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The Lost BBC: Educating Archie

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PROBABLY the least likely concept for a radio show is a ventriloquist act. Yet Educating Archie was a huge success and was a springboard for a roll-call of comedy talent.

The series came about only because of the sheer persistence of its creator, Peter Brough. He was born in 1916 in Ealing, west London. His father, Arthur Brough, was a ventriloquist and a name on the variety stage, with a day job at the Jaeger Wool Company. Peter often accompanied his father and his dummy Tim around the capital’s halls and theatres.

When Peter was eight, he was playing at home with his brother Kenneth when a candlestick fell and chipped the corners of both his front teeth. This damage turned out to be helpful to Peter when developing his ventriloquism skills.

He left school at fifteen and became an errand-boy for Whiteleys, the Bayswater department store, soon rising to salesman. During his five years at the store he would practise throwing his voice in front of the triple mirror in the menswear department.

In 1936, aged 20, he started doing turns with his first dummy, Jimmy, between films in cinemas. Within two years he was touring variety theatres around the country. He auditioned in 1938 for BBC producer John Sharman and his new radio show Music Hall, but was turned down as ‘too amateurish’.

After war broke out Brough and his father set up a textile business and he continued doing his cinema turns for a while. He met a programme seller, Peggy Franklin, and they married in 1940.

The same year Brough joined the forces and became a driver for the Royal Army Service Corps. He made a public information film for the Ministry of Defence in which he and Jimmy illustrated how and how not to use a stirrup pump.

It is fairly clear from this clip, in which the dummy mentions a ‘glock’ of wood, that Brough was not the best ventriloquist in the world.

Having been assigned to a War Office pool of entertainers, he contracted a lung disease and was invalided out of the Army. He later joined ENSA, the organisation set up to entertain British servicemen, and toured extensively with Vera Lynn. This gives me an opportunity to use my favourite of her great wartime numbers, I’ll Be Seeing You (1944).

Lynn’s coach and mentor was record producer and songwriter Wally Ridley. He reportedly told Brough: ‘Your patter is weak and your dummy is atrocious!’

This kick-started Brough into coming up with a new act, and he would take long walks to try out different voices and characters. According to the website Vinny’s Mislaid Comedy Heroes, one day on a Scottish beach Brough had an epiphany which he later described: ‘Out of the sea, sky and shore one voice suddenly seemed to “click” . . . the thin cheeky treble of a boy of fourteen or so.’ I can’t find the source for this quote but Brough wrote an autobiography in 1955 so I guess it is from that.

He designed the 4ft wooden dummy as an aristocratic young teenager in a striped blazer (several accounts claim that the doll’s garments were made in Savile Row but I think if you believe that, you’ll believe anything) and went back to John Sharman, by then a top light entertainment producer at the BBC. This time he was successful and Brough and Archie Andrews appeared for the first time together on the radio show Vaudeville of 1944, Brough playing the dummy’s guardian. Soon another BBC producer, Charles Maxwell, offered him a regular spot on the variety radio show Navy Mixture. This led to numerous engagements in the late 1940s and encouraged Brough to make a pilot programme called The Archie Andrews Radio Show. The BBC turned it down and Brough was devastated. His chest complaint recurred and he was sent to a sanatorium in Switzerland. But he could not give up the idea of a radio programme and assembled a team of writers: Wally Ridley, Sid Colin (later to write The Army Game) and an emerging youngster called Eric Sykes. At last Brough was successful and on June 6, 1950, the first Educating Archie was broadcast. The cast included Robert Moreton as Archie’s tutor, Max Bygraves as an odd-job man and Hattie Jacques as housekeeper Agatha Dinglebody. The resident singer was a 13-year-old Julie Andrews. Here she is in 1951.

The show was an instant hit. By the end of its initial twelve-week run, it had a regular audience of twelve million. It was extended to 30 weeks, and in December it won the first National Radio Award for the Outstanding Variety Series of the Year.

Here is a sample show:

There are several more on YouTube.

Archie temporarily took over Britain. There were Archie Andrews lollipops, dolls, jigsaws, clothes, masks, key-rings, mechanical figures, board games, ice-lollies and even an Archie Andrews-shaped Imperial Leather bar of soap. There was a strip in the weekly comic Radio Fun, plus annuals, books and colouring books.

There were novelty records with Max Bygraves including By the Light of the Silvery Moon

and The Dummy Song.

Archie’s fan club had 250,000 members.

After its first break, the show returned with a new tutor: Tony Hancock, en route to Hancock’s Half Hour which I wrote about here and here.

This is a clip of Hancock and Archie:

One Christmas, I assume 1950 or 1951, the cast were invited to meet the Royal Family at their annual staff party in Windsor Castle. Princesses Elizabeth and Margaret Rose wanted to know how Archie worked, so Brough took off the dummy’s head to show them the controls. Reconstructed, Archie turned to the king and said: ‘Sir, I’m the only fellow you have ever beheaded in your reign.’ At least that’s the story. Another version has the king making the joke, but I really don’t think that was George VI’s style.

Max Bygraves left, and Alfred Marks took over his role. After Hancock, Archie’s tutors included Sid James, Benny Hill, Harry Secombe, Dick Emery, Bernard Bresslaw and Bruce Forsyth.

At some point Beryl Reid joined the cast with characters she had created for an earlier programme, Starlight Hour. These were the dreadful schoolgirl Monica, and Marlene the Brummie with her catchphrase ‘Good evening, each.’ Her Starlight Hour writer, Ronald Wolfe, joined the Educating Archie writing team, which also included Marty Feldman. By now the musical interludes were provided by the harmonica player Ronald Chesney, and here is an example:

The two Ronalds teamed up to write the show’s last four series, and went on to create The Rag Trade for BBC TV. Here’s an episode of that from 1961:

By now the audience was up to 15million, and Archie was a national celebrity – see this priceless Pathe item about a fashion show for the newly invented teenagers.

However things were not happy at home for Brough – his wife and their son and daughter hated Archie Andrews for taking over their lives. He and Peggy parted in 1954. Later she committed suicide, as did their son.

In 1956, Brough did a one-off BBC TV special, and in 1958 Educating Archie was adapted as an ITV sitcom featuring Brough, Irene Handl and Dick Emery. No effort was spared but Archie just didn’t work on TV. I can’t find any clips except one contained in this 1987 programme when Beryl Reid, Eric Sykes and Peter Brough reminisced with Terry Wogan.

All this time Educating Archie continued on the radio, the last broadcast going out on February 17, 1960. Peter Brough, then aged 44, retired from showbusiness to run the family textile business, and remarried. He died in 1999, aged 83.

At the end of the programme Archie Andrews was put away in a suitcase until he was sold at auction for £34,000 the year after Brough’s death. The buyer was Educating Archie fan Colin Burnett-Dick, who planned a new lease of life for the doll. Here is an account from the Guardian, which I found funny.

 

With acknowledgments to Vinny’s Mislaid Comedy Heroes. 

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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