The very title, Off The Record, caused controversy as the producers of an American programme claimed that the BBC had stolen their title, but they received no compensation.
The £950 budget was no invitation to spend lavishly. Francis Essex asked the BBC: “May I be supplied regularly with Record Mirror, Melody Maker and New Musical Express? These apparently are the key publications of the recording world and will help in computing programmes for the series.” As a result, he became Number 3 on the circulation list for Melody Maker, Number 2 for New Musical Express but right at the top for Record Mirror. He was soon fed up and bought his own.
In a frugal measure, Essex was told in May 1955, “Owing to the General Election we shall be unable to supply you with the services of a caption artist for the above production. A set of type letters will be available.” In other words, get out the John Bull kit and do it yourself.
As the concept was so new, representatives of the main record labels and publishers were invited to the BBC, and the files reveal that an 8 guinea expenditure on cigarettes, drinks and sandwiches! They gleaned important information. Les Farroll of Maddox Publishing said, “We are publishers with a lot of know-how and the BBC secretaries think they are dealing with children”
Despite the deviousness of his theatrical agency, Jack Payne was constantly complaining of sharp practice. In 1956, he complained about songwriters using pseudonyms. He said that when a musician is choosing something for the BBC, “almost inevitably we find that one of his compositions under his own name is included. What most people do not realise is that often two or three other numbers under different names are written by him too.”
The BBC filmed inserts for a regular feature on the programme, The Life Of A Disc. They visited EMI’s factory at Hayes, Middlesex and saw Frank Chacksfield conducting the theme from A Kid For Two Farthings at Decca. Before filming could take place, Decca had to remove company logos from the wall. The only direct publicity permitted was Jack Payne saying, “So now to the Decca Recording Studios.” Payne did, however, add a demeaning comment about Chacksfield, which was noted in the New Musical Express.
When Payne spoke to Decca record producer, Hugh Mendl, the NME commented, “Jack Payne’s attitude towards Hugh Mendl in Off The Record on Monday was unjust, unnecessary, ungentlemanly – and unforgiveable for a programme host.” The NME also said that his interview with Joe Loss was “too long and not particularly interesting because of Payne’s poor handling and repetitiveness.”
Off The Record had outside broadcasts when American stars such as Rosemary Clooney were met at London Airport. An interview with Stan Kenton was scheduled for Saturday afternoon but there were no TV cameras available. As a result Kenton was rushed to White Hart Lane where a BBC TV unit was filming Spurs playing Manchester City. His interview with Jack Payne was filmed within five minutes of the match ending.
The guest list for Off The Record was impressive and for 6 July 1955 alone, the line-up was Hoagy Carmichael, Petula Clark, Eddie Calvert and Edmundo Ros.
The guests spanned the range of popular music at the time. Alma Cogan and Ronnie Hilton sang a duet, ‘It’s All Been Done Before’ and Russ Hamilton sang ‘Wedding Ring’. There was miming as well as live performances and this created controversy. From a BBC memo in October 1957, “To have Bob Sharples conduct a non-existent orchestra and then announce it was a record was ridiculous. Oh what a tangled web we weave.”
There was a complaint that Stanley Black was playing the low notes of a piano with his right hand and the high notes with his left. The production team had placed a mirror above his head, and they had forgotten about a second mirror to return the image to normal.
Quite early on in the run, in December 1955, Francis Essex in a management memo showed a lack of confidence, “We may well be grinding a first class programme into the ground. This country’s recording artists are extremely limited and already we are using one or two of them for the fourth time.”
Off The Record coincided with the popularity of rock’n’roll. Jack Payne described rock’n’roll as “a horrible, hideous canker”, so he was the hardly the right man to be presenting it on the BBC. He criticised EMI in the Daily Express for releasing such rubbish as ‘Heartbreak Hotel’.
The NME stated in November 1956, “When Jack Payne announced the best selling records in Off The Record last Monday, he commented that Elvis Presley’s disc in second position was ‘amazing – but there it is.’ Under the circumstances, it is more amazing that any comment should have been allowed.”
