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Tuesday, May 21, 2024
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The Lost BBC: Journey into Space

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During the repeat of The Lost BBC series, a number of commenters have mentioned the 1950s BBC radio serial Journey into Space, so I am ending the repeats with this new article.

MY main memory of the programme is the introduction with a deep unearthly voice intoning ‘Journey into Space’, but I have had a lot of difficulty finding it. The nearest I can get is at the beginning of this clip but I am not certain it is the original.

The series, which ran from 1953 to 1956, concerned the adventures of Captain Andrew ‘Jet’ Morgan and his crew, Dr Daniel ‘Doc’ Matthews, Stephen ‘Mitch’ Mitchell and Lemuel ‘Lemmy’ Barnet.

It was the creation of BBC producer Charles Chilton (1917-2013). He had previously written a long-running series called Riders of the Range, and when it came to an end the Corporation’s head of variety Michael Standing asked Chilton if he could write a sci-fi programme. He came up with the first series of Journey into Space, which was subtitled Journey to the Moon. It was set in the future 1965 because that was when that Chilton thought men would walk on the moon. He was only four years out, the first landing being in 1969.

The first episode went out on the Light Programme at 7.30pm on Monday September 21, 1953, and for a while it looked as if it was going to be a flop. The first four episodes did not capture the audience’s imagination, but when the rocket set out for the moon in the fifth episode the series took off too. It was quickly extended from the intended eight to 18 weeks, finishing on January 19, 1954.

A second series was immediately commissioned. The 20 episodes of The Red Planet covered the crew’s 35million-mile round trip to Mars and was broadcast from September 6, 1954 to June 17, 1955. Episode 19 on January 10, 1955 was the last time a radio programme attracted a bigger evening audience than television, achieving a 17 per cent audience share while the simultaneous newsreel on BBC TV had 16 per cent.

There was no rest for Chilton and the third series, The World in Peril, comprised another 20 episodes running from September 26, 1955 to February 6, 1956. It followed Jet Morgan and his crew’s return to Mars in an attempt to avert a Martian invasion of Earth. I don’t know why the series came to an end when it was so popular. I might have been able to find out from a 1975 programme in which Chilton recalled his 46-year career at the BBC, but the Corporation website says ‘This programme is not currently available’. https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0075m1p

In accordance with BBC practice of the time, the Journey into Space tapes were erased to be re-used, and for many years it was thought the series would never be heard again. However in 1986 a set of discs which had been created for overseas broadcast were discovered. Series 2 and Series 3 were complete while Series I was a shorter version which had been remade in 1958, losing the unsuccessful first four episodes and starting at Episode 5. It had been renamed Operation Luna. (I suspect this might have been when the unearthly voice at the start was added.)

On YouTube I found a terrific 17-minute programme called Journey into Space: An Introduction narrated by David Jacobs, of whom more later, with fascinating contributions from Charles Chilton. There are no details about when it was broadcast or who made it.

There have been three more one-off Journey into Space episodes. In The Return from Mars (1981) by Charles Chilton, Jet Morgan and the team return to Earth having been missing for 30 years, and in Frozen in Time (2008, also by Charles Chilton who was then 91)they awaken from suspended animation. The final (so far) story is The Host written by Julian Simpson, broadcast in 2009.

All the episodes are available on YouTube or you can buy the BBC CDs. Needless to say they are not on the BBC website.

A list of cast members over the various series can be found on Wikipedia. 

Here is what happened to some of the main players in the 1950s series.

Andrew Faulds (1923-2000) played Jet Morgan. He served in the RAF and the Fleet Air Arm during the war, and in 1948 joined the Royal Shakespeare Company. After Journey into Space he appeared in many films, including Jason and the Argonauts (1963), featuring in the renowned skeleton fight scene. The film did not do well on release but has since become a cult classic.

Here is an interesting account of how the scene was made, and there is a terrific interview with the legendary animator Ray Harryhausen and more clips here.

In the 1960s Faulds became a Labour Party activist, and features briefly in this film about the 1965 conference in Blackpool.

In 1966 he became an MP, winning Smethwick from the Conservatives, and was re-elected until his retirement in 1997. He continued acting, appearing in many of Ken Russell’s films including The Music Lovers (1970), The Devils (1971), Mahler (1974) and Lisztomania (1975).

David Jacobs (1926-2013)who had a gift for assuming a variety of voices, played 22 different parts in The World in Peril and The Red Planet. In episode 1 of The Red Planet, Jet Morgan is interviewed by a group of newspaper reporters, all of whom were played by Jacobs.

Jacobs left school at 14 after his family fell on hard times. He served in the Royal Navy from 1944 to 1947, and performed on the popular BBC forces programme Navy Mixture in 1944. He became an announcer with the British Forces Broadcasting Service then switched to the BBC, in which role he made the introductory announcement for many of the Journey into Space programmes as well as appearing in them.

From 1959 to 1967 Jacobs presented BBC TV’s Juke Box Jury. There were 432 programmes, yet thanks to the BBC’s far-sighted policy of wiping tapes and not recording live programmes, only two complete shows survive, both from 1960. This is the October 29 edition:

This is the November 12 one:

Neither of these shows is on the BBC website. A complete list of programmes with panellists and records played can be found on the independent Juke Box Jury website.

From 1967 to 1984, Jacobs chaired the Radio 4 programme Any Questions? and during his later career he presented easy listening music programmes on Radio 2.

David Kossoff (1919-2005) played Lemuel ‘Lemmy’ Barnet. After Journey into Space he played the hen-pecked husband of Peggy Mount in The Larkins, an ITV series which ran from 1958 to 1960.

A variety of other parts followed, including the Peter Sellers film The Mouse That Roared.

Kossoff’s son Paul was a guitarist with the band Free. Here they are performing at the 1970 Isle of Wight Festival.

Paul Kossoff had been using drugs from the age of 15, and after the group split in 1972 his health worsened. He died in 1976 at the age of 25. His father spent the rest of his life campaigning against drugs.

Charles Chilton (1917-2013), who wrote the series, joined the BBC as a messenger boy aged 14. He worked his way up to being a producer then served with the RAF throughout the war. After it ended he was sent to Ceylon to run the forces’ radio service, where he met David Jacobs.

After Journey into Space ended, Chilton wrote and produced a programme called The Long Long Trail about World War I, in memory of his father who was killed in 1917 and never saw his son. It juxtaposed facts and reminiscences with songs found in a book published in 1917 called Tommy’s Tunes which had new lyrics written in the trenches to well-known songs and hymns of the era.

The programme was broadcast in 1961. You will be surprised to learn that is not available on the BBC website https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b008hvwk but it is on YouTube.

It was used by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop as the basis for their production Oh, What a Lovely War! which premiered at the Theatre Royal Stratford East on March 19 1963 to rave reviews, transferring to the West End later that year and subsequently adapted into the 1969 film Oh! What a Lovely War.

So to finish here is the song There’s a Long Long Trail A-Winding from the film.

Footnote: Writing this series has been an exercise in frustration because of the BBC policy of keeping its old material hidden. (That material which survived another disgraceful policy, that of wiping tapes.) Time after time I have called up vintage programmes on the BBC website to find the message ‘This programme is not available at this time’. I find it scandalous that an organisation funded entirely (and forcibly) by the public is permitted to decide whether or not to allow the public access to the programmes they have paid for. No doubt matters of copyright would be brought up as an excuse, but contracts with performers should have been constructed with public access in mind. My strong suspicion is that the BBC is ashamed of a lot of the material it produced in the past and would rather not be reminded of it.

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Margaret Ashworth
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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