A New Old Song: blog by Kathie Touin & Graham Brown

Graham writes:

I have been fascinated by the radio since a young age when I started playing around with a small transistor radio, moving on aged 11 (ish) to borrow my parents’ large Grundig radio with its better sound quality. I listened to pop music, naturally, from BBC Radio 1 but also from Radio Luxembourg (English service in the evening) and from the pirate radio stations operating off the Dutch coast.

Then I expanded my listening to include shortwave radio stations from distant lands, as well as news, documentaries, drama and comedy on BBC Radio 4 – and in those days there was comedy on BBC Radio 2 as well (Hello Cheeky anyone?).

My interest has stayed with me for more than 50 years. Today I have a large collection of radios including internet radios, on which I can listen to radio stations from all over the world in good quality sound.

So I was intrigued when I came across a podcast called the British Broadcasting Century, something of a labour of love for its host, interviewer and researcher Paul Kerensa.

The podcast’s website describes it as: “100 Years of the BBC, Radio and Life as We Know It. Be informed, educated and entertained by the amazing true story of radio’s forgotten pioneers.”

It makes for fascinating listening. Thank you Paul.

One edition of the podcast featured a modern recording of an old song about radio listening in the 1920s. It reminded me of something I had seen on social media – the sheet music artwork for a song called There’s A Wireless Station Down In My Heart.

To cut a long story short, Paul was interested in the song and we agreed that my wife Kathie, a musician, would make a recording for his podcast. Kathie was able to obtain a copy of the actual sheet music and discovered the song dated from 1913.

There’s A Wireless Station Down in My Heart has words by Ed Moran & Joe McCarthy, music by James V Monaco. The song was written when wireless did not mean wi-fi like today and even pre-dates radio broadcasting in the sense that we know it. Instead the song celebrates wireless communication via Morse code, in a rather saucy way.

Kathie writes:

I had to laugh when I first read the lyrics to There’s A Wireless Station Down In My Heart. The title is catchy enough but I don’t think you can beat an opening line like: “Oh, there’s something nobody knows/I don’t suppose anyone knows”. It’s surprisingly naughty for such an early song, though people were probably just as naughty then as they are now.

It is another of these recording projects I take on where I think ‘oh, that will be easy and quick’ and four weeks later I’m still messing around with the arrangement. It began with piano for the accompaniment; because of the time period it’s an excellent, ragtime-style piano part and really good fun to play.

When I’d added the vocal I thought it sounded like it needed a bit more. So I added some old fashioned-sounding acoustic drums in the background. (Using software, I hasten to add. I’m a lousy drummer.) It needed a clarinet and a trombone, obviously; sadly I was unable to fake a banjo part which I felt it could have used. Eventually I stopped messing around with it and ended up with the arrangement you can hear now.

One difficulty I had was the form. We were lucky to find the sheet music online but when I looked at it I wasn’t sure what the order of the sections should be. The chorus has a repeat marked at the end so one would assume you play it twice through. But there are two verses. I decided to just go with what seemed the most obvious structure (verse/chorus/chorus/verse/chorus/chorus) but that has meant it’s quite long – it clocks in at over four minutes.

I remember thinking that couldn’t be right because I didn’t think the recording mediums of the time would hold that much music. But doing a quick online search, I see that the predominant recording medium of the 1910s were flat discs, usually made of shellac resin. A 10” 78 rpm disc could only hold three minutes of music – this has survived to this day as the ‘ideal’ length of a pop single – but a 12” could hold up to five minutes. So it’s not inconceivable that the song may have been as long as my version of it when it was released. Assuming it was ever released as a recording.

I had to look up the authors in order to register my arrangement and recording with PRS, the performing rights agency in the UK. I could find nothing on the lyricist Ed Moran, but Joe McCarthy (1865-1943) went on to write You Made Me Love You (I Didn’t Want To Do It) with the composer of ‘Wireless Station’ James V. Monaco (1885-1945). McCarthy has a long list of credits including several Ziegfield Follies from 1919 to 1930 and film credits including Irene and Rio Rita. His most famous song is I’m Always Chasing Rainbows. I do find it amusing it took two men to write the lyrics to ‘Wireless Station’ (“Ev’ry time he sends me a spark/he hits the mark/right in the dark” etc).

Composer James V. Monaco had a stellar career with his songs recorded by Al Jolson, Bing Crosby and Judy Garland among others. His first hit was two years before ‘Wireless Station’ with a song called Oh, You Circus Day from the Broadway review Hanky Panky. Four of his compositions were nominated for Oscars.

It was great fun learning all this while working on the song. And it’s interesting to think about the changes in musical styles as well as the technology for broadcasting and recording these men would have experienced during their lifetimes. They were both born before the advent of wireless radio communication but during their lives it moved from Morse code through the invention of the telephone to proper radio broadcasting as we’d understand it today. Recording technology began as wax cylinders then changed to 78rpm flat discs (which were the forerunners of today’s trendy-again LP records). Both men died just before the advent of LPs and using magnetic tape was just beginning to be seen as a possible successor to wax for capturing music. They would have first experienced recording with the musicians grouped around a large horn to convey the sound to the cutting stylus; a decade or so after ‘Wireless Station’ was written, microphones became more commonplace in recording studios, creating a seismic change in singing styles that led directly to popular music becoming such a dominant force in music.

It’s a lot to pack in to a cute little song about a lonely girl and her anonymous operator sending her sparks in the dark when she’s lonely and blue. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did recording it.

Graham writes:

You can listen to Paul Kerensa’s podcast The British Broadcasting Century via this website or via other podcast platforms. Kathie’s version of There’s A Wireless Station Down In My Heart appears in the podcast which has as its main subject matter “Early Black British Broadcasters” (released on 8 August 2022).

To stream or download Kathie performing There’s A Wireless Station Down In My Heart – either in stereo or old-time mono – please visit Kathie’s Bandcamp page.

Kathie Touin & Graham Brown
August 2022

I’m only dreaming

Dark glitter background
Heading into dreamland (image: http://www.freeimages.co.uk)

Dreaming. What do we mean by this? Planning an ideal future? Day dreaming on a sunny afternoon about happy memories? A longing to be somewhere else? That strange activity we undertake at night-time? Something else altogether?

There are many songs about dreams. Most, if not all, of the ones I know are about night-time dreaming – but not the kind I experience. My dreams, at least those I remember, are a confused jumble of experiences which make little sense at all. More of that later.

Whereas songs about dreaming are typically about a dream woman (or sometimes man). Typically the singer (or songwriter) will have met and won somebody fantastic, or hopes to meet such a person, or did meet but was ignored by such a person, or lost – or fears losing – such a person through break-up or death.

The many examples include: All I Have To Do Is Dream performed by The Everly Brothers; Dreaming by Buddy Holly (written by Buddy for, but not recorded by, The Everly Brothers); Dreams by Fleetwood Mac; These Dreams by Heart; Daydream Believer by The Monkees; Sweet Dreams Baby by Roy Orbison; Talking In Your Sleep by Crystal Gayle; and Dream Lover by Bobby Darin and Mr Sandman by The Chordettes.

Other songs about dreaming, but on a different topic, include Dreamweaver by Gary Wright which is, I think, more about the activity of dreaming, California Dreamin’ by The Mamas and The Papas, about missing the warmth of California, and Number 9 Dream by John Lennon, which was apparently written in a dream.

But perhaps my favourite dream song is Joe Brown’s rendition of I’ll See You In My Dreams, a 1924 song written by Isham Jones and Gus Kahn, and performed by many artists over the last 90 years. I have seen Joe Brown perform the song in concert on a number of occasions. Incidentally, if you ever spot that Joe is due to appear at a venue near you, do go along, he is a fantastic guitarist, singer and entertainer – country, rock, blues, folk, gospel, you will get it all, and some bad jokes…

Joe Brown also performed I’ll See You In My Dreams, accompanying himself on ukulele, as the finale of Concert For George, a George Harrison tribute event in 2002 (Joe and George were friends and neighbours). Which shows that you can use one of these boy-meets/loses-girl songs for a completely different purpose.

But, as I indicated, my actual dreams – and I suspect most people’s dreams – are nothing like that at all, although loved ones do appear in them from time to time. Nor do I do anything useful such as write songs in my dreams as, apparently, John Lennon did when he wrote Number 9 Dream or Paul McCartney when he woke with the tune for Yesterday in his head.

Some folk believe dreams to have meanings and invest great energy into reading or analysing them. Personally I think dreams might indicate something very general, such as anxiety, but otherwise they seem to me to be your brain shuffling through recent and more distant experiences – perhaps a little like someone shuffling several decks of cards at once, with each deck having different illustrations on the reverse, so the packs become confused.

