My 50 years in radio: we used to call Katie Boyle T & T - even then, we couldn’t say why
Paul Barnes is marking 50 years since he first went on air. Here, he shares his memories of how his amazing career all came about
In the early 1950s television was really beginning to catch on. Sales of sets were boosted by loyal citizens eager to watch the Coronation. Distinctive H-aerials appearing alongside chimney pots were adopted as signs of status leading some people to become rather snooty and patronising. The wireless was an old-fashioned second-class medium, dismissed as "steam radio". But it was steam that propelled me into broadcasting.
In 1967 and 1968 I'd made a couple of films about the last steam locomotives on British Rail. The BBC Railway Society invited me to show the films and tell tales of the experience. There was plenty to talk about: David Shepherd setting up his easel and painting engines as they simmered quietly in the decrepit sheds at Nine Elms near Waterloo Station only days before they were sent for scrap; enginemen at Carnforth in Lancashire slowly coming to realise that they were part of a piece of history, their skills with steam about to become redundant.
"How would you like to drive a radio programme?" This was Richard Keen, chatting after the film show. Dick was a senior producer and told people later that he had been impressed by my "verbal ingenuity", which is why he had me earmarked as a possible presenter for a magazine programme he was planning for Friday mornings during the summer.
He made me undergo a baptism of fire, writing and presenting a 15-minute talk. It was to be live and broadcast on Radio Four just after the 9am news on May 14, 1969. Talks at the BBC had a noble pedigree; J.B. Priestley's wartime Postscripts were classics of the genre. My baptismal talk was to be about my time in advertising, working on TV commercials. It was given the title It's Got to Look Right.
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The sombre-looking studio, all green and brown, was B9. Benign, a good omen I thought, rather comforting in my nervous state as I saw the second hand ticking round, relentless. Dick and his secretary were behind the glass, with two kind and jolly women POAs, programme operations assistants (later known as studio managers). The news ended, next to the microphone a green light glowed. I was on the air.
Nobody kept the script, and any recording of the talk has long since been wiped. I have to guess at what was in it. I might well have mentioned the Camay soap commercials, "You'll be a little lovelier each day ..." and encountering the vivacious, funny and very professional presenter Katie Boyle for the first time. (In those days, I would have had to leave out her greeting: "Just call me T&T darling, everybody else does - tits and teeth.")
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Fabulous pink Camay was reliably frothy for the camera, but another cleaning product's performance was below par. A chequered floor like a draught-board was laid next to a fairground ride, the idea being that the cleaner would cut an impressive swathe through the grime ground into it by lots of passing feet. We tried a take but the stuff didn't fulfil the promise on the packet. These were the days before colour telly so the commercial was shot in black-and-white. The solution was to spread the tiles with cocoa and scatter a few dog-ends. As if by magic one push of the mop cleared a shining path through it.
There was a lager commercial, shot in a Soho pub. The froth on the drink, the real thing, was enlivened for each take by a squeeze of a surgical-looking rubber bulb. A well-known wrestler was featured downing the stuff and smiling. By mid-morning his smile was increasingly wan. Eventually, he slipped from his stool and slowly subsided on the floor. It turned out he was a non-drinker, but hadn't owned up to it and nobody had thought to ask. He was out of it for the rest of the day so the production had to make do with what we'd got in the can. At least the lager looked right.
The red light over the studio door went off. The talk ended, bang on time. I'd paced the delivery to suit the clock. People appeared chuffed. Well, this was steam radio. There were back-patting phone calls and memos from the hierarchy. I was in.
In July we went on the air with Out of This Week, a seventy-minute magazine. Dick never allowed me to use a script; all I had were a few lines of cue material that left me to improvise. He had implicit faith in that good old verbal ingenuity, and for the next 50 years it was that which helped in part to keep me on the air, on radio and TV.
Thank you, Dick.