ON June 12, 1960, my future husband was listening to the radio at his home in Lancashire when he heard these words: ‘And now, for Alan Ashworth of Nelson, who is five today, here is The Teddy Bears’ Picnic, with love from Mum and Dad.’ He still counts it as one of the highlights of his life.
The speaker was Derek McCulloch and the programme was Children’s Favourites.
It started life in 1952 as Children’s Choice, a Saturday morning variation on the weekday Housewives’ Choice. The first host was Donald Peers, a singer best known for In A Shady Nook by a Babbling Brook.
In 1968, when he was 60, he had a surprise hit with Please Don’t Go, which reached No 3 in the singles chart. Here he is on Top of the Pops, cutting an unlikely figure in suit and tie.
On January 2 1954 Children’s Choice was relaunched as Children’s Favourites, with the theme music Puffin’ Billy by Edward White, played by the Melodi Light Orchestra.
It was presented by Derek McCulloch, known from his Children’s Hour programmes in the 1930s and 40s as ‘Uncle Mac’.
McCulloch was born in Plymouth in 1897 to Scottish parents. In 1915, at the age of 17, he enlisted in the Public Schools Battalion of the 16th Middlesex Regiment and a year later was wounded at the Battle of the Somme, losing an eye.
He joined the BBC in 1926 as an announcer, and in 1927 was the commentator on the first radio broadcast of the FA Cup Final (Cardiff City 1, Arsenal 0) when Abide With Me was sung at the match for the first time.
McCulloch married Eileen Hilda Barry in 1931 and they had two daughters.
He was appointed BBC head of children’s broadcasting in 1933, and stated: ‘Nothing but the best is good enough for children . . . our wish is to stimulate their imaginations, direct their reading, encourage their various interests, widen their outlook and inculcate the Christian virtues of love of God and their neighbours.’
(This policy included a ban on Enid Blyton, who was dismissed as a ‘second rater’. Blyton always suspected she had been banned but it was not confirmed until 1949 when a producer named Lionel Gamlin, unaware of the decree, invited her to be interviewed on a children’s programme. She replied: ‘It all sounds very interesting but I ought to warn you of something you obviously don’t know, but which has been well known in the literary and publishing world for some time – I and my stories are completely banned by the BBC as far as children are concerned.’
Soon a memo reached Gamlin from Derek McCulloch. Marked ‘Enid Blyton Stories’ and, in red, ‘strictly confidential and urgent’ it said: ‘I will be grateful if you would first discuss with me should you be considering the inclusion of material by the above author. I am most anxious that no conflicts in policy shall get loose, not only to our embarrassment, but to yours also.’ Gamlin got the point. He replied: ‘In spite of the desire voiced by some of the children who wrote, I have no intention of using any material by the above author, as I think I mentioned to you after I had first approached her without knowing your policy in the matter. Have no fear, there will be No Orchids for Miss B at any time.’ The BBC correspondence can be seen here.)
In 1938 McCulloch lost a leg in a road accident.
During the war the audience for Children’s Hour reached four million and McCulloch’s sign-off line, ‘Goodnight children, everywhere,’ was a reminder of home for many young evacuees. One of its features was the series Toytown, written by S G Hulme Beaman, in which McCulloch played Larry the Lamb. I am frustrated that I cannot find a recording of this because I can remember the bleating voice so clearly.
I don’t know if this clip features McCulloch, but I think it could be him. If so, he was a lot sterner than today’s children’s broadcasters, announcing that none of the thousands of entries in a poetry competition was worthy of a prize.
The only definite recording of him that I can find is this 78rpm record of him reading Rumpelstiltskin.
McCulloch retired from the BBC in 1950 due to ill-health and became children’s editor at the News Chronicle. He returned to present Children’s Favourites from its first broadcast, adapting his Children’s Hour farewell into his greeting ‘Hello children, everywhere’.
He played all types of music whatever the majority had requested: not just children’s pieces but a wide range from novelties to light classics. I imagine many of the requests were sent in by parents so that their children could have the thrill of hearing their names over the radio.
