A Very Important Member of Troutbridge

Although I worked for the BBC for over forty years, I joined more or less by default. I was nearing the end of a year's commercial course at Hendon Technical College (it's probably called a University now!) having left Grammar School at 16. I'd already written a letter to British European Airways asking about the possibility of a job with them and was awaiting a reply. In the meantime, I thought I'd add my name to the list of people who were to go for an interview with the BBC. They were going in a group and I'd nothing better to do on that particular afternoon!

The offer of a shorthand typist post with the Corporation came before I'd heard anything from BEA ... so I became a member of a small section called Programme Correspondence, which dealt with all kinds of comments and queries from listeners. It gave me an extremely good insight into the BBC's radio output.

However, I was always (and still am) star-struck. My interest was really in the comedy and variety programmes where so many big names featured. I very soon learned that there were people called production secretaries who worked on these shows, and actually went to studios and met all the stars. That was what I wanted to do and after about two and a half years in Programme Correspondence I applied for a post in Variety Department (as Light Entertainment was then called), had an interview (or 'Board', as the Corporation calls them) and as a result became a junior secretary at Aeolian Hall in New Bond Street where Variety Department was based - a nice ten minute walk away from Broadcasting House. I was put in the office of senior producer Tom Ronald, who produced "Life with the Lyons" and many big variety shows. His secretary was excellent and throughout my days as a production secretary I`d bless Maureen for all she taught me. The first series I worked on my own was called "Home at Eight" produced by a lovely man named Ronnie Hill, absolutely steeped in theatre. The show starred Hermione Gingold, Alfred Marks and Richard Attenborough (just plain 'Dickie' then) with Peter Yorke and his orchestra. Does anyone remember 'The Doom Family"? : `'Tea, Edmund - mil-uk?` Hermione was Drusilla, Alfred was Edmund and Dickie was their son. The butler Trog was played by FX man Phil Hicks, known for ages after as Trog Hicks – all one ever heard were heavy slow footsteps, and listeners could only imagine what this creature looked like!

A year or two later I worked with Dickie Attenborough again and his wife Sheila Sim. For the life of me I can't remember the title of the series, but it was light drama produced by Audrey Cameron, who later moved to Drama Department because that was really her forte.

Another series I worked on with her was "The Barlowes of Beddington", starring Patrick Barr and Pauline Jameson. It was about a boys' boarding school and I've recently discovered from reading his autobiography that I must have met Michael Crawford when he was 13! He writes that he appeared in the series playing one of the schoolboys - I'm afraid I don't remember him.

Variety/Light Entertainment Department covered quite a range of programmes: situation comedy, panel games and quizzes, film programmes, light drama, features (occasionally) and, of course, the topical programmes like "Week Ending" - which carried on for years, "The News Quiz" and "News Huddlines” .

In the past we've had the sort of comedy programmes which now come under the heading "Golden Oldies": "ITMA", "Educating Archie", 'Take It From Here", "Round the Home", "Ray's A Laugh", 'The Goon Show", "Hancock's Half Hour" and "The Navy Lark".

I was involved at some time or another on all of the last four. I've worked on just about every sort of Light Entertainment show from big spectaculars through situation comedies and magazine programmes to quizzes and panel games - some live but most recorded.

I was very lucky in that the majority of my time in Light Entertainment was spent working for only two producers: Alastair Scott Johnston for 12 years, and John Dyas for 13, but there were others for shorter periods of time - like George Inns who produced "Ray's A Laugh".

George was a quiet likeable man, but at that particular time what interested me more than anything was working on "Ray's A Laugh". It was my first top ranking show which was all very exciting, and it was live -just before the nine o'clock news on a Thursday evening. It was on that show I first met Patricia Hayes, Kenneth Connor - who used to call me 'Little Evie', an up and coming young man called Peter Sellers and, of course, Ted Ray. I always liked Ted, but he had a reputation for being mean, so it surprised George at Christmas when Ted gave me a present of rather expensive perfume.

