Sunday, November 17, 2019
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The Lost BBC: Listen with Mother

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THERE won’t be many people of a certain age who are not instantly transported back to childhood by this:

The opening seconds of Listen with Mother preceded 15 minutes of stories, songs and nursery rhymes for pre-school children, and was required listening in many homes. (Of course these days it would have to be called Listen with Care-Giver.) It was aired every weekday afternoon at 1.45pm, just before Woman’s Hour, and at its peak it had an audience of a million.

The programme was devised by Freda Lingstrom, the BBC’s assistant head of schools broadcasting. The first edition went out on January 16, 1950, and was introduced by Julia Lang, whose welcome ‘Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin’ became part of the language and even entered the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations. The legend is that it was an ad lib. Hmm.

The other presenters included Daphne Oxenford, an actress who stayed with the programme for 21 years, Eileen Browne and Dorothy Smith, who read the stories for 26 years. The nursery rhymes were often sung by George Dixon, a producer with a distinguished career in broadcasting.

The show’s team were told that some children listening believed that the storyteller saw them and heard their replies. One little girl reportedly told her friend, ‘My lady played Humpty Dumpty today,’ to which the little boy replied, ‘So did mine!’

Favourite nursery rhymes included I Had a Little Nut Tree, The Grand Old Duke of York, Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary, Polly Put the Kettle On and Ride a Cock Horse to Banbury Cross.

The closing music was Berceuse (meaning lullaby) from Fauré’s Dolly Suite for piano duet, Op. 56. (A personal note: My school friend Helen was a gifted musician who went on to study at the Royal Academy of Music. I learned the piano too but I was useless. However on one occasion, I think at a youth club musical evening, we played this duet. We must have been 14 or 15. I took the higher part because it was easier, but I still messed it up a bit. Here is a video of two children playing it, though the girl of nine is a lot better than I was.)

I think Listen with Mother went out live for a long time, so there are very few recordings from the early days. The episode used at the beginning of this piece is from January 1961. Sadly it is incomplete. Here is another, from June 1965.

These nursery rhymes are not from Listen with Mother but are very much of the type.

And I could not leave out Henry Hall’s Teddy Bears’ Picnic (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 . . .’)

Sadly, Listen with Mother was doomed almost as soon as it started. Creator Freda Lingstrom was asked to devise content for a 15-minute programme, to be called For The Very Young, for the fledgling BBC television service. She and a friend, Maria Bird, came up with Andy Pandy. Production began in June 1950, only six months after Listen with Mother’s debut, and the first Andy Pandy programme went out on July 11.

Lingstrom was appointed director of BBC children’s television in 1951, and the following year For The Very Young was renamed Watch with Mother, going out at 3.45pm before older children came home from school. (I think school days ended at bit later in those days – my junior school day finished at 3.45, then I got a bus home.)

Lingstrom and Bird set up their own production company, called Westerham Arts after the Kent town where they shared a home, and built a shed in the back garden to be their studio. They went on to create The Flowerpot Men, The Woodentops and Rag, Tag and Bobtail for Watch with Mother.

In 1950 there were only an estimated 350,000 TV sets, but the 1953 Coronation prompted a boom in sales and by 1954 there were well over three million. By 1956 the figure had leapt to 5.7million, and so it went on. The growing appeal of television ate into radio audience figures, and Listen with Mother was among the victims. A BBC survey in the mid-1970s allegedly revealed that there were as many long-distance lorry drivers as young children listening to the programme each day (I do wonder how they could possibly tell – remember Blue Peter’s vote-rigging scandal.)

The BBC’s answer was to shunt the programme round the schedules, eventually washing up on VHF only (thus cutting out the many listeners who did not have modern radios) at the much less convenient time for mothers of 10.30am. By this expedient the BBC made sure that figures dropped off a cliff to fewer than 50,000, or two per cent of pre-school children, providing the justification for axing the programme. The announcement in 1982 provoked 400 protest letters, a petition of 2,000 names and a campaign joined by Alan Ayckbourn, Glenda Jackson and John Cleese. To no avail. The last programme, presented by Nerys Hughes and Tony Aitken, went out on September 10 1982. You can hear it here.

While it seems to me to be of lesser quality than the older ones, its heart was still definitely in the right place, and the final farewells brought tears to my eyes.

It was succeeded by Listening Corner, a five-minute story at 1.55pm on weekdays (VHF only of course). I doubt if many thought it worth the bother of turning on the radio. The last reference to it I can find is from 1989.

I don’t know if this was the first time the BBC had employed the technique of deliberately losing viewers or listeners to justify taking a programme off the air, but they have certainly become expert in it since. So when I read this week that Songs of Praise was being moved from its Sunday evening 6pm spot to 1.15pm, when many people are having lunch and others are still on their way home from church, I knew the writing was on the wall. The BBC’s fatuous excuse for the shift was ‘to make it easier to find for viewers and to avoid the programme being displaced by sporting events which can often overrun’. Expect an announcement before long that viewing figures are so low that the programme is no longer ‘viable’. You read it here first.

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist.

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