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The Lost BBC: Henry Hall

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A MAJOR figure on the BBC between the wars and and helping to keep up morale during the second was the multi-talented, understated and urbane bandleader Henry Hall.

Hall was born in 1898 in Peckham, South London. He won a scholarship to Trinity College of Music where he studied trumpet, piano, harmony and counterpoint. His first job was as copyist at the head office of the Salvation Army for which he wrote several marches.

In December 1916 he was recruited into the Royal Field Artillery. When he was arrested for illegally playing the piano in the officers’ mess, the subsequent interview with a captain resulted in his transfer to the Cadet School so that Henry could play in the band and write arrangements for revues.

After the war he picked up what musical work he could. In 1922 he was on his first dance band engagement as a relief pianist in a Manchester show on New Year’s Eve. There was an embarrassing silence when a dancer needed to change costume, so Hall started to play Chopin’s Butterfly Etude from memory. The lights turned on to him and he stole the show. This launched his career. He was soon leader of the Trafford Band at the Midland Hotel, Manchester, one of the LMS Railways chain of hotels, then at the Adelphi, Liverpool.

In his autobiography, Here’s to the Next Time, Hall recounts that he met a young woman on a train in Devon in October 1923. They got talking and the next day Henry took Margery Harker to a dance. At the end of the evening he proposed and she accepted. They were married three months later, going on to have two children.

In 1924 the LMS Company opened the Gleneagles Hotel. At Hall’s suggestion the opening night on June 4, 1924, was broadcast on the BBC (which at that time was only two years old). It was the first outside broadcast in Scotland. Only one microphone was used but it was a great success and more broadcasts followed.

At the end of the season the seven-man Gleneagles band moved to the Adelphi, Liverpool, where Hall was approached by the Columbia record company. The first recording session at the Midland Hotel, Manchester, in November 1924 led to Any Old Time being released under the Gleneagles Dance Band name.

It was the first of many records.

Here is I Was True (1930)

* By 1931 Hall was running 32 bands in the LMS organisation and he had switched record companies to the new Decca label. This is the first Decca recording session in the Trafford Restaurant at the Midland Hotel. The debut release was Cobblestones.

In the first week of 1932 Henry Hall received a telegram asking him to meet the BBC’s director of outside broadcasts, Gerald Cock (who became the first director of television in 1935). Cock invited Hall to lead a new BBC Dance Orchestra to replace its show band which had been led by Jack Payne. Apparently the appointment was controversial as many better-known bandleaders had been overlooked.

The BBC Dance Orchestra performed the BBC’s first musical broadcast from the newly built Broadcasting House on 15 March 1932 at 8pm.

British Movietone made a short film about the occasion. Henry Hall introduces a couple of the players including 16-year-old oboeist Richard Matthews, and Val Rosing sings It’s Just the Time for Dancing written by Hall, which became the band’s signature tune:

Hall also wrote its closing theme, Here’s To The Next Time, with vocals by Rosing. Watch out for the xylophonist – he’s a star!

The show received a mixed response from listeners. There had been a big publicity build-up to the broadcast and the band were hard put to live up to the expectations, especially since they were following Payne’s popular band.

With a regular spot at 5.15 each weekend (I can’t discover if the programme had a title) the new orchestra gained experience and evolved. A children’s spot was introduced, for which Teddy Bears’ Picnic was recorded, with vocals by Val Rosing.

On the B-side was the almost indistinguishable Here Comes the Boogeyman (reinforcing my feeling that Picnic is sinister).

Here is a recording of The Sun Has Got His Hat On from 1932 (warning: politically incorrect lyrics).

For the winter season vocalists Les Allen and Phyllis Robins were featured.

Les Hall sings Love Is The Sweetest Thing (1932)

Here is Phyllis Robins with It’s the Talk of the Town (1933).

In September 1933 Hall visited the US to learn how their bands performed, and returned to England full of ideas. One was to invite Fred Astaire, then appearing in the West End in Cole Porter’s The Gay Divorce, to do a guest spot on his programme and sing Night and Day from the show. Cole Porter watched the performance.

There doesn’t seem to be a recording of it, so I thought I would show Astaire and Ginger Rogers doing the number from the film which was made the following year, renamed The Gay Divorcee:

And so the programme Henry Hall’s Guest Night was born. The first was broadcast on 17 March 1934 featuring Flanagan and Allen and Elsie and Doris Waters.

Here are Flanagan and Allen with the orchestra in Underneath the Arches.

Guest Night programmes became very popular. Radio Times did not publish who would be on the show so it was always a surprise. Stars who appeared included Tommy Handley, Stanley Holloway, Jessie Matthews and Richard Tauber. To maintain a regular good show Guest Night became fortnightly.

In May 1934 the BBC Dance Orchestra performed at the Royal Variety Show in the presence of King George V and Queen Mary.

The same year Hall published his greatest success, It’s Time to say Goodnight, with words by Kate Wilson. This version has vocals by Les Allen.

Soon the main vocalist was Dan Donovan. Here he is with Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (1934).

While Henry Hall was on a second trip to US, during the autumn of 1934, the BBC Dance Orchestra continued to broadcast, and was announced as ‘the BBC Dance Orchestra directed by Henry Hall’ even though he wasn’t there. The press made a story out of it so on the first night back Henry Hall came on the air and said ‘This IS Henry Hall speaking!’ He continued to introduce himself this way for the rest of his career.

Here are the words at the start of a record compilation; I am not sure of the year.

In 1935 Hall and the orchestra appeared in the film Music Hath Charms. Here is a clip:

Here is a complete programme from Christmas 1936.

After five years with the BBC, and facing competition from other bands, in 1937 Hall decided to make a fresh start. He and the band left the BBC, though he continued to present Guest Night. Now known as Henry Hall and his Orchestra, they started touring the country.

In 1970 Alan Dell presented a radio programme about Hall at the BBC 1932-1937.

Throughout the Second World War Guest Night was broadcast from various locations, and the band entertained the troops. Some of their performance were broadcast by the BBC.

Afterwards tastes started to change and Hall branched out, becoming an agent and producer. Henry Hall’s Guest Night carried on but I can’t find out when it ended.

Hall ceased regular broadcasting in 1964 and was appointed CBE in 1970. He died in Eastbourne in 1989, aged 91. This WAS Henry Hall.

With acknowledgements to http://www.r2ok.co.uk/hhall01.htm

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist.

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