RADIO: YES, WHAT?

by Vern Sundfors and Bob Hawker (reprinted from LAUGH MAGAZINE #5 (1992)

Back in the 1930s, before most of us were born, something wonderful happened on Australian radio (on Adelaide Advertiser station 5AD) that still inspires us with awe. It was a radio comedy show unmatched since, and unequalled anywhere.

Never off the air somewhere, it is hit with every laudatory superlative in the thesaurus. Most of all, it is “timeless”, although it is more than half a century old.

The 1930s was a decade of much interest, musically for instance, but great or classic comedy seems not much to have visited the 1930s. Therefore, with few exceptions, such as the Marx Brothers, a lot of thirties’ comedy was quite awful.

But we remember the radio serial Yes, What?, set in St.Percy’s School, not least because it was syndicated to all Australian states on vinyl transcription discs, and therefore it survived and was broadcast continuously, being then taped by listener-collectors. This went on for 50 years, never skipping a decade. In pre-tape days, fans collected it on home disc-cutters and it is just as well they did, as we shall see.

In the 1980s, Yes, What? was included on two LPs produced by Glenn A. Baker “The Wonderful Wireless” (Volumes 1 and 2) and as a result radio stations could include a representative sample in general comedy programming. And since the world is divided into two kinds of people: those who have heard Yes, What? and those who haven’t, the latter will have plenty of opportunity to hear and own some of it on a forthcoming compact disc set.

It is difficult to imagine a classic property about which so little is known by the listening public. Radio serials were thin on credits anyway, and in the case of Yes, What?, care was taken by the creator/producer to keep it that way. In fact, he gave his first magazine interview two years later, in NSW. That one interview gives us virtually all we know about the private thoughts and feelings towards his comedy phenomenon.

If you love Yes, What?, his name, Rex ‘Waca’ Dawe is greater than Roy Rene and other top Aussie comedians. I mean, we love Roy Rene, but he’s getting a bit dusty, or “less timeless”, whereas Yes, What? always sounds like a keg of gunpowder going off. It goes up like a bottle rocket and explodes in a burst of comic absurdity, even insanity. It sounds so “live” and natural that some have refused to believe it was scripted. We suspect that it will sound this way forever.

But fans, of course, want to know everything about everything. Dawe’s name was kept aloft by Adelaide journalist Max Hollingsworth who periodically gave biographical background, all of it correct. But there is little else to read, and

information about what happened in the 1930s has been disappearing fast. We were able to talk to the actors who played pupil Bottomly, caretaker Snootles, and Greenbottle’s mother; the others were gone. We talked to the widows of the nephew and to recording engineers working on the show.

It has been something of a life’s ambition for both of us to unlock Yes, What?‘s mysterious past, to correct misinformation, and to tidy up those episodes which have previously defied cataloguing. If you are doing a broadcast, or writing something, now there is no excuse for saying that Yes, What? came from 5DN, as a nostalgia presenter recently did.

 

The cast

Doctor Percy Pym:                              Rex’Waca’Dawe (Writer/Producer/Director)

Rupert Bottomly:                                Ralph Peterson

Greenbottle:                                        Jack Craig-Gardiner

Ronald George Standforth:                Jim Williams

dePledge:                                            Richard Harding-Brown

Mr. Basil Cornelius Snootles:             Frank McCarron

Daphne:                                               Alice Creed

Mrs. Greenbottle (and others):            Marjory Irving

Policeman:                                           John Dobbie

English Policeman, PT instructor):      Walter Dyer

 

How they came to, and left Yes, What? in radio’s earliest days is a story that was a delight to unfold, and full details will be found in our book on the series.

Casual players were sometimes drawn from Dawe’s theatre friends (Kenny Brenna) and from 5AD’s stable of performers (Keith MacDonald). References to other names, such as Frank Strain and George Wallace Junior relate to stage performances of a Tivoli pantomime nature, or to attempted revivals on radio (with Owen Ainley and others) which were never a success.

