PLEASE NOTE :  David Newman's letters (Ian Newman, announcer on Radio Normandy)
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and now...



God, Pirates and the Ovaltineys

Saturday 5 January 2008 20:00-21:00 BBC Radio 4


          >    the_archive_hour.mp3   - (Timing 58')

(Transcription André Cousin)

< Sean Street investigates the history of the cultural battle between the BBC and commercial radio, which predates the pirate music stations of the 1960s by several decades.


Programme extract : This is a programme presented by the makers of Ovaltine, especially to the League of Ovaltineys...


Sean Street : Actually, no. Don't worry, this is still BBC Radio 4 and the chart hasn't changed, well not yet anyway. But still, many of today's generation of radio listeners can't recall a time when there wasn't a choice between Public Service Broadcasting and the commercial sector. Actually, legal land based commercial radio came late to Britain (October 1973 to be precise) but in reality, commercial radio has been a vital impulse in British Broadcasting from the very start.


David Newman : I remember I used to listen in England to these curious stations and I always remember 'BALLITO pure silk stockings'... I always remember these things, it’s curious how you pick up and retain these catch phrases shows the power of advertising I suppose !


Programme extracts : You are listening to the signature tune of Vernon's Pools of Liverpool.

''Vernon's Pools are here again

The crowd begins to cheer again

A win on Vernon's Pools will mean

Happy days are here again''

Paul Geraldo introduces his next tune 'I've got something I'd like to say'. Remember this is Elevenses with Geraldo and Diploma, I hope you're enjoying it. And you will enjoy Diploma cheese also, the flavour is so perfectly delicious. The reason is : it is genuine English Cheddar, ripened and matured in the very heart of the Cheddar valley...

''... the delightful smell, the start of every self-respecting growth it has to sell, the price is right and cook's delight how easily it's made, so join the happy members of the BETOX brigade''


Sean Street : Of course, children of the 1960's still hark back to the Swashbuckling days of the offshore stations, the pirates Radio Caroline, Radio London, many many more. Then there are those that recall nostalgically listening to fabulous 208 under the covers at night to 'Dan Dare, Pilot of the future', and learning how to spell 'Keynsham' : that spelt K.E.Y.N.S.H.A.M during the Horace Bachelor "In for a draw pools method show". And before that, there was the war. And before that, there was the BBC wasn't it ? Starting in 1922 as the British Broadcasting Company, becoming a Corporation in the late 1920's, and remaining a monopoly all those years? But then, take a look at all those pre-war radios with their glowing dials and hundreds of exotic far away station names : Ljubljana, Poste Parisien, Radio Juan-les-Pins, Madrid, Normandy, Toulouse and, Yes ! Luxembourg...


Extract : Tune In, Tune In... Wherever you’ll be on land or sea one spoken word or melody, tune in and keep tuning in... And if you want the latest news, or if you want the new reviews, you turn a switch and simply choose, out in the open or right in your home, Tune in...


Sean Street : in fact, the first scheduled commercial broadcast aimed at the United Kingdom predates the birth of the BBC. A Dutch engineer, Steringa Idzerda broadcast a series of 'Soirées Musicales' for Britain in November 1919 founded by Dutch and English benefactors and publicised in the Illustrated London News. Even the BBC in its first incarnation was commercial. It was run by a consortium of Radio set manufacturers keen to provide content to make their new technology of use and value, and develop an audience, a bit like DAB and other digital platforms today. And in the very earliest days, there were even experiments with sponsored programs on the BBC.


But then in March 1925, came a spark of real competition. A fashion talk, sponsored by SELFRIDGE'S was broadcast in English from the Eiffel Tower. Apparently, only 3 listeners reported hearing it, but what is known is that the man behind it was one 'Captain Leonard PLUGGE'. There  never can have been a more appropriate name for a radio entrepreneur : PLUGGE, or PLUGGED. He was of Dutch extraction, a former Captain from the R.A.F. In the First World War, and an engineer on the London Underground Railway Company, but with a vision of not the Railways, but the airwaves. This story belongs in a way to two men : John Reith, who became the first BBC Director General and Leonard Plugge. Keith Wallis is Plugge's biographer and has researched his life and colourful times in intricate detail. Plugge's interest in the possibilities of broadcasting began when he was given a radio set, and he quickly became obsessed with a passion for the new medium, and its commercial possibilities.


Keith Wallis : within 2 years of that he became known as an expert on International Broadcasting, purely because of all those efforts of recording all this information down, he wrote articles for the Radio Times and The Wireless World, for the BBC : "There's a clear band of ether" and "To Know what station is that"... And he also became, I think its President of the Radio Society of Great-Britain amongst other things... He then decided after having listed all these stations it'd be a good idea to actually go round and meet some of the people, and visit the stations. These visits he'd made of course had put him in contact and made friends of probably the most important people in all the Radio Stations in Europe. So, he had a great deal in influence because he'd also got the copyright to publish all the programs of these different stations, which he did and this was put in to 'Wireless World' and publications...