George left Radio Light Entertainment and went to Television where he created "The Black and White Minstrel Show", and produced it for many years.

There was Peter Eton, producer of “The Goon Show". He had a reputation for being extremely difficult to work for and at one time was without a secretary as one had just left and a replacement had not yet been found. No-one in the Department had applied for the job because of his reputation, and someone from elsewhere was due to arrive eventually. I was 'floating' just then - not with any specific producer - so I was given to Peter for a couple of months. I wasn't any too happy about it but duly turned up in his office on Monday morning, trying not to look apprehensive. In fact we worked very well together and after about a month Peter asked me why I hadn't applied for the post of his secretary as he would have been quite happy with me. I had to tell him the truth, that at the time I didn't think I wanted to work for him - a bit embarrassing but he thought it was funny, particularly when I said, "Now I wish I had applied". However, it was far too late then, as the closing date for applications was long past. Actually I very much enjoyed my time with him and my short stint on "The Goon Show". Also I was very popular with my friends. Sunday evenings at the Camden Theatre where the show was recorded were a sort of Mecca and I, of course, could get tickets.

Then there was Dennis Main Wilson who produced "Hancock's Half Hour". Like many others, I loved that programme and was delighted to have the opportunity of working on it and meeting Tony Hancock, Kenneth Williams, Hattie Jacques, Sid James and Bill Kerr and the writers Ray Galton and Alan Simpson.

Tony Hancock was a strange man: when everyone else went to have a cup of coffee during a break, he would sit all by himself in a corner of the stalls - and, of course, he had an alcohol problem.

Dennis was a nervy, enthusiastic man who usually wore his tie twisted round under one ear, and would rush into the office each morning demanding coffee and doughnuts, but he was a very good producer. He had an unerring eye and ear for the way a script would play and he steered "Hancock's Half Hour" to tremendous success, and I would say that quite a lot of Galton and Simpson's success is attributable to Dennis's early guidance.

He too left radio to go to Television and wanted me to go with him, but TV would not allow a new secretary to work for a new producer (fair enough really when one considers how complicated TV shows are), so as far as I was concerned, that was the end of it. Dennis created and produced that very popular long-running series 'Till Death Us Do Part".

I stayed in radio and became Alastair Scott Johnston's secretary and as I've said, I remained with him for 12 years. He was a slightly pedantic, ex-public school man who smoked a pipe, and wore trousers that were always slightly baggy at the knees; in fact there were those unkind members of the Department who said it was always the same pair of trousers. Alastair rarely got worked up over anything. I can remember him losing his temper only once and that was with a studio manager who, throughout an entire 30 minute rehearsal of "The Navy Lark", didn't get one taped effect or music link right! Alastair was a very versatile producer who could turn his hand to almost any type of programme. He'd been a studio manager himself so knew the technicalities of radio and what one could do with it. He was very good at scripted comedy, his casting was always excellent, and he was a good director in the studio.

John Dyas, too, had been a studio manager and had the ability to make all types of programmes. He also was a very good producer and a perfectionist. But he couldn't have been more different from Alastair. He was gay - but didn't flaunt the fact, highly strung, and at times very short tempered. I used to swear there was a dent in the control room ceiling at the Paris Studio where he'd blown up some luckless studio manager. He was witty, very intelligent, had a needle-sharp mind -and one had to be on one's toes every moment he was around. One day he came bursting into the office in a rush, as always, and said "Drop everything" - to which my response was, 'What - here?'

All of which should tell you that a production secretary had to be a very flexible person to work happily with all types. If there was a personality clash it was pretty disastrous. When I was in Light Entertainment, the producer and PA spent so many hours together, much of it in a small office and sometimes under considerable pressure, that if they disliked each other the relationship was unworkable.