 

The Episodes

At first, in its home town of Adelaide, Yes, What? aired once a week, on Sunday night, live. There, it was always known by its original title “The Fourth Form at St.Percy’s“. This was after English comic Will Hay’s “Fifth Form at St.Michael’s“, a series of records, films and broadcasts, on which Yes, What? was modelled. Everybody involved swears that Yes, What? was not recorded throughout its first year. Recording only commenced when interstate sales began and new technology was installed. There is no point in weeping for this lost material, firstly because we now believe it was re-recorded for discs numbered 1 to 50, and secondly because the magic spark of comedy genius had not yet manifested. The early episodes were not so hot, and if you hear them you might wish you hadn’t.

Sponsor and owner, Samuel Taylor apparently thought that, and banished the first 208 episodes to an unknown fate. If you joined Yes, What? with or after its 1957 revival, you will be unfamiliar with the first 208 episodes, or “lessons” as they were always called. We do not. know how many sets of discs were pressed, but one set possibly escaped into the hands of collectors, for some copies have come our way.

Magic moments commence to appear around about Lesson 50, and increase towards Lesson 208, where Bottomly and Percy reportedly blow up the school. We’ve never heard it. Have you?

As mentioned, some “lost” episodes turn up on home cut or local station cut discs, but their cracked acetate surfaces have scarcely lasted the distance. One of these tells of the party that Greenbottle’s father threw. (Craig-Gardiner played both Greenbottles, Jr and Snr).

Lessons 209 to 520 are the remaining output, and we hear them on the radio today, leased to stations by Grace Gibson Productions (NSW). Although Taylor was too ruthless, rhe remaining 316 lessons represent a level plateau or constancy of comic brilliance. But only about 300 of these actually circulate to stations (now on 7½”/sec tapes), and they have been re-numbered in a regrettably random order. Missing seem to be lessons 209, 210, 212, 217, 283, 286, 322, 331, 333, 503, 504, 510, 512 and 513. They could prove difficult to replace. Our above-mentioned book gives an episode listing with an AWA disc number and a paragraph synopsis for each lesson.

 

Briefly, the history went something like this:

. First broadcast 5AD Adelaide: 7th July 1936 (one reference puts it at a week earlier).

. First recorded: mid-1937

. First heard in Melbourne from 3XY 2nd October 1939

. Last episode (Lesson 520) recorded: 7th December 1940

. Repeated immediately and continuously throughout World War 2, in Melbourne until mid 1944.

. Nationally revived 1948-1952 and again in 1957-1959

. Thereafter, periodic revivals by individual stations to this day, sometimes on public FM stations..

 

Discography

In 1942, a special disc was planned for despatch to Australian troops overseas, but the project did not eventuate.

The Wonderful Wireless
Telmak 2LP TMAK 046 (1982)
Contains a short extract from the start of Lesson 226, derived from a sampler tape once prepared by the National Film and Sound Archive, Canberra

More Of The Wonderful Wireless
Telmak 2LP TMAK 081 (1983)
Featured a whole episode (number 487)

The Best of Yes, What?: The School Fire
Cassette tape (1991)
first authorised sale material, produced by us as a limited souvenir edition and available only to visitors to the Golden Days of Radio Exhibition at the Melbourne Exhibition Building. Collector’s item.
Featured four Lessons which were:
416 The school fire
417 At the police station
426 Policeman visits the school
436 Opening ceremony of new classroom

Radio Revisited – Yes, What?
Sony/Columbia double CD 412832-2 (1992)
Contains ten episodes interspersed with recollections by Williams, McCarron, Gardiner and Peterson
Opening Ceremony For Classroom (436)
The Royal Show (227 and 228)
The School Fete (233)
The School Fire (416 and 417)
Greenbottle Leaves For University (342)
New Boy dePledge Arrives (344)
Visit Of The School Inspector(388)
Bottomly Arranges Morning Tea (390)
(The episode numbers given on the CDs are reissue numbers)

Radio Revisited – Yes, What? (volume 2)
Sony/Columbia double CD 473945-2 (1993)
House of Tudor Exam (236)
Mr. Snootles’ Salary Arrears (281)
Averdupois Tables (289)
Looking for an Escaped Lunatic (257)
Bottomly Cleans the Blackboard (265)
Hide and Seek (308)
Advertising Eggs (242)
Mr. Snootles Returns from Holidays (327)
The Bucket Hits Greenbottle (315)
DePledge Meets Mr. Snootles (349)
Mr. Snootles Seeks Back Wages (357)
DePledge is Late for School (360)