I have noticed three recurring themes in my dreams: frequent journeys through a townscape, in a car or a bus; appearances by my father (not surprising as he died just over a year ago); and becoming a journalist again (something I did for real from the late Seventies to the mid-Eighties) – although in recent weeks some dreams have taken me back, in a very confused way, to the BBC, where I worked from 1986 to 2010.

Anyway, here are some of my recent dreams. My recollections of them are pretty vague but this is the best I can do despite making an effort to remember them. If you think these extracts show me to be mad, sad or bad I would be grateful if you could keep this to yourself and not say so in the comments section of this blog!

1. The musician Joe Brown (as above) and our neighbour trying to raise something from sea. I believe I am trying to help.

2. I am in a modern department store. While I am there it turns into a store from the Second World War era. I am there as a reporter, I meet a man, apparently the owner, with a double or even a triple-barelled name, who speaks about changing the store into an old-fashioned look because of Brexit. My father turns up at the end of the dream.

3. In the back seat of car travelling at night, urging my father – the driver – to turn because he has failed to see the entrance to our house and an oncoming cyclist. The incident seems to be in slow motion and fades away without resolution. Then I am driving my Volkswagen Lupo along country roads trying to put a giant black key into the ignition. A little later, I am with my mother and someone else (not my father, I think) in a house waiting for one of my aunts and other people to arrive for dinner.

4. I am out with my wife, Kathie Touin, we decide to go for an ice cream dessert before a theatre trip but I have with me a sauce made from salad cream which will not go with ice cream. Then Kathie wants a restaurant meal with garlic so – instead of looking for, perhaps, an Italian restaurant – we search for a shop selling garlic. Out on a country road, we see two friends with their children in a car watching or listening to the singer Marti Webb – one of our friends in the car describes Marti Webb as the woman who played The Queen in the film (in reality, Helen Mirren).

5. I am due to be presenting a live programme for BBC Radio 2, helped by a former BBC colleague (I should say that when I was at the BBC I was not involved in production or presentation, though many years ago I was a hospital radio presenter in Peterborough, Radio 5, and King’s Lynn, Radio Lynn). My colleague plays CDs on-air while I trawl through the CDs in my collection but never find what I am looking for. Eventually my colleague leaves and I sit at the presentation desk only to discover I cannot make it work.

Make of that what you will.

By the way, I have noticed another phenomenon sometimes which is a state somewhere between sleep and waking. It might be just after waking up or, perhaps more often, as I go back to sleep after waking briefly in the night. I am still awake, and conscious of my surroundings, but into my mind comes an apparently random stream of surreal and disconnected images. Is it just me?

Well, there we are, confessions of a dreamer. I wonder what tonight will bring?

Graham Brown

To find out more

Joe Brown’s website

Thank you freeimages.co.uk for the photograph at the top of this blog entry.

48 Hours: postscript

Clive Brown Lincolnshire Free Press
My father Clive Brown when he was Editor of the Lincolnshire Free Press (image: Lincolnshire Free Press)

In my previous post, “48 Hours: my father and I”, I wrote about the unexpected death of my father in hospital on Easter Sunday. I had travelled to Lincolnshire to care for him on his expected release from hospital but that was not how it worked out.This post adds some thoughts on what happened in the following days and weeks.

At times it can seem as if this world is full of bad people doing awful things to each other but this period in my life demonstrated again how people can be wonderful. I was helped by friends, family, neighbours and my father’s South Holland Rotary Club chums. And I received many cards, phone calls and messages with words of love and support.

My father, Clive, was aged 82 and retired. His last job was as Editor of the Lincolnshire Free Press and Spalding Guardian newspapers, which are run as a twice-weekly newspaper. The photograph at the top of this blog was taken, I believe, when he converted the Free Press from broadsheet to tabloid format – how delighted he looks with his work.

One of the first calls I received after my father passed away was from the newspaper, apologising for disturbing me but asking for help in producing a tribute article. The journalist, Lynne Harrison, was patient and sympathetic and did a super job despite clearly having many calls on her time. You can read the online version of her article.

In order to help Lynne I visited the office with a selection of photographs of my father for possible inclusion with the article. I met Denise Vickers, the Editor’s Secretary, who had worked with my father, and we chatted about him while she took copies of the pictures.

While I was there a strange thought came into my mind…

“I have told family, friends and neighbours about my father’s passing, and now I am in the newspaper office helping produce an article about him for everyone to read. But all this is based on what I’ve said after that fateful night in the hospital.. What if I imagined it all, got it wrong somehow, and Dad didn’t pass away…”

There were other unreal events. The funeral directors asked if I wanted to view my father, or, perhaps I should say, my father’s body. I said yes because it seemed the right thing to do. And so, one morning, I went to town to see him.

I was ushered into a private room and there he was in the coffin, in the smart suit, tie and shoes Kathie had found for him to be dressed in. To be truthful, the tie had a food stain on it but it was the tie that matched the suit so my wife Kathie Touin and I had decided it would be ok – the stain would be hidden by his jacket, and my father was known for spilling so it seemed appropriate, a little joke between the three of us.

I think he would also have been amused because people’s appearance does change after death and, although this was clearly my father, he reminded me of an old Soviet leader lying in state.

I thanked him for all that he had done for me, and all that we had done together.

The vicar,  Rev David Sweeting, was brilliant. As so often happens these days, my father was no longer a church-goer and David did not know him. But he spent an afternoon at the house asking questions about my father. And, helped by some articles my father wrote, which Kathie had found, David produced a service and a tribute which captured his spirit really well.

Anyone who has been through a bereavement of a second parent will no doubt say, as I discovered, that it is an incredibly busy time. There were constant decisions to be made, letters and emails to write, phone calls to make, about the funeral, the house, the contents, the bank accounts, insurance policies, pensions, power supplies. It was exhausting.

Kathie was worried that folk would think we were sorting the affairs with undue haste. But living as we do more than 600 miles away, and across the water, we were not in a position to constantly pop back to the house. Besides, I think there is something to be said for sorting affairs promptly and allowing yourself to get on with your life.

It is not as if my father and my mother, Mary, who died in 2001, do not feature in my life here in Orkney. Several times a day I think of funny occasions we shared, or places we went together, or my parents’ sayings and habits.

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McAdie & Reeve’s removals lorry and trailer outside my father’s house (image: Graham Brown)

And Kathie and I sent back to Orkney a collection of paintings and pictures, photographs, books, papers, ornaments, knick-knacks, a Welsh dresser and two large model railway locomotives. Seeing the removal lorry – and trailer – from Orkney which manoeuvred through a housing estate of narrow and curved roads, and parked cars, to my father’s house was impressive.

Incidentally, a word on our removals company, McAdie & Reeve – they seem to have a removals lorry out and about around the UK every week. The driver makes multiple calls and gradually the lorry and trailer are filled up with a staggering variety of goods. On the run to pick up our goods from Lincolnshire he was also collecting, among many other things, specialist cement, a gate and fine art from London.

As it happened the lorry which called at my father’s has a distinctive registration and we were able to identify it as the same vehicle which moved Kathie and I, well, our possessions, from London to Orkney in 2010.

Oh yes, the house. We chose an estate agent while we were still in Lincolnshire and it was sold to the first people to view. The legal side went through relatively quickly to completion – something of a relief in these uncertain economic times. It is strange to think of other people being in the house, but also good to know that someone is caring for the property and making their plans and futures there.

Once I got back to Orkney I was thrown into a busy period – the centenary of the loss of HMS Hampshire and 737 men was approaching and I was a volunteer with the project to create a new memorial wall. For more please see our project blog.

Then after a brief break I was booked to work for a month at the RSPB’s office in Stromness, about nine miles from where I live. It is the longest period I have spent in a formal work situation since leaving the BBC in London in early 2010.

The gardening has suffered this year because I have been away from the house so much but we will catch up later in the year – or, more realistically, next year.

Kathie and I – with our dog Roscoe – have just taken a welcome weekend break which will be the subject of my next blog.

But for now I want to say thank you to everyone for helping at my time of loss – for the letters, cards, emails, telephone calls, kind words, meals, visits, invitations to homes and events, practical help, helping honour my father’s memory, the list goes on.

Thank you.

Graham Brown

 

 

 

The wonderful expanding universe of radio

We are 15 years into the 21st century and radio might seem old-fashioned in an age of smartphones, tablets and apps but fear not – radio is adapting and, in some ways, I believe, getting better.

I love listening to the radio, and I’ve written blogs on the subject three times before. In 2011 I complained about the programme content from Orkney’s Super Station (it has subsequently closed down); in 2012 I wrote about my childhood radio memories and some current favourites; and in 2014 I wrote about my changing listening habits in the age of the smartphone.

Kenny Everett (image: PA Photos)
Kenny Everett (image: PA Photos)

In the second of those blogs I quoted the late DJ Kenny Everett who once said: “Stay loose, keep cool, keep on trucking, and remember – telly may be too much, but wireless is wonderful.” Quite.

