Friday 16 September 2011

It's That Man Again

Although the BBC had begun embryonic television broadcasts from Alexandra Palace in 1936, these transmissions were received by only the relative handful of people who could afford a television set. However, on the outbreak of war in September 1939, the BBC's television broadcasts ceased 'for the duration' and for the time being at least, this new medium was consigned to the back burner.

However, BBC Radio had been broadcasting since 1922 and although like television, the initial audiences had been small, they had been steadily growing until by 1939, the vast majority of the British public were avid listeners to some degree or another. On the outbreak of war, all public places of entertainment were closed and although this short sighted piece of government legislation was soon reversed, even upon the re-opening of the theatres and cinemas, not everyone was able to regularly visit them, especially those who lived away from the larger towns and cities.

One aspect of the BBC's radio broadcasts that quickly became invaluable to the populace were the regular news bulletins. These broadcasts, although within the restraints of wartime censorship, were widely felt to be as unbiased as the circumstances allowed and the British public (as well as the many listening illegally in occupied Europe) soon appreciated that they were being told the news pretty much the way it was, which was far from the case in Nazi Germany.

Soon BBC correspondents like Frank Gillard, Wynford Vaughan-Thomas and Richard Dimbleby became household names for their unbiased reporting and bravery in broadcasting from the thick of the action and like their American counterpart Edward R Murrow, reported from Lancaster bombers over Berlin on more than one occasion. The broadcast that Dimbleby made from Belsen Concentration Camp towards the end of the war in Europe was a memorable if chilling piece of war reportage that brought home to the British public just what atrocities the Nazis had been capable of.

There was much more to the BBC than news broadcasts and the entertainment of the listening public was always a major part of the BBC's wartime agenda. Shows such as Desert Island Discs (yes, it was running in 1942), Workers' Playtime and Childrens' Hour were all popular shows. By far the most popular was ITMA, which was an abbreviation for It's That Man Again. This had been a popular newspaper headline in pre war stories about Adolf Hitler and was now transferred to refer to the man around whom the show was written, Tommy Handley (pictured above.)

Written by Ted Kavanagh, ITMA was first broadcast in July 1939 and quickly settled down into a fast paced, sometimes surreal show which was very popular with the listening public. The show was an ensemble piece and apart from Handley, the show starred Jack Train, a brilliant 'voice man' whose creation of Colonel Chinstrap was based on a buffoonish retired Indian Army officer to whom he had been introduced by BBC announcer John Snagge shortly before the show was first broadcast. The real life colonel had remarked proudly to Snagge that "I have purchased a new water heater on ten years hire purchase but what the gas company doesn't know is that I am drinking myself to death!" Train quickly recognised that he could base his new character firmly around the Indian Army man and soon his line "I don't mind if I do" in answer to any question became one of the many oft-repeated catchphrases from the show to pass into general usage by the public at large. Some nine years later, Jack Train received a telegram from Snagge which read "THE COLONEL BEAT THE GAS COMPANY BY SEVEN MONTHS."

Other stars of the show who would become well known after the war were Deryck Guyler, Joan Harben, who played a character called Mona Lott and Hattie Jacques, whose character Sophie Tuckshop was the first of many played by Hattie that was directly related to her real life physical size.

The show soon assumed cult status and was widely attributed as being a great morale booster on the Home Front and ran throughout the war. In fact the show ran for over three hundred editions until 1949 and only stopped because of the untimely death of Tommy Handley shortly after recording what proved to be his last show. The series was immediately cancelled as it was rightly felt that Handley was irreplaceable.

The show's influence was not lost - amongst the many disciples that the show had gathered over the years, were four young men - Michael Bentine, Spike Milligan, Harry Secombe and Peter Sellers - who of course were later to star in a radio comedy just as popular and even more surreal than ITMA - The Goon Show.

Television was to resume in 1946 and although radio was to remain in the ascendency for most of the 1950s, television was to gradually take over as the new mass media.

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