Sean Street : so was it also put into 'World Radio' ?...


Keith Wallis : It was put into 'World Radio' as well. Yes, all the information on the programming schedules of the continental stations were put in to 'World Radio' by Plugge. He wasn’t credited with necessarily.


Sean Street : but that's an extraordinary irony isn't it that it's the BBC licensing this man to do all his research for him, and put in to a BBC publication ?


Keith Wallis : Oh ! This is true. Of course, by that time, Reith didn't really you know, sort of realise the threat that Plugge would become !


Sean Street : but some people in the BBC were beginning to show concern about potential commercial competition. An internal memo dated 5th of November 1929 signed Foreign Director BBC reads : this move is definitely one of hostility to the BBC and should not be countenanced. Then at the end of the memo, written in free hand and thought to be by Reith himself are the words : my reaction is why worry when 10 per cent of our listeners are affected. Are we so afraid of competition? That attitude was to change and several box files of BBC memos stored at the written archives center in Caversham bear witness. By 1930, re-encounter Plugge again, testing out another device he was interested in : the car radio. While driving through France, stopping in the Normandy fishing port of Fecamp, he met the Director of the Benedictine Distillery there, Fernand Le Grand, who had an interesting sideline : broadcasting on the Wireless.


Keith Wallis : Le Grand told Plugge that one evening he was broadcasting, and he mentioned the name of a friend of his who was a shoe maker in Le Havre, and what good shoes he made, and his sales increased enormously. Of course Plugge pricked up his ears and thought wonderful, this is just what I'm looking for, a commercial radio station' and so he thought well I'd better do something, and he rushed off down to Le Havre to buy some Gramophone records. Before he could buy them, he had to go and get some money, so he went to the English Bank in Le Havre, The National Provincial, to draw his money to buy some records, And drew some money and while he was there, he was talking to the Teller and he said 'Do you happen to know of anybody who'd be prepared to go to Fecamp on a Sunday evening and put on a few Gramophone records ?' So the chap said 'Yes, I'd be rather interested in doing that myself ! I have a motorbike and I could drop over there and do it for you...' So his name was William Evelyn Kingwell, and he was really the first disc-jockey for Radio Normandy. And he carried on for a few weeks until Max Stanniforth arrived.


Max Stanniforth : I was desperate for a job, and I answered an advertisement in the Daily Telegraph from Captain Plugge, and I went and saw him, and the result was that I got the job as running Radio Normandy. He sent me over there with instructions to do more or less what I thought best, with a box of records. I would go to the microphone and announced it was I. B. C. now starting its nightly transmissions for listeners in England and I would say straight away 'We are starting off our program tonight with a popular Foxtrot ''Life is just a bowl of Cherries', or whatever it was, and off we went !


Extract : Life is just a bowl of Cherries...


Sean Street : Max Stanniforth, from a Radio 4 program, 'the first pirate'. This was the real beginning of Plugge's IBC, the grandly called International Broadcasting Company. Its first premises were here, in Hallam street at number 11, under the girders of the then emerging Broadcasting House. That address has since been swallowed up by a post war rear extension to B. H. (Broadcasting House), itself now replaced by a vast hall of a building site from which is slowing emerging a new 21st century Digital BBC. The close proximity between the two is to become almost a metaphor for competition. Radio Fecamp became Radio Normandy. It was a small beginning which quickly developed. Many names who went on to become familiar household friends via the BBC after the 2nd world war had their first chance on the continental stations. Among them, Bob Danvers-Walker recorded here in the early 1980's for 'Searching the ether', a feature about the early days of music radio.


Bob Danvers-Walker : Putting on hand wound Gramophone records, and we would have about these breakable 78 RPM disc on, and away we would go during your transmission times. Well, the success of these things was so fantastic, the south of England was our stamping ground. People would tune in to Radio Normandy because that was what people used to what we used to call 'Search the ether'. This was twiddle the old knobs to their set and pick up stations from all over the continent. And the better the set, the further they could range. So that when they heard these English programmes, particularly when the BBC was not on the air, they would tune in to these things like crazy, because we put out the kind of things that Radio 1 now and local commercial radio puts out ad nauseum. All the pop music from beginning to end of our transmission times. But of course, we did expand, and at no time at all, from these earliest beginnings, grew literally an empire. Now, ultimately, during the time, I think it was 9 years before the war killed it, I was responsible for installing and establishing commercial radio programmes from 9 different stations. Well apart from Fecamp, there was Toulouse (they sent me down to the south of France to open up on Toulouse), There was Poste Parisien in Paris, Radio Lyon, there was... Then the Spanish circuit opened up in 1933 or 34, just before the Spanish Civil War, because I was there 2 revolutions before it, in Madrid ! That was a hairy chested moment I can tell you. So there was Radio Madrid, San Sebastian, Barcelona, and Valencia.


Sean Street : But what made these stations so increasingly popular as the 1930's progressed ? What were they providing that domestic listeners couldn't get from the BBC ?


