Great Radio Shows
Created | Updated Sep 22, 2005
While the golden age of radio may have gone, it is by no means forgotten. In its heyday, before the mass production of TV sets, radio was the link for everyday families with the wider world. Not only did it fulfil its remit of 'Entertaining, Educating and Informing', it surpassed it. But this week we are focussing on entertainment.
While we all know that The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is the greatest radio show ever, it is by no means the only one. Indeed we already have a number of entries on individual shows that can be found via the link at the bottom of this page. But this entry is about commemorating some of the others, the ones that might have slipped through the cracks in history, or simply those that haven't been written about much. So, without further ado, let's start with...
Who knows what evil lies in the hearts of men...?
...The Shadow knows!
One of the first ever 'superhero' shows, The Shadow was also one of the most atmospheric radio shows of the 1930s and '40s. Originally just a mysterious voice that popped up to introduce the latest thrillers, the character eventually emerged as a star in his own right. Though a film version was released in the 1990s starring Alec Baldwin, the visuals can't hope to compete with those conjured by radio. If you get the chance to hear the show (and the above link will give you a helping hand), the show is often entertaining for a modern ear as much for its advertising sponsorships as the drama itself ('The Shadow - sponsored by Blue Coal, America's finest anthracite.').
H... ancock's Half Hour
An accepted comedy great, Tony Hancock started off as a radio performer before jumping over to television and film.
[Hancock's] timing was absolutely superb. It's so difficult to name a favourite episode (and I haven't heard all of them yet), but I do have a soft spot for the 'Twelve Angry Men' episode, as well as for the 'East Cheam Drama Festival' ('more tea anyone?'), although possibly the 'Unexploded Bomb' trumps these. Well I could go on and on...
Surprising for fans of the TV show is the presence of Kenneth Williams, Hancock's original stooge before he was replaced by Sid James. Though Hancock's face told a thousand stories, on the radio, the listener is forced to really focus on his voice, where his real art was most evident.
Mrs Dale's Diary
Before Home & Away, before EastEnders, before 24, this was the series that had a nation hooked. Definitely worth asking your parents/grandparents about, if only to see their bemused expression.
When I was a child I remember the radio being on for most of the day( it was a big Phillips radio with lots of knobs that my father constantly twiddled to get the best reception possible - he wouldn't let anyone else touch it). Trying to remember what we listened to, the one programme that comes to mind is Mrs Dale's Diary. It featured [former singing star] Jessie Matthews as Mrs Dale and was set in London. I don't remember very much about it because I don't suppose it was very interesting for a seven year old. However, I do remember that I wasn't allowed to speak while it was on because I think it was one of my mother's favourite programmes.
The Navy Lark
Post-war Britain had an understandable fascination and admiration for the armed forces for decades. It's for good reason that the first Carry On... film was about National Service and the late Queen Mother's favourite TV show was Dad's Army. The Navy Lark was a raucous radio comedy that featured some of Britain's best-loved comic actors, including Michael Bates, Leslie Phillips and future Doctor Who Jon 'Man of a Thousand Voices' Pertwee. The show's still fondly remembered today, and has even tickled the funny bones of people who weren't even born when the show first aired, as this Researcher shows:
The antics of the crew of HMS Troutbridge still have me in stitches: the silly ass Sub-lieutenant Leslie Phillips whose 'Left hand up a bit' naval directions got him in and out of trouble; Chief Petty Officer Jon Pertwee was always on the fiddle and who also had relatives strategically placed around the world to help in the fiddles, such as 'Uncle Ebeneezer'; and the permanently bemused 'Number One' Stephen Murray whose job it was to keep an eye on everyone and to keep the ship afloat. Also making regular appearances were the gin-swilling Admiral Ffont-Bittocks whose catch phrase of 'Get out of me blasted way' was much repeated in our house; Captain 'Thunderguts' Povey, the bane of the crew's life and the regular 'fall guy', was 'hen-pecked' by his 'Dear Wife Ramona' a right battleaxe; Able Seaman 'Fatso' Johnson (played by Ronnie Barker) was CPO Pertwee's much put-upon right-hand man; and 'His Mum Min's' favourite son, Leading Seaman 'Taffy' Goldstein the Starboard Lookout, Radio's first Welsh Separatist; and Wren Heather Chasen, the love of Sub Lt Phillips' life and 'Fix it' girl, plus many others that I've bound to have forgotten...
Round the Horne
Hello. I'm Julian, and this is my friend Saaandy...
