Blasts from the Past:
Maurice Reeve, drama critic of 'Practical Wireless
compiled by Roger Bickerton

It is always interesting to read critical comment made at the same time as the launch, or the early days of what subsequently comes to be regarded as classic comedy, or, indeed, any other category of programme. Recently some very old copies of 'Practical Wireless' have come into my possession. Within many of these is a section entitled 'Programme Pointers', written by Maurice Reeve, who was often acerbic, but who was always prepared to give praise where he felt it was due. So I thought I would dip into some issues at random - here we go...

May, 1951

"The relief and thankfulness with which I learned that Music Hall and Variety Bandbox were no longer going to inflict upon us their witless wit and their horrible noises, alias music, were slightly tempered by the subsequent news that the former programme's title was going to be bequeathed to 'an entirely new type of show' whilst the latter, title, show and all, was to be restored in the summer. When we see Music Hall in our future programmes, it will be difficult to remember - at first, at any rate - that it is not the same collection of nitwittery, half-baked oafery and cacophonous jargonry which has inflicted itself upon us for countless Saturday evenings in the past. I cannot think why the whole works, title and all, are not cast away as far as it is possible to cast anything. For years now the radio critics, almost with one voice, have written of BBC variety, including some of the regular weekly shows of the 'Keep Smiling' type, in such terms of sweeping condescension that something ought to have been done about it a very long time ago. There simply are not enough Music Hall variety turns of sufficiently high quality to fill a quarter of the many hours which are allotted to variety on the air. Further, there is no liaison between programmes to avoid the sickening repetition of topical jokes such as we had about groundnuts and Sir Stafford Cripps, and as we are now getting about the coal shortage. The best of them are not frightfully funny, but their plugging is inexcusible. And last, but by no means least, is the 'dead head' studio sudience for which no defence can be found in any quarter. No - critics must just keep pegging away at these points, knowing they are right and hoping that some day, something will be done about them."

"Dear Octopus, Dodie Smith's colourful comedy of family life, was notable for being Saturday Night Theatre's 400th. production. Although this large total includes some repetitions, it is a fine achievement by all concerned. We should all be grateful. Gladys Young's appearance in the New Year Honours was not only thoroughly merited but was, I presume, proof that we do all appreciate hers and the others' efforts."

January, 1955

"The 8 a.m.weather forecast one Monday contained the following sentence : 'only a moderate drying day can be expected'. This seems to me to be the most practical and sensible justification I have ever heard contained in one of these plaguey nuisances. Also, on that particular morning, it was exactly correct. But, on second thoughts, I wonder if the British housewife was being assisted in one of her most arduous duties? Or did it relate to the harvest or something quite different?"

"Any Answers? is Freddy Grisewood's postscript to his Any Questions? programme and seems to be the substitute, half as long as Dear Sir. In it, listeners send in their comments on what they have heard the previous Friday. Is your answer really necessary?"

"An interesting, if saddening, reflection on the relative estimation in which the public holds the various avocations and pursuits of mankind was recently provided by the time allotted to two consecutive items. I say 'in which the public holds' advisedly because, although it was not consulted beforehand as to how much time it would like given to each of the subjects, any more than it was asked whether it even wanted the subjects at all, the BBC, having chosen them, was doubtless perfectly correct in apportioning to each the duration it did. The two items were, first, 15 minutes to 'A Great Management', the story of the Vedrenne-Barker management of the Court Theatre, London, commencing in 1904, followed by 45 minutes of 'A Man And His Music', a personal tribute to the late Carroll Gibbons. Now, the Vedrenne-Barker era at the Court was probably the most famous managerial enterprise in the history of the British theatre. Amongst its achievements were the first productions of some of Shaw's finest works. In any case, the theatre is a not unimportant part of our national life affecting our prestige and standing among the nations. On the other hand, Mr. Carroll Gibbons and His Music was, well, just Mr. Carroll Gibbons and His Music. What would you do, chums?"

July, 1955

"During the football season, Sports Report and Sports Parade are excellent programmes for the football fan every Saturday and I am full of admiration for Eamonn Andrews, who conducts them. But if only he would 'cut his own cackle' by half, how much more could be covered and how much pleasanter it would be! He tells us regularly that there us hardly time to cover all that is due to be covered, yet he talks on and on, all of it irritating, irrelevant and time-wasting."

"We can trust Emlyn Williams to maintain our interest and sustain the excitement throughout a play, and his 'Somone Waiting' in Saturday Night Theatre was no exception. How the father of an innocent man, wrongly hanged, got his own back gripped me to the end. Richard Williams took the place of Laidman Browne and he and James Thomason, Catherine Salkeld, Martin Starkie, Miriam Karlin and Pamela Gordon etc., thoroughly curdled our blood."

"Music Magazine has fallen off a lot lately. Truth to tell, I suppose all the really original and thought-provoking subjects have been exhausted, leaving little left over. After all, the compilers went through music with a pretty fine toothcomb and the result has been some mighty fine programmes. Now, with a constant stream of 'profiles' of current virtuosi, and such items as 'The Things They Teach' etc., it looks as though the 'What Can We Give Them Next Week?' stage has been reached."

