by Mark McKay (from LAUGH #1, 1991)
By 1936 BBC Listener Research determined that dance band programmes and broadcasts from variety theatres were not as popular as had been believed. Overseas radio stations were also drawing a large audience away from the BBC, so the director of variety, John Watt, planned a new radio show with a resident compere and a comedian, which would be broadcast in a regular timeslot. Harry S. Pepper and Gordon Crier were to be the producers and they set about looking for a cast. In the role of comedian they considered two possibilities: Tommy Trinder and Arthur Askey, and from a coin toss decided on the former. However, he was unavailable and thus Askey got the big break of his career.
The first show was broadcast on the 5th of January 1938, but the scripts of these early shows were very poor and John Watt decided to cancel the programme after six episodes. For the fourth edition Arthur, Vernon Harris, Gordon Crier and a newly recruited straight man, Richard Murdoch, made a combined effort on the script and Band Waggon really began to pick up. The series ended up running for 18 episodes.
Band Waggon followed a set format: Murdoch and Askey performed in three spots together. Since he was billed as the ‘resident comedian’, Arthur had the idea that he should live in a top floor flat at Broadcasting House. Into this situation other characters were written, including charwoman Mrs. Bagwash and her daughter Nausea, whom Arthur was courting. Hence the classic sketch “The Proposal” in which Dickie Murdoch demonstrates to Arthur how to propose to his beloved (originally broadcast on November 23 1938, a later performance to troops in France in early 1940 was issued as a gramophone record). Neither Nausea nor Mrs. Bagwash ever spoke, although Nausea was apt to faint in front of the microphone with a thud and her mother could be prompted to give the occasional grunt.
The flat soon became an aural menagerie:
Lewis the goat was introduced so they could use the joke: ‘A goat in the flat — what about the smell? Oh he’ll get used to it!’ (This was 1938, don’t forget). Lewis was joined by Hector the camel and the pigeons, Basil and Lucy. The stories would often feature the ‘Band Waggon crash’, an elaborate sound effect indicating Arthur had taken a tumble, and created by setting up a pile of chairs, metal trays, wastepaper baskets . . . in a roped-off area of the recording stage which was pushed at the appropriate moment by the FX man. This soon became very popular with the studio audience, so the FX man would dress up for the part and take a bow afterwards until Askey remarked: ‘I’m the comedian — I get the laughs’.
The cobwebs were dusted off tired old gags and they were paraded in the ‘Chestnut Corner’ (or Don’t stop us even if you’ve heard them) segment, accompanied by funny noises. The ‘Dear Old Pals’ sig tune would launch quick cross-patter such as:
‘Didn’t I meet you in Cape Town three years ago? – No, I’ve never been to Cape Town. – Neither have I, it must have been two other fellas.’ or ‘Excuse me sir but can you spare a shilling for a cup of coffee?
- A shilling . . . that’s a lot for a cup of coffee, isn’t it? — Listen, are you trying to tell me how to run my business?’.
Arthur had a solo spot which began with his song ‘Big Hearted Arthur, they call me’, and during which he would read letters and give advice: ‘I had a letter from a lady. last week, signing herself “mother of six”. She wanted to know where she could get a record of my voice to help her to get her children to sleep at nights (nice of her, wasn’t it?). But I wrote and told her to try persuasive methods before resorting to violence’. Sometimes the letters came from the management: ‘Dear Mr. Askey, we understand that when you were a child your uncle Aubrey offered you £100 if you would give up your idea of becoming a comedian. We should be glad if you will advise us as to how you spent the money. Yours regretfully, the BBC’. Listeners were also treated to short parodies of popular songs (‘Stay on my arm, umbrella’ for ‘Stay in my arms, Cinderella’) and Arthur’s silly little songs such as ‘The Bee’, ‘The Seagull’ and ‘The Worm’.
Syd Walker played a cockney rag and bone man in another regular feature. He would enter singing his sig tune ‘Any rags, bottles or bones’ and then recount an open-ended story which could produce different outcomes, such as the tale of two lady patients of a doctor who have opposite reactions to the fate of the heroine of a newspaper serial. In this case the dilemma presented to the listeners was: should the heroine die or be allowed to live? Syd would ask ‘What would you do, chums?’ and invite everyone to write in, and they obliged, sending in thousands of replies on postcards.
Guest stars were used in the earlier shows. These included blind American pianist Art Tatum, Harry Richman and Cary Grant (who was totally puzzled by the lines he was given). Catchphrases were thrown about and many caught on: Arthur’s ‘Aythangyow’ (I thank you) picked up from London’s bus conductors, ‘Proper humdrum’, ‘Don’t be filthy’, ‘Doesn’t it make you want to spit’ and ‘Light the blue touchpaper and retire immediately’ and Dickie’s rebuke: ‘You silly little man’. They christened each other ‘Big Hearted’ Arthur and ‘Stinker’ Murdoch and even in the middle of situation sketches they would make references to the fact that they were simply reading scripts in a recording theatre and making use of aural illusions, a practice continued in The Goon Show more than a decade later. Together with the ad libs and in-jokes, this helped to give the show a very informal feel.