I am returning to the subject again because radio just keeps expanding and, in my opinion, becoming more wonderful. You have to dig around though – too many radio stations available today on FM radio in the UK, and the USA, are heavily formatted, playing the same few songs, and not allowing the presenters the freedom to be themselves.

There are some exceptions and, if you move into the internet and the world of smartphone apps, there are many good choices for your ears.

The station I most listen to is Radio Caroline. I continue to meet folk who think this one-time pirate radio, or offshore radio, station was long ago sunk. But broadcasts continue over the internet and smartphone apps thanks to a dedicated team of volunteers.

These days the station uses a land-based studio in Kent but on special occasions the last Radio Caroline ship, the Ross Revenge, is still used.

As I wrote in my most recent blog (A Remarkable 24 Hours), the Ross Revenge is now moored on the River Blackwater and last month a day’s broadcasting came from the ship thanks to some very clever new technology.

To repeat what Radio Caroline said on their website: “Friday’s experimental live broadcast from the Ross Revenge was a great success. We were trialling a high tech means of getting the signal ashore and into our web streams – a 4G Wi-Fi router fitted with a small outdoor omni-directional aerial to ensure a constant mobile data signal as the ship moves through 180 degrees with the tide.” That’s pretty neat, I would say.

Radio Caroline's Ross Revenge on the River Blackwater (image: Steve Anthony)
Radio Caroline’s Ross Revenge on the River Blackwater (image: Steve Anthony)

The presenters – Kevin Turner, Barry James and Steve Anthony – were clearly having great fun and the sound quality on my internet radios was excellent. I hope they are able to do more of this in the future.

But this is not the only development from Radio Caroline. A new station, or stream to use the modern parlance, was launched earlier this year, Caroline Flashback.

As you might imagine from the name, the music on Caroline Flashback is geared more to the Sixties and Seventies. Gradually – remember this is all voluntary – the schedule is moving from non-stop music to one with regular programmes. These include Caroline favourite Roger Day and a chance to hear again the station’s specialist music programmes such as the brilliant Good Rocking Tonight, presented by Dell Richardson. A schedule appears at the bottom of this blog.

Alongside the main Radio Caroline service – which features largely album music, broadly in the rock category, with knowledgeable, engaged presenters – Caroline Flashback provides a useful alternative, depending on what mood I am in.

Radio Caroline has a fascinating, and still developing, history, much more detailed than I can explain properly here. But, briefly, Radio Caroline began in 1964 with broadcasts from a ship off the south-east coast of England. Shortly afterwards Radio Atlanta began broadcasting nearby but within two months the stations merged to form Radio Caroline North and Radio Caroline South.

This archive film of the briefly-lived Radio Atlanta is fascinating – look at the jackets and ties the “pirate” presenters are wearing:

As I said, Radio Caroline is available through its website, its own smartphone app and through other apps such as TuneIn.

TuneIn is well worth exploring – it streams, onto my phone, stations from all around the world. And, the pro version, which is not expensive, gives me the ability to record programmes.

So my online favourites – such as Steve Conway’s A To Z Of Great Tracks on 8Radio.com, or the archive 1970s Dutch top 20 on RNI – can if necessary be recorded and saved for a convenient time.

New discoveries available from TuneIn and/or my internet radios are made all the time. Recent ones include WGHT 1500 AM, an oldies station in New Jersey (it is fun hearing the adverts and the weather reports); Serenade Radio, an online easy listening station based in England; and KJZZ 91.5 FM, a public radio station in Arizona (where my in-laws now live).

There has also been a significant recent development from the BBC – its excellent BBC iPlayer Radio app now offers the ability to download programmes to my smartphone for listening (without the need for wi-fi, 3G or 4G) at a later date. The sound quality is really good.

It should be noted that most of the programmes are time-limited and, after a certain date, will delete themselves, though hopefully not in the style of the Mission Impossible tapes in the late 1960s US TV series.

But there is also a huge archive of older BBC Radio programmes, for example more than 1,500 editions of Desert Island Discs, which are not time limited.

Incidentally, the FM Radio on my smartphone – in itself an app – was upgraded recently and that now offers me the ability to record programmes.

All of which means that, finally, after more than 40 years, my use of cassette tapes for recording from the radio is diminishing quickly.

Well, I could go on but I must reach for the off switch. Before I go, a quick mention for some of the super programmes I have featured in previous blogs and still love – Alex Hawkins’ Homely Remedies on Frome FM, Alan Waring at breakfast on Biggles FM, and my old chum Graham Lovatt who presents the Eclectic Eel Radio Show via the Mixcloud platform (49 wonderful back episodes are available) and Radio Vera.

Yes, like the actual universe, the radio universe is expanding. What will be next?

Graham Brown

PS Currently listening to Ray Clark on Radio Caroline

My previous radio blogs

Where is the Super Station in Orkney? –
https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2011/12/12/super-station/

Turn on, tune in, but don’t drop out –
https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2012/11/30/radio_90/

Radio diamonds in a digital age – https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2014/07/17/radio-diamonds/

To find out more

Radio Caroline website: http://www.radiocaroline.co.uk/

Wikipedia on Radio Atlanta: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radio_Atlanta

Alan Beech’s website on MV Ross Revenge: http://www.rossrevenge.co.uk/

TuneIn: http://tunein.com/

WGHT 1500 AM: http://www.wghtradio.com/

Serenade Radio: http://www.serenade-radio.com/

KJZZ: http://kjzz.org/

Desert Island Discs archive: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qnmr

Homely Remedies on Frome FM: http://frome.fm/programmes/music/homely-remedies/

Biggles FM: http://www.bigglesfm.com/

The Eclectic Eel Radio Show: https://www.mixcloud.com/GrahamLovatt/

Caroline Flashback schedule (as of 24 August 2015, UK times)

Monday
14.00-16.00 Ray Collins (repeat)
16.00-18.00 Roger Day
18.00-19.00 Steve Anthony (repeat)
22.00-23.00 Gary Ziepe: Mellow Show (repeat)

Tuesday
14.00-16.00 Tony Christian (repeat)
16.00-18.00 Roger Day
18.00-21.00 Stafford’s World
21.00-00.00 60s & 70s Request Show (simulcast with Radio Caroline)

Wednesday
16.00-18.00 Roger Day
18.00-19.00 Steve Anthony (repeat)
19.00-21.00 Archive Roots Americana Show (repeat from Radio Caroline)

Thursday
16.00-18.00 Roger Day
18.00-19.00 Steve Scott
20.00-21.00 The Elvis Hour (repeat from Radio Caroline)
22.00-00.00 Barry James

Friday
16.00-18.00 Roger Day
18.00-21.00 Good Rocking Tonight (repeat from Radio Caroline)

Saturday
10.00-12.00 Tony Christian
12.00-13.00 Dave Foster: Retro Chart Show
13.00-14.00 Steve Anthony
14.00-16.00 Ray Collins
16.00-18.00 Graham L Hall
19.00-21.00 Barry James (repeat)

Sunday
10.00-11.00 Gary Ziepe: Mellow Show
12.00-13.00 Dave Foster: Retro Chart Show (repeat)
13.00-14.00 Steve Anthony
14.00-16.00 Brian Cullen
16.00-18.00 Graham L Hall (repeat)

Thank you to the guys on the Radio Caroline Fan Mailing List on Yahoo! for the Caroline Flashback scheduling information: https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/RadioCarolineMailinglist/info

Radio Caroline schedules are on the main station website: http://www.radiocaroline.co.uk/

The Day I Met An Avenger – or – Happy Birthday Patrick Macnee

Parental advisory: contains strong language (but not until near the end).

In a few weeks’ time it will be five years since my wife Kathie Touin and I moved to Orkney – it hardly seems possible, the time has flown by.

Some of you will know that before Orkney I worked at the BBC – in fact, I spent nearly 24 years working in the BBC Press Office.

Frequently people who I met outside work – hairdressers, for example – would say, “Oh, you must meet lots of famous people.” They were always a bit disappointed in my answer that no, not really, I work in the corporate Press Office so we deal with press questions about BBC policy. At evenings and weekends as the duty press office we field press enquiries about everything from EastEnders to Radio 1 but that does not involve meeting the stars.

By this time the hairdresser would be losing interest. Saying that I saw famous people about the place was not quite what they wanted to hear. Frankly, it might have been easier to say yes, I meet lots of famous people but I can’t talk about it.

Diana Rigg and Patrick Macnee in The Avengers (image: BFI)
Diana Rigg and Patrick Macnee in The Avengers (image: BFI)

Recently I have been watching old black-and-white episodes of the TV fantasy crime adventure series The Avengers, on the True Entertainment channel, and this got me thinking about famous people I have met. More of that later but – spoiler alert – I can tell you it was sadly not Diana Rigg.

