The 'Toytown' Plays

This article is largely derived from one written by the late Peter Copeland (formerly Conservation Manager at The National Sound Archive), who was assisted by VRPCC member Jeremy Stevenson and by Roger Wilmut. It originally appeared in Jack Wrigley's periodical "AV Collector" in July, 1991, and acknowledgements are due to all concerned.

Members may recall the publication of the book 'Toytown - The World of S.G. Hulme Beaman' edited and published by Gerry Grange, which appeared in 2000. This book detailed the life of Hulme Beaman, but was principally an illustrated compilation of all his stories about Toytown, written between 1928 and early 1932. Sadly, Hulme Beaman died on February 4 of that year, less than a month before his 45th. birthday.

Beaman conceived the idea of Toytown in the mid- 1920s. As an artist, he had started to make toys in a first-floor room in a rented house in Golders Green, recognising that the German market, which had been dominant in the period leading up to The Great War, was all but dead. He decided to focus on the Victorian theme of 'Noah's Ark', and it was from there that the 'Toytown' concept arose. Squarish angular figures were carved from solid wood, and painted in bright colours. From this, sprang a strip cartoon for a local paper, but this brought in very little cash, although it aroused a lot of interest in the district's schools.

During the early days of "the wireless", Beaman not only built his own set, but he also conducted classes showing youngsters how to do this, little realising that this new medium would make him everlastingly famous. It was not until 1928, however, that he produced his first book of 6 tales based upon the characters he had created. In the following year, May Jenkin, ("Elizabeth" in 'Children's Hour') discovered this, and dramatised 5 of the stories for radio. These were broadcast on 2LO as follows:

19.7.29 Proud Punch
1.8.29 The Tale of the Magician
16.8.29 The Tale of the Inventor
26.8.29 Captain Brass, the Pirate
11.9.29 The Giles Barn Gang & the Baby Brother

Each play was scheduled to fit into the 5.15 to 6 p.m. slot, although this became 30 minutes after the author's death. "Radio Times" did not list the cast members until September, 1949, but in his book "Over The Airwaves", Trevor Hill notes that, pre-war, the BBC Regions produced their own versions of the plays, with, in the North Region, Doris Gambell playing Larry The Lamb.

As Jenkin said : "………after that, we wrote to the author demanding more……he came to us shyly delighted that his stories had pleased us, and, 3 weeks later, with equal diffidence, he produced a further Toytown adventure……the beginning of an extraordinarily fruitful collaboration between Mr, Hulme Beaman and the talented interpreters of his work; every 3 or 4 weeks, he sent us a new story". Thus, late in 1929, a new series of 'Toytown' plays was announced, specially written for the wireless.

There was a Narrator, but most of the interest centred on the spoken dialogue, with relatively little support from sound effects or music. Incidental music was credited to the Gershom Parkington Quintet, but in the early 1930s, this was replaced by extracts from records of Elgar's "Nursery Suite", until some genius discovered HMV B.8005 - "Parade Of The Tin Soldiers" and "The Policeman's Holiday", performed by "The New Light Symphony Orchestra", which was really an HMV house orchestra. Other continuity music regularly used was Kennedy Russell’s “The Dance of the Icicles” and H. Ashworth Hope’s “The Frolicsome Hare”, both on Parlophone R2004 (1934) played by the Leslie Jeffies Orchestra. These last four items are currently available on the Guild label.

The first play in what became known as "The Cycle of Toytown Plays" was 'How The Wireless Came to Toytown', so as to emphasise what was still a relatively young medium. There were 31 in total, and eventually they came to be performed every few years, albeit in a different order to the first cycle, and with some alterations to the first titles.

