Richard Wortley:
Groundhog Day Beginnings

Groundhog Day Beginnings

In 1948 (aged thirteen and a half) I was interviewed at the BBC studios of Alexander Palace for the new fangled medium of television. I had been acting in my school’s section for the town (St Albans) celebrating its thousandth year history. I was a Stuart schoolboy (the teacher who ran the school combined cadet force played Charles 1st on a horse).

I was meant to recite the school prayer but from stage fright forget it half way through and have to be rescued by the head boy. In real life I was a bit of a chatterbox and our head boy a seriously good actor.

Also in 1948 I went to a radio exhibition hall at Wembley Stadium, London and at the BBC stand saw my first ‘spot operator’ run a fork round a big plate. This we were told made the sound used for an inn sign creaking in the wind heralding the troubled birth of Oliver Twist. There were coconuts for horses hooves but it is that inn sign which spoke to me.

At sixteen I was still running through my local wood to catch the latest Home Service episode of ‘Dick Barton Special Agent’. Ten years later I was directing Noel Johnson, the second Dick Barton, in stories far removed from that clubland hero.

At university I happened to catch ‘Unman, Wittering and Zeigo’ a play by the seminal radio writer of his period - Giles Cooper - directed by the doyen modernist producer, Donald McWhinnie.

Twenty-five years on I tried a remake with Geoffrey Collins, Robert Lang, Hugh Dickson and once more the exuberant Miriam (Margoyles). This sinister yarn has a class of pupils, Unman, Wittering and Zeigo among them, hinting to the oppressed new teacher (G Collins) that they have murdered his predecessor.

The train whistle, often a cliché borrowed from the original broadcast, felt an irresistible motif each time we returned to the teacher’s desperate marriage flat by the railway track. Never be afraid of such sign-posting as tasty as the cawing rooks for ‘revisiting’ Brideshead. My minor contribution to innovation was casting all males for the boys.

Mr Cooper of the blue covers, pioneer master of writing for this medium, seemingly committed suicide falling from a moving train, or so my BBC colleague Douglas Cleverdon told me. Douglas directed radio’s most famous original play ‘Under Milk Wood’ by Dylan Thomas and was Giles Cooper’s brother-in-law.

In 1958 my family put out an emergency call to the BBC to reach me on my student vacation tennis tour. I was to go immediately to the St Albans hospital where my father, an active retired second headmaster, lay dangerously ill. The appeal reached me in our Eastbourne hotel at 5.30 in the morning. A match against the local tennis club was due to start in the afternoon. I returned to St Albans, the tour cancelled and my father died two days later.

In 1959, towards the end of university, still amateur acting, I was given advice by Ned Sherrin on prospects for trainee television work. He was an ascending star producer of television satire. A friendly old don who had been tutor to Mr Sherrin a year or so earlier set up our lunch date - ah, those Oxbridge connections!

The perspicacious television executive told me I seemed more like a radio man to him. Funny now to think about him and ‘Loose Ends’.

With my father’s death had come a little money so I bought myself a greenbox Ferrograph recording machine, reliable enough but heavy or what?

When I was in college I stumbled upon a fellow student ‘reading’ medicine who happened to be clever with technology. Complete good fortune and the absolute pattern of my future life. Thus we managed common-room entertainments, low grade but spirited.

For my job interview at the BBC - the advert made you think they were searching for a cross between Erasmus and Einstein but you ignored that - I demonstrated astonishing naivety. I actually lugged said equipment from St Albans to 5 Portland Place, London, W1 only to find an identical machine already there, of course.

I suppose they liked my material, which made up for the double egg on my face. I had earlier frightened a woman on the Euston Road dragging my ‘ball and chain’ into the ladies loo, misreading the sign.

For this personal essay I can only wallow in the professional support that has bolstered me throughout three thousand five hundred productions.

I believe in nursing morale and have tried to practice guided egalitarianism.

I can never do justice to the many programme assistants and sound engineers who have brought these enterprises to fruition. I will, however, mention two special mentors, Sam Langdon and Ronald Mason.

