Sunday, 2 August 2015

On the Light - Part 3 "A Bumper Bundle"

"The time in Britain is twelve noon, in Germany it's one o'clock, but home and away it's time for Two-Way Family Favourites".

If ever a sentence can take you back to a time and a place it's that opening programme introduction which for over 30 years is firmly embedded in the memory of Sunday lunchtimes, a family meal of  roast beef and Yorkshires with the wireless tuned to the BBC Light Programme.  

The idea for a regular record request show came about during World War Two when the then head of presentation for the BBC's General Overseas, Tom Chalmers (later the second Controller of the Light Programme) received a postcard from three Army sergeants serving in the Western desert challenging the Corporation to provide a more "cheerful" programme.  They wrote:

Dear BBC, Just a line from three of the M.E.F. After almost drinking ourselves to death to get profits for the purpose of buying a wireless, we find to our dismay that your programmes as broadcast in the African Service hardly warranted our efforts.  We appreciate all that you are doing for us lads out here, but we honestly think your programmes could be a little more cheerful - so come on, BBC, let's hear from you! We remain your devoted listeners who suffer in silence. Can you take it? We lay odds that you can't.  

Thus, in 1941,  Forces Favourites was born. The presenters all worked as continuity announcers for the service: Marjorie Anderson, Joan Griffiths, Barbara McFadyean and Jean Metcalfe.  

It was Jean who would become the most famous of those voices and during the 40s, 50s and early 60s she became indelibly associated with the most listened to programme on the radio, Family Favourites.  

Jean started her career with the BBC as a typist in August 1940 in the General Office at Broadcasting House. By her own admission she was not the world's best typist so when a call from the Empire Service announcers came in that they needed help with their fan mail she moved across to that service working for the likes of Franklin Engelmann, Robert Beatty and Duncan Carse. In May 1941 she was given her first opportunity to appear on-air by reading a poem in the series Books and People. The following year Jean was offered the chance to audition as a continuity announcer. Apparently they were looking for more female announcers as "the higher pitch of their voices suited shortwave reception".  (1)

On the General Overseas Service Jean worked alongside Margaret Hubble and the aforementioned Joan Griffiths and Barbara McFadyean - all four would also be associated, post-war, with Woman's Hour.  Part of the announcing duties included Forces Favourites which then ran several times a week and had as its signature tune When You Wish Upon a Star. Unbeknownst to the announcers some of the requests from the war zones included some service slang that went over the heads of the presenting team. One day Tom Chalmers called them into his office and passed them a letter from a submarine engineer that read "me and my mates can no longer bear to hear your refined ladies saying such obscene things over the air" and enclosed a glossary translating some of the words into layman's language.

From 24 November 1943 Forces Favourites was also broadcast on the Forces Programme giving British listeners the chance to hear the show. For the duration of the war the show continued on both the General Overseas Service and at home on the Forces Programme and then the General Forces Programme (from February 1944) as an almost daily show (it wasn't heard on Mondays).

Following the launch of the Light Programme on 29 July 1945 Forces Favourites remained on air three times a week - always in the evening - until the final edition aired on  15 April 1946.  Though that was the last that UK listeners heard of the show it wasn't the end for Forces Favourites; it continued on the General Overseas Service until at least the mid 1950s. I can't be certain when it finally ended but it was still on air in December 1953 according to an old edition of London Calling that I acquired just recently. Going out twice a week at 11.30 for thirty minutes at a time, one of the presenters was Kay Sharman (pictured above).   

Meanwhile the idea for a request show linking Britain and Germany was assessed by Tom Chalmers, now having moved on to become the assistant head for the Light Programme. He put the idea to John McMillan over at the British Forces Network in Hamburg. Apparently John had "good contacts with the Royal Corps of Signals in the city and discovered that there was a direct telephone circuit from Hamburg to an exchange housed in an underground railway tunnel in Goodge Street. At the time it was being used for military traffic between London and the continent. John decided to see whether he could get through to the BBC and was delighted when he was connected to Langham 4468 and was soon talking to Tom Chalmers. They discussed the possibilities of a two-way request programme and Tom, using his contacts, found that it was now possible to get lines of sufficient broadcast quality through to Hamburg". (2)

Family Favourites launched on the Light Programme at 10.15 am on Sunday 7 October 1945. (3) Though not listed in the Radio Times the presenters were Marjorie Anderson in London and Sgt Alan Clarke (4) in Hamburg. From the start the signature of With a Song in My Heart was in place, the version by André Kostelanetz - other version appeared over the years.