Most of the famous people I met I interviewed when I was working in English local newspapers in West Norfolk (Lynn News & Advertiser) and Peterborough (Evening Telegraph). My time in Rugby and Corby did not throw up much excitement.

My interviews included a clutch of DJs: Ed Stewart (post-Junior Choice, “there is life after the BBC,” he told me – and I discovered he was right), Mark Wesley (anyone remember Radio Luxembourg?), Mike Read and Anne Nightingale. Somewhere I have a photograph of Annie and me, I must find that to show you.

I also spoke to stunt motorcyclist Eddie Kidd – I remember seeing how frightened his partner looked just before his display – and Richard Noble who, at the time, held the land-speed record of 633.468 mph.

Once I interviewed the then BBC Director-General, Alasdair Milne, on a train as part of the launch of BBC Radio Cambridgeshire.

I also spoke to a few music stars, including the soul band Odyssey (my main memory is that they were really pleasant people) and the band Rich Kids which included Midge Ure and, recently ex-Sex Pistols, Glen Matlock. Looking back, Midge Ure was the particularly helpful one with the PR focus – in the same way that Paul McCartney was in The Beatles (sorry, I didn’t meet any of the Fab Four).

And I interviewed a famous Sixties soul singer who was a favourite of my News Editor (boss) at King’s Lynn – the singer’s name is lurking in the back of my mind and I’ll probably remember it after I have posted this blog.

But I do recall that at the North Norfolk Roman Catholic shrine of Walsingham I shook hands with the then Archbishop of Westminster, the highly respected Basil Hume.

And, chillingly in retrospect, I spoke on the phone to Jimmy Savile. I was visiting Stoke Mandeville Hospital to report on the progress of a local man who was a patient and, while I was in the hospital office, he happened to ring up. I was put on the phone to him and, knowing I was from the Peterborough Evening Telegraph, his opening gambit was “How is the Peterborough Effect?”, an advertising slogan of the time.

Once on a film set in West Norfolk I interviewed a most gracious older actress. This is awful – I am not sure of her name either. Not sure? Let’s be honest, I have forgotten. But I can picture her still, walking elegantly through the French doors of a country house during filming on a summer’s day.

But let’s move quickly on to a memorable day when I was sent to the Nene Valley Railway at Peterborough. It is a steam heritage railway which was, and probably still is, used frequently by film crews because of its relative proximity to London. Remember the James Bond film Octopussy, when he drives along railway tracks? That sequence was filmed at the Nene Valley Railway.

Anyway, on the day of my visit, sometime around 1985, a pilot episode was being filmed for an American TV series called Lime Street, about two insurance investigators played by Robert Wagner and John Standing.

And, yes, I got to meet both of these gentlemen though, of course, the photographer and I had to wait some time before we were admitted to Mr Wagner’s caravan.

But what made the day really special for me was the guest star in this episode – Patrick Macnee, who I loved as John Steed in The Avengers when I was a child.

I still enjoy his performances today and I’m heartened to read on Wikipedia that today, 6 February, as I write, Patrick is celebrating his 93rd birthday. Happy Birthday, Sir.

I also liked his character John Steed’s Bentley car, of late Twenties vintage I would say – ancient now but only about 35 years old when the programmes were being made.

This car was similar to the Bentleys which won the Le Mans 24-hour race five times from 1924 to 1930. I was fascinated by them – I’m not sure if I had my interest in the cars as a result of The Avengers, or whether it was because of a book I read as a child about someone entering a vintage Bentley in the Le Mans 24-hour race years after their heyday.

Inevitably the day’s filming at the Nene Valley Railway was slow and interrupted and, after I had formally interviewed Patrick Macnee, I found myself standing on a platform chatting to him while he waited for the rain to stop so he could continue work.

His persona was polite and helpful, and not a million miles from his on-screen role in The Avengers. I should emphasise that I do not mean he could not act – I saw him in The Avengers recently playing a double with a very different personality. He was, I think, simply a polite and gracious man.

Two stories stick in my mind. He spoke about a recent media report about his friend Angela Lansbury in which they had disclosed her age. He was outraged they could do such a thing to “a lady”.

And – this is where we get to the bad language – the subject of This Is Your Life came up. I should explain, for younger readers, this was a TV show in which the presenter, carrying a large red book, would surprise a famous person and whisk them off to a studio to relive their life, complete with guests and reunions.

I established Patrick Macnee had been the subject of This Is Your Life and said something like: “That must really throw you, when they jump out with the big red book.” 

I will never forget his reply.

“Dear boy, fucked up my whole day, I was just going for lunch at the time.”

Postscript

Re-discovered! Bruce Carter's book Speed Six!
Re-discovered! Bruce Carter’s book Speed Six!

Since writing this blog I have finally re-discovered my childhood book about the Bentley going to Le Mans. It is Speed Six by Bruce Carter, and seems to have been published in 1953 which would make the storyline a little more credible, if still fanciful. I must have read a 1960s paperback edition. But – here is the exciting news – I’ve found a 1970s edition on eBay which should be on its way to me in Orkney.

To find out more

True Entertainment channel is available in the UK on Freeview channel 61 (except Wales), Freesat channel 142, Sky channel 184 (+1 on channel 261) and Virgin Media (channel 189). The Avengers is being shown at 11.00am and 8.00pm on weekdays. 

Patrick Macnee website: http://www.patrickmacnee.com/

Wikipedia on Patrick Macnee: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patrick_Macnee

Wikipedia on The Avengers: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Avengers_(TV_series)

Wikipedia on Lime Street: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lime_Street_(TV_series)

Nene Valley Railway website: http://www.nvr.org.uk/

London Calling, and the Isle of Wight too…

 

Red Funnel ferry between Southampton and the Isle of Wight (image: Graham Brown)
Red Funnel ferry between Southampton and the Isle of Wight (image: Graham Brown)

Do you remember The Clash song London Calling? To be fair my headline is not quite how it was. “London calling to the faraway towns” is what they sang. But we all have to start somewhere, to mis-quote Spike Milligan, and that is how I am starting this blog.

Regular readers will know that my wife Kathie Touin and I moved to Orkney from London. Time races on and we’ve been in the north for nearly four-and-a-half wonderful years. Our only return visits to London have been travelling through Heathrow Airport, and one brief overnight stop en route.

But we have just returned from our first proper visit to London since decamping to Orkney. We also spent a week on the Isle of Wight with my father. These are some of my impressions…

For those not familiar with the British Isles, the Isle of Wight is England’s largest island and is situated just off the south coast of England. A few folk thought it funny that we travelled from one of Britain’s most northerly islands to one at the bottom of the map.

The Isle of Wight is a big holiday destination and there is a choice of six ferry services from mainland England. We took the Red Funnel ferry from Southampton to East Cowes. There is plenty of shipping to watch on the way, and indeed from the island when you arrive – everything from gigantic container ships to tiny sailing boats.

The island is busy but in early September not unpleasantly so. Car journeys take time but the traffic moves along steadily. Quieter country roads are narrow and twisty so there’s no opportunity to race along there either.

A refreshing glass of Fuggle Dee-Dum beer from Goddard's Brewery (image: Graham Brown)
A refreshing glass of Fuggle Dee-Dum beer from Goddard’s Brewery (image: Graham Brown)

Our first impression coming from the fresh and breezy atmosphere of Orkney was that the Isle of Wight was too hot and humid, at least for us.

Second impression: in some ways the Isle of Wight feels a little like England in the past – no motorways, small towns, quaint villages, friendly people.

In keeping with this we noticed that old-style Mini cars are still popular on the island – I suppose it makes an ideal runabout but they are becoming pretty rare elsewhere in my experience.

It also seemed to me that there were more people smoking than I remember at home. This may be a false impression created because it was pleasant weather for smokers to stand outside, and they were not huddled out of sight in a windswept corner like they might be in Orkney. But some of the restaurants had outside smoking areas, which surprised me.

The railways on the island are also a throwback. There is the Island Line, part of the National Rail network, operating between Ryde and Shanklin – less than nine miles – and using 1930s London Underground stock. Fantastic.

Ajax locomotive on the Isle of Wight Steam Railway (image: Graham Brown)
Ajax locomotive on the Isle of Wight Steam Railway (image: Graham Brown)

Meeting the Island Line at Smallbrook Junction is the Isle of Wight Steam Railway, a largely volunteer-run heritage line which goes five-and-a-half miles to Wootton. We had a great day on the steam railway, watching the trains, looking at the restoration projects, travelling up and down the line.

The locomotive in steam was Ajax, built in 1918, requisitioned by the Ministry of Munitions and sent to Persia (modern Iran). She worked there for many years, latterly with the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, before returning to England and working at various industrial locations until 1968.