A good PA is her producer's right hand. Let me just tell you a short anecdote to show you what I mean. When I was John's secretary there was an occasion when - as most producers do at the end of an audience show - he went up on stage to thank all the cast and the studio managers for their work on the programme, but he didn't thank me. I was used to this so it didn't bother me but a mutual friend of John and myself who'd been in the audience took him to task in the pub after the show and asked him why he hadn't thanked me - and what's more never did. When telling me about the conversation later, she said he looked slightly taken aback, then said, "But it didn't occur to me. Evelyn's my other half and I don't thank myself.” That, when you come to think of it, is a tremendous compliment. And Alastair Scott Johnston said much the same thing in different words: he described an ideal relationship between producer and production secretary as 'a daytime marriage'

The producer is, or should be, the one with the ideas, and the knowledge and ability to bring those ideas to fruition. The secretary/PA is the one with the secretarial skills and organisational ability to ensure that everyone concerned in the making of the programme arrives in the right studio at the right time on the right day, and with the right script. In addition, she must be able to deal with, and be at ease with, all sorts of different people both inside and outside the Corporation - from commissionaires and canteen staff to star actors and musicians.

It helps too, to know where to go for information - for instance: how long does it take for a body to decompose in a locked cupboard? which was something I was once requested to find out. Reference Library - who were marvelous - came up with the answer which I'm afraid I can't now remember. They'd rung Guy's Hospital. During the time I was working for John Dyas he produced three series of the radio adaptations of "Dad's Army" and for one programme we had to find out how much a cup of coffee cost in 1943. I rang Cadburys/Lyons who were most helpful when I told them why I wanted to know.

The PA must have a pleasant telephone manner (a lot of time is spent on the phone), and remember that while talking to people outside the Corporation she's representing the BBC. She needs a sense of humour, must be able to work under pressure and on her own initiative - and preferably be able to read the producer's mind!!! One thing she must not have is a 9 to 5 mentality because it's one hundred per cent certain that she will have to work all sorts of odd hours, often at weekends and sometimes in the evening and through lunch breaks. And one more thing is absolutely essential - the ability and willingness to carry trays of coffee from canteen to studio. I have come across PAs who seem to think it beneath them, but my answer to that was if Vincent Price could do it, why shouldn't they? It's perfectly true that Vincent used to go and get coffee for everyone. When John and I were working with him on three or four series of horror plays called "Price of Fear", Vincent was nearly always first in the studio and very often the rest of us would arrive to find a tray of coffee waiting.

Meeting all sorts of people in show business was something I loved. Most of my friends in radio are/were just the same - I suppose we're all a bit star-struck, and it's one of the things that made the job fun. Over the years I've met and/or worked with an enormous number of well known people: John Mills, Coral Browne, Maggie Smith, Diana Dors, Margaret Lockwood, James Robertson Justice, Val Doonican, Martin Jarvis, Simon Brett, Andy Hamilton, Stephen Fry, Griff Rhys Jones, Frank Thornton, and, of course, many of the big names in the variety world: Arthur Askey, Max Bygraves, Ronnie Barker, Leslie Crowther, June Whitfield, Roy Hudd, Barry Took, Tommy Trinder, Nicholas Parsons, Joan Sims, Terry Scott, Hinge and Bracket - so many of them. Only a very few have I disliked intensely (Jimmy Edwards, Ken Dodd and Clement Freud amongst them). Most I liked ... Arthur Askey was naturally a very funny man and he was the only comedian I ever saw who managed to make a BBC House Orchestra laugh at rehearsal. They were on the whole a fairly hard bitten bunch, like most musicians. It took a lot to make them laugh, especially at 10.30 in the morning but Arthur did it. He had them and the George Mitchell Choir falling about laughing - quite an achievement.

Roy Hudd everybody likes, as they did Harry Secombe. You never hear anyone say a bad word about either of them. A light really did go out of the world when Harry died.

