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The Lost BBC: The Adventures of PC 49

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Over the summer we are repeating this 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. This article was first published on May 18, 2019.

MANY of us remember Dixon of Dock Green on TV, in which Jack Warner played the oldest copper on earth. But he was not the BBC’s first bobby on the beat – in 1947 that honour went to PC 49, Constable Archibald Berkeley-Willoughby, known as Archie to his friends and Fortynine to his superiors.

Ex-public school Fortynine served in Q Division of the Metropolitan Police, getting involved in solving cases in the hope of securing a job with the plain clothes division. He was often assisted by his girlfriend (later wife) Joan Carr, who referred to him as her ‘copper boy’.

Like many shows of the day The Adventures of PC 49 had catchphrases, and Fortynine was prone to exclaiming ‘Oh my Sunday helmet!’ when things went wrong.

The idea for the series came from Alan Stranks (1903-1959), an Australian who worked as a crime reporter before moving to England in the late 1930s. Here he started writing scripts for radio, cinema and comics. He also wrote lyrics, including the songs in the 1943 film version of the radio comedy It’s That Man Again, and All, the British entry in the second Eurovision Song Contest in 1957. Sung by Patricia Bredin, it came seventh. You can see it here (it is quite a contrast to the modern-day Eurovision).

Stranks is probably best known as the father of Susan Stranks, who co-presented the children’s series Magpie, ITV’s answer to the BBC’s Blue Peter. Here is a clip for nostalgia buffs:

In his 1952 book On Duty With PC 49, Stranks relates how he created the character. In 1947 he visited Scotland Yard to check a point of procedure for an article he was writing. He talked to a sergeant who was scornful of the special agents and eccentric detectives invented by crime writers. ‘It’s about time you realised that almost 99 per cent of the crimes committed in this country are solved by the keen observation and the devotion to duty of the ordinary bloke on the beat,’ said the sergeant. ‘Give the bobby a break, there’s no one deserves it better.’

Stranks spent the next day on the streets of London talking to policemen and watching them work. He thought that although they lacked glamour there was ‘always the possibility that around the next corner, or in the shadow of the dark doorway across the road, adventure with a capital “A” may be waiting to meet them.’

Within a few days Stranks had written the first PC 49 adventure and taken it to BBC radio producer Vernon Harris.

Harris (1905-1999) had been a Shakespearean actor but turned to writing film and radio scripts, one of which was Arthur Askey’s Band Waggon. Later he became a BBC producer. He went on to write or co-write many popular films, including Albert RN (1953) The Sea Shall Not Have Them (1954) and Carve Her Name With Pride (1958). In 1969 he was nominated for an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay for his work on the film Oliver!

Harris liked Stranks’s idea and commissioned a trial series of four ‘incidents in the career of Police-Constable Archibald Berkeley-Willoughby’.

To play PC 49 he chose Brian Reece, who during the war had worked with ENSA and subsequently appeared in the West End production of Bless the Bride at the Adelphi Theatre. Vernon Harris had produced a radio version of the play a few weeks earlier and had been impressed that Reece understood the difference between stage and radio work. Most of the cast acted in theatrical style but Reece gave a much more understated performance. (Reece was to die in 1962 at the early age of 48 from a bone disease.)

According to a radio interview in 1983, Harris had trouble casting Fortynine’s girlfriend until his wife suggested an actress who had stood in at a few minutes’ notice in a radio play, giving an excellent performance with no fluffs. Harris saw the actress, Joy Shelton, the next day and offered her the role. She had previously appeared in the 1944 film Waterloo Road with John Mills.

Detective Inspector Wilson was played by Leslie Perrins, and Detective Sergeant Wright by Eric Phillips.

The theme tune was Changing Moods by the English composer Ronald Hanmer (1917-1994), played by Sidney Torch and the New Century Orchestra.

Hanmer emigrated to Australia in 1975, when he was surprised to find that his piece, Pastorale, had been in use since 1949 as the theme to the long-running serial Blue Hills.

The first episode of The Adventures of PC 49, The Case of the Drunken Sailor, went out live at 9.30pm on October 27, 1947. The shows were a success and Stranks was asked to write more. The second series, starting with The Case of the Frightened Flower Girl, began in June 1948. Here is the Radio Times listing for the first programme in the fourth series, The Case of the Burning Passion, which went out on November 11, 1948.

Like Dick Barton – Special Agent, PC 49 was envisaged as an adult series but soon became popular with younger listeners, so a repeat edition was introduced at 7pm at weekends.

Here is an episode entitled The Case of the Black Diamonds from Series Seven, broadcast on July 27, 1950:

There were two spin-off films. The Adventures of PC 49: Investigating the Case of the Guardian Angel was written by Alan Stranks and Vernon Harris as an expansion of the second episode of Series Two of the radio series. It was made by Hammer Films and released in October 1949. It had a different cast from the radio programmes.

The second, also made by Hammer, was A Case For PC 49 released in 1950. Again it was written by Stranks and Harris but this time Brian Reece and Joy Shelton took on their original radio roles. Here is a clip:

On the radio the stories were coming to an end. In Series Ten of 1952 Archie and Joan get married, and in the first episode of Series Eleven, The Case of the Blue Bootees, they have a son. This was the last series and after five years and 112 episodes the programme finished, the last being The Case of the Swell Guy which went out on May 26, 1953. According to the website Turnipnet, just two episodes survive in the BBC archives, but I was unable to find them. There was also a Radio 4 programme called On the Beat with PC 49 which was broadcast in May 2009, but the BBC website, as usual, says ‘Sorry, this episode is not currently available’.

The character of PC 49 continued in books by Stranks and in the Eagle comic until 1957, when he finally hung up his Sunday helmet.

With acknowledgements to Vintage British Comedy. 

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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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