Spencer Leigh returns to the BBC Written Archives for an appraisal of ‘Saturday Club
This feature appeared in the March 2006 edition of Now Dig This. Please send any comments to Spencer Leigh.
Thank you for your kind reactions to the features I wrote on ‘Six-Five Special’ and on Billy Fury at the BBC. I have returned to the BBC Written Archives at Caversham and looked at the files for ‘Saturday Club’, the key radio programme for teenagers in the late 50s and 60s. Despite the pruning over the years, there is plenty to read and the files divulge what happened behind the scenes at this historic programme. On behalf of ‘Now Dig This’, I thank the BBC Written Archives for allowing me to quote from this unique correspondence.
On 8 January 1957, a young producer and former schoolteacher from Plymouth, Jimmy Grant proposed a modest series called ‘Skiffle Session’. It would feature two or three singers with a skiffle group and would last 15 to 20 minutes. Grant’s note deals with the popularity of skiffle – “In London, the skiffle movement provides entertainment at several dozen coffee-houses” and furthermore, the skiffle repertoire includes “blues, ballads, shanties, work songs, country songs, cowboy songs, railway ditties and even evergreen popular tunes.” He calculated that the cost of mounting the show would be £51.10.0d.
At first the management was unsure that there should be a show for teenagers because the parents bought the TV licences, but half an hour wasn’t much to airtime. Hence, the BBC held auditions for appropriate skifflers in March 1957. Several groups were considered and the panel notes:
Dickie Bishop – quite good, two part singing and well organised
Cy Laurie – harmony singing way off, but otherwise not bad
Chas McDevitt – much better organised, more in time and a better beat
Johnny Duncan – hillbilly, yodelling blues. Too polite to use: could he be jogged up?
I was amused by the comment on Cy Laurie, hardly the UK’s best musician but arguably the oddest as he believed himself to be the reincarnation of Louis Armstrong’s clarinet player, Johnny Dodds. Didn’t anyone ever point out that he was born in 1926 and Dodds died in 1940? Whatever, this unusual man took himself off to India and combined eastern and western sounds long, long before the Beatles.
The programme ‘Saturday Skiffle Club’ was allocated a weekly budget of £55 and it started its run on 1 June 1957 between 10 and 10.30am, replacing a half an hour of music from theatre organists: they needn’t have worried as ‘The Organist Entertains’ continues to this day. The presenter was a 26-year-old announcer and news-reader, Brian Matthew, who regarded the show as an experiment as there had been nothing like it before. In other words, Chas McDevitt and his mates were providing cutting-edge radio.
‘Saturday Skiffle Club’ was popular but the BBC’s management disliked the American bias. “Too many American work songs,” said one BBC executive, “Doesn’t anybody know any British work songs?” Jimmy Grant and his boss, Don MacLean were asked to address the issue. On 25 June, Don MacLean’s told the Assistant Head of Variety (General):
“A very great deal of thought and effort has been expended here to seek British material for these programmes. For example, I obtained several rare books of Scottish ‘work songs’ and Jimmy Grant and I and several skifflers went through them all – seeking appropriate songs that could be performed with the strong off-beat of skiffle without producing the charge of sacrilege from those who have the originals.
“The plain fact is that British folk songs do not normally have an accented 2nd and 4th beat – many are in 6/8 – and have to be adapted – American folk songs mostly do, and therefore are a more natural choice.
“In spite of this, in the four programmes to date, approximately one in three songs has been British. We had regarded this as something of an achievement – and are disappointed that this seems not to have been appreciated.”
Still, ‘Saturday Skiffle Club’ was coming from Glasgow on 6 July and the intention was to include some rhythmic Scottish folk music into the programme, but “this is definitely an experiment.” It must have worked as the programme was extended by four weeks, with the series ending now on 28 September. It was then extended further and became a regular part of Saturday morning listening. Another criticism was levelled at the show’s compère, Brian Matthew. The BBC management thought he was good but instructed Jimmy Grant “not to turn him into a comic”.
The next counterblast was the charge that there were too many spirituals in the programme – this, after all, was the province of Religious Broadcasting. Jimmy Grant rose to the defence: “Spirituals are a very important ingredient of the skiffle repertoire and it would unnecessarily lower the standard of the programme to exclude them. In the case of pop numbers with a religious slant which have been submitted by publishers, these will of course be avoided where directed by the Head of Religious Broadcasting. Nearly all the numbers in ‘Skiffle Club’ are traditional, extensive research often being required to trace their origins.”
This is a reference to the fact that quasi-religious pop ballads such as ‘St. Therese Of The Roses’ or ‘Answer Me My Lord’ were either banned or given restricted airplay on ‘general’ programmes.