As with The Fast Show or Rowan and Martin's Laugh-in but without the pictures, the regular characters that popped up in Round the Horne have passed into legend. The principle performers were Kenneth Horne, Kenneth Williams, Hugh Paddick, Betty Marsden and Bill Pertwee. Kenneth Horne was really the 'straight' man who played himself and let the others 'mess about' around him.
One of my earliest memories is of listening to the 'Light Programme' on the radio (or 'wireless' as we called it in those days) on Sunday afternoons, when there would be two comedy programmes back-to-back. The Clitheroe Kid and The Navy Lark were two firm favourites, but the ones that I enjoyed most were Beyond Our Ken and Round the Horne.
Looking back now, I mustn't have really understood the double-entendres of Julian and Sandy, or Rambling Sid Rumpo, but the whole thing just appealed to my sense of silliness. Kenneth Horne's deep distinguished voice glued the whole thing together seamlessly. Even the character names raised a smile: J Peasemould Gruntfuttock; Dame Celia Molestrangler and Binky Huckaback; Chou En Ginsberg, Seamus Android and Daphne Whitethigh. Between them Kenneth Williams, Hugh Paddick, Betty Marsden, Bill Pertwee conjured up all these and more, while Douglas Smith provided the links in his best BBC voice and also the occasional sound effect ('Phut, phut, phut' for the engine aboard African Queen).
Subjects were often close to the censors' limits but always managed to avoid overstepping the mark. There were four series with a fifth planned when Kenneth Horne died of a heart attack in 1969. The fifth went ahead without him, being renamed 'Stop Messing About' led by Kenneth Williams, but for many listeners it just wasn't the same. Bill Pertwee is the only surviving member of the Round the Horne cast, but happily there are many recordings available. Like The Navy lark, the show has found a new audience thanks to these timeless releases:
Oh, yes, I'm too young to have listened to it on the radio but I have tapes! I adore Julian and Sandy, their use of polari is fabulous and so cheeky. The censors just can't have realised...
...Interesting point about the censors. I'm not sure that they didn't understand, but someone somewhere missed the point, that is for certain. It is perhaps telling that the management of the BBC at the time still wouldn't allow Spike Milligan to use military slang (Hampton Wick was always rejected for The Goons, finally to be allowed by The Two Ronnies in the mid-1970s), but appear to have missed the outrageous 'showbiz' antics of Julian and Sandy.
I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again
The show that first brought together The Goodies - Tim Brooke-Taylor, Graham Garden and Bill Oddie, along with David Hatch, John Cleese and Jo Kendall. The show's music was written by Bill Oddie and played by Dave Lee and the boys (boys!), including the immortal 'Ferret Song' and 'Stuff the Gibbon'. Angus Prune was the Python-esque background figure for the show, and the star character was Lady Constance, a man-eating upper-class battleaxe who made regular appearances at unexpected moments.
If you ever get the chance, listen to the Angus Prune team's rendition of Macbeth - it's magnificent, and gave birth to at least three new puns.
Sadly the show was superseded by Hello Cheeky, with Tim Brooke Taylor, John Junkin and Barry Cryer, which gave rise to the immortal ballad 'The Love Song to Agnes' ('I've fallen for a girl called Agnes, and nothing rhymes with that..').
Every generation needs an impressionist. In the 1970s it was Mike Yarwood. In the '80s, Bobby Davro. Now though, the vibe is more for groups of impressionists working together. One of the best ensemble teams has to be Dead Ringers on Radio 4. Starring Jon Culshaw, Jan Ravers, Mark Perry and Kevin Connelly, the show has won many awards and, like many of the best radio ideas, has made the transition to television:
On the TV, it has to be aimed to get as many viewers as possible so it loses out on some of the more esoteric stuff - like the Newsnight Review doing Dr Seuss. Then again maybe it is just because the costumes and make-up can never be as good as the imagination.
What makes this show so memorable is the way the regulars pose as their characters and then take them into the real world. For example, listeners have been treated to Doctor Who phoning a DIY store and warning them that dustbins, rear indicator car-lamps and sink plungers can be used to create one of the most deadly creatures in the Universe - a dalek!
Radio One DJs
When the pirate radio stations such as Radio Caroline were finally closed down, the BBC had a choice: continue with the same middle-class broadcasting that had caused the outbreak of pirate radio stations in the first place; or set up their own station for 'modern' pop music. The result was Radio 1, which took on many of the personalities that had broadcasted on the pirate stations in the first place. One of the best-loved of these was an overly-energetic loony from Liverpool.