The theme tune was the idea of Trevor Hill, later a renowned BBC producer, but at the time working for the General Overseas Service on Radio Newsreel. He was tasked with re-packaging editions of the programme for relay to stations in North America. They wanted to preface the usual Imperial Echoes sig tune with another short theme and opening announcement (from Canadian announcer Byng Whittaker - see note 5). On a 12-inch Columbia record by André Kostelanetz he found a recording of Melodies from Victor Herbert, the opening fanfare of which was used for the programme. On the flip side of that record was With a Song in My Heart. (6)     

The first record played on Family Favourites was Lilli Marlene played by Geraldo and his Orchestra. Lilli Marlene provided the link back to the armed forces as it was both the song of the Eight Army and the signature tune of the first British Forces Experimental Radio Service that had opened in Algiers in January 1944. (7)

BBC boss Tom Chalmers was keen to ensure that Family Favourites played plenty of record requests. He believed that on the old Forces Favourites programme the presenters had become to feel they were more important than the show and its content. In November 1945 he issued this rather kill-joy directive reminding presenters that "we must be very strict with this programme or it will become unmanageable. No anniversary requests. Nothing resembling a message e.g. play a tune 'with love from Joan', so is 'because it reminds me of happy hours with the Amateur Operatic Society'. No fiancées or girlfriends may be included. Families only. No names of schools or pubs may be mentioned because of indirect advertising. No noisy advanced jazz, e.g. Stan Kenton, is allowed on Sundays. Cut out the banter. This programme is not a vehicle for personality presentation". (8)  Despite this the programme endured for 35 years and a handful of the hosts became household names!

One of the first presenters at the London was Margaret Hubble, whose voice had closed down the Allied Expeditionary Forces Programme on the eve of the launch of the Light Programme. She recalls that "the result of asking listeners to write in with their own requests was sackloads of letters and postcards, which the Post Room were totally unable to handle. They had never received so much correspondence before. This mess ended up in our office at the back of the fourth floor, which overlooked the empty space at the fore end of Broadcasting House". (9)    

Meanwhile in the studios of BFN Hamburg a number of broadcasters took turns on Family Favourites duty, they included Brian Whittle. Roy Bradford, John Jacobs (brother of David), Hedley Chambers, Don Douglas, Bob Boyle (later on the Light and Radio 2 under the name Robin Boyle) and Derek Jones (who in the 1970s was the presenter of Radio 4's Sounds Natural). 

But perhaps the best known presenting pair was Jean Metcalfe and Cliff Michelmore, even though their period on-air was fairly brief - about a year or so. Whilst Jean was working for the BBC in London, Cliff was doing his bit for king and country in the RAF and following the end of the Second World War,  by his own admission "drifted into the job" with the British Forces Network based at the Musikhalle in Hamburg. Like many broadcasters on the BFN at that time - Raymond Baxter, Brian Matthew and Jimmy Kingsbury for example - it was a case of mucking in with whatever was required: news reporting, sports commentaries, dramatic productions and, of course, record programmes. So it was no surprise when Cliff was asked at short notice to sit in on Family Favourites when Derek Jones was suddenly taken off to hospital. Cliff and Jean hit it off immediately. "Our patterns of speech fell into place like a well-made jigsaw and we seemed to have the same feeling for varying pace and length of announcements", recalled Jean. "We quickly became friends, though in voice only."  

Before they went on-air each Sunday Cliff and Jean would make use of the free line between London and Hamburg. Officially it was open 10 minutes before transmission to enable the presenters to make any last minute alterations to the running order but "soon we were using every bit of that time for more personal, day-to-day, conversation".  Although they continued to exchange letters and gifts - delivered by visiting BFN staff - they never met until Cliff decided to leave the RAF and take his luck as a freelance broadcaster in the UK. Back in London on leave he'd managed to make an appointment with John McMillan (who was now with the BBC as Deputy Head of the Light Programme), but more importantly to get the chance to finally meet Jean. Fortunately she was on duty that day in "Light Con" and inbetween programmes he popped into the studio. "You must be Jean", he said, to which she replied "You must be Cliff".