Jimi Hendrix statue outside Dimbola Lodge, Isle of Wight (image: Graham Brown)
Jimi Hendrix statue outside Dimbola Lodge, Isle of Wight (image: Graham Brown)

Among the other island attractions we visited were: the Isle of Wight Bus Museum, where you get to sit on the old buses, not just admire them; Dimbola Lodge, home of Victorian photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, which was hosting an exhibition of Chris Packham’s photographs, and which – as a hotel – hosted Jimi Hendrix when he played the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival, hence his statue in the garden; Waltzing Waters, which has to be seen to be believed, a choreographed water fountains theatre show set to lights and music; and we took a cruise to Portsmouth harbour on a glorious sunny day, watching the scenery and the boats, including Royal Navy ships.

Kathie Touin returning to East Cowes after boat trip (image: Graham Brown)
Kathie Touin returning to East Cowes after boat trip (image: Graham Brown)

We could have done much more but we were too busy doing nothing much other than watching the sea and the ships, and enjoying some of the island’s lovely food. Crab salad, anyone?

Our week was soon over and we were off to London from Southampton by train, via an overnight stop seeing friends in Horsham, West Sussex. We arrived in London at Victoria station and the immediate impression walking onto the concourse was noise. Really loud noise. Our time in Orkney has acquainted us with a quieter life and we were not prepared for this.

Because there was no Northern Line (weekend engineering work) we took a number 82 bus from outside the station, almost to our friends’ front door in North Finchley. This was a happy accident as travelling by bus allows you to see the world. Kathie told me off for constantly pointing at the sights. “People will think you’re a tourist,” she said. Truth is, I am now, London is no longer home.


We spotted some fantastic sculptures that were new to us: a huge horse’s head at Marble Arch; a life-size bear, recently installed just off Oxford Street, see video (not mine) above; and the beautifully poignant Animals In War Memorial, unveiled in 2004 but which somehow passed me by when I lived in London. Later that day my friend told me she cries every time she sees this.

The Animals In War Memorial © AIW 2000 - 2014
The Animals In War Memorial © AIW 2000 – 2014

The Animals In War Memorial © AIW 2000 - 2014
The Animals In War Memorial © AIW 2000 – 2014

The following day we travelled from North London on the Piccadilly Line – our first Tube journey in a long time – to our home for the next three nights, Ealing. In fact, we stayed not far from our old flat and on the first evening went back to our favourite local restaurant, Monty’s on Northfield Avenue.

Looking out the next morning into the garden of our friend’s house there was wildlife which we do not see at home in Orkney: a magpie, playing with stones; a grey squirrel, running along the fence; and, in a tree just beyond the fence, a ring-necked parakeet, now a familiar sight and sound in Ealing – they are extremely noisy, but great to see.

I was also struck walking around the Northfields area of Ealing to see appeal notices and countless yellow ribbons tied to lamp-posts for missing teenager Alice Gross. She was last seen not far away near the Grand Union Canal on 28 August. Sadly, as I write, there is still no news.

Later in the trip we visited the main shopping area at Ealing Broadway, still recognisable after more than four years away though there is lots of development taking place. Sadly, this does not seem to include the old cinema which remains as it was when we left – a front wall, held up by a huge iron structure, but everything behind flattened. I hope one day the front of this classic cinema will be revealed again in all its glory.

What else did we do in London?

We visited an old BBC haunt of mine, Albertine’s wine bar in Shepherds Bush, near Television Centre, for a get-together with former work colleagues. It was great to meet folk and swap stories, jokes and memories. And, as someone said, the wine bar is “refreshingly unchanged” – it is friendly and homely, a quiet oasis in a busy city.

The author outside BBC Broadcasting House, London (image: Kathie Touin)
The author outside BBC Broadcasting House, London (image: Kathie Touin)

We visited Broadcasting House, the headquarters of the BBC, where our friend (a member of staff) was able to show us around the new part of the building, familiar to TV viewers from the comedy W1A and the BBC News. We saw inside the BBC newsroom and were lucky to stand – very still and quietly – in the news gallery, watching the news being broadcast live by a remarkably calm team.

We took a tube to King’s Cross/St Pancras and witnessed the remarkable transformation taking place in the area. When I was first in London in the mid-Eighties I would drive through here with the car doors locked and, if on foot, I certainly would not hang about outside the stations. It was a run-down area known for drug-dealing and prostitution.

King's Cross Station (image: Graham Brown)
King’s Cross Station (image: Graham Brown)

Now it is almost continental, both King’s Cross and St Pancras stations are tastefully modernised, the fabulous St Pancras Hotel is restored and open, as is the Great Northern Hotel, and there are people meeting, talking, laughing, getting lunch from the cafes.

And behind the stations is an enormous redevelopment site of which I suspect we saw only a small part. For example, the University of the Arts London is housed in a former granary building – which once held Lincolnshire wheat for London’s bakers – now restored with fountains in the front. Nearby we crossed a bridge over the Regent’s Canal.

University of the Arts London, King's Cross (image: Graham Brown)
University of the Arts London, King’s Cross (image: Graham Brown)

A couple of general observations: I had forgotten how grubby you can feel in London, how you want to wash your hands – at least I do – after each tube journey. But, speaking of tube journeys, they are becoming more comfortable. On the Hammersmith & City line we travelled on pleasant new air-conditioned trains which are also walk-through from end to end. They are gradually being introduced throughout the network. And the buses in London are modern and comfortable: while at King’s Cross we took a ride on one of the New Routemaster buses, also known as Borisbuses and – here’s a throwback – they have conductors.

A New Routemaster bus near King's Cross, London (image: Graham Brown)
A New Routemaster bus near King’s Cross, London (image: Graham Brown)

Finally, I must mention our brushes with fame in London…

While at King’s Cross we visited Kathie’s friend Adam Helal at his recording studio in Tileyard, then took lunch with him at the Vinyl Cafe next door, along with the charming Andrew Wincott who was recording an audio book with Adam. Andrew is perhaps best known as Adam (another one) in The Archers.

Waiting for Kate Bush to appear at the Hammersmith Apollo (image: Graham Brown)
Waiting for Kate Bush to appear at the Hammersmith Apollo (image: Graham Brown)

And on the last night of our trip to England we went to the Hammersmith Apollo to see the masterful Kate Bush in concert – I suspect you will read more about this on Kathie’s blog at a future date. My modest capacity with words does not stretch to arts criticism, and I don’t want to spoil the event for those still to go. Suffice to say it was a wonderful evening, Kate was in great voice, the audience loved her, the show was imaginative, theatrical, and the band was great. On a few occasions I even found tears welling up – an emotional final evening to round off our visit to England.

Graham Brown

PS There are more photographs from the trip on my Instagram account: http://instagram.com/grahambrownorkney

To find out more

Wikipedia on the Isle of Wight: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isle_of_Wight

Isle of Wight Steam Railway: http://www.iwsteamrailway.co.uk/

Isle of Wight Bus Museum: http://www.iwbusmuseum.org.uk/

Dimbola Museum & Galleries: http://www.dimbola.co.uk/

Waltzing Waters: http://www.waltzingwaters.co.uk/

Animals In War memorial: http://www.animalsinwar.org.uk/

Albertine wine bar on Twitter: https://twitter.com/AlbertineWine

Broadcasting House: http://www.bbc.co.uk/broadcastinghouse/

New-look King’s Cross: http://www.kingscross.co.uk/

Kate Bush: https://www.katebush.com/

A Californian and an Englishman taking part in momentous Scottish events

Flag of Scotland: Saint Andrew's Cross, or the Saltire
Flag of Scotland: Saint Andrew’s Cross, or the Saltire

So, after weeks and months of campaigning – years and decades for some – we are coming towards the end of the Scottish independence referendum campaign. The vote on 18 September is three weeks away and the pace of debate and argument is more frantic. Many of us watched this week a heated, that is code for shouty and ill-tempered, debate between First Minister Alex Salmond, speaking for Yes Scotland, and Better Together’s Alistair Darling.

When my Californian wife Kathie Touin and I, an Englishman, moved to Orkney four years ago we never imagined we would be participating in the biggest vote in Scotland, and in the United Kingdom, for more than 300 years. It could lead to the biggest change in the United Kingdom since Ireland became independent, perhaps ever.

It is a privilege to live here at this time, and it is wonderful that – some social media abuse from a minority aside – the campaign has been conducted peacefully, politely and democratically. And, if friends in England are not sure, yes, as British citizens resident in Scotland Kathie and I do get to vote in the referendum.

There have been many public meetings to debate the issues – we went to one such event in our small village of Quoyloo. And Kathie went to a women’s conference in Kirkwall. How many years since political campaigns have inspired public meetings? I can vaguely remember as a child going to one such meeting, in Huntingdon, I think, to see Huntingdonshire MP David Renton speak at an election meeting – that must have been about 50 years ago.

Of course, the vote on 18 September will not settle everything, whether Scotland decides to go independent or to stay in the United Kingdom. Either way the future for Scotland, and the UK, is uncertain, but exciting as well. I get the feeling that folk in England are only just starting to realise and consider the possibilities. Those living in Wales and Northern Ireland, I suspect, may have given it more thought.