Here is a listing of the first-ever complete cycle of "Toytown" plays, preceded by Tx dates (the titles are exactly as billed in "Radio Times"):

29.11.29 How Wireless Came To Toytown
27.12.29 The Sea Voyage
2.1.30 The Enchanted Ark
30.1.30 The Arkville Dragon
18.2.30 Larry The Plumber
12.3.30 Toy Town Treasure
3.4.30 The Great Toy Town Mystery! Who WasGuilty?
1.5.30 The Extraordinary Affair of Ernest ThePoliceman
6.6.30 The Portrait Of The Mayor
14.10.30 The Great Toy-Town War
14.11.30 The Disgraceful Affair At Mrs. Goose's
9.12.30 The Showing Up Of Larry The Lamb
23.12.30The Kidnapping Of Father Christmas
13.1.31 The Babes In The Wood
3.2.31 The Start Of The Treasure Hunt *
19.2.31 In Which Mr. Growser's Worst Fears AreRealised *
3.3.31 The Wreck Of The Toytown Belle, part 1
19.3.31 The Wreck Of The Toytown Belle, part 2
31.3.31 Toy Town Goes West
21.4.31 Mr. Noah's Holiday
12.5.31 Pistols For Two
9.6.31 Dreadful Doings At Ark Street
1.9.31 Disgraceful Doings In Ark Street
22.9.31 Frightfulness At The Theatre Royal
13.10.31 "Golf" (Toytown Rules)
3.11.31 Tea For Two
1.12.31 Mr. Growser Moves
22.12.31 A Toytown Christmas Party
2.2.32 The Brave Deed Of Ernest The Policeman
23.2.32 The Conversion Of Mr. Growser
16.8.32 Dirty Work At The Dog & Whistle

(*Ed. - these two plays became "The Cruise Of The Toytown Belle")

"Toytown" was very popular, and featured regularly in the many 'Request Week' programmes, which ran from 1931 until 1959.

Unless one goes to Caversham, information on the casting of the plays broadcast between 1929 and 1949 is hard to come by. The BBC made no recordings for transmission purposes, as the plays all went out "live", but a 7-minute extract from the second performance of "Larry The Plumber", broadcast on 30 January, 1934, was ordered by the BBC from a commercial studio, and is the oldest surviving Toytown material. It has Derek McCulloch as Larry The Lamb, but someone else narrates. Others named in the catalogue are C.E. Hodges, Ralph Derchan (Ed. -this is a misprint for Ralph de Rohan) Arthur Wynn, Brian Powley, Ewart Scott and Cyril Nash, but no information on who plays what is available from this. However, Wynn is known to have played Ernest The Policeman until the end of December, 1951. In the late 1930s and early 40s, the parts of Captain Higgins and the Magician were played by Freddie Burtwell (1900-1948), a stalwart supporting actor in 48 British films. Burtwell’s ad-libbing when casting a spell as the Magician regularly created barely suppressed hysterics in the rest of the cast.

The earliest complete Toytown play is again "Larry The Plumber", Tx date 12 February, 1947. The announcer (Derek McCulloch) states that Dennis The Dachshund is played by Norman Shelley, Ernest The Policeman by Wynn and Mr. Growser by Ralph de Rohan and that "the narrator was played by Larry The Lamb".

The final version of this particular play was broadcast on 15 October, 1962, and it is this which appeared on the double-cassette set issued in 1988 by BBC Radio Enterprises, and which some of you will have. The other is "The Great Toytown Treasure" (22.10.62).

There were two commercial studio recordings issued on 78 rpm discs - "How Radio Came To Toytown" (Decca F8908-8910), late in 1947, and, a year later, "The Arkville Dragon" (Decca AF9246-9248). Both produced by Hendrik Baker, all performances were from the scripts "straight". I have not come across these at all, and wonder if any Circle members have? In, I believe, late 1948, a cycle of broadcasts was recorded by BBC Transcription Service on 78 rpm discs for export to Commonwealth radio stations, but copies of these do not appear to have survived; however, two plays, "The Great Toytown Mystery" (Tx. 27.10.48) and "The Conversion of Mr., Growser" (Tx. 8.12.48) were acquired from TS and lodged in the BBC's Sound Archives.

As far as I can see, the first full post-war cast list was printed in "Radio Times" on Wednesday 21 September, 1949. By then, the magazine ran to 40 pages (44 for the TV Edition), as opposed to 24 and 28 respectively a year earlier, after relaxation of the paper ration. The play was "Frightfulness At The Theatre Royal".