A radio genius whose personality had no problem reaching through the electronic medium of Radio, Kenny Everett was not a disk jockey but he had a wonderful turn of phrase that made you listen. Redefining the meaning of the word 'wacky' by several dimensions, his alter egos of Captain Kremen, and Sebastian were truly brilliant. Though he became a huge TV star in the 1980s, he returned to radio for the last few years of his life. His death in 1995 of an AIDS-related illness robbed British broadcasting of a unique talent.
Another stalwart of early pop-picking was the laconic, late and very much lamented John Peel. Though he rarely sounded anything other than bored on the 'enthusiometer', his passion for and knowledge of music was unparalleled.
I know that others will write about the John Peel show, and its incredible influence on British music all the way down through the decades from the late 1960s to the present day. No one will have listened to every period, but I think many will have listened for a few years and been strongly influenced.
Well my busy period was through the early 1980s until about 1990. During that time, his playlist pretty much became my 'wants list' down at my local independent record store. The thing that I most looked forward to each year was Peel's Festive 50 over the Christmas and New Year period. What he'd do was to ask us to write in with our favourite tracks of the previous year and he would put them into a top 50 chart to be played during his show. The chart through the mid '80s was naturally dominated by The Smiths, The Fall, Jesus & Mary Chain and The Cocteau Twins - four very fine bands.
I would compare the chart as it came out to my record collection - I told you his show was my wants list - well I think it was 1984 when I would have turned 18, that I found that I had in one format or another 40 of the 50 records in that year's chart!
Oh happy days...
Mark and Lard
The incontestable Mark and Lard currently occupy the early afternoon slot on Radio 1. Mark Radcliffe and Lard (former member of the band The Fall, also known as Marc Riley) are, according to one Researcher:
... bastions of quality tunes on a station often overrun by dance and hip-hop during the daylight hours. They are also funny as hell. The sheer genius of Fat Harry White has yet to be bettered in the field of ludicrously extended double entendres, and their timing is immaculate. They are both (self-confessed) ugly middle-aged men, which is always refreshing. My studenthood and early working career was soundtracked by Mark and Lard, and I salute them, because I know they like it.
One of their most popular segments is their imaginatively varied quizzes:
Craptown Factor - is it a real place, or made up?
Bird or Bloke - is this celebrity male or female?
Pigment or Figment - is it a real paint colour, or made up?
Dobbins or Bobbins - is it a real racehorse, or made up?
The Spice is Right - answer questions and win Indian food.
Family Fortune Cookies - answer questions and win Chinese food.
Wheel of Misfortune - answer a question on a randomly chosen subject from the wheel.
Circle of Chance - answer a question on a randomly chosen subject from the circle.
... and many, many more.
Chris Moyles' show on Radio One follows on from the Marks at 3pm each weekday afternoon. Brash, aggressive and regularly rude to guests and callers alike, this rotund Yorkshireman is not to everyone's tastes, but many agree he provides a much-needed alternative to the many bland DJs around.
The whole gang of them (Chris, Comedy Dave, Will and Aled) get on really well, and it shows in the on-air banter. You almost end up wishing they'd play less music, because the bits in-between are so funny. Then there are the parodies of songs. Who could ever forget 'Totally Addicted to Plaice (Fishy-wishy)' or 'Fat DJ' (to the tune of 'Rock DJ')?
Chris Moyles' website is one of the most popular on Radio 1 online, thanks in part to the section where you can listen to his best bits.
I have listened to them all and can particularly recommend 'WWwwwWWwWw' and 'Happy Days' - try and see if you can listen to them without collapsing in hysterics - I couldn't!
As ever, there are some dissenting voices:
I don't know about Chris Moyles. Some days I find him and the banter really funny, some days he just seems to delight in insulting people and being rude, which isn't that funny at all. But I wouldn't have missed 'Totally Addicted to Plaice' for anything!
Broadcast by NPR (National Public Radio) in the USA, Car Talk is a funny show that features call-in questions from listeners about - you guessed it - cars. Featuring a pair of brothers from Boston - Tom and Ray Magliozzi - the show has been aired nationally since 1987. The pair have obviously got a great relationship and enjoy poking fun at each other as they try to solve listeners' car troubles. For example:
A guy calls in and says his car makes a noise when he turns left. At first they'll ask him if he needs to turn left and then they begin to get really silly, asking the caller to imitate the sound. They eventually get serious and will offer a possible explanation and solution to solve the problem, urging the caller to call back if they're right.
