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The Lost BBC: Variety Bandbox


AS we have seen many times in this series, the Second World War produced a great number of talented performers who honed their skills entertaining the troops.

One of the shows which gave many of them their start in broadcasting was the radio show Variety Bandbox, which began life as a programme for servicemen.

The idea apparently came from Stephen Williams, broadcasting officer for ENSA, which made many programmes with the BBC. He had already come up with the format for Two Way Family Favourites when he was invited to join the wartime BBC Overseas Entertainment Unit. This was run by Cecil Madden and based at the Criterion Theatre in London, producing shows for troops all over the world.

Variety Bandbox was one of the unit’s creations. The format was similar to a stage variety bill, featuring a mixture of comedians and musicians. It was broadcast weekly from the Queensberry All-Services Club in Soho, Madden editing, Williams directing.

As an aside, the Queensberry All-Services Club, which is now the Prince Edward Theatre, was the venue for the last performance by Glenn Miller on December 12, 1944. Three days later he left a military airfield near Bedford in a single-engine Norseman aircraft. He and his band, who were travelling separately, were due to start a six-week engagement for Allied troops stationed in France, but Miller never arrived. There is a fascinating web page about all this, including a programme for Miller’s last date, here. This is a short tribute which begins with the BBC report of his disappearance.

I have found several different dates for the first Variety Bandbox broadcast, from 1941 to 1944. I guess it was nearer the latter than the former. The hour-long shows went out on Sunday evenings. The presenter was Philip Slessor, who introduced the show with ‘Presenting the people of variety to a variety of people.’ I can find out next to nothing about Slessor but I think he was an actor.

There are several programmes on YouTube, though all seem to have been cut down to half an hour. There are no wartime ones, but here is one from 1948.

Here is a Radio Times entry from the same year.

So to some of the future stars who appeared on Variety Bandbox.

Peter Sellers was born in 1925 into a variety family and toured provincial theatres with his parents. At the outbreak of war he was 14 but his mother would not let him go with his north London school when it was evacuated to Cambridgeshire, so he left. He learned to play the drums and toured around England as a member of ENSA, also doing comedy and impersonations. In 1943 he joined the RAF and went into Ralph Reader’s Gang Show entertainment troupe, which toured Britain and the Far East. Demobbed in 1946, Sellers scraped a living in entertainment until he auditioned for the BBC in 1948 and was accepted. He was soon a regular performer on various BBC radio shows, including Variety Bandbox.

Here is a clip from 1951.

By this time Sellers was appearing the Goon Show, to which I hope to return in a later article.

Frankie Howerd was born Francis Alick Howard in York in 1917. His father was a regular soldier and his mother worked at the Rowntree chocolate factory. When his father was posted to Woolwich the family settled in Eltham, and at 11 Frankie won one of two London County Council scholarships to Shooters Hill Grammar School, where his best subject was maths. He attended church regularly and, at the age of 13, became a Sunday school teacher and joined the Church Dramatic Society. Always nervous and shy and with a stutter he fought hard to overcome, he plucked up the courage to take part in school plays and eventually decided to audition for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. Overcome with nerves, he failed the audition miserably but realised that his future might lie in comedy. He appeared with concert parties whilst earning a living taking small clerical jobs, hiding scripts among his papers to learn lines whenever he could.

In 1940, Frankie was called up to serve in the Royal Artillery. He was stationed at Shoeburyness, Essex, and soon became popular as an entertainer with his fellow service personnel. Later in the war he had success with a civilian concert party called the Co-oddments, touring the Southend-on-Sea area until he was posted to Germany. He tried auditioning for concert parties there but to no avail until he was seen by Major Richard Stone, who was to become a leading theatrical agent after the war. The Major liked Frankie’s routine and he found him a position with a concert party to entertain the troops. Howard now changed the spelling of his surname, thinking that ‘Howerd’ would catch the eye as a possible misspelling, even if he were bottom of the bill.

After he was demobbed in 1946, Howerd auditioned for Variety Bandbox and made his first broadcast on the show on 3 December 1946. He was an instant success and quickly became one of the most popular entertainers in the country, broadcasting regularly and touring the music halls.

Here is one of his routines from 1949.

Bill Kerr was born in South Africa in 1922 but grew up in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, Australia and had a successful career as a child actor. He served in the Australian Army during the war and moved to Britain in 1947. During the next few years he was regularly featured in Variety Bandbox. Retaining his accent, he was billed as ‘the fugitive from Wagga Wagga’ and opened his downbeat spots with the catchphrase ‘I’m only here for four minutes.’

Here he is in 1951.

Al Read was born in Salford in 1909 and went into his father’s sausage-making business. He became known as a popular after-dinner speaker and club performer with his monologues and dialogues in which he played both parts. His catchphrases were ‘Right, monkey!’ and ‘You’ll be lucky – I say, you’ll be lucky!’

In 1950 The Al Read Show started on the BBC and soon became one of the most popular radio comedy shows. Read also appeared on other programmes, and here is a clip from Variety Bandbox:

I have highlighted the performers whose Variety Bandbox clips I was able to find on YouTube, but there were many more, including Tony Hancock, whom I wrote about here and here, Dick Emery, Max Wall, Reg Dixon, Arthur English, Harry Secombe, Betty Driver and Miriam Karlin. Eric Sykes was a scriptwriter.

Everyone wanted to be on the programme. Stephen Williams recalled getting a letter from a George Mitchell:

‘They’d put together this swing choir consisting of eight people and he was its leader. They did me an audition at the Queensberry in front of about 4,000 uniformed troops, it went down exceedingly well, so I squeezed up the programme, which was due to go out that evening, and slotted them in for four minutes. They made a hit and it became George Mitchell’s Swing Choir for a long time, then he started expanding and ultimately the Black and White Minstrels arrived.

‘On another occasion, I had Billy Reed & His Accordion Band and he said to me just before the interval “I’ve got a girl singer who I think is rather good. She hasn’t been auditioned for broadcasting, can you do anything about it?”

‘We put her on in front of the audience and she had the soldiers biting their finger­nails with her interpretation of Some Of These Days.

‘And so she went on to become the number one singer of the Forces Network, Dorothy Squires.’

Many leading bands of the day were featured, including Ambrose and his Orchestra, here with Just One of Those Things,

Geraldo and his Orchestra, Ted Heath and his Music, the Joe Loss Orchestra, here with Amapola,

Ivy Benson and her All Girls Band, here with Not So Quiet Please

and Edmundo Ros and his Rumba Band, here in a 1950 Variety Bandbox clip.

Just as I cannot be certain when Variety Bandbox started, I am not sure when it finished, but it was either 1951 or 1952.

This column is taking a break, but I will be back in a fortnight with a new topic for the summer.

To read the collected TCW columns by Margaret and Alan Ashworth, plus new features including Tracks of the Day, please bookmark

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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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