THIS is a sentence you will not often read: The BBC admitted it was wrong. It happened in 1975, after the decision was made to end Down Your Way, one of the most popular programmes on the radio, a fixture at 5.15pm on a Sunday for 10million listeners at its peak.
Listeners reacted with fury and the BBC was bombarded with protests. Newspapers campaigned for the programme’s reinstatement. After six months and a change of Radio 4 controller, the BBC conceded defeat. The presenter at the time, Brian Johnston, said: ‘I think the BBC deserves credit for admitting that their previous decision had been wrong.’
The first Down Your Way was broadcast on 29 December 1946 on the Home Service. Radio Times said: ‘Stewart MacPherson with the BBC Mobile Recording Unit visits Lambeth and invites Mr and Mrs John Citizen to choose their favourite records and say a few words to the listeners.’ The format of visiting towns around Britain, interviewing local people of interest and playing their selected music remained changed for 42 years. The signature tune was a section of Horse Guards, Whitehall by Haydn Wood (1882-1959)
MacPherson, a Canadian, had been a boxing and ice hockey commentator on the BBC, and went on to be the first chairman of Twenty Questions. He apparently went unannounced to a town with a recording car, knocked on doors and interviewed the inhabitants there and then. On one occasion he got a right hook from a man who thought he had been molesting his wife. Sadly I cannot find a recording of any of his Down Your Way programmes. The second presenter was Lionel Gamlin, but he was replaced in 1947 by Richard Dimbleby, who had been a war reporter and was looking for employment. Here is a section of an episode he presented in around 1952.
Dimbleby left Down Your Way in 1953 after 350 editions. He subsequently became a ‘national treasure’, commentating on all the major public occasions such as the Queen’s Coronation and the funeral of Winston Churchill. In 1955 he became presenter of the BBC’s current affairs series Panorama, and here is a reminder of its theme tune with pictures of Dimbleby and other hosts.
His notable calm under pressure is shown in this clip from 1964, when he was anchoring coverage of the General Election. His deadpan narration of Panorama’s 1957 April Fool segment played a big part in its success. Decades later CNN called this broadcast ‘the biggest hoax that any reputable news establishment ever pulled’.
After Dimbleby’s departure Down Your Way was rested for a couple of years, but in 1955 it was revived with Franklin Engelmann, who was widely known as ‘Jingle’. He had an illustrious BBC career, hosting 733 editions of Down Your Way and at more or less the same time chairing Gardeners’ Question Time and What Do You Know? which became Brain of Britain. He even presented the first few editions of Pick of the Pops before Alan Freeman took over. It may have been too much for he died of a heart attack in 1972, two days before his 64th birthday, when he was due to host the 1,000th edition of Gardeners’ Question Time. Here is a section of an Engelmann Down Your Way in Middlesbrough in 1957.
After Engelmann’s death, the incomparable Brian Johnston took over at a few days’ notice. After a distinguished wartime career during which he won an MC, he had joined the BBC in 1946 as a cricket commentator and was soon appearing on a host of light entertainment programmes such Come Dancing and In Town Tonight. He was in the commentary team for many state events such as the Coronation and royal weddings. About the time that he started presenting Down Your Way, Johnston joined the Test Match Special team where he stayed for 22 years. It would be unforgivable to mention Johnston without recalling the 1991 TMS incident involving Jonathan Agnew.
It was on Johnston’s watch that the BBC took the decision to axe Down Your Way. In one of his autobiographies, A Delicious Slice of Johnners, he recalled the official explanation was ‘for reasons of economy’. In fact the programme, which involved only a producer, a sound engineer and himself was very inexpensive to make. ‘With the repeat on Tuesdays, Radio 4 was getting eighty minutes of airtime for about £130 – mere chickenfeed compared with most other similar programmes.’ The real reason, he suspected, was that the Radio 4 controller of the day wanted the prized 5.15pm spot on Sundays for one of his own favourite programmes.
‘The news was given to the Press and I must say they really went to town on our behalf. There really was a tremendous outcry against the decision. Somehow the BBC had underestimated the affection with which the programme was held. Not only the nationals but all the provincial papers led the protests and the BBC itself was inundated with letters and phone calls from many devoted followers. Many felt they were about to lose an old friend and it was nice to have such proof that we evidently provided some innocent pleasure for so many thousands of people.’
After a few months the BBC hierarchy realised it was beaten and Johnston was told that the programme would continue.
‘The announcement in the Press came a month later – appropriately on my birthday, 24 June. In a statement, Clare Lawson Dick [who had taken over as controller of Radio 4] said: “Fans of the programme wrote to us in large numbers asking for it to be restored. We were also greatly touched and influenced by letters from blind and disabled people who were unable to travel and said that Down Your Way had been their only means of getting to know Britain”.’
Johnston stayed with the show for 15 years. Here is a sample programme from 1974.
In his book he notes the favourite tunes selected by participants in each era, and I have tried to match them to recordings available at the time.
Richard Dimbleby: Bless This House (Gracie Fields 1948)
Now is the Hour (Bing Crosby 1948)
Franklin Engelmann: Jerusalem (Huddersfield Choral Society)
Stranger on the Shore (Mr Acker Bilk 1962)
Brian Johnston: Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus (English Chamber Orchestra, Ambrosian Singers 1972)
Verdi’s Hebrew Slaves Chorus (Novosibirsk Symphony Orchestra)
Theme from Love Story
Theme from Dr Zhivago
Theme from The Onedin Line
Music from Gilbert and Sullivan (Gondoliers Overture, Malcolm Sargent and the Pro Arte Orchestra)
Johnston wrote: ‘It is a wonderful programme to do. We are unashamedly square and uncontroversial. We go to a place to find out the good things about it and never “look under the carpet” for the sort of things which hit the headlines in the popular press. We just try to find nice people who will reflect all these good things.’
Johnston bowed out on his 733rd show (equalling Engelmann’s tenure) in May 1987 just before his 75th birthday. The final show visited Lord’s Cricket Ground and included an interview with his old friend Denis Compton.
After Johnston’s retirement the programme fell victim to the nascent celebrity culture. Radio 4 controller Michael Green decided to ‘refresh’ the format, bringing in different names each week and sending them to places of significance in their lives. Thus, as writer Paul Donovan succinctly said, it became Down My Way instead of Down Your Way. Green ditched the theme tune while he was about it and scrapped the guests selecting music, which was all chosen by the producer. The show limped on for five more years before it was finally taken off the air in 1992. This time there was no outcry – it was no longer the dear friend it had been.