And from the King of Peace to the King of Skiffle. Most of the groups were being paid a flat fee of £30.10.0d. Not so Lonnie Donegan. If he was to appear on the programme, he wanted 40 guineas. The BBC paid up for his appearance on 12 October 1957, but his relationship with the BBC and indeed everyone who employed him was always fraught with difficulty. Lonnie knew his worth as the show’s listening figures were boosted in October 1957.
The programme came under internal criticism for going over budget. For the first quarter in 1958, the show was £31.10.0d over budget and for the second, horror of horrors, £43.16.0d. No more Lonnie Donegan, that’s for sure. You save money by hiring a solo instrumentalist such as Johnny Parker or Dill Jones for 7 guineas.
The files also contain the guests for the first nine months of 1958: there were appearances by the Vipers (5), Chas McDevitt with Shirley Douglas (5), Johnny Duncan and his Bluegrass Boys (3), George Melly and his Bubbling Over Four (3), Russell Quaye’s City Ramblers (3), Dickie Bishop and his Sidekicks (2), the Bob Cort Skiffle Group (2), and the Nancy Whiskey Skiffle Group (1). They could have had Cliff Richard (then Harry Webb) but he was turned down at the audition.
George Melly normally sang jazz with the Mick Mulligan Band but he formed the Bubbling Over Four for these broadcasts. He featured Bill Bramwell on guitar and they would duet on ‘Up Above My Head’ – I wonder how the Head of Religious Broadcasting viewed that.
Perhaps a greater concern to the BBC should have been Russell Quaye’s City Ramblers as they were active in the Workers Music Association, which was an offshoot of Communist Party. The BBC was constantly being accused by Tory MPs of fostering Communist sympathies and had they known of this group, ‘Saturday Skiffle Club’ might have been off the air. As Russell Quaye was an art teacher with a red beard, it’s surprising that they weren’t rumbled!
In April 1958 the BBC had discovered new buzz words – ‘hootenany’ and ‘folkbeat’. Effectively this was skiffle rebranded and Charles Parker made a sample programme of “ballads, blues, skiffle and calypso, linked in a semi-professional but intensely exciting, free-for-all jam session.” It wasn’t a studio recording but simply a case of taking a tape recorder to the folk club featuring Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger at the Princess Louise, a Victorian pub in High Holborn, London.
Don MacLean, now Music Organiser, Light Entertainment (Sound) – I do love these job titles – heard the programme and commented, “The artists on that particular session at the Princess Louise have been on the go for many years and have made very little impact on the public. I’ve always regarded Ewan MacColl and his comrades as the Ken Colyers of folk music in Britain: they intentionally sing 14-bar choruses because some infirm old Negro used to do so unintentionally. In jazz broadcasting we give Colyer his share, but we’ve done a great deal more to foster the creative boys as opposed to the re-creative. So with ‘folkbeat’: the appropriate share for the copyists should be small – and there should certainly not be a weekly transmission of such contrived entertainment as this tape contains.
“‘Saturday Club’, ‘Guitar Club’ (if it returns), ‘Music In The Modern Manner’ and ‘Jazz Club’ will all reflect the growing demand for ‘folkbeat’ – and, in my view, should foster any young singers we can find who are making contemporary folk music for contemporary entertainment – rather than trying to preserve a cult.”
I find this memo surprising as I thought that Ewan MacColl’s scholarly approach was loved and appreciated by all at the BBC. His famed and award winning ‘Radio Ballads’ found their place on the Third Progamme.
On 5 July 1958 the Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group with Shirley Douglas and the Avon City Skiffle Group were the guests in ‘Saturday Skiffle Club’. Around 20 minutes of the broadcast (the bits with Chas!) are featured on his Rollercoaster CD, ‘Freight Train’. The show incorporates world music (‘Tom Hark’), pop ballads (‘Real Love’), rock’n’roll (‘I Dig You Baby’) and jazz (‘Ace In The Hole’) but not much skiffle. Brian Matthew has a BBC accent: he is about to go on holiday and he introduces the relief compère, Michael Brooke and they play upper-class twits for a couple of minutes. “Look here,” says Michael, “this skiffle thing, I’ve not heard it before.” Oh dear.
Some comprehensive audience research was undertaken for the half-hour ‘Saturday Skiffle Club’ broadcast of 2 August 1958. The researchers requested the written opinions of 112 listeners: here is the summary.
“Those who usually enjoyed skiffle found the programme generally to their liking. The music was bright and tuneful, they thought, and the performances (by both the Pete Curtis Folk and Blues Quintet and the Bill Bailey Skiffle Group) well up to standard. A retired Works Manager was very enthusiastic: ‘It was very lively and full of the joy of the very young at their happiest. A very enjoyable programme.’ The wife of a refrigeration engineer wrote, ‘I thought most of the music had a nice swing to it. I turned my eleveneses into tenses so that I could sit down and listen and I was glad I did.’”