Keith Wallis : Well, Reith felt he had very strong views on what should be broadcast, and what shouldn't be broadcast, particularly on a Sunday. To him, Sunday was the day of rest, the day that he went to church services, and the thought that somebody should be polluting his broadcasting area with dance music on a Sunday, well... It was only in the evening, he didn't think it was right.


Sean Street : Sunday was the most significant day, the day the shortcomings of what became known as a Reithian Sunday policy were truly exposed. That policy demanded that entertainment was not permitted on the Lord's Day. And you only have to brass through a few editions of the Radio Times of the early 1930's to see how true that was. Here's the Radio Times from March 28th 1930 : on the Sunday regional programmes, we have : 0500 to 0530 religion in the light of philosophy (episode 13) followed by a religious service at 0755, and the week's good cause, and then the news. And it doesn't get much better as the decade goes on. Here's the Radio Times entry for Sunday 7th of April 1935 : for the children, John and Betty's bible story, followed by heroes of the free churches (episode 10 : George Fox of the Quakers). And then, treasures of the Bible (episode 6 : how to read in a peso (?)). It doesn't come much more lively than that ! Contrast that with some of the programming that was going out on the commercial stations, which even had their own radio Journal, their own listings magazines called 'Radio Pictorial', looking to it today it's a bit like looking to Hello! Or OK magazine. It's got photographs, women with legs... Here's one with Helen Mc Kay the sweet red headed croonette who tells us 'what love did to me' couldn't be more of a contrast. But we need to put that BBC Sunday policy into context. The late Desmond Hawkins who after the war was to become a distinguished controller of the BBC West region and founder of the famed Natural History unit, remembered in an interview I recorded with him during the early 1980's what it was like to be a child on Sundays between the wars :


Desmond Hawkins : People were talking about a Reithian Sunday, the BBC was very stuffy and all that, but it wasn't just Reith by a matter of means. There was a very firm puritan sabbatarian culture. And I will give you one quick example : When my father took the family down to Torquay for a summer holiday, my brother who was older than I, and we both liked playing games and we stayed in quite a nice sort of guest house hotel in Torquay, very much in the tourist business (?)... And on a Sunday, we thought we'd had a game or something rather... And we looked around for the croquet, well the croquet hoops were on the lawn, but we had difficulties finding the box with the mallets in... We then found it was locked as it was Sunday. Then we thought we'd play what in those days we called ping pong, because there was a ping pong table in the building... There was the table and there were the bats, but unfortunately there was not a ping pong ball to be found. You know we were paying for a holiday and these people were in the holiday business [...] in some ways with many of their clients if they had allowed us to play croquet or ping pong on a Sunday, you have to see that (?) force to understand the opportunity that the commercials had given the way, because the thing was moving rapidly.


Sean Street : Captain Leonard Plugge's IBC became increasingly a thorn in the flesh of the BBC during the early to mid 1930's. Firstly, there was the name IBC – BBC, the similarity frequently fooled listeners. Even the bureaucratic documents and logos were stylistically similar. When the BBC started the Empire service, Plugge responded with his own IBC Empire service on short waves from EAQ Madrid. And in 1933 the IBC had started its own children's club with Plugge having the temerity to offer the BBC membership :


My dear Plugge,

The Corporation is sensible of the honour which you confer upon it in your enrolling us a member of the International  Broadcasting Club, but as it is felt that it would be undesirable for the Corporation to avail itself of the opportunity of joining in special Club Broadcasts, or requests programmes, and as the facilities for the announcements of Children's birthdays and Golden weddings appear rather personal than applicable to the Corporation's needs, it is considered that the Corporation should not stand amongst your enrolled members.

Thanking you therefore, the card of membership is nevertheless returned.

Yours sincerely,


Sean Street : Who wrote that letter we don't know. The BBC signature is conveniently illegible. But the IBC didn't have it all its own way by any means. Radio Paris was doing the same thing under the auspices of the rival Wireless publicity. Steven Williams, pioneer from Radio Normandy had moved to Paris and Wireless Publicity persuaded Christopher Stone, one of the BBC most famous presenters to leave the Corporation and join them too. In 1932, Arthur Burrows, the BBC's first Director of Programmes, by this time Secretary of the Geneva based International Broadcasting Union wrote to a former colleague in the Corporation :


I spent the afternoon listening to the European Broadcast programmes Radio Paris, Christopher Stone presenting, I heard 2 programmes of gramophone records sponsored by an establishment in Brixton Road. A more disgusting display of musical depravity could not be conceived.


Extract : Springtime (song)...

Christopher Stone : Christopher Stone speaking. You'd like to hear the other, I just want to interrupt and explain a word that was mentioned : that was "Vox". I wanna tell you what Vox it is. It's the name of the company that specialized...


IBC man (?) : One of the big events was when we persuaded Christopher Stone to forsake the BBC and join us. Nowadays I suppose he would be called a disc-jockey. But how he'd have hated such a title ? He didn't chat on inconsequentially about anything that came into his head. He had a nice sense of humour and in his friendly and light hearted way, he'd comment on Gramophone news in general and seriously reviewed or criticized the records he played...