Cliff continued to work on Family Favourites until the end of 1949 but they were careful not to mention anything about their relationship on-air. Their engagement was finally announced in January 1950 by which time Cliff finally left Germany and the BFN. Apparently the last record on their final show together was I'll Be Seeing You. They married in March.

Jean remained the main London presenter of Family Favourites for the next 14 years (10) whilst at the same time working during the week on Woman's Hour. What made Jean a star and gave the programme its vast audience was, according to Simon Elmes "her ability to make ordinary record requests sound special, to connect with ordinary people and empathise with their situation without ever sounding mawkish". (11)

Over in Hamburg, and then Cologne from 1954 when the BFN, later the British Forces Broadcsting Service, moved their HQ, they needed a new partner for Jean. For the first three years this was Christopher Howland (12), followed by Dennis Scuse, who at the time was the station director. (13) In 1957 Bill Crozier took over the hot seat and stayed with the show for seven years. (14)

Bill Crozier had started with the British Forces Network in 1948 as a staff pianist before becoming an announcer and presenter. By the time he took over on Two-Way Family Favourites, as it was now billed, he was also hosting the daily BFN request show the 1800 Club. By the time that Bill and Jean presented their final show together in 1964 the programme has regularly getting 20 million listeners, the highest audience for any radio show, and receiving around 1,000 requests a week in London and 800 in Germany.

Jean Metcalfe cut back on her radio commitments from April 1964 and was able to alternate for six months at a time on Two-Way Family Favourites firstly with Judith Chalmers and later Muriel Young and Maggie Clews. Every week there was still the link-up with Germany with presenter Ian Fenner having taken over from Bill Crozier and then Jim Luxton in 1967. But the show's horizons expanded to become Three-Way, Four-Way or even Five-Way when they joined other BFBS outposts in Malta, Cyrus, Aden, Singapore, Tripoli and Gibraltar.

With the launch of Radios 1 and 2 in 1967 the programme took on a new shape from 1 October with Michael Aspel now being the main host, an extra 30 minutes to take it up to a 2-hour show plus a Commonwealth-wide audience with contributions from  ABC in Australia, NZBC in New Zealand, Radio Hong Kong and C.B.C. in Canada. There was also a new feature with requests from a different area of Britain. Producer Lonny Mather, writing in the Radio Times promised that "we have not forgotten, though, that locally around the British Isles people from all walks of life may be away from home and feeling cut-off from their friends". For the first show they went up to Scotland and joined Stuart Henry, the following week Tom Coyne in the Midlands, Derek Jones in the South West and so on. This idea quickly fell by the wayside and was dropped by the end of the year.

The introduction of Worldwide Family Favourites meant some rather controversial changes were made on the BFBS Germany version of the show. Not wishing to broadcast a two-hour programme in which they featured in every other week the acting head, David Lamb, dropped it in favour of their own request show Sounds Like Sunday that would include the half-hour link to Germany whenever that occurred. Dick Norton and then Sandi Jones presented Sounds Like Sunday and over time the links to other stations were restored.

This is the era of Family Favourites that I first remember. Like every other household in Britain it was the musical accompaniment to our Sunday lunch, the wireless on the sideboard tuned into Radio 2 on VHF. Apparently some of the most popular requests around this time were: I'll Be Home by Pat Boone, Doris Day's Secret Love, Home Lovin' Man by Andy Williams, Every Time We Say Goodbye by Ella Fitzgerald and The Green Green Grass of Home by Tom Jones. (15)  

Regular voices heard from around the world included Graham Webb and later Rod McNeil in Sydney, Bill Paul in Tornoto, Marama Martin and later Ian Thompson in Auckland and over in Hong Kong for many years was June Armstrong-Wright. Broadcasters with the BFBS who would go on to work for the BBC included John Hedges, Peter Donaldson and Don Durbridge. When troops started to be deployed in Northern Ireland the programme added a link-up with BBC Belfast from 1971 and saw the return of Michael Baguley who'd hosted the Cologne leg back in 1953.

