Stephen Williams and Radio Luxembourg
Roger Bickerton

This article is based on recordings I made in November, 1994 shortly before Stephen died, and a book entitled “Radio Luxembourg – The Station of the Stars” by Richard Nichols, published in 1983, which Stephen had liberally annotated with his personal recollections. He was rather put out that the author had not tried to locate him when writing it.

I visited Stephen twice; the conversations we had were transcribed by my wife, and these, together with information from the book and other sources, were subsequently put into chronological order as far as possible.

December, 2013 sees the 80th anniversary of the launch of the first English-speaking sponsored radio programmes which appeared on a regular basis and January, 2014 marks the 80th anniversary of the first issue of “Radio Pictorial”, the best-known journal dealing with the output and personalities of the few commercial radio stations of the time. The journal closed early in September, 1939, and it was never re-opened. Occasionally copies surface; sometimes the advertisements contain hilarious assertions about medical remedies; claims which today would give those at the Advertising Standards Authority collective apoplexy, not to mention the risk of litigation.

As regards actual recordings of programmes from Luxembourg, a fair number of pre-war broadcasts have survived, because it was often the practice of sponsors to commission copies of what had been aired on 16” disc (one side of which would hold 15 minutes' programming) so that they could check that broadcasts corresponded with what they had commissioned and paid for. Once again, it is the content and mode of presentation of many advertisements which reflect the social mores of those times; probably the best known are those for Ovaltine, although there were other amusing ditties singing the praises of other products such as “Minors” cigarettes and “The Betox March”, written by Annette Mills, later of “Muffin The Mule” fame on early BBC television.

Post-war Luxembourg material is scarce. It is likely that the pre-war practice of recording programmes could not continue because of raw material shortages after the war. Information on the station's schedules from 1946 is scanty, although the launch of “208” magazine late in 1951 signalled a revival in its fortunes, coinciding with the beginning of a serialisation of the adventures of the “Eagle” paper's hero Dan Dare, sponsored by Horlicks. Dan was played by Noel Johnson, the first “Dick Barton”, until he resigned abruptly early in 1949.

A very few off-air recordings of this and other post-WW2 Luxembourg programmes have surfaced, and I understand that Towers of London (Harry Alan Towers' vehicle) and Star Sound Studios of London produced some, though not for general release. Older readers (aged 60+?) may remember trying to receive the capricious Medium Wave signal of 208 metres; close enough to the West of England Home Service's allocated 206 metres and a fairly strong signal from (I think) Radio Monte Carlo at 207 to ensure the regular and frustrating “Luxembourg Fade”. This was usually most pronounced early in the evenings after the 6 pm start of programming.

Stephen's later career with the BBC principally involved producing “Have A Go!” but he and Wilfred Pickles did not appear to hit it off; one came from the South, the other did not. That said, the programmes which have survived offer us a wonderful glimpse into Social History in terms of attitudes and views which may now be regarded (by some) with disbelief. Stephen was undoubtedly the driving force behind the launch and early development of a radio station which proved, once and for all, that product could be sold over the airwaves. For that he deserves more recognition.

If anyone reading this has recordings of Radio Luxembourg output (or knows of anyone who does), I would be most grateful if they could contact me. It is probably unlikely that fresh material will surface, but one never knows...

The article about Stephen's life is split into many sections, for ease of reading on screen. The index to the pages is below.

Roger Bickerton, copyright.
Short sections may be quoted, but please give the source.

next page

1:Early life and a first radio set
2:The yacht 'Ceto', Lord Northcliffe and the Daily Mail
3:An early transmitter in Luxembourg
4:Radio Normandy and a Persian Princess
5:Plans for the Luxembourg transmitter
6:Delegated to the new Radio Luxembourg
7:Williams takes charge
8:Recording audio on film, and the Philips recording system
9:Signing up Christopher Stone
10:Football Pools advertizing, 1930s
11:Advertizing anecdotes and pre-war strategy
12:Radio politics, and WW2 begins
13:Stephen Williams joins ENSA as Broadcasting Officer
14:Messages from soldiers: Two-Way Family Favourites
15:More wartime work for ENSA and the BBC
16:War ends; Williams returns to Radio Luxembourg
17:Back to the BBC
18:The hazards of 'Have A Go!'
19:Twilight years at the BBC
20:Awards and retirement


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