He knows exactly to make the most of his appeal to build up around you...


IBC man : But he should have been regarded as a star he certainly was in Britain, amazed a preeminent radio executive from Paris when I introduced them. Monsieur Christopher Stone, a star ? Never ! All he plays is the gramophone. You English are quite incomprehensible. But star or no star, Christopher Stone joining us certainly added extra tone to our activities. He was expensive, he cost 5.000 pounds a year which was a vast salary in those days.


Sean Street : In late 1932, the French government took over Radio Paris leaving its successful UK broadcasters without a platform. As it turned out, this event coincided with the development of a giant new transmitter in Luxembourg. How Radio Paris became Radio Luxembourg is a fascinating example of clever use of the airwaves as publicity machine.


The presenter who kicked off with Max Staniforth Radio Normandy was Steven Williams. And he transferred from Radio Paris which was being shut down to Radio Luxembourg. He told all his listeners to Radio Paris that they were broadcasting from Radio Luxembourg on the same wavelength as now as Radio Paris, and if they tuned along the dial to the other end of the dial and heard his voice again, they would then know that they were tuned to Radio Luxembourg.


Extract : Tune in, tune in, for if you want to while away the night or day I simply say, tune in...


Sean Street : the signature tune of pre-war Radio Luxembourg, which began tests in March 1933, starting full transmissions on Sundays on 29th October that year. This was a true Radio Pirate, stealing the long wave frequency allocated to Radio Warsaw under the recent Lucerne agreement, brokered by the European Broadcasting Union.


... you turn a switch and simply choose, out in the open or right in your home, tune in...


Sean Street : The Junglinster plateau transmitter blanketed Britain in a way that the first Radio Normandy transmitter never could. And while on Sundays at tea time, the BBC was teaching children how to read an epistle,  the brash new kid on the block Radio Luxembourg was entertaining families with probably the most famous children's theme of all time.


Extract :

We are the Ovaltineys,
Little girls and boys;
Make your requests, we'll not refuse you,
We are here just to amuse you.
Would you like a song or story,
Will you share our joys?
At games and sports we're more than keen;
No merrier children can be seen,
Because we all drink Ovaltine,
We're happy girls and boys!


-   Good afternoon to you all ! (?) chairman of concert and League of Ovaltineys. I'm sure listeners as well as our League members look forward as well as we do to this jolly meeting time each Sunday. Today we have a  mountain of mirth and a mint of melody for your entertainment.
-    Well let's start spending a few notes of melody...
-    Oh yeah ! Well here's a jolly good song for jolly good folks to jolly well sing.
-    We'll jolly well sing!
-    All right !!!...


Sean Street : The International Broadcasting Company retaliated by beginning work on a major new studio and transmitter site themselves in Normandy. Growth meant more ambitious programming. The IBC moved to premises further up Portland Place just about 200 yards from broadcasting house, and these still remain today. Behind the grand pillars of 35 to 37 is Devonshire mews and a pub, the Dover Castle where IBC staff used to drink and plan the programmes. Today, outside number 35 you can still see early double glazing installed when this was a recording studio. Roy Plomley, later famous as the creator of Desert Island Discs for the BBC got his first job in radio with the IBC. As he climbed the ladder, took charge of a key part of the expanding empire back in the UK.


Roy Plomley : This was a development that happened at about '37,we had our 1st IBC outside broadcast truck, very heavy with a lot of equipment in it, to do what can nowadays be done with a small tape recorder; and then afterwards we had a more elaborate one, and these lorries were put up on jacks. And wax discs were cut outside... And we recorded in cinemas, we recorded some programmes with instrumentalists and soloists... And we used to record especially staged variety programmes from cinemas...




Sean Street : this rare recording is interesting in its own right : radios haven’t yet learned to let the variety show speak for itself. Here, Roy Plomley is commentating on the occasion, rather as he would at a sporting event...


Roy Plomley extract :


Roy Plomley : we had our own road show on the air (...) 'Radio Normandy Calling' and we used to follow that round : we used to judge the amateur talent competition on the Thursday night, and then record a half hour show on Fridays.


Roy Plomley extract : 'And so Blackpool I say goodnight and we have the theme... Goodnight everybody from the whole cast and with the show company and your commentator : Roy Plomley.


Sean Street : On some of the location recordings were made in an even more exotic places than Blackpool :


Extract : This is Radio Normandy broadcasting on its new wavelength of 274 meters.


Sean Street : David Newman, on Radio Normandy, in about 1937. David, a remarkably well preserved 92, is the last surviving announcer from the pre-war IBC. As a young man, he escaped the drabness of 1930's Britain, to work on radio in France. For the 20 year old as he was then, the time was a great adventure.