Yes, What? (volume 3) – The Lost Episodes
Sony/Columbia double CD 486607-2 (1996)
After the Baliffs (53)
Bottomly’s Birthday (72)
Bootomly’s Pocket Knife (81)
At the Zoo (part 1) (82)
At the Zoo (part 2) (83)
Percy in Hospital (84)
Greenbottle Feared Injured in Motor Accident (94)
The School Concert (95)
Greenbottle Digging Holes (96)
Mrs. Swizelstick (120)
The Curfew Bell (129)
Mr. Snootles Conducts His First Lesson as Assistant Master (130)

Yes, What? (volume 4)
Sony/Columbia double CD 488121-2 (1997)
The Chemistry Lesson
Chemistry with a Touch of Australian History
Chemistry and Chaos
More Australian History
Flinders and Robinson Crusoe
Nursery Rhymes
A Latin Lesson
Another Latin Lesson
Bottomly’s Birthday
Mushrooms and Tadpoles
Rock Crabbing
Elementary Studies

Yes, What? (volume 5)
Sony/Columbia double CD 489204-2 (1997)
Greenbottle’s Relatives
Who was Mephistopheles?
18th Century Poets
More Poetry
Poets and Their Phone Numbers
Chemistry Lesson #1
Chemistry Lesson #2
Chemistry Lesson #3
Chemistry Lesson #4
Opening of the New Classroom
Geometry
Poetry Lesson

Yes, What? (volume 6)
Sony/Columbia double CD 494324-2 (1999)
Arithmetic
Elementary Studies
History #1
Geometry #1
Geometry #2
Geometry #3
History #2
Geography #1
Geography #2
English
Latin
History #3

Yes, What? (volume 7)
Sony/Columbia double CD 88697326792A (2008)
The House of Tudor
”What/Not” Routine
Physical Culture
Exam on House of Tudor
Bottomly is Caught Cheating
Quelle Heure est-il?
The Dead Sea
Bottomly’s Poem
Cow Noises
Uncle Tom’s Cabin
Metaphors, Megaphones and Methodists
”Good Morning” in Chinese

Yes, What? (volume 8)
Sony/Columbia double CD 88697326792B (2008)
Geography #1
Geography #2
Geography #3
Chemistry
Latin
Weights and Measures #1
Weights and Measures #2
Weights and Measures #3
Geometry #1
Geometry #2
Geometry #3
Geometry #4

Yes, What? (volume 9)
Sony/Columbia double CD 88697326792C (2008)
Geometry #1
Geometry #2
Geometry #3
Geometry #4
Geography
Greenwich Mean Time
Chemistry
Physics #1
Physics #2
Arithmetic
History #1
History #2

From 2013, Grace Gibson Productions have issued to the public an ongoing series of single CDs in MP3 format featuring all surviving episodes (from #209) in chronological order, 20 per disc.

Yes, What? (volume 1) 
Grace Gibson Productions MP3 CD
episodes 1 to 20 (originally #209 to #228)

Yes, What? (volume 2) 
Grace Gibson Productions MP3 CD
episodes 21 to 40 (originally #229 to #248)

Yes, What? (volume 3) 
Grace Gibson Productions MP3 CD
episodes 41 to 60 (originally #249 to #268)

Yes, What? (volume 4) 
Grace Gibson Productions MP3 CD
episodes 61 to 80 (originally #269 to #288)

Yes, What? (volume 5) 
Grace Gibson Productions MP3 CD
episodes 81 to 100 (originally #289 to #308)

Yes, What? (volume 6) 
Grace Gibson Productions MP3 CD
episodes 101 to 120 (originally #309 to #328)

Yes, What? (volume 7) 
Grace Gibson Productions MP3 CD
episodes 121 to 140 (originally #329 to #348)

Yes, What? (volume 8) 
Grace Gibson Productions MP3 CD
episodes 141 to 160 (originally #349 to #368)

The allegedly enduring properties of CDs should ensure that Yes, What? is available for future archaeologists to laugh at.

 

Book

Yes, What? – The Story of The Fourth Form at St. Percy’s
by Vern Sundfors and Bob Hawker (Mortarboard Books, Melbourne, 1996)
(copies of this 148 page A4 publication may be ordered direct from:
Bob Hawker, P.O. Box 109, Highett, Victoria 3190, Australia
Priced at $25, plus postage)

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