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Radio actuality recordings

A unique collection of original BBC and other radio actuality recordings brings to life the London of the 1920s to the 1950s. These sounds were captured at street markets, fairgrounds, skittle alleys, auction houses, hopfields and elsewhere.

Musical Portrait of London 195?

THE OFFICIAL title of this broadcast is On Location Britain, but it has been preserved by being recorded off the radio sometime in the 1950s and given the more descriptive title of Musical Portrait of London.

Whether the BBC still have the original transcription discs is unknown. On Location Britain, the title stated by a clipped voice at the very end of the broadcast, yields no results on BBC Genome, meaning that it was never listed in the Radio Times. It is possible that it was broadcast on BBC World Service, for which online records only extend back to the beginning of the 1990s.

One other piece of information has been noted by the radio recordist: the broadcast was the work of Charles Chilton, a prolific BBC radio producer. Chilton came from a working-class background and began his career with the BBC as a messenger boy. His intelligence and creativity were soon noticed and, by 1938, the Radio Times was lauding him:

[Chilton] was promoted to the Gramophone Library, and made himself expert with Swing Music. He is now assistant librarian. Charles Chilton has remarkable versatility. He plays both the guitar and the clarinet in the BBC Amateur Dance Orchestra, and broadcast with them in ‘In Town Tonight’. On January 17, Chilton is doing a programme that will deal with the Negro folk songs known as the ‘Blues’.

Charles Chilton, broadcaster

On Location Britain is not a ground-breaking piece of work, although recording drunks singing in a Chelsea cafe may have been a first for radio. It follows the familiar day-turns-to-night path which had been established in the 1930s with radio programmes such as Summer Over the British Isles. Indeed, a 1940 broadcast by Chilton may have served as the template for the later work: the Radio Times lists him as one of the two producers of Gramosaic of London, describing it as a kaleidoscopic musical picture.

The precise date of On Location Britain is not known, but it was after the Queen’s coronation in 1953, since the narrator Robert Trench-Thompson describes a scene at the Tower of London as the ‘ceremony of Queen Elizabeth’s keys’. Also, one of the two West End nightclubs featured has a jazz band playing fast bebop. I asked jazz expert Andrew Willis for his opinion, and this is what he wrote back:

Bop started to be played here around 1946/7 as musicians came to hear the likes of Parker etc. Initially it was very derivative and had no real following, with musos preferring harder bop leanings that drew no crowds or real interest. Though it did make its way into the clubs. Post bop emerged in the early 50s and that’s where ‘modern British jazz’ can be said to have started. The piece you’ve sent is going to be very hard to date unless you find someone who can name that combo. The horn player has distinctive timbre that makes me think it’s more early to mid 50s than late. Phrasing isn’t post bop entirely but it’s live and they’re riffing.

This, and the growing availability of consumer tape recorders with which to record from the radio, does suggest the mid-1950s as a reasonable guess. The fact that it was recorded from the radio, rather than obtained from another source, is confirmed by the presence of a slowly falling heterodyne tone which begins around 2.5kHz and ends up at 2.2kHz. This artifact, which now seems an antique sort of sound, is created by the overlap of station frequencies. I’ve attenuated the tone using audio clean-up software, as it’s slightly distracting, but I haven’t entirely eliminated it.

The presence of the jazz band playing bebop was evidently seen as a novel and perhaps hard-to-understand arrival to London life, and so a reassuring note needs to be added. As Trench-Thompson tells his listeners:

The smoky basement jazz clubs are jammed with youngsters. But if they seem to ignore you, they’re not rude, just hungry for music and dance.

The rest of On Location Britain is presented very much with historical continuity in mind, beginning with ‘Greensleeves’ as played by a military band and, near the end, as performed by late-night revellers in Chelsea. A shared culture connects the pageantry of the state with the entertainments of the common man.

Since On Location Britain is around twenty minutes long, here’s a transcript of the whole broadcast with the narrator’s speech italicised.

00:00 Military band. There’s the splendid sergeant-major with his red coat, gold stripes, iron voice. The band strikes up ‘Greensleeves’.

01:10 Now, through the din of the metropolis, emerge the other unmistakeable sounds. Loud traffic, hubbub of voices. Leicester Square, rendezvous of the military, where another band, a tired sweet one this time, serenades the crowds. Languid music from busking band with trumpet and accordion. These are buskers, street musicians, most of them war veterans.

02:31 Nearby, newsboys calling out cries. A newspaper seller’s cries, hard to decipher, against loud traffic.