Yes, very funny and very entertaining (although in the worst-case senario they are reduced to laughing on air, live, for most of the show, because they love their own jokes as much as we do), but the bottom line is that they know the answers, and they solve the problem (nearly every time). Aside from all the kidding and nonsense, they know their stuff, and if you are really interested in the problem at hand, and if you really listen to their solution, you get the right answer. These guys are great! I dare you to listen without laughing out loud. By the way, they may be Tom and Ray, but we know them fondly as 'Click and Clack' (the tappet brothers).
The Shipping Forecast
No, really! here are just a few reasons why this 'somnolent invocation of geography that lulls an island to sleep on a nightly basis' is so adored by the British.
Like the deep sounding seconds of an old grandfather clock, it brings comfort to the psyche. Like all good things, it risks being taken for granted. But if it stopped, then it would be noticed, and the sleepless masses would very probably rise up to revolution instead of breakfast.
... I still miss Finisterre.
... It's obvious in hindsight but the mantra of shipping areas is performed in an orderly clockwise progression around the British Isles. I was ever so pleased when I first saw the areas in the atlas and realised I could sing them out in order. Having just found the right page in the atlas again I'm even happier to see that it's old enough to have German Bight and Finisterre on it.
Some people of course just don't see what all the fuss is about...
... I always wonder just how many people genuinely depend on the shipping forecast, and how important it is for the forecast to be regularly broadcast. In the 21st Century it would be much easier to have an online shipping forecast that ships could access, or relegate it to some digital radio backwater and free up some expensive Radio Four airtime. It also seems a bit odd that so much airtime on an FM radio station is devoted to such small minority - something like a one minute road delays broadcast would seem to benefit the majority of Radio Four's listeners much more than shipping information, for example. This has lead me to conclude that while very few people actually understand the forecast and even fewer require it, it has become a traditional yet relatively pointless institution that only avoids cancellation because of popular opinion.
Dr Poo?We're reliably informed that the now-national youth broadcaster, 2JJJ Radio started life in Sydney as an AM station, Double J, with the then-contentious 'You Just Like Me 'cause I'm Good in Bed' by Skyhooks. Later, the station introduced a regular morning radio play called Dr Poo...
This was an outrageous affair ... a highlight of any week. I once won a Dr Poo plastic toilet toy - I had to go into the studio to pick up. How exciting was that for a yet-to-be funky 14-year-old?
Canada's CBC Radio
Canada's public broadcaster, and, we're told, the finest news organization in the country, is responsible for a several great radio shows. The first that springs to mind for one Researcher is the late and lamented Morningside with the similarly late and very lamented Peter Gzowski. The show ran weekday mornings from 9am to noon, from 1982 to 1997, and featured everything from hard-hitting interviews with Prime Ministers to hard-hitting interviews with housewives and schoolkids.
Gzowski had a great face for radio, as his attempts at television proved, but the radio show was pure brilliance. The show's specialty was bringing together listeners or guests from all over the country, including the high arctic to discuss issues of the day, favourite recipes, Christmas memories - you name it.
Another great long-running show on CBC has been The Royal Canadian Air Farce, a topical sketch-comedy show heavy on political satire and blessed with a number of excellent mimic. The cast of Dave Broadfoot, Roger Abbot, Luba Goy, John Morgan and Don Ferguson (Broadfoot left in the 1980s) were usually recorded live at theatres around the country, then broadcast on Sundays from 1973 to 1997. They moved to television ten years ago and are still going strong.
The Masterson Inheritance
A hugely popular radio show, The Masterson Inheritance was made for Radio 4 in the early 1990s. Some of the three series made have also been repeated on BBC7. It starred Josie Lawrence, Phelam McDermott, Paul Merton, Caroline Quentin, Lee Simpson and Jim Sweeney, who all improvised a variety of characters through a historical drama based entirely on suggestions from the studio audience. Each episode would be from a different period in history, from ancient Rome to the war-torn Crimea and would tell the tale of members of the Masterson family and those who knew them. The sound effects were also improvised live and, with the wit and originality of the protagonists, the whole effect really did prove that the pictures are better on the radio.
Radio Tirana News
And now, here is the news... from Tirana:
Around 1980 I was camping by a lake on Vancouver Island. Someone had lent me a short wave radio and one night as I twiddled the dial I came across a propaganda broadcast from Peru on behalf of the Shining Path movement. The Maoist stuff was being spouted by a couple of Australians.