Working with Hinge and Bracket (George Logan and Patrick Fyffe) was strange in a way. I think they were brilliant (Patrick of course died a couple of years ago). What was strange was seeing them in men's clothes during rehearsal and calling them George and Patrick yet, once they were in costume, not even thinking of them as anything but Dr. Evadne and Dame Hilda. When they were in costume they were Dr. Evadne and Dame Hilda and never never stepped out of character.

Ted Ray, as I said previously, I liked very much when I first met him and continued to do so over the years. I admired him tremendously; his memory for gags was phenomenal - it seemed to work like a computer. Whatever subject was mentioned, Ted could immediately find a joke about it - and his timing was superb.

When I worked for Alastair we had a very long running series called 'Variety Playhouse', compered and conducted by Vic Oliver. I don't know whether anyone remembers it. It was broadcast on a Saturday evening on the Home Service and was a bit of an odd mixture of orchestral and operatic music, comedy, a weekly ten-minute drama sketch from Jack Hulbert and Cicely Courtneidge; it was very popular. It was in that show I first met June Whitfield, Leslie Crowther and Ronnie Barker and during that time met many people from the classical music field as well as those in variety. Incidentally, we also made a series called "Just Perfick" - a radio version of "The Darling Buds of May" with Bernard Miles as Pa and Betty Marsden as Ma Larkin. Bernard was the worst fluffer of lines I've ever come across.

When it came to being John Dyas's PA, once again there were all sorts of different shows, film programmes, panel games, musical documentaries, light drama and situation comedies such as the radio adaptations of "Dad's Army" and "All Gas and Gaiters" - from that show I remember particularly William Mervyn (The Bishop) who was a delightful man. We worked with, amongst others, Michael Jayston, Annette Crosbie, Tony Britton, Edward Woodward (a number of times), Robert Hardy, and, as I've already mentioned, Vincent Price. Apart from the series "Price of Fear" (mainly for World Service), we also worked with him on a serial called "Aliens in the Mind" when his co-star was Peter Cushing. That was quite something, working with two of the film world's greatest horror merchants - and it would have been difficult to find two more charming gentlemen.

But of all the programmes I worked on over the years, my favourite series always remained "The Navy Lark", which was Alastair Scott Johnston's pride and joy. Written by Lawrie Wyman, it had a lovely cast led by Jon Pertwee, Leslie Phillips and - in the first series - Dennis Price; after that, Stephen Murray. Also in the cast were Michael Bates, Tenniel Evans, Ronnie Barker, Heather Chasen, Richard Caldicot and, later on, Judy Cornwell. Very few of them knew each other well before the programme started but they all became friends as well as working companions. It was a very successful and happy show. Starting a new series was like going back to school after the holidays - lovely to meet all one's friends again. And the Navy was always very helpful when Lawrie Wyman had queries about anything. Also HMS Troubridge, the real frigate after which HMS Troutbridge was named, felt themselves one up on the rest of the fleet! Once we all attended a recommissioning of Troubridge at Portsmouth and when the whole crew sang 'Oh hear us when we cry to thee, For those in peril on the sea', suddenly it meant a whole lot more than when singing it in church.

Anyway, as “The Navy Lark” is my favourite series, I'll use it as an example for telling you how a programme first sees the light of day. There has to be a basic idea for every programme and it might come from a producer, a writer, an actor, musician or comedian. It might even stem from one of the Network Controllers saying to Head of Light Entertainment: "It's about time we had a new fringe comedy programme; see what you can come up with." However, in the case of "The Navy Lark", the writer Lawrie Wyman came to Alastair Scott Johnston with the synopsis for a situation comedy set in the Navy. Alastair thought it had distinct possibilities so, after a certain amount of alteration and rewriting it was sent to the Head of Light Entertainment who liked it and sent it on to Controller of Radio 2 (or, as it was then, Light Programme). He also liked the synopsis and back it came with permission for a trial script. Up to this point Lawrie Wyman hadn't been paid at all because he'd brought the synopsis in 'on spec'. Now he could be commissioned to write a 30 minute pilot and be paid for it. When this was written, and amended and approved by Alastair, it too was sent to the Head of Department who passed it on to Light Programme with a recommendation that we should be allowed a pilot recording. That permission was given. this particular programme was a success right from the start. Everyone connected with it had tremendous confidence in a very funny script: we had managed to book all the cast Alastair wanted and they all worked well together; the studio audience for the pilot show loved it;' the powers that be liked it and we were commissioned for a series of 13 programmes. "The Navy Lark" in fact became hugely popular and ran for many series. It's very rewarding and great fun to be part of a team involved with a popular show like that. Audience Research tells us of the popularity or otherwise of a programme but if it's an audience show there are two even better ways of judging if it's a hit: one is when the studio is packed for every recording and the other - probably most foolproof of all - is when you see members of the department there bringing their friends and relatives ! “The Navy Lark” nearly always had Light Entertainment people in the audience, as did “Beyond Our Ken”, “I`m Sorry I`ll Read That Again” and “News Huddlines”