June, 1955

"One of the most rubbishy and unworthy plays ever offered on a Monday was sandwiched between two masterpieces. This was unfortunate in itself as it only served to show up its many weaknesses, even more than if broadcast on its own. I refer to 'Christopher's Day', an adaptation by James McFarlan of Edwin O'Connor's story 'The Oracle'. The story, of a vanity-stuffed news commentator, who scales tawdry heights and ends in murky depths, was of the feeblest description. Throughout the 90 minutes of its wearisome journey, we were plagued with the "Chris, baby" of the floozie he was foolish enough to take up with. Any man with brains would never have looked in such a creature's direction. Or, having regrettably done so, would have been forced to shoot either her, or himself, or both. The piece was set in America, though the assumed accents were far from convincing. James McKechnie, Tucker McGuire, Aletha Orr and many others lent themselves to it all."

"The Arthur Askey show 'Hello, Playmates', struck me as very moderate. Composed to precisely the same formula as all the others of its kind, 'Big-Hearted Arthur' did not seem half as funny as when he has 7 or 8 minutes all to himself. The supporting cast of David Nixon, Irene Handl and Pat Coombs with Bob Sharples & His Music were about the same - fair to average. This type of show must have played itself out, more or less - that is, pending the arrival of another Itma and all who contributed to it. All we can expect is current events and personalities gagged with a bit of music thrown in to make 2 breaks. At least, that is all we get. Two of the 'jokes' in Hello Playmates the last time I listened to it will serve to show the general level of its humour. "The only dog food that tastes like a postman's leg" and "When she sings 'I Love Paris', you can see the postcards in her eyes". Hardly another Itma!"

February, 1955

"'Ted Ray Time' seems to have a fair share of humour whenever I have heard it. Ted himself, with Harold Berens, should assure this. Audrey Jeans effectively takes Kitty Bluett's place. Saturday night's Variety Playhouse always seems 100% better when Vic Oliver is the host and M.C."

"There have been some irritating changes in the hitherto fixed times for the presentation of Music Magazine, The Critics and Alastair Cooke's Letter from America, either of the original transmission or the repeat. Furthermore, the repeat times are distinctly variable and cannot be relied upon. Although, doubtless, plenty of listeners are glad of the changes, I do hope that there are many who, like myself, have been annoyed and inconvenienced."

"The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes" have long been a classic of their kind. Like Gilbert & Sullivan, Oscar Wilde and Dickens, they carry the Victorian flavour in its most attractive genre into our more sophisticated age, irrespective of the current fashion in greenback 'whodunit'. Their charm is perennial proof of their quality. The present series has afforded great pleasure to the older listener who remembers their original appearances in the lamented Strand magazine, as well as to those unacquainted with them.. The casting of Sir John Gielgud and Sir Ralph Richardson as Holmes and Watson was sufficient proof of the importance that was, I submit, correctly attached to the series. Val Gielgud, John Cazabon and William Fox complete the almost perfect cast."

April, 1955

"A new series of Peter Ustinov's and Peter Jones's In All Directions has started. This very witty and sophisticated commentary on manners and customs, rather than on men and things, is often subtle to a degree. It makes fascinating listening as it chatters along, often skating on thin ice and occasionally running up against a boulder. That its quality varies from time to time is perhaps understandable and excusable. It is none the less a brilliant contribution to recent broadcasting."

"Programme Parade has long seemed to me a superfluous intrusion into the otherwise even flow of programmes. Apart from being a concession to this very repetitious age we live in, it takes tunes, jokes, opinions, sentiiments etc., right out of their context and presents them to us in their least attractive light. Have we not all got our Radio Times or our daily paper at our elbow? Can a snippet from The Goon Show or the Tchaikovsky 1st. Piano Concerto at 8.10 a.m. possibly whet anyone's appetite for the whole thing 12 hours later? It seems hardly possible, even if we remember it all that while. Mentioning The Goon Show compels me to say it is usually extremely funny, if easily the noisiest and most obstreperous show on the air. Its signing-off tune is the second most horrible one in present-day radio. The 'musical figure' half way through What Do You Know? is an easy winner. Ghastly and quite inexcusable."

Finally, I am obliged to Rodney Wingfield for going to the trouble of photocopying some pages from "Popular Wireless", issue dated 10 December, 1927. This contains a nice little sketch from Sir John Reith which belies his austere image at the top of the page, but what is interesting from a social historical viewpoint is the comment immediately underneath, entitled "Broadcast Notes". Under the sub-heading 'Christmas Programmes', we read :

"Christmas Day, falling this year on Sunday, necessitates careful treatment of the Yuletide broadcasts. The programme builders at Savoy Hill have overcome their difficulties by arrnging a whole fortnight of special transmissions, and these will cover both Christmas and the New Year. The most ardent Sabbatarian will have no cause to complain that Christmas Day itself will see any departure from the rigid observance of B.B.C. convention. At the same time, those who like laughter and frivolity will find it in plenty both before and after Christmas Day".

'Autre temps, autre moeurs' - Ed.

RB; originally appeared in 'The Circular Note', the journal of the VRPCC, in 1998. Reproduced by permission.

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