Punch and Judy played respectively by Wilfred Babbage and Ann Codrington; Larry The Lamb - Derek McCulloch; Dennis The Dachshund - Ernest Jay; Captain Higgins - Norman Shelley; Mr. Growser - Ralph de Rohan; Ernest The Policeman - Arthur Wynn; The Mayor - Felix Felton; Theatre Manager - Ivan Samson.

The final cycle of plays started on Thursday 6 July, 1961 in "Junior Time" - this title had replaced "Children's Hour" as from 8 April, 1961 - and all were produced by Claire Chovil. Derek McCulloch was now in his mid-60s, there was also evidence of an audience switch to TV, and the TV rights were already assigned to a Company called Larry The Lamb Limited. Because it was clear that this would be the last-ever cycle, 10 of the plays were officially archived of the following:

6.7.61 How The Wireless Came To Toytown
3.8.61 The Arkville Dragon
7.9.61 The Disgraceful Business at Mrs. Goose's **
5.10.61 Frightfulness at The Theatre Royal
2.11.61 Golf : Toytown Rules **
7.12.61 Tea For Two
4.1.62 A Christmas Pantomime - The Babes In TheWood
1.2.62 Pistols for Two **
1.3.62 Mr. Noah's Holiday
5.4.62 The Showing Up of Larry The Lamb **
3.5.62 The Enchanted Ark
7.6.62 Mr. Growser Moves
5.7.62 A Portrait of the Mayor **
2.8.62 Dreadful Doings in Ark Street **
6.9.62 The Extraordinary Affair of Ernest ThePoliceman **

All these were broadcast on the first Thursday of each month.

Finally, on Mondays, the last 6 plays were introduced as "a 6-week festival of plays"

1.10.62 The Great Toytown Mystery
8.10.62 The Toytown Treasure
15.10.62 Larry, The Plumber **
22.10.62The Great Toytown War **
29.10.62How The Wireless Came To Toytown
5.11.62 Golf : Toytown Rules
(** Held by the BBC Sound Archive)

Despite the claim in late September that these would be the final broadcasts, further repeats of earlier broadcasts started at the very end of 1962 as follows (on 29 December, the 5p.m. slot had again been renamed "For The Young"):

31.12.62 The Kidnapping of Father Christmas 7.1.63 A Sea Voyage ** 14.1.63 The Conversion of Mr. Growser 21.1.63 The Arkville Dragon 28.1.63 The Disgraceful Affair at Mrs. Goose's 4.2.63 Pistols for Two Finally, weekly on Mondays at 5 p.m., between 18.11.63 and 3.2.64, 12 plays were again repeated, before the curtain fell on what had always been known as "Children's Hour" - incidentally, the final 6 plays in the very long-running 'Norman and Henry Bones' series followed on in this Monday slot, the last of which was broadcast on Monday 16 March, 1964. Here is a sample cast list from "A Sea Voyage", aired on The Home Service on Monday 30.12.63:

Larry the Lamb and the Narrator - DerekMcCulloch Dennis the Dachshund - Preston Lockwood Ernest the Policeman - Peter Claughton The Mayor of Toytown - Felix Felton Mr. Growser - John Glyn-Jones The Magician - Norman Shelley The Inventor - Ivan Samson The following plays appear to be within thecollections of VRPCC membership:

The Toytown Treasure
The Great Toytown War
Mr. Growser Moves
Mr. Noah's Holiday
Larry the Plumber
How The Wireless Came to Toytown
A Portrait of the Mayor
The Enchanted Ark
The Showing-Up of Larry the Lamb
The Conversion of Mr. Growser ***
Tea for Two
The Great Toytown Mystery
The Extraordinary Affair of Ernest the Policeman
Pistols for Two
Golf : Toytown Rules
Dreadful Doings in Ark Street
A Sea Voyage
Babes in the Wood
The Arkville Dragon
The Disgraceful Business at Mrs. Goose's


*** - Note that there are two versions in existence, the earlier Tx. 7.3.51 was broadcast some time ago on BBC7 as part of its 'Children's Hour' retrospective, the later Tx. 14.1.63

Roger Bickerton / Diversity website.

I am also grateful to Roy Wainwright for adding remarks on continuity music and on Freddie Burtwell.

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