Recording was always on a Sunday and the cast used to have a copy of the script beforehand so script day was Thursday - sometimes morning, usually afternoon but sometimes only part in the afternoon. One week I'd typed about half of it on Thursday evening and on Friday morning rang Lawrie Wyman to ask when he'd be coming in with the rest of it. The conversation went like this : Me: "Morning, guess who?" Lawrie: "Morning, guess what?"

I replied,"I see" and put the phone down. . .which was shorthand for: Lawrie hadn t finished, wasn't likely to be coming in to the office and in all probability I'd have to do what I'd done on a number of previous occasions - type the rest of the script straight from his dictation over the phone. One Christmas Lawrie actually had the cheek to buy me a shoulder rest for the phone to make it easier for me to take dictation and type' at the same time! He did give me something else as well, I hasten to add.

Generally, if a script is ready in time, cast and Studio Managers each have a copy in advance; otherwise it's not seen by them until rehearsal - but if there are any really difficult effects the SMs can be warned by phone. Once everything is ready for the studio, the PA packs the programme boxes - these are essential. In them go scripts, tapes & discs required for the show, stopwatch (sometimes two), typing paper, variously coloured pens and pencils, paper clips, scissors - in fact anything that might be useful in the studio. I even used to take aspirin and Band-Aid ... you name it, I packed it!

On arrival in the studio, almost invariably the first priority is - coffee! I really don't think BBC Radio would function without coffee! After that, studio routines vary from one type of programme to another, of course. A quiz show or panel game can't have a proper run-through - just a sort of dummy run to give the guests an idea of what goes on and allow the voices to be balanced. Then the audience comes in and you're all set to go.

On a non-audience show it's usually easiest to use the rehearse/record technique; then you can record scenes, sketches or music while it's still fresh in everybody's minds. Even then, on a scripted show, the first thing is a read-through.

And that is always first on a scripted audience show, which was what I was mostly involved with. Everyone just sits and reads the script - not on mic. There are a lot of stops, starts, suggestions, possible cuts, production notes, etc. and throughout the PA has to time the script and make a note of every amendment, cut and change of cue. On “The Navy Lark”, right from the start each member of the cast plus Alastair and I always sat in “our own” seats. The places never changed whether we were in The Playhouse or The Paris. And forever afterwards I always sat in “my place” whatever show I worked on.

While this is going on, the studio managers are busy in the control room with other things. On a great many Light Entertainment shows there are three studio managers: one on the panel, in charge of all the faders - in other words the one who makes the eventual mix and balance you hear on the air. He - or she - is technically in charge of the studio and makes the decisions on where all the microphones should be. Then there's the SM who looks after the tape and disc effects, and the 'spot' SM - the one who opens doors, stirs tea, pours water, rattles crockery - in fact, who makes the noises 'on the spot'. If there's music in the show - as in "Huddlines" - that's rehearsed while the panel SM gets the balance right.