On the day I will be voting for… against… come now, you would not expect an old-fashioned ex-BBC employee brought up on impartiality to give that away would you?

But I will tell you this. I am concerned about the Scottish Government’s proposals for broadcasting in an independent Scotland.

Broadcasting was not mentioned as a topic in either Salmond v Darling TV debate and has only briefly, for a day or two, been in the media coverage of the debate. But, for me, it is important.

In summary, the Scottish Government, ie the Scottish National Party, proposes a Scottish Broadcasting Service (SBS), funded by the existing TV Licence fee, at the existing rate of £145.50-a-year. The SBS will provide TV, radio and online services, working in a joint venture with the BBC – not something the BBC and Licence payers in England will necessarily want.

We are told that we can expect to retain BBC Alba (Gaelic TV channel) but also to receive a new TV channel (details unspecified).

On radio, we will continue to receive the existing BBC stations Radio Scotland and Radio nan Gaidhael (Gaelic), and a new radio station (details, again, unspecified).

The SBS will also provide online services, to include a news website and a catch-up player.

In addition, SBS will have the right to opt-out of BBC One and BBC Two, as BBC Scotland does now. This proposal also has issues, will the BBC want to cede editorial control for chunks of its BBC-branded channels?

We are assured, under these proposals, that popular programmes like EastEnders, Doctor Who and Strictly Come Dancing will still be available. Leaving aside the question of why EastEnders is popular – every trail I see for it seems to be unmitigated gloom – I think this is correct. Even if BBC channels were not available in Scotland, programmes like these can easily be bought in by a Scottish broadcaster.

But how do these proposals add up when we think of the full range of BBC services? Somehow, without increasing the Licence Fee, and without taking advertising (as RTE does in Ireland), viewers and listeners in Scotland will get everything they do now plus a new TV channel and a new radio channel.

To me, it doesn’t add up. Something would have to give. For example, a BBC that no longer has to cater for Scottish licence payers could decide to turn off, or stop maintaining, transmitters north of the border. Can we guarantee getting the full range of BBC programmes? BBC Radio 4? Or BBC Radio 3? What about BBC Four? Or the BBC News channel?

We are told that people in many other countries receive BBC channels quite happily. But, in truth, they do not get the full range of services, and they are likely to be paying extra to get BBC channels. My friend in Belgium, for example, gets BBC One and BBC Two as part of his cable subscription. If he wanted to get more channels, he would have to pay more. And only some BBC Radio services are available.

I also have a concern about our local service here, BBC Radio Orkney. We get a properly staffed, professional news service, giving us a 30-minute news programme each morning, and a lunchtime bulletin, as well as a weekly request show and, during the winter months, nightly documentary, music and community programmes.

Given that the Scottish Government proposals seem to be trying to get a quart out of a pint pot – or whatever the metric equivalent might be – some cuts in existing output might be needed. Someone (in Glasgow or Edinburgh) might decide to reduce Radio Orkney to a morning-only service, or perhaps a joint service with BBC Radio Shetland, with a dedicated reporter or two in each place? Hopefully not.

Now, you might think my concern about broadcasting is mis-placed and that the Scottish Government proposals make sense. Or, you might think that voting for independence will give Scotland a chance to get its own TV and radio services and losing some BBC channels would be a price worth paying. One person on Twitter – @AAAForScotland – contacted me after I raised this issue to say: “BBC! lived without it for years out of choice I would never miss it, personal boycott in protest anti Scots.”

At the beginning of the referendum campaign I predicted that the result would be close. I stand by my prediction. Here in Orkney I would be amazed if there is a majority for independence. But across Scotland? It might just happen.

The night of Thursday 18 September could be very interesting. And not just for those of us living in Scotland.

To find out more

Scotland’s Future: Your Guide To An Independent Scotland –http://scotreferendum.com/reports/scotlands-future-your-guide-to-an-independent-scotland/

Better Together –
http://bettertogether.net/

BBC Annual Report 2013/14 –
http://www.bbc.co.uk/annualreport/2014/home/

Lord Birt says Scotland would lose many BBC services after yes vote –http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/aug/19/lord-birt-scotland-bbc-independent

Scottish independence: ‘Yes’ vote would ‘devastate’ broadcasting –http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-28863806

Post-independence break up of BBC would be ‘devastating’ says Curran –http://news.stv.tv/scotland-decides/news/288964-post-independence-break-up-of-bbc-would-be-devastating-says-curran/

Scottish independence: BBC services might not be free, says ex-Trust member –http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-scotland-scotland-politics-27116556

My previous blog on this subject, Across the Border: Broadcasting In An independent Scotland (2013 article) –
https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2013/06/27/broadcasting-in-scotland/

How would the BBC be divided if Scotland became independent? (2012 article) – http://www.theguardian.com/politics/reality-check-with-polly-curtis/2012/feb/29/how-would-the-bbc-be-divided-if-scotland-became-independent

Across the Border: Broadcasting in an independent Scotland

 

BBC Scotland HQ in Glasgow. (photo: Stewart Priest)
BBC Scotland HQ in Glasgow (photo: Stewart Priest)

The devil is in the detail. What a great expression. And like many old sayings it carries great truth.

Here in Scotland we are moving towards our vote on whether to become an independent country. The referendum will be held on Thursday 18 September, 2014. I think the vote will be against independence but we shall see – much can and will happen over the next 15 months.

Many want Scotland to be independent come what may and they will not change their view before the referendum. Others believe Scotland should remain an integral part of the UK and, again, will not change their view.

But in between are the “don’t know” or “undecided” folk who will vote largely, I think, on economic issues. They will make a calculation about how independence will affect them and their families as the debate unfolds and as those devilish details are teased out.

The uncertainty of going into an independent future may make many undecided voters stick with the UK. What about public services, will there be sufficient money for them? How strong will Scotland’s economy be in the big wide world? What about the SNP proposal to keep sterling – how will that work? Will Scotland be accepted into the EU, with or without the Euro?

People will probably be less concerned about services such as health and education which have been run by Scottish governments since devolution re-established the Scottish Parliament in 1999 – provided, that is, they calculate that there will be enough money to fund them.

But there is a tricky area of services which currently operate across the border between England and Scotland. Railways is one example – how would that work? Would English-operated trains be expected to stop at the border. How far would ScotRail trains be allowed to operate into England?

And what about the military? Would a Scottish army, navy and air force be anything more than a token defence?

Personally I’m particularly concerned about broadcasting. For all its faults, we in the UK currently benefit from the BBC, an operation that is surely unequalled anywhere in the world.

For £145.50 a year (per household) we get a wonderful range of TV and radio stations – and online content – that provides something, in fact, lots of things, for everyone.

But what kind of public service broadcasting might we see in an independent Scotland? 

In August 2012 Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond outlined his ideas. The Guardian reported that he wants a new public service broadcaster, built on the assets and staff of BBC Scotland and funded mainly by licence fee payers. But he refused to rule out the prospect of the network carrying advertising alongside its public funding.

For me one of the joys of living in the UK is publicly-funded broadcasting which I am able to enjoy without advertising interrupting the flow of dramas, documentaries and sporting events. Do we really want to throw that away?

In mid-2011 there were 2.37 million households in Scotland (source: General Register Office for Scotland). Let’s be generous and assume every one of those households has a colour TV Licence. That will give a Scottish Broadcasting Corporation an income – without advertising – of less than £345m a year.

So, what can you get for £345m a year? I expect the BBC to publish its 2012/13 annual report and accounts later this month but the 2011/12 figures will give us a pretty good idea.

And it doesn’t make good reading for those who favour a Scottish Broadcasting Corporation.

To run BBC Two cost £416.6m in content – £537.1m by the time you have added in distribution and infrastructure/support – so there’s the budget gone straight away before you’ve got one TV channel, albeit a very good one, on the air. For the record, to run BBC One costs £1,041.1m in content which is approximately three times the projected income. Anyone fancy a three times increase in the Licence Fee?

The good news is that radio is cheaper. BBC Radio Scotland and the Gaelic service BBC Radio nan Gaidheal cost, including add-ons, £38.1m a year.

But the combined costs of BBC Radios 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 Live comes to £348.8m a year – roughly equivalent to our projected income for a Scottish public service broadcaster.

Many people in Scotland, most even, will not want to sacrifice all these services in return for a single under-funded new TV channel to run alongside BBC Radio Scotland.

And don’t expect the majority of TV Licence Fee payers in England to happily pay for existing BBC services to be broadcast for free in an independent Scotland.

Yes, the Scottish Broadcasting Corporation could buy in some of the popular programmes such as EastEnders, Strictly Come Dancing and David Attenborough documentaries – but this will quickly eat into the small budget.

And will we manage without BBC Radio 4 altogether? Or Radio 2?