02:46 Covent Garden, last home of a vanishing landmark, the hurdy-gurdy, grinding out ancient music-hall tunes. A hurdy-gurdy plays ‘I Do Like to be Beside the Seaside’.

03:30 London’s parks. Sometimes there is entertainment provided by the patrons. This little lady is Hyde Park’s biggest musical attraction. A woman sings the Canadian soldiers’ song ‘Gee Mom I Wanna Go Home’, rendering the first verse as ‘They say that in the Army/The food is mighty fine/A loaf fell off the table/And killed a pal of mine’ and the chorus as ‘Gee boy I wanna go home’. The voices and laughter of a crowd of onlookers can be heard.

05:06 Not far from the Marble Arch corner of Hyde Park, the mecca for malcontents, the platform for all partisans. These speakers are regulars and draw faithful crowds on Sunday afternoons. A soapbox orator advocates disarmament for Britain. Another voice, this time with built-in brogue and irreverant point of view. An Irishman makes a humorous speech, claiming that Geronimo and Sitting Bull were Irish, and that he believes in the art of doing nothing, and hopes one day to do even less.

07:12 London’s Sunday sounds are ageless. Hyde Park’s at its best, and so is Petticoat Lane far to the east. To get there we’ll take the Underground from the fashionable West End to the amiable East End, the heart of Cockney London. Sounds from inside a moving tube train.

08:09 Petticoat Lane is a nickname for London’s traditional Sunday market. All the rummage of London goes on sale here every Sunday, with a great fanfare of psychology and showmanship. Listen to the mad salesman of Petticoat Lane, dealer in . . . silver? A trader sells cutlery, butter dishes and other things, describing them as ‘oddments from that have been on our shelves and our showroom, they’ve got rather badly knocked about and marked’. A second trader is introduced as a tycoon of chipped china.

10:02 All this excitement makes a man thirsty, and happily the pubs are just opening up now on Sunday afternoon. Order a pint or two and join in the chorus. Lively atmosphere recorded inside a pub, with several men singing ‘A Lovely Bunch of Coconuts’, written in 1944.

11:09 The day’s drawing to a close now, and with it comes the most spectacular closing in London. Her oldest building, William the Conqueror’s Norman tower. Listen now to yeoman warders executing the ceremony of Queen Elizabeth’s keys at closing time. Voices of yeoman warders and sounds of marching feet.

12:15 A jazz band play bebop in a club. London goes underground after dark, at least round Soho Square. The smoky basement jazz clubs are jammed with youngsters. But if they seem to ignore you, they’re not rude, just hungry for music and dance. Across to the other side of Oxford Street and the tempo changes to a classic dixieland beat. Music of a more sedate kind from another jazz band.

14:00 London’s theatres are both brilliant and cosy, quite a combination. Here’s a glimpse of an elegant seventeenth-century comedy. Distant and somewhat indistinct voices of actors, the audience laughs.

14:42 And now, a rowdy twentieth-century music hall where everyone joins in the chorus. A music hall audience sings along to ‘Hello, Hello, Who’s Your Lady Friend?’, followed by applause and laughter.

15:24 As it gets later, the singers break up into smaller and smaller groups, and the song into well-worn fragments. In Chelsea, the coffee houses keep open this way. A group of men sing drunkenly and stamp their feet in accompaniment as someone strums a guitar. These are beloved old songs from London’s rich music hall past. The group sings ‘Any Old Iron’ and finish laughing. They’ll sing all night, for there’s no closing time in coffee houses. The group sings the late nineteenth-century music hall song ‘Wotcher! Knocked ‘em in the Old Kent Road’ before one man solos with ‘She Told Me to Meet Her at the Gate’.

18:07 Greensleeves again. A thread of melody that runs through English history from the time of Henry the Eighth. The coffee house group begin to perform the tune, with one man whistling and another playing the guitar.

19:08. Most of London’s asleep now, except for Big Ben, the watchman of Westminster. The Great Bell chimes. He booms out now with the midnight hour passed, as he has for a century. The Great Bell strikes five o’clock. And far off, down the river Thames, an answering whistle, a ship dropping down on the early tide. A ship’s hooter blows four times. Soon, dawn will touch the Tower Bridge, and another London day will begin.

20:30 On Location Britain was recorded in London and narrated by Robert Trench-Thompson.

Many thanks to Andrew Willis for his advice on jazz music, and to Eve Anderson and Nick Thomas for technical advice on heterodyne tones.

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Musical Portrait of London 20:37