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.

In Town Tonight 1949

‘IN TOWN TONIGHT’ was a popular BBC Home Service radio series (and later TV programme) which ran from 1933 to 1960. It developed a lively mix of features including one titled ‘Let’s Go Somewhere’ in which the presenter Brian Johnston would take part in some unusual activity, such as riding a circus horse, lying under a passing train, or being attacked by a police dog.

This recording was made in January 1949 and in it we hear Johnston begin speaking inside the mess room of the fire brigade station at Chiltern Street in central London. Johnston explains that the BBC are going to put through a 999 call to see how quickly the fire brigade can make it to Broadcasting House in Portland Place, about half a mile away as the crow flies.

The bell rings and he actually slides down the fire station pole before jumping into the fire engine. And they’re off! Johnston provides a breathless commentary with a touch of the horse race about it, before ending up at the BBC a few minutes later where, if the fire had been real, “we should be leaping out now with our hoses, and rushing down with the officer and seeing what was happening in the studio and perhaps squirting all the people in it”.

This thoroughly entertaining segment shows how far the BBC had progressed since the largely static radio documentaries of the mid-1930s – one made in 1935 featuring the work of the police at Scotland Yard was too leaden to be included on this site. The Second World War provided a great deal of impetus in making broadcast equipment more easily portable, but it’s also possible that the experiences of war correspondents stoked a desire to seek out action and get as close as possible to it.

The recording was found on an uncatalogued acetate disc which, as you can hear, has a fair amount of surface noise. It reputedly came from an auction of material once owned by Richard Attenborough, which also included unpublished recordings of him speaking.

Chiltern Street fire station has since been turned into an upmarket restaurant.

Recording © copyright BBC. Audio digitisation and restoration by the London Sound Survey. Many thanks to BBC Worldwide for granting permission to reproduce this recording here.

In Town Tonight 4:06