Jack Payne also commented on air about Carl Perkins’ ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, saying it was “Yet another infernal rock’n’roller singing a song about footwear in a hick backwoods voice. It won’t do a thing here, of course.” Despite that, he was prepared to swallow his pride and appear in the UK version of the rock’n’roll film, Disc-Jockey Jamboree, which included Carl Perkins amongst its performers.
Jack Payne, who won an Ivor Novello award in 1956 for outstanding service in the field of popular music, commented, “The question of how far one should pander to teenage tastes on the BBC is a very knotty one. To take matters to the extreme, are we to let young people become the sole arbiters of what constitutes good or bad entertainment? Are we to more towards a world in which teenagers, dancing hysterically to the tune of each latter day Pied Piper, will inflict a mob rule in music? If our publishers and record men, with an eye on profits, are in favour of the BBC studying the American market in order to anticipate the next teenage craze over here, then I am against them. That would be to abdicate our musical independence, the last scrap of it, and it would completely turn Britain into a 49th state in the world of entertainment.”
Tommy Steele made his TV début in Off The Record, for which he got 12 guineas. He told me, “That certainly made ‘Rock With The Cavemen’ but the thing that got me going was 6.5 Special. I was treated on Off The Record like I was a burglar. It was run by Jack Payne who was a very stiff, humorless man, very stern and way above rock’n’roll. I got an introduction in which he said, ‘Here’s rock and roll, and you can take it or leave it.’ And he left it, of course. ‘Rock With A Caveman’ must have nearly killed him as he’d never heard that kind of music before.”
Rock’n’roll was also represented by Buddy Holly and the Crickets with ‘Maybe Baby’ (then touring the UK), Marty Wilde with ‘Honeycomb’ and Wee Willie Harris with ‘Back To School Again’. The prop list for Wee Willie’s performance said, “For three dancers in Eton jackets – three cut-throat knives, three flick knives and three coshes. All dummy ones, if possible.” Back to school again, indeed. Payne was appalled by the number, and said so on air.
There was skiffle from Lonnie Donegan (‘My Dixie Darling’), Nancy Whiskey, and Chas McDevitt with Shirley Douglas. The NME commented on British Bandbox on the Light Programme: “The cynical remarks by Jack Payne were not called for regarding Lonnie Donegan; British artists who can sell discs in America deserve cheers, not jeers, from the record spinners.”
In a BBC audience reaction report, the feelings about Payne were not altogether favourable. Some called him “a wonderful old-timer”. A draughtsman said, “Obviously this job does not come easily or naturally to Jack Payne, and it shows. The little personality he has is not particularly likeable or attractive – and he talks far too much. A dull dog.” The report concludes, “Others would prefer someone much younger and gayer to present the programme.” The BBC producer, Dennis Main Wilson offered to improve his performance, but Jack Payne remained, well, Jack Payne.
In March 1958 six girls in the sixth form at Wisbech High school in Cambridgeshire wrote anonymously (but on school notepaper!) saying that they did not like the way Jack Payne criticised pop singers and that he was “a square”. Payne told the headmistress, who apologised to Payne and disciplined the girls. They had to go back to wearing their school tunics instead of skirts. One of them told the Daily Mirror, “It is not nice to wear a gym tunic two inches about the knee. I’m a big girl now. I think Jack Payne is a bigger square than ever.” This presumably led to the loss of further privileges.
As well as musicians, there were comedians and actors in Off The Record. Ian Carmichael’s agent complained that Carmichael was made to do ‘lunatic comedy’. Norman Wisdom’s agent complained that he was placed on the same line as Jimmy Young in Radio Times: “Norman always has a line to himself.”
Oddly enough, Off The Record’s most controversial moment was with a ventriloquist. Peter Brough was reluctant to appear on TV with his doll, Archie Andrews as he knew the close-ups would reveal his lips moving. The radio series, Educating Archie, was very successful as Brough was simply playing another character, Archie Andrews, and variety shows in the theatre were okay as only the first rows would twig how bad he was. Having said that, surely no one believed that Archie was a real person so what did it matter?
Peter Brough’s contract with the BBC called for him to make four television appearances a year and he was told that he had to appear in Off The Record. The performance was a disaster as Brough’s lips moved the whole time and the Sunday Express criticised the BBC for hiring such a hopeless ventriloquist. Two years later, Payne refers to “the shocking case of Peter Brough and the Sunday Express which years ago caused us so much trouble.”
