Tonight’s lecture is about the radio. Please note that if your radio is telling you not to listen to me, you need to increase your medication. Or do you? The toaster thinks otherwise…
I was raised on BBC radio comedy. Non-Brits may have to be patient for a while. My Great-Aunt Olive lived with us in the late sixties, and the wireless set was on for her all the time, mostly Radio Four – or was it the Home Service back then? Digital radio meant poking your fat boy-child fingers at the tuning dial to try and keep the signal.
Apart from the occasionally interminable cricket matches, I was free to cling to the set and absorb foreign tongues. Received Pronunciation, in other words, or BBC English (my Yorkshire accent still has to struggle to emerge some days).
Some of the shows were awful, and some sound even worse today. The Clitheroe Kid, which I thought hilarious at the age of ten, is painful to revisit. The Navy Lark is idiotic with touches of genuine humour, and The Men from the Ministry is strangely comforting, like an old uncle who drones on repeating himself now and then. Not terribly funny, though.
Round the Horne, on the other hand, was funny, is funny and probably always will be. J Peasemold Gruntfuttock from Round the Horne is immortal. I think I took to a seventies show, The Burkiss Way, only because their Eric Pode of Croydon was a character in the same vein.
Kenneth Horne’s programme was rich with innuendo, the most terrible puns and movie spoofs, and the most ludicrous introductions. The cast ridiculed and railed at each other, and the fabulous Betty Marsden ploughed her way through as the only female member of the cast, giving as good as she got.
Before you ask, I will say little about The Goons, because I didn’t understand it when I was little. I was in my later teens when I finally realised what I was listening to. My only comment will be that The Canal, with Valentine Dyall, is one of the most enjoyable radio comedy episodes I have ever heard. You had to be there.
But no horror, no ghostly tales. Maybe my parents turned it off at that point, or Great-Aunt Olive had a firewall on the set which blocked out anything spooky.
So as I grew old and less wise, I started purchasing cassettes of short ghost stories, such as those by M R James, or The Price of Fear. I haunted, and still haunt, car-boot sales and charity shops, poking into the darkest corners. I got bored with Bram Stoker after buying six different versions of Dracula, but did manage to find Christopher Lee reading Classic Tales of the Supernatural. Almost as good a voice as Valentine Dyall. And Classic Ghost Stories, which includes Dickens and E Nesbit.
I thought I was doing well until I came across two more wondrous finds, both of them via the internet.
The first was Wayne June reading H P Lovecraft. The pleasure I had from Lovecraft’s stories was multiplied thricefold by hearing Wayne June’s voice intoning The Dunwich Horror, or The Horror at Red Hook. The weakest stories were improved; the strongest ones were made magnificent. The man could read my shopping list and make me feel worried.
(I should add a note here. I must admit to being impressed by Richard Coyle’s recent Lovecraft recordings. At the Mountains Of Madness is terrific, and The Shadow over Innsmouth is pretty damned good.)
My second discovery was American and Canadian Old Time Radio. Who knew that they had recorded hundreds of classic and contemporary horror stories on their commercial channels? Most of North America, presumably. But not Yorkshire. How much richer my childhood might have been, replacing The Clitheroe Kid with Nightfall.
I found streaming audio – I always think that should be screaming audio – for many wonderful stories. I particularly like the shows Dark Fantasy and The Haunting Hour. Witch’s Tale, delivered by “Old Nancy the witch of Salem” has its moments, but my award goes to The Weird Circle.Broadcast between 1943 and 1945, it had the most marvellous opening and closing lines. The show began with
“In this cave by the restless sea, we are met to call from out of past, stories strange and weird. Bell keeper, toll the bell, so that all may know that we are gathered again in The Weird Circle.”
and ended with
“From the time worn pages of the past, we have recalled (whatever the episode was). Bell Keeper, toll the bell!”
The lines were delivered with great solemnity, to the sound of surging waves, and classic writers such as Poe and de Maupassant were included. Had I heard these as a child I would have been awestruck. They’re pretty cool today. You might end up smoking a lot of Ogden’s Fine Cut Tobacco, however.
So search out mystery and horror on Old Time Radio, if you haven’t already. And I’ll be here at the same time next week. In three or four days, actually, but what the hell…