Friday, 14 August 2015

On the Light - Part 9 Roundabout

The notion of a drivetime show featuring music, news, interviews and topical items is a familiar part of radio broadcasting. These are the building blocks of the shows on your local BBC station or those tuning in to Simon Mayo on Radio 2. 

The genesis of this programme mix has a very precise point in time: Monday 13 October 1958 on the BBC Light Programme, with the launch of Roundabout

Roundabout would run on the Light and then Radio 2 every weekday, and for a while on Saturday too, for the best part of twelve years but it is now largely forgotten - with the sole exception of its signature tune, more of which anon.  

Heralding the teatime arrival of Roundabout – the concept of drivetime was some years away at a time when commuting by car was far from the norm and in-car radios even less so -  the Radio Times explained how the programme would fill in this “in-between time”:

On Monday the Light Programme launches its latest innovation, Roundabout. Here Roy Speer acts as spokesman for the team who will produce it and explains what it will try to offer.

Few visitors to Broadcasting House realise that in addition to the eight floors of offices and studios which tower above Portland Place there are three more floors below ground. In the lowest of all – S.B. for Sub-basement – you can faintly hear the rumble of Bakerloo trains rattling between Oxford Circus and Regent’s Park. In this sub-basement is studio S1, from which a new radio programme, Roundabout, will be launched on the air this week.
An empty studio is an impersonal place but I must mention this one – S1- because it contains the widest range of technical devices known to sound radio; and we shall need and use them all for Roundabout.
The new programme will be broadcast every day from Monday to Friday from 5.30 until 6.45 p.m., when millions of faithful listeners keep a nightly date with The Archers.
Plainly 5.30-6.45 p.m. is an ‘in-between’ time for most people; and what we want to do is provide suitable entertainment for that period of the evening – not just once a week, but on five days a week. In some ways it’s the most interesting moment of the day, when housewife and breadwinner meet again after the day’s work. Some of the people we hope to attract will be bustling about to get tea; some will be having it; others will still be on their way home – quite a number may be listening to their car radios; and there are many others, including those who will be getting ready for the evening’s activities.
So Roundabout must have something for everybody; and that’s what we will try to offer. Musical items, and plenty of them, will feature the best there is of every kind; and there will be topical items, interviews, news and weather flashes and useful information for every member of the family. We will be brief; no item will be on air for longer than four minutes and some for no more than a few seconds. We will seek to stimulate, but above all we will try to entertain.
Our five compères are all accomplished broadcasters: Peter King, David Jacobs, Alan Dell, Ken Sykora and Richard Murdoch will put the stamp of their own personalities on their allotted day of the week. A team of reporters will bring you the widest range of human interest stories. Although this will be a flexible programme, some features, such as the Six-Fifteen Spin of popular records and a topical background comment on current news at 6.31, will be at fixed times every evening.
And who, you may ask, is going to do all this?
Well, there are rather a lot of us, I am privileged to head the production team responsible for over six hours of the Light Programme’s output every week and to carry out this bold adventure in programme-making. And this means co-ordinating the efforts of several departments.

In this brief note I have tried to act as the spokesman for the team that will spend so many hours in studio S1. I hope when you hear the programme that you will think out time has been well spent.

As was typical of the time Roundabout had no single host; indeed this was the case for its whole run even though there were a number of broadcasters who became ‘regulars’.  So, as noted above, it was initially a different voice each day – all male of course, no women ever presented the show – and this was the norm until 1961 when the pattern changed to a weekly one.

Roundabout presenters in October 1958
The first presenter was Peter King. Peter started and ended his BBC career on the Overseas Service (later World Service) as an announcer and newsreader but was regularly heard on the Light Programme in the 50s and 60s on shows such as Rendezvous, The Joe Loss Band Show, The Ten-Forty Club, The Late Live Show and Melody Fair.  In 1982 he was called out of retirement to present Calling the Falklands at the outbreak of the war.

Both DavidJacobs and Alan Dell had long distinguished radio careers and I’ve written about them elsewhere in this blog.

Ken Sykora was a jazz guitarist who’d go on to enjoy a successful career as a broadcaster for the BBC in London, Scotland and finally Radio Clyde. He was the long-time presenter of Guitar Club and well as regularly appearing on various jazz shows such as Jazz Session plus Home this Afternoon, You and Yours and Start the Week.

Richard Murdoch may seem a surprising choice as we now best know him for his acting and comedy appearances in Band Waggon, Much Binding and The Men from the Ministry, but in the 1950s he was much is demand as a genial disc jockey on Housewives’ Choice.  He remained a Roundabout regular until January 1961 and popped back for the Christmas shows in 1966 and 1967.

