British Radio Comedy

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Radio comedy has not only entertained audiences for some 70 years, it’s also been a medium for change in British society itself.

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

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.

The Goon Show
The Goon Show

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.

Hancock's Half Hour
Hancock's Half Hour

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.

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.

Julian and Sandy

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.

Round the Horne
Round the Horne

Many of you will have been witness to that huge impact that radio comedy has had since the 1950’s and the BBC 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. 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.

Now you can listen to all these wonderful comedies again on the British Comedy Channel from the ROK Classic Radio Old Time Radio Network!

Enjoy 🙂

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The Men from the Ministry

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The Men from the Ministry was a British radio comedy series broadcast by the BBC between 1962 and 1977, starring Wilfrid Hyde-White, Richard Murdoch and, from 1966, when he replaced Hyde-White, Deryck Guyler.

The Men from the Ministry
Wilfred Hyde White & Richard Murdoch

Written and produced by Edward Taylor with contributions from John Graham, and with some early episodes written by Johnnie Mortimer and Brian Cooke, it ran for 14 series, totalling 147 half-hour episodes. A further 14 episodes were made by the BBC Transcription Service in 1980 but never broadcast in the UK.

The series was about lazy, bungling, incompetent civil servants, “Number One” – Roland Hamilton-Jones (Wilfrid Hyde-White) and later Deryck Lennox-Brown (Deryck Guyler), “Number Two” – Richard Lamb (Richard Murdoch), with their dim, typo-prone, teenage secretary, Mildred Murfin (Norma Ronald), all watched-over by the lecherous, pompous, self-seeking Permanent undersecretary Sir Gregory Pitkin (Roy Dotrice and later Ronald Baddiley), all members of the British Civil Service based in Whitehall.

 

Derek Guyler in Men From the Ministry
Derek Guyler

The stories centered on their General Assistance Department which helps other governmental departments. Instead of assistance, the department creates mix-ups, misunderstandings and cock-ups that lead to a telling-off from Sir Gregory, who sees his ‘hard earned’ Civil Service career and pension disappearing.

In one 1960s episode, “The Big Rocket”, General Assistance Department is put in charge of publicity for Britain’s almost non-existent space programme. With “One” out of the office and through a series of blunders by “Two”, a press release reveals the launch of a non-existent British space rocket, carrying Britain’s first female astronaut, Mildred Murfin. This surprises Mildred as she has that morning stormed out announcing she is “going round Ma’s”. The press interprets this as the rocket “going around Mars” and “One” and “Two” are faced with “bringing Mildred down to earth” while keeping their blunders from the public and superiors.

Norma Ronald
Norma Ronald played Mildred Murfin

In another episode, “The Whitehall Castaways”, Lennox-Brown, Lamb and Mildred row to an island in a lake in Regent’s Park, General Assistance having been told to ensure the safety of a great bustard, a rare bird that is nesting there. Neglecting to tie the boat up, Lamb allows it to drift and the trio are, as Mildred puts it, “marooned”, none of them able to swim to shore and Lennox-Brown having ordered the park to be closed and not re-opened “until I give the order”. Spending weeks on the island, Lennox-Brown shows leadership and Lamb shows signs of mental distress, while back at the office Sir Gregory is delighted with their non-attendance and the prospect of being able to fire them, until a note cancelling an order for wooden pixies is found leading him to the conclusion that they may have taken their lives due to the shame of a blunder and his thoughts immediately turn to the effect this will have on his prospects. The trio are released by a boy and the fate of the bird and its eggs is revealed.

The characters are portrayed as inept, subject to greed, selfishness and incompetence. However, malice was never a factor and all the humour was light-hearted. There was also a little broad satire in many episodes. Later series tended to recycle older scripts, just people and places being changed.

Cast

* “One” (Roland Hamilton-Jones) – Wilfrid Hyde-White (1962-65)
* “One” (Deryck Lennox-Brown) – Deryck Guyler (1966-77)
* “Two” (Richard Lamb) – Richard Murdoch
* “Mildred Murfin” – Norma Ronald
* Under-Secretary “Sir Gregory Pitkin”, CBE – Roy Dotrice (1962-65), Ronald Baddiley (1966-77)

Other occasionally recurring characters include “Lord Stilton”, Sir Gregory’s equally pompous boss, “Mr. ‘Whizzer’ Wilkins”, Lennox-Brown and Lamb’s aged and absent-minded colleague, and “Mr. Stack” – “Mr. Stack of ‘Records'” – in charge of the Ministry’s Records department and prone to taking naps in one of his filing cabinets.

In the 1970 episode, Bye-bye Mildred, Sir Gregory does not appear and we hear instead “Sir Hector Gunn”. Also appearing in some episodes are Mr. “Creepy” Crawley, a rather ingratiating member of the Department, and Miss Lusty, an elderly lady in the Pensions Department who lives up to her name. One of Sir Gregory’s later paramours was ‘Daphne Bentwater’ from the typing pool. Other named but non-appearing characters include ‘Mrs Bratby’, Lamb’s landlady.

Actors who appeared in episodes of the series include Clive Dunn, Pat Coombs, Warren Mitchell, Bill Pertwee, Joan Sanderson and Nicolette McKenzie.

Catch the Men from the Ministry on the Comedy Channel from the ROK Classic Radio OTR Network!

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