...In the days when comedians had been solely concerned with live performance, it had always been assumed by audiences that they wrote their own material. ‘Obviously there had always been many a humorist scripting patter and sketches for comedians,’ remarked Eric Sykes, ‘but the names of these backroom stalwarts was a closely guarded secret. They were in a backroom under a forty-watt bulb.’
Or, as The Times later put it, with a wistful touch of nostalgia: ‘We never heard the names of scriptwriters when Little Tich or Harry Tate were around.’
When comedians did start being broadcast by the radio, they were still able to rely on their existing material, since their appearances were for the most part short, sporadic and unheralded items in the midst of a variety show (often with a voice-over commentary to cover the more visual gags).
It was not until 1938, with the arrival of Band Waggon, starring ‘Big Hearted’ Arthur Askey and Richard ‘Stinker’ Murdoch, that a regular comedy series made its debut on the BBC and things began to change. ‘An idea, novel in every respect to broadcasting in this country was approved by the BBC Programme Board today,’ the Daily Mail informed its readers, and the fact that it had to explain how this was going to work indicated just how new it all was: ‘The programmes will be in serial form to the extent that the same artists and characters will be retained, but each episode will be complete in itself.’
Band Waggon was also one of the first entertainment shows to be broadcast each week at a fixed time on the same day; the idea of regular schedules did not become standard until the paper shortages of the Second World War meant that listeners could not be guaranteed to receive their copy of the listing magazine Radio Times and therefore needed some certainty of what to expect.
The sheer quantity of material required for a weekly show was of a different order to anything anyone had experienced while touring the music hall circuit. Ted Kavanagh, who wrote the wartime hit series ITMA calculated that every half-hour show contained eighteen and a half minutes of dialogue, in which there were ‘supposed to be one hundred gags – or one every eleven seconds’.
Such a discipline meant an abandonment of the established practice, whereby a comedian could retain the same act for years on end, perhaps for an entire career. Even Tommy Handley, who, as the star of ITMA, was probably the biggest radio star Britain has ever known, came out of this tradition; he played his sketch ‘The Disorderly Room’ around the music halls for twenty years, right up until 1941, when he finally switched his entire attention to broadcasting.
Now, it seemed, the voracious demand for new material meant that a new policy of hiring writers specifically for radio work would have to be adopted. But there was no rush to publicize this development. Vernon Harris was responsible for much of Band Waggon, but his contribution was unacknowledged: ‘I never got a credit – it was the policy of the BBC that they wanted the public to believe that Arthur and Dickie made it up on the spot! It was as ingenuous as that, so they would not give me a credit...’
published by Aurum Press
© Alwyn W Turner 2011