Being a notoriously dour Scotsman, Lord Reith’s famous proclamation that the BBC’s role was to inform, educate and entertain meant that the last of that trio wouldn’t have got much of a look in had Reith’s tenure as DG lasted way beyond 1938. His austere Presbyterian idea of entertainment would have driven a war-weary listening audience away from the BBC in their droves during the 1950s; they’d already turned to Radio Luxembourg for a lighter evening in front of the wireless before the war, and chances are they’d have continued to do so had not Reith’s successors at the helm reorganised the Beeb’s network when hostilities ceased in 1945.
Taking over from the General Forces Programme, the Light Programme debuted on the airwaves just two months after VE Day and quickly established itself as the most popular of the BBC stations for the next couple of decades. Whenever a documentary requires a piece of music to accompany footage of the 50s and wants to evoke a certain Home Counties ‘cosiness’, chances are the piece of music in question is the theme tune from a Light Programme mainstay such as ‘Housewives’ Choice’, ‘Workers’ Playtime’ or ‘Listen with Mother’. It’s also worth noting radio institutions like ‘The Archers’, ‘Woman’s Hour’ and ‘Pick of the Pops’ formed part of the Light Programme’s line-up along with a rash of memorable comedies such as ‘Hancock’s Half Hour’ and ‘Round the Horne’. And then there was the music – fittingly light with soupy strings and melodies so unobtrusively polite they almost asked for permission to rent the airwaves. By the mid-60s, however, the music was the problem.
With the Beeb belatedly attempting to swing along with the rest of the 60s, the rebirth of radio on 30 September 1967 saw the teen pop offerings of the Light Programme shift over to the new Radio 1; what of Radio 2, though? How would it differ from the station it succeeded? Not that much, really, which I suppose was part of the strategy to hold onto the Light listeners. Amongst the offerings on Radio 2’s first day (a Saturday) were Pete Murray, Kenneth Horne, Max Jaffa, the BBC Midland Light Orchestra, Sidney Davey and his Orchestra – Light Programme veterans all. It seemed the only real change was the name.
Come Monday morning, though ‘Housewives’ Choice’, ‘Music Box’ and ‘Music While You Work’ had all vanished and the station shared the shows of Jimmy Young, Simon Dee and Pete Brady with Radio 1, ‘Mrs Dale’s Diary’ (now ‘The Dales’) clung on, as did ‘Woman’s Hour’ – albeit considerably longer than ‘The Dales’. Musically, the presence of the Central Band of the Royal Air Force, Frank Chacksfield, and the wonderfully-named Reginald Leopold and the Palm Court Orchestra suggested familiar fare. Dotted through the schedule of the first Radio 2 week were other stalwarts of the Light such as ‘Family Favourites’, ‘Sing Something Simple’, ‘Top of the Form’, ‘The Navy Lark’, ‘Any Questions?’, ‘Friday Night is Music Night’, and plenty of sport, which remained a fixture of Radio 2 until the launch of Five Live in the early 90s.
There was a good deal of channel crossing between Radio 2 and Radio 4 in terms of genres and repeats in the early days, as there had been between the Light Programme and the Home Service; there was a distinct lack of identity where both stations were concerned, something that led to ‘Broadcasting in the Seventies’, the BBC’s far-reaching 1969 review of its radio output. As a result of the changes recommended in the report, the four networks began to morph into recognisably individual entities from the early 70s onwards. When Radio 1 transferred Jimmy Young and Terry Wogan to Radio 2 around the same time, the classic morning schedule had finally taken shape.
Although a few quizzes and comedies lingered on 2, along with a solitary soap (‘Waggoners’ Walk’), my own childhood memory of the station is of its playlist, largely derived from staying at my grandparents’ house in the 70s. For me, it presented a curious alternative to the pop diet of Radio 1 so familiar at home and served as an introduction to Easy Listening, Jazz, Big Bands and the song stylists of the pre-Rock n Roll era, none more so than Sinatra. By the late 70s, a combination of Simon Bates and Punk (awkward bedfellows, to say the least) had seen my dad switch his listening allegiance from 1 to 2, something the soccer coverage on the latter helped.
Aside from Wogan and Young, the voice I associate most with childhood exposure to Radio 2 is that of the superb football commentator, the late great Peter Jones; at a time when football coverage on TV was at a minimum unimaginable to today’s Sky subscribers, radio provided an essential service, and the theme tunes to ‘Sport on 2’ and ‘Sports Report’ respectively still evoke the old spirit of Saturdays for me as much as the sight of Tom Baker’s hat-&-scarf ensemble. When VHF – as FM radio was always called then – first appeared in our household, the wavelength was shared between 1 and 2, so any listen to a Radio 1 documentary in my teens was generally followed by a Radio 2 Jazz or Folk show.
The old joke about Radio 2, that it was a retirement home for Radio 1 DJs, is as relevant now as it ever was. Chris Evans, Jo Whiley, Zoe Ball, Sara Cox, Trevor Nelson and Simon Mayo were all still on Radio 1 twenty years ago, whereas they now comfortably slot in alongside ex-Radio 1 stars of a far older vintage such as Bob Harris, Johnnie Walker, Tony Blackburn, Paul Gambaccini and Steve Wright. However, the daytime playlist is usually geared towards listeners suddenly feeling nostalgic about their 20s for the first time, something that tends to creep in when people hit their 40s; therefore, the station’s presenters and musical selection reflect this for each generation. One thing Radio 2 has continued to do far more successfully than Radio 1 is to gently lower the average age of its audience every couple of decades.
In recent years, the blend of old and older broadcasters has helped make Radio 2 the nation’s most listened-to station and it appears to have finally shed its pipe & slippers image in the process. There does seem to be a worrying reliance on TV personalities presenting programmes, with Graham Norton, Paul O’Grady, Dermot O’Leary, Claudia Winkleman, Clare Balding, Craig Charles, Vanessa Feltz, Liza Tarbuck and the Partridge-esque Jeremy Vine all making the journey from television to radio; but former Radio 2 presenters who now reside in that great Broadcasting House in the sky, such as Terry Wogan and David Jacobs, also had a foot in both camps. And Radio 2 can still boast the archetypal broadcaster with a great face for radio, the indestructible Ken Bruce.
© The Editor