An extract from the PasB from Roundabout edition 1,
kindly provided by BBC Written Archives
So what could you have heard on Roundabout? Well unfortunately no recordings of the show exist in the BBC’s archives but the running order has been kept. Those promised “topical items”, all pre-recorded however, included:
Tips for Transatlantic Tourists - from author and playwright  Alan Melville
Can I Help You? – when Roundabout started this was a pre-existing programme (first broadcast in 1950) in which Dudley Perkins, in a kind of proto-You and Yours way, answered listeners questions of consumer issues and the law
Spotlight on a Star - in which Antony Hopkins interviewed Maria Callas. In the first week you’d also have heard Donald Peers talking to Connie Frances, Tommy Duggan with James Thurber, Leslie Bricusse talking to Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca with film star Van Heflin.
The Bilbow Spot - a cinema feature with Antony Bilbow, co-written with Marjorie Bilbow.  Antony, better known as Tony Bilbow, would be associated with Roundabout, providing film reviews, for the length of its run

Adding a further dose of topicality was a “song on the weather” sung by Avril Angers accompanied by Dennis Wilson at the piano and host Peter King reading “amusing anecdotes of news”. 

Musically it was a mix of needletime and non-needletime discs ranging from Perry Como, The Hi-Los and The Mike Sammes Singers to Glen Miller, Duke Ellington and the Halle Orchestra plus some BBC recorded sessions. Most intriguing though were the jingles, yes jingles on the Light Programme! These short interludes, ranging in duration from 5 to 30 seconds, were composed by Joe Roncoroni and Harold Fields and performed by the Dennis Wilson Trio and the Barney Gilbraith Singers.

Initially Roundabout was a Light Entertainment department production so there had to be a script, for the first show the links were provided by Pat Dunlop. The producers were both better known for their comedy work, Roy Speer on The Goon Show and John Simmonds would later work on Beyond Our Ken and Round the Horne.

Also on production duty that first week were Denys Jones, one of BBC radio’s longest serving music producers from 1952 to 1985 who’d later work for Radio 2 on shows for Pete Murray and Jimmy Young.  The other regular producer was Jack Singleton who would go on to start another daily  afternoon magazine show Home this Afternoon on the Home Service and Start the Week on Radio 4, both featuring Ken Sykora.

The on-air team in March 1960
Behind the scenes Roy Speer would initially only allow three hand-picked Studio Managers to work on the programme: Bobby Jaye, John Fenton and Brian Willey. Jaye and Willey had both worked as SMs on The Goon Show. Jaye would become a radio producer from 1961, later rising to the position of Head of Light Entertainment in the 1980s. Both Fenton and Willey would eventually produce Roundabout itself, and we’ll hear from Brian later.

Being a daily show the programme had a high turnover of producers and provided a useful training ground for new recruits. Picking your way through the programme credits you can easily spot those names that would go onto to work their way up the ranks at the BBC such as David Hatch and Frances Line, would move into TV production such as Humphrey Barclay, Roger Ordish and Vernon Lawrence or have long careers in radio light entertainment including Richard Willcox, John Dyas and John Fawcett Wilson.

For the first three years the presenter rota followed the one presenter each day format. In 1959 John Ellison joined on Mondays, and the following year MacDonald Hobley took over on Tuesdays and Jeremy Hawk on Wednesdays.  But from 13 November 1961, when John Anthony (above) joined the team, the programme finally had one full- time throughout the week.

The addition of the Saturday show as reported in
the Radio Times 2 May 1964
I don't propose to track all the presenter changes for the remainder of the programme's run but during  1963 other hosts were Tim Brinton,  Colin Hamilton, Bob Willcox and Robin Boyle. From 2 May 1964 a Saturday edition was introduced with producer Peter Duncan telling the Radio Times that it would continue to feature "gay music interspersed with little light talks".  This extra show ran until December 1965. There were further changes in December 1964 when a new programme Newly Pressed - a forerunner to Roundtable - was added to the afternoon schedule to replace the playing of new releases that had previously been a feature on Roundabout

From 4 April 1966 Don Davis became the fourth regular presenter alongside Messers Anthony, Brinton and Hamilton. It is also in this year that Roundabout changed departments and gained a new editor. Brian Willey takes up the story: 

Before I became Editor, the show was administered by the Light Entertainment Department (under Peter Duncan) but it had been condemned for being too expensive. At a meeting of Heads of Departments my boss, Kenneth Baines, said he was sure it could be done more cheaply and got it transferred to Popular Music Department. I recall being phoned in Blackpool, being there producing a seaside version of Saturday Club, and told, 'When you return, come and see me. I want you to take over Roundabout and, as soon as possible increase its duration - but at no further cost.'  That sent me in a spin and my immediate plan was to sack the script writers and use disc-jockeys who could ad-lib their way through any situation. So that's what transpired.  If I was unsure of their ability it was  a one week contract - but the tried and tested got two weeks. I also recall using much more music and was eventually booking fifteen bands per week to cover the music requirement.