Stand-in presenters included Peter Brough, the ventriloquist who astonishingly became a radio star with his dummy Archie Andrews, Max Bygraves, Rex Palmer (Uncle Rex), John Ellison, Spike Milligan, Christopher Trace and Jim Dale. At its peak the programme had an audience of 9million, and McCulloch was made an OBE in 1964.
His last edition was on 5 December 1964, after which he retired (again), but Children’s Favourites went on with other presenters including Leslie Crowther. At the start of Radio 1 in 1967, the show became Junior Choice, with a new signature tune (Morningtown Ride played by Stan Butcher), and more emphasis on pop music.
I have thought a lot about including the next section but I believe it should be told.
Since McCulloch’s death 1967 at the age of 70, his name has been the subject of allegations about child abuse.
In 1998 John Simpson, the BBC’s world affairs editor, published an autobiography entitled Strange Places, Questionable People, in which he retailed gossip from a single source, a female former colleague of McCulloch. This woman, aged 70 and described as ‘gin-sodden’ by Simpson, said that McCulloch regularly ‘interfered’ with children visiting Broadcasting House. Simpson gave McCulloch the name ‘Uncle Dick’ but it was clear to those in the know who he meant.
The story came up again in the context of the 2012 Jimmy Savile scandal. In November that year author Andrew O’Hagan wrote in the London Review of Books that there had long been rumours about McCulloch’s activities at the BBC, confirming that he was ‘Uncle Dick’ and citing the solo source in Simpson’s book.
The Sun reported O’Hagan’s revelation under the headline ‘Simpson perv was Toytown fave Larry’. Of course, by this time, given the popular press’s tin ear for nuance, the allegations reported by Simpson had now been transformed into facts. McCulloch’s family described the allegations as ‘complete rubbish’.
Though the BBC said that they would look into the claims as part of the Jimmy Savile review, he was not mentioned in Dame Janet Smith’s 2016 report on Savile’s activities, which also dealt with Stuart Hall. Nor apparently have any ‘victims’ came out of the woodwork to say McCulloch had ruined their lives and to seek compensation.
It is more than sad that his reputation should be tarnished if the entire story is based on the unsubstantiated remarks of a possibly disgruntled and drunken former colleague. The BBC should make it clear that no evidence of wrongdoing was ever found, not just leave it hanging.
Now on to the tunes and songs which were requested on Children’s Favourites. There is an immense list on the brilliant Radio Days website (click on the Children’s Favourites link in the left-hand column). I have to say that if I ever hear Max Bygraves’s Gilly Gilly Ossenfeffer Katzenellen Bogen by the Sea again it will be too soon (which reminds me of a story which I am sure I subbed for the Mail decades ago about a burglar who took all sorts of stuff from a house but broke back in the next night to return the Max Bygraves LPs). This selection is intended to be a cross-section of the requests that featured regularly.
Obviously we must start with Teddy Bears’ Picnic by Henry Hall. (When I asked in another TCW post: Does anyone else find it a bit creepy? ‘If you go down in the woods today/You’d better not go alone/It’s lovely down in the woods today/But safer to stay at home . . .’ several readers agreed with me.) Here it is:
This is Mantovani with Swedish Rhapsody by Hugo Alfven
The Chipmunks: Ragtime Cowboy Joe
Petula Clark: The Little Shoemaker – I know we have some Petula fans among our readers
The Happy Wanderer: The Obernkirchen Children’s Choir
A Four-Legged Friend: Roy Rogers
Joe Loss and his orchestra with Hey! Little Hen. A commenter on YouTube has written: ‘Can you believe there was a time in the history of our people when the most popular songs were about hens laying eggs, of all the mundane, innocent, delightful things?’
The Stargazers: Close the Door
And my favourite, Danny Kaye singing Inchworm. This was originally in the 1952 film Hans Christian Andersen but was re-recorded for an album. I don’t know why I am so fond of it but it gets me right here.
I don’t know of any radio or TV station still broadcasting this type of music and entertainment. I suppose it is another part of our shared recollections which will be forgotten before long.