David Newman : It was ! Because in those days, in 1936 for instance, going abroad was fantastic. People didn't go like they go today. You were actually going on a sort of foreign adventure travel experience which very few young people of my age had done before. To be able to go abroad at that stage and that age, and be paid, and work, and enjoy your work, and given these curious places was really exciting and I loved it. And people wrote in, and we were sort of pop stars in those days and they were writing and asking for photographs... the usual stuff... (...) I didn't consider that we were what by French end calls 'Pirates'. Not a lot of the people thought we were sort of youngsters over there doing this job, we were only pirates, we were sort of doing damage to the BBC, because there was a bit of a hoo huh always about Radio Normandy and the other stations. But, to be quite honest, I didn't really think much about it, I just did the job, it was completely new, it was a marvellous experience, and I thought it was marvellous to be able to broadcast and to sit in front of a microphone and actually talk, and people know my name and all that... marvellous ! But I didn't really think about the question of whether we were providing a service. I suppose, with (?) sight one could say yes, we were providing a service which wasn't provided by the BBC. But the programmes were friendly, so we had a children's programme, 'Uncle this, Uncle that', and so on, the French did the same, so we were known and popular I would say. Put otherwise, I had no sort of feeling of performing a mission... People sampled something different from the BBC, I had nothing against the BBC myself, I was rather admiring them. And I went to Paris on the first time by myself and it was... incredible, it was a great eye opener.


Sean Street : Is that when you met first Roy Plomley ?


David Newman : yes ! That's right, we used to go to the 'Pam-Pam', little restaurant chain in Paris. And then he took me to the night clubs... (laughs) used to go with a microphone like that and sit down at a table... And he has the French ladies who are some minor stars for night club performers, people who sang songs rather nice type... And he used to record these and we used to hear this when I listened... And, it was only a short programme, and I think that's about all. It wasn't very onerous I don't think but he had a certain amount of preparation and arrangements with all these places which were... they were chic, they weren't sort of horrible dumps (?), they were very smart places. And I always remember these beautiful looking girls who were stars really in their own right in that sort of club circuit, and some of them were I think people who made records and looked quite well known. I do remember the names of some of them now and they impressed me very much... (laughs)


Sean Street : I've come to a department of the Science Museum, but actually it's a department of the Science Museum in London that many people don't get to see. With me is John Liffen who is curator of communications at the Science Museum. John, what is this collection here?


John Liffen : we're in the reserve collections of the Science Museum. This is a huge building in Hammersmith near the Olympia exhibition halls, it's where we keep much of the material that we can't find space to show actually in the museum at South Kensington.


Sean Street : well, can we have a look at some of your treasures then ?


John Liffen : let's go... (Sound of opening doors).


Sean Street : On either sides of us here, we've got racks and racks reaching way above our heads to the ceiling and full of extraordinary objects from the past all relating in some way to broadcasting and media, and such like john?


John Liffen : that's right. We're passing some of the earliest ... needle telegraphs. We are looking at letter machine, teleprinters, sounders ? Printers, Morse keys, and over on the other side, we are looking at radio sets, televisions, recording equipment in use in studios... If it has been used in communications over the last 150 years, we may well have an example of it.


Sean Street : one of the things that I notice is the beauty of early precision instruments, it's a bit like looking at surgical instruments... it's a wonderful glow of brass and every thing is finished in minute detail and... nice wood too as well, I mean a long long way from the plastic that we're used to...


Sean Davies : that's right, in fact, curators often refer to the brass and glass collections...


Sean Street : this is Sean Davies, he's a recording specialist and actually a former employee as an engineer for the IBC, Captain Plugge's International Broadcasting Company. Sean, we got a couple of devices here that thanks to John we can examine, that really tell us something about how the programmes got to the listeners if you like, because one of the things that always intrigue me was that whereas the BBC was broadcasting legally from London, the commercial stations couldn't do that, they had to broadcast from the continent and in order to do that they had to devise some means of durable and quality recordings... and perhaps this is where we can examine how they did that ?


Sean Davies : yes, the problem with the broadcasting from the continent is that unless you've got a very reliable high quality radio link, you can't do any live broadcasts from London. So, all the programs were recorded, and they would normally be recorded on discs, in basically similar to the gramophone record production of the day.


Sean Street : clearly, although they were like the commercial disc, the commercial disc process was a long and quite expensive process... and I think we need to bring in the name of Michael Cecil Watts 'cause he is really the sort of a father of this technology?


Sean Davies : yes, the problem faced by the BBC in the early 30's and the commercial people as well was that most Gramophone recording was done on wax blanks. Now, you could only play back a wax once, and in so doing you damaged it quite a bit. So, they were also big and heavy, and rather fragile. So, it wasn't really a very easy format to use, unless you were going to make lots of copies in which case it went to the factory, they made metal master from it, and they could press out as many as you wanted : took time, cost money. Cecil Watts was a musician turned inventor, and just about 1930, in Charing Cross Road, he invented the Lacquer-coated disc, in which you take a disc of aluminium usually, sometimes glass and you coat it with a cellulose-nitrate lacquer (don't tell the fire people !). And you could actually cut in this lacquer, and it was tough enough that it could take quite a few playbacks without wearing out. This was a lot easier than the wax process and if you didn't want your programme saved for posterity, or whatever or lots of copies of it, you could cut in the lacquer blank as it was called, and send that across and they broadcast directly from it. Unfortunately, the chemical construction of the Lacquer is such that very few of those Lacquers from those days survive now.