Christmas 1938 saw a stage version of Band Waggon at the Princes Theatre in London, during which Ernie Wise appeared in a ‘New Voices’ segment (a talent quest which was another regular feature of the radio version). The Band Waggon broadcast of March 15th 1939 was intended to be the last, and 20 minutes of highlights were issued on a set of three 78rpm records by H.M.V. In the programme ‘Big’ and ‘Stinker’ looked back over their forty-two shows remembering early days when the ad libbing wasn’t as prevalent: ‘We were so nervous in those days we used to write everything down, didn’t we?’
On July 3 that year the stage version opened for a summer season at the London Palladium with Tommy Trinder as an added attraction, and Arthur and Dickie began filming a movie version the following month. When war broke out, the BBC approached them about doing another series and despite initial reluctance, they gave in. There is a record in Hansard of the announcement made by an M.P.: ‘We are getting back to normality – Band Waggon will be back on the air next week’.
The new series had many references to the European situation – jokes were made about ‘Old Nasty’ (Arthur and Dickie’s name for Hitler), they ‘blacked out’ the flat in the first edition, and Syd Walker discussed the dangers of fictitious war rumours in programme three. However, Arthur’s other commitments were becoming more time-consuming and the eleventh show of the series was destined to be their last. He went off to make more films (three of which also featured Dickie: The Ghost Train, Charley’s Big-Hearted Aunt and I Thank You) while Murdoch went into the air force before taking part in the very popular Much-Binding-In-The-Marsh.
On November 13 1947 the BBC presented a special revival edition to mark its silver jubilee. Arthur and Dickie were introduced and after an exchange of cutting remarks, re-performed old scenes together. Fred Yule took over the late Syd Walker’s role.
In the late 195Os the idea was transferred to television as Living It Up with Askey and Murdoch apparently residing at the top of the Associated-Rediffusion building in Kingsway. The show was scripted by Sid Colin and Talbot Rothwell and ran for six weeks from October 27 to December 1 1958.
Then, to celebrate the BBC’s golden jubilee, the duo came back to radio in ‘Ah! Happy Days!’ on December 28th 1971. In the programme, which also featured Wallas Eaton and Arthur’s daughter Anthea, they revisited the flat and discover the BBC have been broadcasting all their shows since 1939 using their electricity. It was the final hurrah for the BBC’s very first comedy series. Arthur Askey died in 1982 and Richard Murdoch eight years later.
Series 1: 18 episodes broadcast on either the National or Regional Network of the B.B.C.
from January 5 to May 4 1938 (initially 45-minutes, then 60-minutes from show 6)
Series 2: 24 episodes broadcast on either the National or Regional Network
from October 5 1938 to March 15 1939 (all 60-minutes)
Series 3: 11 episodes broadcast on the National Network
from September 16 to December 2 1939 (not on November 11)(all 45-minutes)
BBC Jubilee Edition (45-minutes)
broadcast in the Light Programme on November 13 1947
Ah! Happy Days! (30-minutes)
broadcast on Radio 2 on December 28 1971
only five broadcasts exist:
1/10 March 9 1938 (15 minutes of extracts only)
2/18 January 18 1939 (complete 60-minute programme)
2/24 March 15 1939 (extracts issued on three HMV 78rpm discs … see below)
3/3 September 30 1939 (complete 45-minute programme)
*** November 13 1947 (complete 45-minute BBC Jubilee revival edition)
*** December 28 1971 (complete 30-minute “Ah! Happy Days!” revival edition)
Band Waggon (parts 1 to 6)
(broadcast extracts from March 15 1939)
HMV 78rpm BD 693/5
Blacking Out The Flat (parts 1 and 2)
(studio recording November 9 1939)
HMV 78rpm BD 764
Big And Stinker’s Parlour Games (parts 1 and 2)
(studio recording November 13 1939)
HMV 78rpm BD 784
Big And Stinker Minding The Baby (parts 1 and 2)
(studio recording April 14 1940)
HMV 78rpm BD 841
(from troop concert in France April 25 1940)
HMV 12” 78rpm C 3173
The Seagull Song (Askey vocal)/
More Chestnut Corner
(both from troop concert in France April 25 1940)
HMV 78rpm BD 855
Big And Stinker’s Moment Musical
(studio recording July 21 1940)
HMV 78rpm BD 870
(studio recording July 21 1940)
HMV 78rpm BD 870
Fifty Years Of Radio Comedy
BBC LP REC 138M (issued 1972)
features an extract from the 1947 revival
Memories Of Band Waggon, Happidrome And Other Great Wireless Comedy Shows
EMI LP SH 388 (issued 1980)
features the 3 x 78rpm set of the March 15 1939 broadcast
The Golden Age Of Arthur Askey
EMI LP GX 2548 (issued 1986)
PEARL/FLAPPER PAST CD 9279 (issued 1990)
the 3 x 78rpm set of the March 15 1939 broadcast
Big And Stinker‘s Moment Musical
Big And Stinker’s Parlour Games
The Seagull Song
On film, the 1939 feature “Band Waggon” exists, as well as brief newsreel footage of Arthur and Dickie performing to troops in France on April 25 1940 (part of this performance is included in “More Chestnut Corner”, “The Proposal” and “The Seagull Song” 78rpm discs).