Alex Salmond is right when he identifies the fact that “we do not have an English-language public service broadcasting channel of our own” in Scotland. But I don’t think his latest ideas are the right way to go about getting one.

To find out more

Guardian: Alex Salmond outlines plans to replace BBC Scotland –http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2012/aug/24/alex-salmond-replace-bbc-scotland

Guardian: Scottish referendum: BBC Scotland to invest £5m in extra programming –http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2013/may/21/scottish-referendum-bbc-scotland

BBC Annual Report 2012 –
http://www.bbc.co.uk/annualreport/2012/

TV Licensing –
http://www.tvlicensing.co.uk/

Turn on, tune in, but don’t drop out

Great mug for coffee and radio listening
Great mug for coffee and radio listening

The BBC’s recent celebration of 90 years of radio broadcasting has got me thinking – I reckon I’ve been a listener for around half of those years, which is a bit scary.

I’m not sure exactly when I started listening to the radio. I would love to say I can remember the so-called pirate stations of the Sixties – such as Radio Caroline or Radio London – which broadcast from ships, or disused military forts, outside UK territorial waters.

Frustratingly my late mother once told me that she was a Radio Caroline listener in the Sixties and, therefore, so was I. Since you’re asking, I was born in December 1957. But I don’t remember this.

I do know that I have a huge jukebox of Sixties hits in my head, records that I can recall inside out, and I can’t have got all that into my brain from the weekly TV show Top Of The Pops so, probably, I was listening to Caroline with mother but just thought of it as music coming out of the radio.

I can also vaguely recall being excited about a news item, in 1967, that the BBC was launching its own pop service, Radio 1, and I can recall my father being less than excited.

But my first clear recollections of listening to pop radio are from about 1970. As I started to get out and explore beyond my own home I met a couple of likely lads who told me how you could hear pop music all evening, every evening, on Radio Luxembourg.

It is hard to imagine now but in those days Radio 1 closed down at 7pm, just as Radio Luxembourg – known affectionately as Luxy – was starting its English broadcasts beamed from the Grand Duchy.

I can even recall the Luxy DJ line-up when I first started listening: Bob Stewart, Kid (later David) Jensen, Tony Prince (“Your Royal Ruler”), Dave Christian and Paul Burnett, shortly afterwards joined by Mark Wesley.

Someone who is even more of an anorak than me will now write to tell me that this line-up is incorrect! That’s fine – bring on the comments, criticisms and omissions.

I was also listening to Radio 1 around this time, although my recollection of exact dates is hazy. But I remember the breakfast show with Tony Blackburn; Top Gear – yes, it was called that – which was a progressive music show presented by John Peel; the brilliant Kenny Everett – until he was sacked; Junior Choice with Ed Stewart; and the Tuesday lunchtime chart rundown with Johnnie Walker.

And at some point – perhaps around 1973 – I loved the Saturday line-up of Stuart Henry, who for some reason started at the odd time of 9.55am, with his exciting theme tune of The Bar-Kays’ Soul Finger and his wonderful Scottish delivery: “It’s Stu-art Henry ma friends”. He was followed at noon by the American DJ Emperor Rosko who was unlike anything else on UK radio. If you’ve seen the film The Boat That Rocked (called Pirate Radio in North America), the character The Count is loosely based on Rosko.

Anyone who listened to Radio 1 in the early days as the 7pm closedown approached cannot forget, on a dark evening, that it was almost impossible to hear the music because the station’s AM frequency – or medium wavelength as we said in those days – was also used by Radio Tirana from Albania. They broadcast a recording of a short trumpet solo repeated over and over though, presumably, they eventually got around to some programmes. I can still hear it in my head: “Da, da, da-da, da, da, daa.”

Then at 10pm on weeknights – goodness, this was exciting – Radio 1 was allowed to use the Radio 2 FM frequencies for two hours! I should say FM was known as VHF in those days. The late night broadcasts were Sounds Of The Seventies, introduced by the groovy Theme One music written by George Martin. The music was progressive, the presenters included John Peel, Alan Black, Pete Drummond and Bob Harris.

I might not recall listening to music from the Sixties radio ships but the Seventies were very different. Soon after discovering Radio Luxembourg I came across – I think by playing around with my parents’ Grundig radio – RNI, which was broadcast from a ship anchored off Holland.

RNI was Radio North Sea International, broadcasting in English and Dutch. At first I was puzzled why it was not RNSI until I discovered that in Dutch the station was Radio Noordzee International.

RNI had a checkered history – see the links at the foot of this blog – but the importance for me was this was the first time I had directly experienced the excitement of offshore broadcasting, hearing about the storms, never being sure if the broadcast would be there tomorrow, wondering what had happened if there was dead air, hearing a break in the news because the newsreader’s chair had slid across the studio… it all added to the bond between presenters and listeners, and to the spirit and energy of the station.

Soon after discovering RNI I also found Radio Veronica, a Dutch station which unbeknown to me had been broadcasting since 1960.

Radio Caroline mug, itself about 35 years old
Radio Caroline mug, itself about 35 years old

Then in 1972 came my first remembered experience of Radio Caroline when the station returned to the airwaves after a four-year break. The ship, Mi Amigo, was in poor condition but one way or another the station continued, sometimes intermittently, until the boat sank to the bottom of the Thames Estuary in 1980. I loved Radio Caroline, particularly with its Seventies format of album tracks and more grown-up music.

In 1983 Radio Caroline returned – this time broadcasting from the rather more sturdy Ross Revenge, a former North Sea trawler which had featured in the 1970s Cod Wars with Iceland.

Once again, I loved the station, and the airwaves became even more exciting when Caroline was joined in 1984 by another ship anchored nearby, the MV Communicator, home of the radio station Laser 558. For those who know the smart besuited US Republican pundit Charlie Wolf through his appearances on UK news programmes – well, he was a DJ on Laser 558. Another of my favourites was Tommy “What A Guy” Rivers.

I mustn’t go on and on, you can read the history on the Caroline website (see below). Or go and buy Steve Conway’s excellent book Shiprocked: Life On The Waves With Radio Caroline to see what it was really like to be there.

Eventually, after adventures, raids and shipwrecks, the days of broadcasting from the high seas came to an end. But Radio Caroline continues today: the volunteer team of presenters play a great selection of music and it is easy to hear them. They broadcast online and there are even apps available for those of you with smart phones.

Over the years there have been numerous Caroline presenters but just some of the names I remember from the Seventies and Eighties include Johnny Reece, Steve Masters, Randall Lee Rose, Dave Asher, Caroline Martin, Dave Richards, Peter Philips, Johnny Lewis, Tom Anderson, Graham Gill, Tony Allan, Johnny Jason, Andy Archer, Peter Chicago and Jay Jackson.

And today’s Caroline line-up includes Peter Antony (who played tracks from my wife Kathie Touin’s album Dark Moons & Nightingales one memorable Saturday morning), Pat Edison, Steve Conway (author of Shiprocked), Nick Jackson, Johnny Lewis, Bob Lawrence, Del Richardson (presenter of Tuesday rock ‘n’ roll show Good Rockin’ Tonight), Barry James – well, I could go on, do give them a listen…

http://www.radiocaroline.co.uk/

Tuned into Radio Caroline via an internet radio
Tuned into Radio Caroline via an internet radio

But back to my childhood, I wasn’t just listening to music radio and pirate stations. I can remember at breakfast the family listened to a regional magazine programme on BBC Radio 4 – no local stations in those days – called Roundabout East Anglia.

I can remember at lunchtime the family listening to BBC comedies such as The Clitheroe Kid and The Navy Lark. I remember The World At One with William Hardcastle.

And I remember Two-Way Family Favourites, broadcast every Sunday lunchtime for years on first the BBC Light Programme and then BBC Radio 2. Even now its theme music With A Song in My Heart makes me think of Mum’s roast lunches. The programme consisted of requests for members of the UK forces overseas, and there were presenters overseas as well as a London-based host. In those days international link-ups with foreign places was a big deal.

Later I would listen to BBC Radio programmes of my own choosing. I was a regular listener to Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs, with its original presenter Roy Plomley, and I started to listen to plays and documentaries.

I enjoyed current affairs presenter Jack de Manio, Letter From America with Alistair Cooke, and as an adult the original The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, which still works best on the radio.

I also recall a Radio 2 show, perhaps in the early Seventies, which had a presenter, possibly called Don, I’m a bit hazy on this, playing instrumental music tracks. Listeners on the phone would try to name the piece of music while it played on in the background. Entertainment was simple and cheap in those days.

And I recall falling asleep one Saturday night listening to Radio 4 on FM. In those days there were no programmes overnight and, being FM, there was little interference so the radio was quiet. But when programmes re-started on a Sunday morning with a broadcast of church bells I woke up in confusion, wondering where I was and what was happening.