David Newman : What happened was that we recorded as you say in London, and then it was sent over to Paris. And then from Paris it was sent up to us. 'Cause I don't think there was a direct mail service which they could have used for speed between London and Fecamp. Anyway, that was the way it was done, so we got all these packets of discs and things, and we had to check them of course. And they were about I think a fortnight ahead the programmes they were recorded which we had to play and that was more or less it. So when the programmes arrived we had lots of sort of yellow paper with all the titles of the programmes, and we were supposed to be able to translate the titles into French for the French announcers, because in the actual studio we also had a French 'speaker' (they called them... you know in those days they called them 'speaker'), and he used to seat beside us and then read out all this 'garbage' which we translated terribly badly into French and they put some sort of correction in, but it didn't make much sense. But funnily enough we had quite a few French people in Fecamp who listened to the English records, they like some of the old fashion tunes, Nelson Eddy and people like that, I remember Fred Hartley, never heard of him ?


Sean Street : I've heard of him...


David Newman : Beautiful, much appreciated...


Extract : (few piano notes...)


Sean Street : John Liffen, Curator of communications here at Science Museum, we've got a device here that is really an example of how those discs were cut ?


John Liffen : yes, it's a Permiko (?), a direct disc recording machine, it's quite massive in construction, very solid steal base, with a sort of black crackle finish, a very heavy large electric motor at the back... And then a device that looks like the conventional pick-up arm levelled on your record player, but much more massively constructed with a special type of cutter head which, set on the turntable on which you placed your Lacquer disc... And there's a feed screw at the back that used to drive that cutter head across the disc as the recording is being made.


Sean Street : Sean, the issue when you were at start to convert content to technology, it becomes quite complex, because many of the shows broadcast by the IBC on Radio Normandy and also shows on Radio Luxembourg were quite long, I mean they were 45 minutes, an hour or whatever some of them... And in front of an audience too... So presumably you'd have to get quite a number of discs when you recorded a show like that ?


Sean Davies : oh yes you would ! In fact some people some places took care of this... The BBC was quite standard that any recording location in the BBC had 2 machines, not 1, because if you are doing a live show (not a live broadcast, but you are doing a show in front of an audience), and you've got 1 cutting machine, and something goes wrong, the material cut from the disc is called the swarf (?) and if that gets tinkled around the cutting stylus, you've ruined that side and then you've got to go on the talkback and stop the comedian in his full fly just before his punch line and deflect the audience... Nobody loves you at all... So the best way is to have 2 machines running and if 1 of them swarfes-up as we called it then the other one is still running and nobody knows that you had a disaster ! (laughs...)


David Newman : I only know that the quality of the recording was that you couldn't tell whether it was live or not. In fact my French friend said that he sometimes thought (according to what the French listeners said) these were live broadcasts from the studios... Quality was so good, and I remember in particular one singer called Morton Downey, and that was a sponsored disc about that size (20 inches across !) yes incredible ! And that sort of went on for quite a long time, half of our program I think, and it was really first class quality. People, as I said, they couldn't tell, they thought it was live these programs sometimes... Obviously you had the old scratch occasionally, you could hear that all right, but rarely.


Extract :

-    Lovely lady, I'm falling madly in love with you...

 'once again, here is Morton Downey the golden voice of radio accompanied by the Green Orchestra, this program of melody and song is sent to you each week by the makers of Dreams, a wonderful new soapless shampoo. Now today, Morton sees a special request number, but here's himself to introduce it'. 'One of America's gifted composers is my good friend Nick Kenny, a brilliant young newspaper man of New York. I'd like to sing you his latest hit, which is...

-    Carelessly broke,  you gave me your heart
-    and cares me I broke it sweet heart...


Sean Street :  And of course, this being the Science Museum, we have in our hands one of these very discs we're talking about. John, tell us a little bit about this, it looks to me like a little 10 each LP that I remember from the 1950's ?


John Liffen : it's not much different, ostensibly, what it is, it's one of the direct disc records that were made by the BBC for war reporting during the latest stage of the 2nd World War. This was used for a special portable machine, that was designed especially for this project : it was known as the riverside portable, because it looked like the clock work gramophone that you would take to the seaside in the 1930's.


Sean Street : so this is the sort of disc that people like Richard Dimbleby and Stanley Maxted that made this famous extraordinary recording in Arnhem. They would have been recording on a disc like this ?


John Liffen : exactly like this one, and indeed you could take this recording machine into the air, and so some of the famous records of bomb raids over Germany were made on machines like that using discs like the one we've got in front of us now.


