Tuesday, June 18, 2024
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The Lost BBC: Music While You Work


THIS is the first in a series recalling BBC radio programmes from the 30s, 40s and 50s, when the corporation was a much-loved institution broadcasting material the listeners wanted to hear.

Music While You Work started during the Second World War at the request of the government. The idea was that non-stop light music at an even tempo would boost factory production. The first broadcast was on June 23, 1940, and programmes ran for 30 minutes morning and afternoon. At one point there was an evening broadcast for night-shift workers.

Every session began and ended with Calling All Workers by the English composer Eric Coates (1886-1957), whose many other works included the London Suite (1933), one movement of which, Knightsbridge, became the theme for the BBC’s In Town Tonight, which I hope to cover later, and By the Sleepy Lagoon (1930) which introduces Desert Island Discs to this day. Later a march he had just written became the theme for the 1955 film The Dam Busters. Here are the opening titles,

here is a trailer (with a glimpse of the controversially named Nigger the dog) and here is a Pathe News report of a Dambusters reunion in 1955.

It features the father of Guy Gibson VC, who was killed in a later operation at the age of 26; the gathering must have been unbelievably painful for him.

In his autobiography Suite in Four Movements, Coates wrote that in 1940 he had struck a ‘blank patch’ which lasted for some months. His wife Phyllis ‘came to the rescue with the suggestion that I should write something especially for the Red Cross Depot whither she went daily to treadle her way with a sewing machine through miles of hospital supplies’. Coates went on: ‘I sat me down at my desk in the window, looking far away across London to the twin-towers of the Crystal Palace . . . and wrote what Phyl still calls her signature tune.’

The march was dedicated ‘to all workers’ and carries the inscription ‘To go to one’s work with a glad heart and to do that work with earnestness and goodwill’. It was selected at once by the BBC as the theme for the new programme. Here is a full-length recording of Calling All Workers with shots of wartime factory hands.

Every Music While You Work was played live by a different band. Those which often featured included Cecil Norman and the Rhythm Players, Bernard Monshin and his Rio Tango Band, Anton and his Orchestra, Bill Savill and his Orchestra, Jack White and his Band and Troise and his Banjoliers (Troise had another outfit, Troise and his Mandoliers, seen here but apparently the mandolin sound did not carry so well in the factories so they were stood down after four performances). The BBC issued guidelines that there should be plenty of familiar tunes, nothing too slow and nothing too fast, and definitely no jazz. Some songs were banned, including Deep in the Heart of Texas which featured hand claps, (here it is in Tex Ritter’s Ranch Party, 1957) because it was feared that workers would take their hands off their tasks to clap along or bang their spanners on their benches.

BBC executives were quite sure that Music While You Work helped to win the war, claiming a 13 per cent increase in production during the times of transmission.

Here is a clip from 1943 with some great illustrations. The hairdos are quite magnificent.

Several complete Music While You Work programmes can be found on a wonderful website, Masters of Melody, a treasure trove of vintage BBC music programmes run by a chap called Brian Reynolds. Helpfully, the tunes are identified – the broadcasts were non-stop with no announcements. I suppose most listeners knew all the numbers. Reynolds also gives lots of information about the bands.

Here are Troise and his Banjoliers.

I defy anyone to listen to this without a smile. Probably more typical is this selection by Cecil Norman and the Rhythm Players.

After the war the programme continued to be popular, and the afternoon selection was extended to 45 minutes. From 1963 it was recorded, not live. It ended on September 29, 1967, when the BBC turned its Light Programme into Radio One and Radio Two. There have been a few revivals but all were short-lived. The most recent, in 2011, sums up the current BBC – apparently there was no one old enough to remember the original Music While You Work (or curious enough to listen to one in the archives), so it was all wrong, staged in a factory in front of an audience, with interruptions for applause and announcements, and inappropriate tunes. Sigh.

If you have any favourite programmes you would like to see featured, please leave a comment and I will do my best to track it down.

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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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