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How radio comedy changed a nation

Nicholas Parsons now and in 1954
Radio comedy devotee, Nicholas Parsons, in 1954 (right) and 2007
Radio comedy has not only entertained audiences for some 70 years, it's also been a medium for change in British society itself, says Nicholas Parsons.

Radio has always been a part of my life. My earliest memories of entertainment are sitting at home with the family around our wireless listening to the variety show Music Hall on a Saturday night. We would hear working class comedians like Rob Wilton and Elsie and Doris Waters, Gert and Daisy as they were known, as well as entertainers of a different genre or background.

Then in 1938, as a youngster I became a fan of a wonderful new scripted show called Bandwaggon. Starring "Big Hearted Arthur" Askey, who was a working class fellow living with an upper crust gent, Richard "Stinker" Murdoch. I believe this show helped to start a subtle blurring of class divisions.

Bandwaggon established a new formula of comedy sketches and music. At the beginning of the war it was a wonderful boost for morale.

FIND OUT MORE...
How Radio Comedy Changed A Nation will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday 18 October at 2000 BST
Or listen to it later on the BBC iPlayer

Before the advent of radio, comedy and light entertainment emanated from two sources, music hall or variety and the legitimate theatre. The working classes would flock to the music halls, where they enjoyed broad comedy, whereas the legitimate theatre was patronised by the more discerning or elitist members of society.

Those who supported one form of entertainment rarely visited the theatres that presented the other. Through radio comedy the BBC began to broadcast shows that bridged the gap and with a cross section of entertainers, listeners were exposed to performers who represented a different class to the ones they mixed with or recognised, and they enjoyed them. Class barriers were being subtly broken down.

A show like ITMA, It's That Man Again, starring the national hero Tommy Handley, did much of that work. Comedy writer Brian Cooke remembers it as "the one that broke down a lot of barriers".

"It was a very fast show, it was the equivalent of The Fast Show back then. People would open the famous door and say their catchphrase and then went. You've got so many catchphrases and they caught on, some of them rather sadly. Mrs Mops' Ta Ta For Now which became TTFN was often the last phrase uttered by people dying in hospital."

Airwaves anarchy

After the War there was the famous Goon Show, created by Spike Milligan. Incredibly funny surreal humour with characters drawn from all walks of life, which the younger generation adored, the Goons left older people confused, including the hierarchy at the BBC. They never realised how the anarchy, chaos and irreverence in the show were subtly affecting class attitudes. Also a whole generation was laughing at the same thing.

Goons
Anarchists? Goons Bentine, Milligan, Secombe and Sellers and Carmichael

As the nation changed after the war, so did the BBC and its radio comedy continued to influence the nation and vice versa. Importantly it was a change in the background of the comedy writers and producers hired by the BBC that kept radio comedy changing with the nation. The BBC realised it needed to attract a broader audience, and that it needed to hire working class writers and producers, which it started to do in the 1950s and 60s, including writers like Ray Galton and Alan Simpson, the men who brought Hancock's Half Hour to the radio.

Simpson says working class life became a theme in drama and in comedy often because that was the background of the writers involved.

"People like Ray and I, our social background never thought to become playwrights. Working class lads didn't become playwrights!"

Just after the war the BBC produced The Little Green Book, a guide as to what comedy writers and producers could and couldn't say on air. I remember being told by one producer when recording a stand up show that I couldn't use the word naked as a punchline to a joke, it was a banned word in the Little Green Book's guidance and censorship.

Rhyming slang

The rules they introduced were often ignored or were even used by some writers as something to challenge and subvert. The writing team of Marty Feldman, Barry Took, and later Brian Cooke, on Round the Horne were an example. The programme introduced characters that the BBC frowned upon. According to the rules in the Green Book you couldn't have reference to a man being effeminate, but then came Hugh Paddick's Julian and Kenneth Williams' Sandy to challenge the Green Book and break down the taboo of homosexuality.

Kenneth Williams
When Round The Horne started if you winked at man in the street you would be arrested but what Julian and Sandy [Kenneth Williams, above] did was stop some of that.
Brian Cooke

Brian Cooke was a writer on Round the Horne and for him the characters and language of Polari used in Round the Horne did influence the public who were listening.

"The lexicon of Polari was like Cockney slang," says Cooke. "What it was originally meant to do was to stop people realising that you were propositioning somebody. It was illegal to do that. When Round The Horne started if you winked at man in the street you would be arrested but what Julian and Sandy did was stop some of that."

Radio comedy continued to push boundaries and I gladly contributed to that with a programme I devised in 1965 called Listen To This Space. We wanted to break all the rules of BBC censorship. We were going to quote from the newspapers and name them, which was then considered advertising. We were going to poke fun at politicians and others in the public eye, which was then considered taboo. We were even going to mention the Royal Family, but always with respect.

After the pilot it took some ingenious negotiations but the BBC did buy it and what I believe made it popular with the public is that we were unafraid to tackle sensitive subjects of the day, including immigration and race relations.

In a show broadcast in 1965, in a courageous item, the writers created a retelling of the Little Black Sambo story and we persuaded the great Sir Leary Constantine to come and read it.

 Kulvinder Ghir and Nina Wadia
Goodness Gracious Me, which made the transfer from radio to TV

Whilst British radio comedy unconsciously explored issues of class structure and sexuality, there was a delay when it came to tackling race and ethnicity. In 1996 Sanjeev Bhaskar brought Goodness Gracious Me to BBC Radio 4, and the social impact was huge as he saw in the response he received.

"We were writing a comedy show," recalls Bhaskar. "We wrote about what we knew, we never had a political agenda. We were described once as the lubricant in the engine of race relations and I still don't know what that means, but it sounds like a compliment and I'll take it. An Asian guy stopped me in the street once and said 'Why are you washing our dirty linen in public?' I said 'Wouldn't you rather it was washed?' and he said yes. I said "What's your point?" He said "I love the show!"

I've been witness to that huge impact that radio comedy has had since the 1930s and have been part of it for over 60 years. BBC radio still maintains its high standards, which is valuable, but they have moved a long way from the establishment viewpoint they adopted in their pre-war days. I do believe that these changes have come about principally through the power of humour to influence attitudes and patterns of behaviour and in it's that way that radio comedy has helped change a nation.

How Radio Comedy Changed A Nation will be broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Saturday 18th Oct at 8pm

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