Odd, I thought, but I was hooked. When I got back to London I bought a short wave set for myself. I tried all the stuff I thought might amuse me - Radio Moscow:
'Hey Svetlana, that was a pretty cool waxing by pop-combo Beatles Band'
'That's right Ivan, here now for beloved listeners in West, Bruce Springsteen pop band song.'
... and so on.
It wasn't until I hit on Radio Tirana that I struck gold:
'Tractor production in plant 14 has increased by 9 per cent in the last quarter - congratulations dear workers. In Area 17, the grain output is up by one fifth compared with last year - our heartfelt thanks to our comrades.'
It was like running through congealing porridge, but with the rousing Albanian national anthem to look forward to at the end.
Nobody broadcasts like this anymore (a great shame), with the possible exception of late night local radio phone ins ('I'm a cab driver John, and I want to tell you just how much I agree with what I read in the Daily Mail today.').
'Open Line', Radio Forth
Another local broadcast, Open Line is broadcast on Saturday evenings from 11pm - 2am in the East Central Scotland area. It is an 'agony aunt'-style forum where listeners call in for advice, help or just a shoulder to cry on. The host is a Catholic priest, Father Andrew Monaghan, or Andy as he is known on air. The programme has been on air for 24 years, and although the responses are from a slightly Catholic viewpoint, Andy has helped a large number of people throughout his time on the programme.
When the programme first aired, it was not known that Andy was a priest, which meant that people could relate to him more. When the cat was let out of the bag though, people accepted him and still could approach him, because they didn't see him as 'A N Other Church Leader'. Nowadays there tends to be two types of caller. There are those who see him as a priest and ask for prayers, and there are those who just see him as a guy who can lend a helping hand.
Not only does Andy give support, but other listeners phone in to tell their stories, and offer support in that way. The Open Line helps a large number of people and gives good advice. It is also a great stabiliser. It really makes you realise that your problems in this life are not as bad as they might be.
This is a weekly show by Harry Shearer (either the man behind several voices on The Simpsons, or the bass player with the foil-covered cucumber down his trousers in This is Spinal Tap, depending on how old you are...) broadcast from KCRW in Santa Monica every Sunday, and also available as streaming-on-demand. It mostly consists of the spoken word, a weird combination of some really strange (and occasionally wonderful) music, and 'copyrighted features' such as 'Tales of Airport Security' and 'Apology of the Week'. If you don't think any Americans understand irony, this could be the programme to change your mind.
This became a Los Angeles cult success story in the late 1960s and early '70s with a program called Radio Free Oz. Innovative and improvisational, Firesign Theater starred Phil Austin, Peter Bergman, David Ossman and Phil Proctor, and for a time it played irregularly on a network of FM broadcast stations around the USA at a time where there was more freedom and outright rebellion in the media. Best described as an American version of Monty Python only on better drugs, they reached a wider audience through recordings such as 'Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him', 'Don't Crush that Dwarf - Hand me the Pliers', and 'I Think We're All Bozos on This Bus', as well as the popular 'Nick Danger - Third Eye' detective series. They are enjoying a bit of a comeback nowadays and are appearing on a satellite radio station for the first time in 35 years.
Fear on 4
For those of you who appreciated an untroubled sleep and missed this series, Fear on 4 ran intermittently on Radio 4 from 1988 to 1997. About 48 episodes were made of this series, each being a self-contained story linked to the others only by the scheduling slot (late at night - what else?) and the presenter, Edward de Sousa, otherwise known as the 'Man in Black'1. Many of these dramatisations were drawn from classic tales (such as 'The Yellow Wallpaper') but there were several originally commissioned pieces that haunted the listener.
My own particular sleep-ruiner was the 'Life Line' episode. In this one, a disturbed young man's girlfriend commits suicide. He seeks solace on late night chat lines, until, one day, he hears a familiar voice on the other end of the line, a girl describing the view from the top of a cliff at night time...
The quality of the production, the acting, the scripting was all top-notch, and showed exactly what a powerful medium radio can be when coupled with an over-active imagination. If you can get your hands on the series on tape, then I'd suggest listening to it in the dark around midnight for best effect. If not, then half-a-pound of Stilton should have the same effect.
As we mentioned at the start, there are many entries on h2g2 on individual shows, but if there are any others you can think of, feel free to chat about them in the Conversations below.