Sam Langdon, ex bursar of Dartington Hall, a wry chain-smoker who knew everything about culture, chaperoned most of my first radio steps with such a light touch and amused candour in his pale blue eyes.

Dr. Johnson had a poor view of patronage but it’s a long straw in contemporary media.

The Irishman Ronald Mason proved to be a boss of enormous charisma and a much imitated Ballymena accent.

Just when I think I am ‘out to grass’ (the previous year is 1994 and I have shared a boisterous retirement party with my close pal Jane Morgan, at a boat base on the Thames) I find myself seduced ‘back in’.

A small commercial company - Pier Productions of Brighton - wanted to expand from local radio into mainstream drama.

As an old hand, I am approached. Peter Hoare, its managing director, appeared a generous host and a man I took to immediately. Lugubrious on the phone, he turns out to be an observant delight face to face, and fully aware of the simmering politics inside the polite façade of the Beeb. You’ve guessed it, an ex-BBC employee of thirty-eight who has bought the old Radio Sussex studio.

Thirty plus productions later, I still laugh at our hysterical baptism.

He introduced me to the double theatrical dynasty of the Redgraves and the Markhams.

I knew Kika Markham from thirty years before when the young revolutionary dazzled educational radio. She premiered at the academy cinema in a new Francois Truffaut movie and could next be seen selling the WRP news-sheet in the pouring rain where I bumped into her at Shepherd’s Bush tube station.

She is married to Corin Redgrave, and Peter Hoare had set up a project with Corin to play the son to his own mother, Rachel Kempson, in an adaptation by Peter Tegel of Margaret Duras’s ‘Days In The Trees’. No one told us that the noble old matron had begun to occupy a private world of her own.

Corin supplied life enhancing, filial loyalty and extra coaching, my studio manager pulled off an exciting editing challenge and a national newspaper congratulated the mother on her powerful interpretation.

Anno Domini. The enduring one seemed a sweet woman.

I rolled along to other links with Corin and Kika and once with Vanessa Redgrave, my tallest female artist. I realised then I was badly in need of a cataract operation, my eyes swimming before her graceful knee caps.

Pier Productions brought me a reunion with the playwright/journalist/artist John Spurling and his massively industrious biographer wife, Hilary Spurling.

John and I, years before, had charged our way through his five hours of dramatised history of the British Empire (BBC Radio 3). It seemed quite surreal after two hundred and fifty characters, to be with a cast of only three. John Rowe, Julia Ford and Robert Glenister played out ‘Heresy’ in detailed style and a local amateur dramatic society provided the mob.

Thus my anecdotal account draws towards its close. I still miss a heartbeat when radio drama gets it right.

It seems a thousand years since I first stepped through the doors of 1 Portland Place, London, W1 - the ‘newbug’ joining BBC School Broadcasting and a corridor voice was calling out “we’ve lost King John”. Naïve hairs did indeed rise on the back of neck and told me this was a casting crisis. The prickles were not of fear however, but of excitement. ‘The tinsel and the tears…”

A whole term of observation later - I may have trained by osmosis - I lost my virginity with ‘Warrior Scarlet’ by Rosemary Sutcliffe in three parts.

Recently a television director wrote to me kind enough to say that when he was in radio I had given him the idea that ‘every moment matters once you have the story in place - rhythm, detail, pace, phrasing. It’s music really’.

But in the end this most stimulating of pleasures defied analysis. Stand by for another green light.

Oh yes, and for those who think that hyperbole began in the twenty first century with wall-to-wall ‘Big Brother’ house and celebrity football scandals, I once wrote a memoir about my Soho encounters over five years with an optimistic young stripper called Tina. Hutchinsons published it in 1968. My editor had earlier been banished to ‘Popular Dogs’ for missing out on Len Deighton’s spy novel, ‘The Ipcress File’, sent to him in manuscript.

At a European radio drama conference in Frankfurt (1972) our distinguished, pugnacious BBC head, the intellectual Jewish-Hungarian Martin Esslin, who spoke five languages fluently, introduced me - in English - as ‘one of Europe’s leading sexologists’.

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