David Behrens: BBC’s radio silence on the shows that livened up our airwaves

HONESTLY, I’m lucky to still be here. When I think back to those Wednesday evenings falling asleep with an overheating valve radio hidden under the bedclothes, lest the muffled strains of Round The Horne be overheard by a disapproving adult, it’s a wonder the house didn’t burn down.

Ruth Jones (right), with host Lauren Laverne, as she appears on Desert Island Discs.

I didn’t understand all the cultural references – apparently the BBC didn’t, either – but I knew they were not suitable for family listening.

We have in Britain a rich history of radio entertainment, and a poll this week attempted to take stock of it. Round The Horne was named the third greatest programme of all time, with The Archers second and Desert Island Discs first.

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Hancock’s Half Hour came only fourth and The Goon Show, even more surprisingly, 21st.

Hugh Paddick, Kenneth Williams, Kenneth Horne, Betty Marsden and Douglas Smith in Round the Horne

It is its sheer inexhaustibility that has made Desert Island Discs a classic. It has been running since 1942, when Roy Plomley broadcast the first edition on the BBC Forces Network, and it has endured on the principle that people are endlessly fascinating, if they are asked the right questions.

Plomley was a master at doing just that, but I’m not sure the same can be said of the people who ran the poll – for this was a BBC exercise and, as such, conveniently ignored the fact radio was developed by others, too.

No-one knew this better than Plomley himself, who was not originally a BBC broadcaster at all, but a presenter for the International Broadcasting Company, a rival operation set up by the Conservative MP Capt Leonard Plugge, which bought airtime on stations whose names are familiar still from old radio dials: Normandy, Athlone and of course Luxembourg.

In the 1930s, Plomley would put on variety shows at the Bradford Alhambra that were more popular than those on the BBC, and later Horace Batchelor punctuated the programmes with his supposedly foolproof method of winning the pools. “Don’t send any money – just your name and address to Keynsham, Bristol. That’s K-E-Y-N-S-H-A-M.” There was not a man, woman or child who did not start to spell it aloud whenever they heard that name.

Many other BBC greats had parallel careers on commercial radio. David Jacobs used to host a sponsored quiz show whose catchphrase was “one, two, three, four, Fyffes bananas”.

But despite the best efforts of the buccaneering Captain Plugge, the doors to the British establishment remained closed to these stations, and the popular version of broadcasting history is that the BBC ran a one-man show.

The absence of a single commercial programme, past or present, on the list of top shows prompted some critics to demand a recount. John Myers, a Government consultant on radio, called it the most insulting and ill-informed exercise he could recall.

He might also have mentioned its overwhelming metropolitan bias. The Shuttleworths, a Sheffield-flavoured Radio 4 comedy, was placed 26th in the top 30, but there was no mention of Wilfred Pickles, the Halifax announcer and presenter who bestrode the post-war airwaves with Have A Go, a sort of ration-era Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?

Pickles was the first newsreader to speak in a regional accent, and his folksy chatter – “What’s on the table, Mabel?” and “Give him the money, Barney” – was parroted in every factory and playground.

There was no recognition either for Northern comics like Al Read or, most astonishingly, Tommy Handley, whose cracking of gags on ITMA did more than anyone except Churchill to keep the nation going during the Blitz.

My own abiding memory of radio is of interminable shows on the Light Programme which were the soundtrack to our family mealtimes. Sing Something Simple and The Billy Cotton Band Show seemed to embody everything my generation was supposed to be rebelling against, and Round The Horne – or even David Jacobs counting his bananas – was a breath of fresh air in comparison.

This is not to say that Desert Island Discs isn’t a worthy winner, or that the best of Radio 4 is not an asset we are lucky to still have – but broadcasting has always been a worldwide phenomenon. The clue is in those foreign names on the dial – and the world doesn’t run out at the Watford Gap.