This is just a small selection of many great programmes and broadcasters on BBC Radio over the years, and I’ve not even mentioned Radio 3 (sorry 3 fans).

For a flavour of some of the BBC’s broadcasts over the years I’d recommend the excellent 90 By 90 collection put together by BBC Radio 4 Extra, which features a highlight from each year:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01ntlvp/features/90-by-90-collections

The 1977 extract is a clip of the opening broadcast of BBC Radio Orkney, now my local radio station. To be strictly accurate it is an opt-out of BBC Radio Scotland but it is great. The current Senior Producer, or Head Honcho, is Dave Gray and you can hear him comment on the 1977 clip and tell a marvellous story about a stuffed kangaroo – check it out.

Today I do most of my radio listening via my two internet radios. Not heard of internet radios? They look a bit like a conventional transistor radio, but with a modern design, and you can listen to pretty much any station you want from anywhere in the world. I’m not one for gadgets but an internet radio is a must – you can buy one for about £80.

The internet radios allow me to listen to Radio Caroline, to my in-laws’ favoured local station, KCLU in Thousand Oaks, California, or to my friend Alan Waring who presents his breakfast show on Biggles FM in Bedfordshire – and to so much more.

But I still listen to what you might call conventional radio and enjoy much of what is on offer from the BBC – especially Radio Orkney – although Radio 1 is, for me personally, off the dial, as it should be at my age.

So, there we are, some of my radio memories and habits.

There is so much more I have not included – internet radio favourites of today such as Radio Seagull, CatClassica, KAAM 770 AM Legends and, back again, Radio Northsea International. The early days of independent commercial radio in the UK, when stations – such as my local Hereward Radio in Peterborough – were not all soundalike jukeboxes like today. What about great radio sport commentaries, a whole area for exploration in itself?

There are many great DJs I have not mentioned, some no longer with us: Alan Freeman, fabulous on Pick Of The Pops, but whose Saturday rock show was also wonderful and had a fantastic rock and classical music intro (an example here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hyvby25HWh0); the lovely Rob Leighton, who championed the music of my wife Kathie Touin and others on 21st century Radio Caroline before his untimely death; and Roger Scott, a dignified man who continued to present great music on Radio 1 through his illness until shortly before his death.

And there are many great DJs still with us: we’ve mentioned Rosko, Bob Harris, Tony Blackburn, Johnnie Walker and others, but don’t forget the elegant Brian Matthew, presenter of Radio 2’s Sound Of The Sixties; and former pirates Keith Skues and Roger Day, still plugging away out there.

I’d like to thank everyone who has presented, or contributed behind the scenes, to the many hours of radio I have listened to over these 45 years. Radio is a great source of music, information, inspiration, companionship and, frankly, sanity in a sometimes crazy world.

And as Kenny Everett once said: “Stay loose, keep cool, keep on trucking, and remember – telly may be too much, but wireless is wonderful.”

Graham Brown

To find out more

Radio Caroline: http://www.radiocaroline.co.uk/

Radio Caroline history: http://radiocaroline.co.uk/#history.html

More Radio Caroline history: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radio_Caroline

RNI: http://www.rni.vze.com/

RNI history: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radio_North_Sea_International

Radio Veronica history: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radio_Veronica

The Pirate Radio Hall of Fame: http://www.offshoreradio.co.uk/

The BBC Celebrating 90 Years: http://www.bbc.co.uk/historyofthebbc/

KCLU: http://www.kclu.org/

Biggles FM: http://www.bigglesfm.com/

Letter From America programmes: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00f6hbp

Roger Day’s new venture: http://rogerday.co.uk/

To discover the fate of Laser 558’s MV Communicator, see my previous blog, Where is the Super Station in Orkney?: https://grahambrownorkney.wordpress.com/2011/12/12/super-station/

How an interview in a faded old hotel changed my life

BBC Television Centre
BBC Television Centre where I spent many happy hours (image: Panhard/Wikimedia Commons)

Those of you who have seen my photograph may be surprised but I am, technically, retired. “But you look so young,” I hear you say. To be honest, my hearing is not as acute as it was and you probably said something else altogether more rude.

However, I did retire from the BBC two years ago so my wife Kathie Touin and I could move to Orkney. Retiring early meant taking a much reduced pension but we figured that the kind of life we could lead in Orkney was more important than money. As it turned out, we were right.

Each month I receive a copy of Prospero, the newspaper for BBC Pensioners. Recently the BBC Pensioners’ Association appealed through Prospero for memories of how former staff came to join the BBC. It is their first step to creating a staff history of the BBC.

What follows are the words I have submitted:

I joined the BBC in 1986 in London. I had never wanted to move to London but something about the advert – in UK Press Gazette – made me apply.

The BBC was looking for Assistant Press Officers. Little did I know at the time that I was one of 300 people applying for three posts.

My then wife raised her eyebrows because I had always said I did not want to move to London. I regarded it as a great place to visit but not somewhere to live. Yet, somehow, I felt this was the job for me.

To my surprise I was invited to a preliminary interview, to be held at what the BBC called the Langham. This was, as BBC pensioners will know, a once grand hotel taken over by the BBC after the Second World War. To say it had an air of faded grandeur would be putting it mildly.

I sensed I got on quite well with person interviewing me – the Chief Press Officer – and I even survived an error. In those days the BBC published something called the BBC Handbook every year, which was a kind of annual report combined with a guide to the BBC. I was asked if I had the latest copy. “No,” I admitted. The Chief Press Officer replied: “I should get yourself one.”

I did so and not long afterwards I was invited for a second interview, again with the Chief Press Officer and this time with a personnel officer. It was in a more anonymous office somewhere near Broadcasting House but, sorry to say, I forget where.

Next came a job offer in the post. It roughly coincided with being offered a second, non-BBC, job that I had not applied for. At the time I was a reporter with the Peterborough Evening Telegraph which was part of Emap, then a large publishing concern.

A former colleague at a previous Emap newspaper, the Lynn News & Advertiser, offered me the position of Deputy Editor on a magazine whose name I cannot recall. It was a trade journal for the car rental industry. This job paid more than the BBC job, offered expenses, and a company car was thrown in as well.

Still I felt the BBC job was for me and I took it. By the time I arrived the BBC had sold the Langham but I like to feel I played a very small part in the history of this iconic building. It has since been re-opened as a grand hotel.

Soon after I joined the BBC I regretted doing so. It was a large, confusing organisation in those days for a new boy, full of strange initials for job titles and buildings, and with a slightly old school civil service feel to it.

Not only that but I had failed to understand that my new job involved considerable shift-work. There were day shifts for a period of weeks, many with 7am starts, followed by an extended period working two days on, two days off, until midnight on weekdays and to 11pm at weekends.

In addition, the work was split between Cavendish Square, near Broadcasting House in central London, and Television Centre, way along the Central Line at White City, a good trek from my London terminus of King’s Cross.

I quickly realised that it would not be practical for me to travel from Peterborough every day, as I had planned, and so my wife set about finding work in London and together we started looking for a home in London.

Meanwhile at work there were strange sights to behold such as my first fax machine. Amazingly, working as a journalist in local newspapers until 1986, I had never come across one though I think the advertising departments had them.

This fax machine – at the Cavendish Square office – was an enormous orange monstrosity which faxed paper at snail’s pace. Not only that, you could only put in one page at a time. And it reproduced onto shiny paper from which the printed word faded over a period of a year or so.

Incidentally, we young recruits were told that the Cavendish Square offices – number 4, I think, and no longer belonging to the BBC – were once the home of Lady Hamilton, the lover of Lord Nelson. I wonder if they were?

Had I known in advance what my BBC job involved – extensive shift-work, moving to London – I would never have taken it. So it was a happy accident, and one of the best things that happened to me.

Having joined as an Assistant Press Officer I progressed to Press Officer, Senior Press Officer, Media Relations Manager – there may have been other titles I have forgotten – and finally Editor, Press Office Website.

When I joined the Langham was disappearing from the BBC but soon Television Centre – where I spent many hours on shift – will be going, and put up for sale. I’m told the press office is moving out in the next few days.

The move to the BBC broadened my horizons and introduced me to many great people, some of whom are friends to this day, and also to the excitement of London. I was privileged to be at the centre of an organisation which was, in turn, central to the United Kingdom, and which, for all its faults, made great programmes for viewers and listeners, not profits for shareholders.

Along the way I got divorced but – partly through my BBC connections, it’s a very long story – met and married Kathie Touin.

As friends will know, as exciting as London was, Kathie and I eventually opted for a different life in Orkney when I took early retirement from the BBC, just before the law changed to prevent folk accessing their pension funds at such a young age.

I loved being at the BBC and now we’re happy to be in Orkney. Please continue to follow our Orkney adventures in my blog.

To find out more

BBC Pensioners’ Association: http://www.bbcpa.org.uk

History of the Langham Hotel: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Langham_Hotel,_London