Sean Street : so the technology that allowed some of the Great War time radio broadcasts by the BBC in large part grew out of a commercial imperative during the previous decade. In fact, the quintessential home of  international public service broadcasting, Bush house in London, Headquarters for so many years of the World Service was inherited at the outbreak of war from a huge American advertising agency : J. Walter Thompson. In 1937, J. W. T. had opened a new State of the art radio studio in the basement of Bush House. The claim was that it was the most advanced radio studio in Europe, and certainly the reporter from Newnes Practical Mechanics Magazine was impressed at the time : ''the recording system has the advantage that the record can be played back instantly. At the opening demonstration, Foster Richman the well known singer recorded an item which was reproduced through the loudspeakers in the studio always before he had time to seat down. In addition to a monitoring room, there is a dubbing or editing room in which are a number of special disc recorders as well as sound on film recorders''. But the most revolutionary aspect of the new studio was in its very fabric : ''The walls of the studio are panelled in such a way that the panels may be reversed. The one side is quilted to reduce echo whilst the other side is panelled to provide echo, and does any desired studio acoustics may be obtained in an instant. The floor is rubber sprang built on layers of rubber alternating with thick layers of cork to a depth of 2 feet''. Time for a commercial break. We hear a lot about deceiving audiences these days, but here's a dubious attempt at public service broadcasting from Radio Normandy around 1937 :


Extract : and now here's another problem letter. A listener writes this to me : ''Dear Les Allen, I've got the gramophone record you made of 'Love will find a way'. I often play it but although you sing it so nicely, it makes me feel so sad. You see, the words make me look in the mirror and wish I would be so much more attractive. My hair just seems dull and ordinary and... Wait a minute, this is one your letters that I reply to (OK !) I know the right answer. In fact, I've given it in this program already. Let me advise this listener and all the others, the writer of this letter of this Snow Fire free sample : the Snow Fire tainted wave set. There's one pack ready to be posted to you. Write and tell us which shade you want : natural, blonde or brune or brunette. It will make dull looking hear lovely again. It will make the settings of your curls and waves easier, natural looking and longer lasting. Let me tell you the address again : Snow Fire, Hampshire Limited 22, Derby. Enclose stamps for postage and you'll receive the Snow Fire tainted wave set to bring out the natural gleaming tones of your hair. (Thank you !)


Sean Street : Actually I don't think that offer is still open ! American agencies were, as the decade progressed, increasingly the power behind the huge success of the commercial broadcasters, making programmes which reached a Sunday audience the BBC didn't even try for. And they could demonstrate it through consumer research, something the BBC didn't adopt until October 1936. As early as 1930, voices inside the BBC had been expressing their unease at the lack of information provided regarding listeners and audiences. As Val Geilgud, Director of Drama wrote :


''It must be of considerable disquiet to many people beside myself to think that it is quite possible that a very great deal of our money and time and effort may be expended on broadcasting into a void''.


Sean Street : In 1936 the corporation gave in, appointing Robert Silvey to set up listener research. In fact, Silvey himself recalls in his book 'who's listening ?' the BBC had actually pushed him from a commercial organization :


''I was in the statistical department of the London Press Exchange, one of the largest advertising agency, and then it felt to me to write a report on a survey of listening to continental stations. The survey showed that the regular audiences for these stations was substantial and increasing.''


Sean Street : In a BBC memo dated October 1937, Silvey wrote :


''From inquiries I've made with advertising people, I believe that the amounts spent by advertisers in buying time on continental stations has been approximately :

1934 = £   30.000

1935 = £ 315.000

1936 = £ 650.000

It is believed in well informed quarters that the 1937 figure maybe very nearly double that of 1936.


Sean Street : The years 1938 and 39 saw the commercial radio scene reach a high watermark. J. Walter Thompson and other agencies were developing more and more built programmes, introducing soap operas from the U.S. like Stella Dallas. They linked radio messages to story lines in 'Radio Pictorial' and other magazines. It was J.W.T. a man who invented the idea of night starvation for a joined Horlicks campaign, one of many in that age of anxiety. This was sophisticated commercial radio that understood audience measurement and how to sell a medium, experience gained through years of successful working in the United States. In early 1939, the organization issued a promotional disc designed to attract U.K. Clients to radio as an advertising medium. It shows clearly the device in the advertisers mind as to who would listen to these programmes and who would not. The BBC sometimes has been accused of patronising its audience, but what's interesting here is that the pre-war commercial radio, the message was that the radio audience was something to be exploited :


Extract : 'There's something of importance in the air. The Radio Department of the J. Walter Thompson Company brings to your ears extracts from its principal programmes. Frankly, we now that you as a business man may not find all our programmes entertaining. You may say that the selling talks would not sell you, but we ask you to remember that quite deliberately, we have avoided try to entertain a sell man like you. Most of our programmes - like radio itself - are designed specifically for the great middle classes. There's something of importance in the air.'


Keith Wallis : But of course, it was going to be a pretty short lived because in 1939 everything had stopped. I.B.C. Almost lost all its broadcasting income and everyone was put on half pay, a lot of people left and they had to decide 'what they were gonna do during the war?' They had a meeting over the Dover castle and all the engineers  and they said they would offer their services to the government. They changed the name of Radio Normandy to Radio International and they would broadcast programmes to the forces.