When Brian took over in late 1966 the proposed changes were gradually introduced. Scriptwriters - at the time Keith Harrison and Tony Aspler - were dropped and from March 1967 the programme gained an extra 35 minutes. Brian Willey was quoted in an article by Ernest Thompson in that week's Radio Times: "although Roundabout is essentially up-to-the-minute, presented 'live' by compères experienced in coping with hot news, the radio of speech to music is surprisingly small. Talks never last longer than ninety seconds. 'They're meant to be easy on the ear, like the music,' said the producer. 'The music is popular rather than pop.' Nor is it all disc. Every Roundabout has its studio guests. Now, with more time to play with, we shall call on more studio talent. On Easter Monday, for instance, we have not only Acker Bilk and his Paramount Jazz Band, but the Mexican pianist Pepe Jaramillo and his Latin-American group". 

More Roundabout time from the Radio
Times
28 March 1967
For the rest of the Roundabout's run many different broadcasters took turns as hosts including Roger Moffat, John Benson, Steve Race, Brian Matthew -who took the lion's share in the last couple of years- Don Moss, Keith Fordyce, Peter Haigh, David Hamilton, Bob Holness, Desmond Carrington, John Dunn and David Gell.

Featured music from the w/c 29 January 1968
Roundabout turned for the last time in April 1970 - by now it was on Radio 2 of course - when a number of schedule changes and programme swaps took place across the four national networks.  Brian Willey again:

I have no idea why it had to die - but the controller, Douglas Muggeridge, wanted rid of it. Brian Matthew and I set about a campaign to win public sympathy to vote for its continuance. We both got severely rapped for apparent anarchy. For its demise I evolved an ambitious plan by taking it around the regions across its final fortnight by producing it in Birmingham on the penultimate Monday, Tuesday would come from London whilst I travelled to Manchester for Wednesday, then London Thursday for preparation in Glasgow on Friday. The following week was a similar routine taking in Belfast Cardiff and Bristol and, of course, in all locations using local talents and presenters.It was a notable ending .

The final edition was on 3 April with Steve Race as compère and there was a suitably celebratory send-off. Former presenters Peter King and Ken Sykors were interviewed as was Tony Bilbow. Musically the proceedings were closed with the Brian Fahey Orchestra playing Show Me The Way to Go Home, The Nigel Brooks Singers with What Are You Gonna Do? (a song co-written by Brian Willey) and closing with Sheila Buxton and the Northern Dance Orchestra's rendition of The Party's Over.

The following week Radio 2 had dropped the idea of a drivetime show, scheduling instead different orchestral music shows each day from 5 to 6 pm followed by 50 minutes of Album Time. It wasn't until October 1970 that a DJ-hosted show re-appeared when Charlie Chester gained a daily show between 4.30 and 6 pm.

The one thing that is best remembered about Roundabout, make that the only thing that is now remembered is the programme's sig tune, The Windows of Paris. In fact when this track got a spin on Clare Teal's Radio 2 show last year this prompted me to research and write this post. Here's Clare playing the Tony Osborne version:  


But this wasn't the only theme tune for the show. Checking the running order for the first 1958 edition it lists: "Dickie Valentine, Alfred Ralston and his Orchestra. Pre-recorded 28.6.1958-TLo 60434. Signature tune: (Beg. and end) Roundabout. The song is credited to Stanley Myers and Leslie Bricuse. So it seems that the first theme tune was in fact Roundabout. Obviously it proved successful enough for Pye to issue it as a single a couple of years later (on the flip side of Standing on the Corner) this time with an orchestra conducted by Wally Stott. This version is also shown as having being played on the final edition in 1970:


However, my experts on sig tunes form that period, Malcolm Batchelor and Colin Berry were convinced that there was a third signature tune: a version of The Windows of Paris played by The Knightsbridge Strings. The tune is credited to Tony Osborne and was produced by Tony Hatch. The track was released in 1960 by Top Rank as the B side of Cry:


Malcolm's research at Caversham does indeed show that this Knightsbridge Strings version was in use on Roundabout by January 1960 and was still used in 1964. However, by late 1965 the Tony Osborne Orchestra recording was played.  


With grateful thanks to Brian Willey and the BBC Written Archives. Thanks also to Colin Berry and Malcy B. 

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