After the read-through, the PA gives the SMs and music director (if there is one) all the script amendments before the run-through. This is a complete run on mic. of the whole show with music and effects, with an accurate timing by the PA of absolutely everything. Then more production notes, possibly extra rehearsal for any difficult bits of the programme, final amendments and cuts if necessary. Most producers of recorded comedy shows like to have them a bit long so that if something doesn't 'go' too well (the audience doesn't think it's funny), it can be cut before transmission.

The announcer arrives, runs through the opening and closing - probably over the signature tune, the studio is cleared and it's time for the audience to come in. Once they're settled and it's coming up to recording time, the producer goes on stage, introduces the cast, maybe does a short 'warm up' or asks one of the cast to do it, finally introduces 'a real live BBC announcer' and returns to the control cubicle. The red light goes on and recording starts. During the recording, the PA keeps an accurate timing of everything - including any fluffs and retakes or even extra-long applause and laughter which could eventually be cut, makes notes of ad-libs - anything which could be of help to the producer when editing. John always used my script when editing - never his own. And when the show's finished and the audience gone, it's 'everyone round to the pub'. Once the programme is recorded it has to be edited and that, of course, is the producer's job.

It was an interesting life in Light Entertainment because no two series were the same and no two days were exactly the same. It was a fascinating job and I know how lucky I am to have had one I enjoyed so much. One of the great things about it was the extraordinarily wide output of the Department, so one was rarely bored. Of course there were some programmes that weren't particularly successful or happy and some I didn't much care for but even with a series you don’t like you know it'll come to an end. All right, there might be another and you might get landed with it again but you can think about that if it happens and in the meantime there's likely to be something much more pleasant. There isn't the feeling of having to do the same thing day after day, week after week, and month after monotonous month.

The wide variety of its programmes still remained even in later years when Light Ent. became much smaller than it used to be. Quite a long time ago it was split into two with the producers who made mainly the spoken word shows being left in Light Ent. and those who concentrated on music programmmes becoming Popular Music Department, but at that time we all stayed together in the same building: Aeolian Hall in New Bond Street which the BBC had leased since 1943. It was a very friendly and happy place to be and no-one who worked there will ever forget it. We look back on Aeolian with nostalgia and great affection. There weren't just offices there, we had two studios, editing channels, music library and our own staff restaurant. We had our own commissionaires too and they, together with the canteen and post room staff and messengers, were as much part of the Department as anyone else.

Eventually the lease ran out; it was too expensive to renew and we had to move away - and what's more, be split up.....a very sad day. That building held so much radio history and so many memories. But 5 years later Colin Chandler, a producer in Popular Music, thought it would be a good idea to have a reunion for everybody who'd ever worked in Aeolian. Obviously there was no trouble in tracing people still in London and working for the BBC, or those who'd retired, but he also managed to contact many who'd moved away to other regions, and many more who'd left the BBC altogether. Colin booked the Concert Hall in Broadcasting House for the reunion - it's very large and that evening it was packed. People had come from all over the country and it was marvelous to meet current and ex-members of the BBC one hadn't seen for years. Everyone had an absolutely wonderful evening and it epitomised the sort of camaraderie that existed in Light Entertainment. To an outsider, the Department might seem relaxed and casual but in fact there's a great deal of very strict self-discipline because deadlines and a stopwatch rule one's life.

Finally, and just to show what programmes and people who worked in and on them meant to us all in Light Entertainment - a few years ago a show was recorded at The Paris in Lower Regent Street. Those taking part were all artists who had worked in that studio over the years, and the audience was made up of current and retired staff who had spent many many hours there making the programmes. It was wonderful to meet so many old friends, but was also incredibly sad because it was the final programme ever to be recorded there.

The studio manager on the panel on that last occasion was a man I knew well and with whom I'd worked a great deal. He'd spent hundreds of hours in The Paris making all sorts of programmes with so many different producers and artists. Now this was the last time he'd work there - it was the end of an era for him and for all of us. We all understood so well why he was in tears.

Text and pictures © Evelyn Wells, 2021.

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