Sean Street : Even there, is the irony isn't it because, even at that point, they beat the establishment to the creation of a Forces Broadcast...


Keith Wallis : Yes, that's right, yeah... 'cause the BBC were a bit slow in coming up with a Forces Station. But they did eventually and of course Plugge lost out because obviously he couldn't broadcast Radio International from this country, so it had to be done from abroad... The Germans overran everything, and that was really the end of Radio International. It didn't last very long, he packed up in January 1940 and that was the end of it. But it was a good idea at the time, but the other thing that did happen was rather interesting : IBC, in the basement of IBC the engineers worked on some secret devices. They did produce one that was rather amusing in a way : it was actually a loudspeaker which was shot from a mortar, with a spike on the end of it, and it could be shot towards enemy lines, and it would land on the spike, and they could then broadcast propaganda towards the German soldiers in the trenches or wherever they were. There's a lot of question marks about IBC during the war which we really have managed to sort out. We know that they were classified as a special weapons research unit, but that's all we know.


Sean Street : Meanwhile, the Radio Luxembourg transmitter became a conduit for the ultimate Radio Pirate. William Joyce, Lord Haw-Haw, broadcasting from Hamburg but relayed from Luxembourg. As early as December 1939, 27% of the British population was listening to Joyce on a regular basis, according to Robert Silvey's BBC statistics of the time. In Silvey's words, these sinister broadcasts with their uncanny ability to show how closely we were being observed and what we were being told were, in a tradition of their own :


Extract : Now although the undeniable and gigantic success on German army, has compelled Mr Churchill to abandon his attitude of dissimulation, and forced him to speak as though an invasion of Britain might take place within a matter of hours, there is still no indication that the British people are remotely or even intensively involved, as to the facts of the military situation. To judge by the BBC bulletin, they have no idea where the front is. Of course we must not on this occasion be to hard on BBC, the front moved so rapidly that if the pedestrian and disingenuous bureau such as Duff Cooper commands can be trusted neither to keep pace with developments nor to impart to the public with ... while new names and places are certainly being mentioned over the British radio, it still lingers somewhere in the region of Lilliehammer or even Warsaw. The same petty and piteous devices are being employed to keep the British public ignorant on the true position. Even in that very last moment where all knowledge must be useless...


Sean Street : During the war the BBC proved itself as a Public servant beyond all measure, and gradually through those years absorbed change so that by 1945, we had the coming of the Light. The Light program grew out of the Forces service. And the great Era of entertainment radio developing from the wartime I.T.M.A  and towards Hancock, and The Goons, through until the late 1950's began. Until a new generation started to notice that Auntie was getting a bit stuffy in the Music Department, as Rock 'n Roll youth began to demand something more up-to-date. As for the indomitable Plugge's IBC, after the war, it reinvented itself yet again.


Keith Wallis : After the war, they became the third largest recording studios in the country and were extremely successful. And Plugge began making money, a lot of money actually... And they did produce some programmes, recorded programmes for Radio Luxembourg after the war.


Engineer : Things like the Shilling a second show, things like that, we used to record... And we also became, well one of the top independent Gramophone recording studios, and they weren't many in those days... It was mostly done at Abbey Road, or at DECCA in West Hampstead.


Keith Wallis : But eventually, Plugge in the early 60's decided that he was running out of money again, 'cause he wasn't very good with money, he tended to spend it rather rapidly, he did spend a lot of money. So he sold IBC, and he sold it for about £ 120.000. And he went to Monte Carlo with his son, he had a system and he gambled and he lost all his money.


Engineer : Jimmy Young's "Too Young" was one of our sessions, we did all the Looney Donegan's, we did the first audition of the Stones, the management turned them down... And we did the first recordings of the Who... In fact a lot of the Great British Rock scene that was done at IBC became quite legendary... Yeah, it was really happening place to be...


Sean Street : And the stations that played that music before there was a Radio 1 or 2 to do so were of course the offshore pirates of the 1960's, which is where we came in. So much in history is cyclical and broadcasting history is no exception... As for Captain Leonard Plugge's Radio Normandy that had started the all thing, it officially closed on the 7th of September 1939, 4 days after the declaration of war, with words by Roy Plomley :


Roy Plomley : and now the International Broadcasting Company's transmission is drawing to a close. For those of you who are keeping watch on board the ships of the seven seas, fair winds and a good passage. To those of you who man the lightships on our seawashed shores may your night proceed peacefully  immune from fog. To bakers and Newspaper men, to young mothers who tend their darling little ones, to those who are rising to assure the early morning shifts, may your day time be fruitful. And to the rest of you, especially those who may be sick or suffering : good night and happy dreams...


Sean Street : ...benediction that listeners on every IBC station had become familiar with, at the end of daily transmissions for nearly a decade.


Radio 4 presenter : God, Pirates and the Ovaltineys, this week's archive hour was written and presented by Sean Street. The reader was Tom Doam. And the program was produced by Julian May.


Transcription by André Cousin - Text read and corrected by David Newman.
Many thanks to our friends for the great work !