of ITMA or Take It From Here, The Goons (two images right) was still the most inventive and influential show ever to be recorded. It made stars of Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe and Michael Bentine, who performed ludicrous plots laden with puns, crazy characters and sensational sound effects. Written mostly by the unorthodox Milligan, the show’s surrealism changed not just radio comedy but British comedy.

By the beginning of the 1960s, topical shows began to appear. The writing team of David Frost’s That Was The Week That Was moved quickly from television to radio. Two of these writers - Marty Feldman and Barry Took - went on to create Round The Horne; John Cleese and Bill Oddie wrote and performed in Cambridge Circus which was transformed into I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again (right) after just three episodes. 

Cleese and Oddie also formed part of the so-called Oxbridge set now breaking through in both live and recorded comedy, and which included Tim Brooke-Taylor, Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett. While their youthful, anarchic style was making an impact, traditional radio sit-coms remained incredibly popular, and none more so than The Men From The Ministry which ran for fifteen years from 1962 and The Navy Lark which ran for eighteen from 1959. 

By the mid-70s another wave of news-centric programmes began to make their mark. These included The News Quiz and The News Huddlines (right) created by a young producer, John Lloyd; and Week Ending, a perfect showcase for fledgling writers.

Radio had to start fighting hard against the new family-focused box, and one way was to take a telly favourite and convert it into a radio show, either as a straight lift (Steptoe & Son; The Likely Lads - right), or by placing familiar TV characters in a new plot.

 

This process occasionally took place in later years: It Sticks Out Half A Mile (1981) was one such programme, in which Dad’s Army characters purchased Frambourne Pier for post-war renovation. Unfortunately, the pilot recordings and most of the series episodes were wiped following a BBC mix-up. Another was Yes Minister (1983) which ran for sixteen episodes on BBC Radio Four.

Tread boldly, men

At the end of the decade a new form of radio comedy had arrived - the wacky Disc Jockey. No Brit did it quite so well as Kenny Everett (left). Everett played music like any other jockey, but then punctuated the track list with spoof interviews, silly sketches and even regular characters such as Sid Snot and Captain Kremmen. He could be heard on Radio London, Radio Luxembourg and Capital radio as well as on BBC Radio One.

 

Adrian Juste (left) was another mainstream radio host who performed sketches and jokes; these were interspersed with classic comedy show clips and stand-up recordings. His source material was novel and often controversial, guaranteeing him both audience and publicity.

Also at this time, another up-and-coming producer was helping to revitalise radio comedy. Geoffrey Perkins was working on the flagging panel show I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue (top right) (the spin-off of I’m Sorry I’ll Read That Again and Hello Cheeky). One of his contributions was the game “Mornington Crescent”, a piece of enduring radio nonsense. The weekly show is still running today, as relevant in its irreverence as ever.

 

Perkins had earlier produced the first series of The Hitch Hiker’s Guide To The Galaxy (centre right) for BBC radio, a science-fiction comedy written by Douglas Adams (with a little help from John Lloyd). Hitch Hiker’s was a massive hit, broadcast by the BBC World Service, National Public Radio in the US and CBC Radio in Canada. 

Geoffrey Perkins went on to co-write and perform in Radio Active (seated on chairs right), an innovative 1980s sketch show which also featured Angus Deayton, Michael Fenton Stevens and Helen Atkinson Wood. The programme’s pioneering aspect was the elevation of its own status above that of its cast. It had first been performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe when all four students worked together in the Oxford Revue. Radio Active ran for seven series and was adapted for BBC2 television as KYTV, winning both the Grand-prix and Silver Rose at the Montreux Festival.

This success was emblematic of an era in which radio formed the creative seedbed for TV comedy. Stand-up comics seen regularly at the new comedy venues such as The Red Rose and Jongleurs in London, The Buzz Club in Manchester or The Zapp Club in Brighton were being groomed for radio. Almost as a nod to John Henry’s shows seventy years earlier, these young bucks were adding their own names to the programme title. Jeremy Hardy Speaks to the Nation (above right), The Mark Steel Solution (above centre) and Harry Hill’s Fruit Corner (above left) all had the feel of a bygone era and owed more to Tommy Hadley, Robb Wilton and Arthur Askey than to Peter Cook or Spike Milligan.

That's you, that is...

In the last twenty-five years, British radio comedy has gone from strength to strength. Its range includes sketch shows, panel games, sit-coms and plays. Huge stars have been created: Robert Newman and David Baddiel - one half of the team that created The Mary Whitehouse Experience (left)- went on to become the first comics to perform at a sold-out Wembley Arena.

 

Other radio shows have become television hits, albeit with slightly different titles: Dead Ringers, Little Britain, The Boosh, Count Arthur Strong, Goodness Gracious Me, That Mitchell And Webb Sound, People Like Us, On The Town With The League Of Gentleman and Room 101. On The Hour paved the way for The Day Today, Alan Partridge’s Knowing Me, Knowing You and Lee and Herring’s Fist of Fun

Episode one of On The Hour 

The demands of today’s audiences, spoilt for choice across media and devices, are greater than ever. Winning formats are no longer enough. The search for novelty includes the casting of scientists, doctors, athletes, chefs and many other celebrities from different fields to perform alongside comics and attract new audiences. One example is The Infinite Monkey Cage, which places comedian Robin Ince and physicist Brian Cox (right) together in a show that discusses topics such as apocalypse, religion, extra-terrestrial life and cosmology – in a comedy context. 

The BBC has been the main producer of British radio comedy for nearly a century, with neglible input from commercial stations. Perhaps now that radio's more recent developments - podcasts, SoundCloud, internet radio, audio-on-demand - are leading to new audience reach, new investors will appear. But the principles of comedy remain unchanged: a great set-up and punchline will hit the mark, regardless of the technology used to delivery them.

Sources and Suggested Reading

 

Gifford D. The Golden Age of Radio (1985)

Nobbs G. The Wireless Stars (1972)

Furst S. & Foster A. Radio Comedy 1938-68 (1996)

Johnson B. Round Mr Horne: The Life of Kenneth Horne (2013)

Fisher J. Funny Way To Be A Hero (2013)