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The Lost BBC: Two-Way Family Favourites


I’M sure that for quite a few readers, nothing will bring back memories of Sunday lunchtimes with the smell of the roast in the oven more than these words: ‘The time in Britain is twelve noon, in Germany it’s one o’clock, but home and away it’s time for Two-Way Family Favourites’, and this tune.

The programme started in 1941 as Forces Favourites, in which requests from families at home could be heard by servicemen overseas. It went out several times a week with the theme tune When You Wish Upon a Star. I can’t discover if it was the Disney version from Pinocchio sung by Cliff Edwards, or by Vera Lynn, who released it in 1940, so I have given both.

The presenters were all women, apparently because the higher pitch of their voices suited short-wave reception. One was Jean Metcalfe, who started work at the BBC as a typist.

After the war many British servicemen were stationed in occupied Germany and the existence of a military telephone link between London and Hamburg (which obviously could not be revealed during the war) made a two-way programme with hosts in each country possible. Family Favourites launched on the Light Programme on Sunday 7 October 1945. The presenters were Marjorie Anderson in London and Sergeant Alan Clarke in Hamburg. The first record was Lili Marlene played by Geraldo and his Orchestra.

The programme was immediately popular, not least because it featured proper records instead of studio cover versions (the BBC’s ‘needle time’ was limited by union agreements).

The BBC was determined to keep a high moral tone to the programme. Tom Chalmers, assistant head of the Light Programme, issued a directive: ‘No anniversary requests. No fiancées or girlfriends may be included. Families only. No names of schools or pubs may be mentioned because of indirect advertising. No noisy advanced jazz, eg Stan Kenton, is allowed on Sundays.’

Meanwhile Forces Favourites continued on overseas wavelengths only. Jean Metcalfe moved over to Family Favourites in 1947 while a number of male broadcasters hosted the German end from the studios of the British Forces Network in Hamburg. One Sunday an RAF squadron leader named Cliff Michelmore filled in at short notice when a colleague was ill. He and Jean Metcalfe hit it off and were able to talk to each other off-air for ten minutes every Sunday while the telephone line was open before the broadcast. They did not meet for six months, until Michelmore decided to leave the RAF and chance his luck as a freelance broadcaster in the UK. In London he went to the BBC to discuss his prospects and found Jean on duty in a studio. ‘You must be Jean,’ he said, to which she replied: ‘You must be Cliff.’

Michelmore continued to work on Family Favourites (which at some stage became Two-Way Family Favourites) until the end of 1949 and the last record on his final show with Jean was I’ll Be Seeing You.

They married in March 1950.

Jean remained the main London presenter of Family Favourites for the next 14 years – at its peak it had an audience of 16million in Britain alone – while Cliff built his broadcasting career. In 1957 the BBC launched a new current affairs programme called Tonight. It featured serious issues and human interest stories, and made household names of Alan Whicker, Derek Hart, Fyfe Robertson and Trevor Philpott. It also featured a topical calypso by Cy Grant, and you can see a typical start to the programme here.

In 1964 Michelmore introduced 17-year-old David Jones to talk about his new Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long Haired Men. Very soon the young man was known as David Bowie.

After Tonight ended in 1965, Michelmore went on to present its successor, 24 Hours. He fronted the BBC’s coverage of the Apollo space missions, including the first moon landing in 1969 and the nerve-racking return of the stricken Apollo 13 in April 1970.

Here he returns to anchor the BBC’s 1966 general election special after a sleepless two-hour break.

And here is his report from Aberfan in October 1966 after a colliery spoil heap collapsed and engulfed a junior school and other buildings, killing 116 children and 28 adults. (I still think this is the worst disaster that has happened during my lifetime, Twin Towers notwithstanding.)

I don’t think any broadcaster could have made a better job of this than Michelmore. This clip misses his despairing first words: ‘I don’t know where to begin . . .’

In 1964 Metcalfe cut back on her radio work and the Two-Way Family Favourites roster was joined by Judith Chalmers. (For a detailed account of all the presenters over the years, see a great website called Random Radio Jottings.) The show’s horizons expanded to become Three-Way, Four-Way or even Five-Way when they joined other British forces outposts in Malta, Cyprus, Aden, Singapore, Tripoli and Gibraltar.

In 1967 the programme was revamped with Michael Aspel as the main host and lengthened by 30 minutes to take it up to two hours with contributions from Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Canada. It returned to its original name, Family Favourites. Random Radio Jottings compiled a selection of clips from the series, including various renditions of the signature tune.

In 1979 the BBC denied that the programme was to be killed off, so listeners knew it was on the way out. The final stand-alone edition of Family Favourites aired on Radio 2 on 13 January 1980. It then became part of Pete Murray’s Sunday Show and in 1981 it became a daily and eventually a weekly part of Ed Stewart’s weekday afternoon show before disappearing in 1984.

Jean and Cliff Michelmore had two children, actress Jenny Michelmore and the broadcaster and composer Guy Michelmore. Jean died in 2000, aged 77, and Cliff died in 2016 at 96. They are buried together at the parish church in South Harting, the West Sussex village where they lived in retirement.

Commenting on my Lost BBC blog last week, TCW reader ‘Hardcastle Craggs’ wrote: ‘I believe Two-Way Family Favourites was the best educational programme the BBC ever did. I was a teenager in the late fifties and the first time I heard Heartbreak Hotel was on that programme.

It awakened in me something I still benefit from. Because they played a wide variety of music, I had to sit through classical and “light” music to hear my favourite pop songs. Subconsciously, I absorbed all the best known classical pieces – duet from the Pearl Fishers, Bruch’s Violin concerto, Kathleen Ferrier What is Life? and so on. So when I began to like classical music, I found I already knew quite a lot. It’s a pity that the BBC began to segment music on separate channels and so deprive listeners of a variety of music.’

It’s a good point. Here is a small sample of the tunes that were regularly requested on Two-Way Family Favourites, and there is a really wide variety.

Here is Pat Boone with I’ll be Home;

The Intermezzo from Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana;

When I Fall in Love by Nat King Cole;

Underneath the Arches, by Flanagan and Allen;

Purcell’s Nymphs and Shepherds, the 1929 recording by Manchester Children’s Choir;

Russ Conway’s Side Saddle,

and Every Time We Say Goodbye by Ella Fitzgerald, which must have had a particular resonance for service families.

PS: I note that BBC chairman Sir David Clementi said in horrified tones this week that if the corporation took all listeners’ complaints seriously, programmes such as Listen with Mother and Workers’ Playtime would still be on the air. Perish the thought! Thank goodness for progressives like Sir David to protect us from our own tastes.

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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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