From 8 April 1973 Sandi Jones became the next presenter, having previously appeared on the programme as part of the BFBS Cologne team. Sandi continued until 1976 when from 2 May Jean Challis took over as the final presenter.  Jean had also been on before, both from BFBS Cyprus in the mid-60s and standing in for Sandi in 1975.

The final stand alone edition of Family Favourites aired on Radio 2 on 13 January 1980. The BBC had previously denied that the show was to be axed and indeed it became part of Pete Murray's Sunday Show from the following Sunday.  Family Favourites stayed with Pete until May 1981, thereafter it became a daily and eventually a weekly part of Ed Stewart's weekday afternoon show before disappearing in 1984 (16) by which time the link-ups were confined to Australia with Bob Hudson (17) and Ian Thompson in New Zealand. Radio 2 has since revived the title on a handful of occasions with past presenters Jean Metcalfe, Cliff Michelmore, Sandi Jones and Michael Aspel all taking part.  Last year online station Solid Gold GEM AM briefly had a Sunday offering of Family Favourites with former Radio 2 and BFBS broadcaster Patrick Lunt.

Few recordings of Family Favourites exist from its Light Programme and Radio 2 heyday. From my own archive I'm publishing two of those revival shows. The first I've posted before was heard on 30 July 1995 as part of Radio 2's celebrations of the Light Programme years. The hosts are Sandi Jones in London and Glen Mansell in Germany.


This recording is a the last full edition of the show heard on 30 September 2007 as part of the station's 40th anniversary. Returning to the chair was Michael Aspel.


1 - This and other quotes from Cliff Michelmore and Jean Metcalfe are taken from Two-Way Story (Futura 1986)   
2 - This is the British Forces Network: The Story of Forces Broadcasting in Germany by Alan Grace (Alan Sutton Publishing Ltd 1996)
3 - Whilst this is the date of the first joint BBC/BFN show, according to the BBC Genome website the first programme with this title was broadcast on the evening of 1 August 1945.
4 - In 1947 Alan Clarke joined the BBC and would host the programme from the London end that year. He'd been a commentator for the BFN and would be one of the Corporation's football commentators until his death in 1969
5 - That opening announcement went: "Whilst Britain awaits another dawn, we bring you news from the Battle Fronts of the world in - Radio Newsreel!"
6 - See Over the Airwaves : My Life in Broadcasting by Trevor Hill (The Book Guild, 2005)
7 - The opening announcement for BFES Algiers had been made by Major Philip Slessor, later a well-known BBC announcer. When it was pointed out that Lilli Marlene was also used by the Germans it was dropped in favour of Rule Britannia.
8 - Quoted in Two-Way Story op.cit.
9 - Quoted in Action Stations by Colin Reid (Robson Books, 1987)
10 - Other looking after the UK side of the show included Sandy Grandison, Rhona Marsh, Patricia Hughes (now best remembered for her long stint as continuity announcer on Radio 3), Kay Sharman and Carole Carr.   
11 - Hello Again: Nine Decades of radio voices by Simon Elmes (Random House 2012)
12- After working for the BFN Christopher Howland remained in Germany as a broadcaster, singer and actor until his death in 2013.
13 - Dennis Scuse would go on to join the BBC in the late 50s mainly working in TV and later heading up BBC Enterprises. He died in 1998.
14 - Others deputising for Bill Crozier were John Mead, Michael Baguley, Alistair McDougall, Gerald Sinstadt, Paul Hollingdale, Derek Hale and Ian Fenner. 
15 - This is the British Forces Network: The Story of Forces Broadcasting in Germany op.cit.
16 - The last billed edition is on Tuesday 10 January 1984. Ed Stewart's afternoon show ended the following week.  
17 - Ed Stewart describes Bob Hudson as "so slow and laid back in his presentation style that I thought he was going to fall off his chair. Quoted in Ed Stewart: Out of the Stewpot (John Blake Publishing 2005). Readers should take heed that the details about Family Favourites on pp.190-1 in this book don't bear up to scrutiny.

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