In July 1957, BBC management wanted to know how much Jack Payne was earning from the BBC. Jack Payne had presented 35 radio programmes at 50 guineas each and 15 Say It With Music programmes at 60 guineas. There had also been one-off appearances in Cavalcade Of Disc-Jockeys (5 guineas), The Golden Disc (25 guineas), an interview for the Ivor Novello awards (15 guineas) and a programme for the Italian service (10 guineas). This was a total of £2,840.5s from radio.
On TV, he had presented 13 Off The Record programmes at 120 guineas each and the Festival of British Song (30 guineas), a total of £1,669.10s from television.
As it happens, Jack Payne was paid a retainer of £5,000 and so there was a deficit of £490.5s on the year.
Off The Record was dropped in 1958 and plans to present the belligerent Jack Payne and the benign Henry Hall together in a music show fell through. Jack Payne’s next TV show, Words And Music, began later in the autumn and ran for three series. In this programme he was reinstated as a bandleader and the George Mitchell Singers were used. On one programme, he included an elaborate arrangement of ‘Baa Baa Black Sheep’.
In June 1958, the Head of Light Entertainment wrote to Ernest Maxim, the producer of Words And Music: “I want this to be a very chic and relaxed sort of show and I have been very struck lately by the change in Catherine Boyle, who seems to have grown out of her Quite Contrary stage into a very attractive and sophisticated woman. I can imagine her dressed up to the nines acting in cross-talk with Jack Payne who should not ‘do an Eric Robinson’ all the time by strolling away from the orchestra. Certainly Jack should come down two or three times to welcome guests, but the presence of Katie would add a little feminine glamour and divide the heavy load of carrying the continuity. Will you let me know what you think of this before you speak to Jack?”
The opening programme featured Anne Shelton and Lizbeth Webb with a special report on Tommy Steele in Moscow (which Payne no doubt thought was the best place for him.) Words And Music got off to a poor start only grabbing 10% of the audience – the production team was hoping for 14% – but there was tough competition from ITV’s quiz game, Twenty One. On one programme, Payne said icily on live TV to a technician, “Would you mind standing away from that monitor and then I will be able to repeat the words?”
In 1960 Payne was involved in another court action. He had parodied Guy Mitchell’s song, ‘Rock-A-Billy’ in his column in the Sunday Pictorial and the publishers alleged breach of copyright. Payne maintained that the rhythm of ‘Rock-A-Billy’ was not unique. He had not written the parody, ‘Rock-A-Philip’, but he maintained that it was an original work in its own right about Prince Philip. It was determined that it was not a breach of copyright.
There was this wonderful exchange:
Jack Payne: “The rock rhythm has unfortunately become very popular in recent years, but I feel it is on the wane now.”
His Lordship, Mr Justice McNair: “Is there anything worse coming?”
Jack Payne: “I hope not. I think it is going to quieten down.”
How wrong can you be.
Payne became a regular panellist on Juke Box Jury, which gave him further opportunities to condemn the music of the day. In March 1960, he chastised Spike Milligan for acting daft and told him that he was unfunny.
In 1962, Jack Payne was cited in a divorce action for Mr and Mrs Gerard Waites. This humiliation caused a breakdown in his marriage to Peggy Cochrane, so much so that Peggy cannot even write her rival’s name in her 1980 memoir, We Said It With Music.
In 1964, Jack Payne and his lady friend opened Middle House, a hotel and bar in Mayfield, East Sussex, but it lost money, partly because he was totally unsuited to running a bar. One, he drank the contents and two, he was continuously rude to the patrons. Payne was declared bankrupt with £48,000 debts but he was reunited with his wife, Peggy, then a pianist at the Charing Cross Hotel, in 1967. They moved to Tonbridge, Kent but he contracted cancer and became bedridden.
With Peggy by his side, Jack Payne died in Tonbridge at the age of 70 on 4 December 1969. She wrote in her memoir, “I was glad to have been with him at the end. After all, that is what marriage is all about.”