An Interview with Charles Chilton

Roger Howe

He is 92 now, but the rich robust Cockney voice is strong as ever. The proud, expressive voice of a man who has breathed the atmosphere of London, indoor and outdoor, upstairs and down. Palace and street-seller.

The street in West Hampstead where he lives with his wife Penny is very leafy and pleasant despite being only ten minutes' walk from the Underground.


Charles Chilton has been a legend as producer and presenter on BBC radio. A career that reaches far beyond Journey into Space. His was a reluctant retirement: "Oh, yes. Yeah. Had I been allowed I'd still be there. No - sixty, you were out, but I used to go back quite often and do series, which was much nicer because, you know, I got paid, because you know before I didn't get paid. Trouble was somebody else had to produce them, which irked me a bit. But then you couldn't have everything, could you?"

You cannot quite hear Bow Bells from his birthplace in Sandwich Street in Euston. “No, you can’t, no. But, a good enough Londoner.”

He never knew his father, killed in the First World War. “My grandmother seemed to think he was some kind of saint - ‘cos he was her son.”

“I think he was a normal London boy - I mean he was only 18 when he died, so he didn’t really have much chance to prove himself anyway.”

He describes his background as: “Very Cockney. Not very well off. Working class. My family were builders and decorators. I thought I was going to be too, but fate determined otherwise - thank goodness!”

His first job upon leaving school at 14 was as a sheet metal worker in the Grays Inn Road. “I made electric signs. The biggest sign I ever made was for a restaurant called the Thistle. And I made this sign in the shape of a thistle and it used to flash on and off at night - caused quite a stir - and it was one of the sights of the Haymarket until Hitler hit it with a bomb - and that was the end of it.”

A school friend, Ronnie Reed (“very very clever”) became a radio engineer, “and between the two of us - he made the radio sets and I used to take them around the street and I’d hear him from his house say, ‘Can you hear me, Charlie?’ and I’d say, ‘Yes, I can hear you, Ron!’ but unfortunately every radio that was on within a mile of us could hear us as well - which meant the police clamped down on that.”

This interest led Charles Chilton to join the BBC as a messenger boy in the early Thirties. “I was very impressed with it. Broadcasting House was only a year old when I joined it. And I so enjoyed being there, to me it was like being in heaven. And then I told the BBC I wanted to ‘get on’, you know. So I said, ‘I want to go to evening school, what should I study?’ They said, ‘Well, study what you like but we’ll pay for it.’"

This was the era of the indomitable John Reith, first Director-General of the BBC. The youthful Charles Chilton had an early encounter with the head man in a lift at Broadcasting House.

"And this great tall man got in, stopped at the third floor where I was going to get out as well. Chap who was with me grabbed my coat so I wouldn't get out before the DG did. I didn't really know, I'd only just started work there."

Penny: "This boy pulled you back and the DG strode out, everybody bowing and scraping."

“I saw him pretty well every day, ‘cos I used to go into his office - I was in the Publishing Department - and one of my jobs was to take the publications of the BBC, the Radio Times, the World Radio, The Listener, all the schools brochures and things like that, to important people in the BBC as soon as they were out - and of course the most important one was Reith and he was the first to get them.

“So, I often went into his office and dropped the stuff onto a table he had there. His desk was up on a high dais and he was up there and it was like looking up to God. And there he was, his big frowning face - ‘All right, boy, put it over there!’ ‘Right, sir!’ - and out again."

Jazz was a youthful passion. Charles Chilton had worked in the Gramophone Library, so he could play all the jazz records that the BBC had. "I liked it, I learned to play the guitar, I formed a group with other boys in the BBC known as the BBC Boys’ Band and we broadcast one night on In Town Tonight. No, I had a genuine love for it and I read up all the history and so forth and I became quite expert on the history of jazz and therefore I was able to create programmes along that line.”

Alistair Cooke was another jazz fan. "[He] came over from America the reason being, of course Alistair Cooke was born in Blackpool, but before he could become an American citizen in those days you had to leave the country for six months and so he came back to England and got hold of a lot of records from Alan Lomax who collected folk songs in the field and persuaded the BBC that he could do this series, of a history of America through its folk music [I Hear America Singing] and I was lucky enough to be the one to produce it - and so I learned a lot about it.

“And Cooke, when he went back to America, left me all his books and records, so I could study the thing myself. Yes, I knew Cooke up until the time he died.”

Chilton went on the air, presenting jazz programmes. "I was working for the BBC Variety Department, that’s the light entertainment, and I was doing very well with this late night show of jazz records, so much so that I was getting big write-ups in the papers and John Watt who was the head of the Department had never heard this programme, but he kept reading about it and he thought he’d better listen and he heard me and the next morning he sent for me so I thought, ‘Oh, good, I’m going to get promotion or a rise in salary', but all I got as soon as I saw him was a stern look and he said, ‘You will never broadcast again!’

“And I said, ‘Why not?’ He said, ‘We can’t have Cockney voices over the BBC!’ So I said, ‘Why not?’ ‘Well, it’s not right. We want good accents, pure accents.’ So I said, ‘Well my accent’s the accent of the heart of the British Empire, isn’t that good enough for anyone?’ But he didn’t think it was and so I was taken off the air."

The moment the war came the new Director-General, Ogilvie, went to France to see what the soldiers liked to listen to and found one of the things they liked to listen to was a voice like Charles Chilton's so he was back on the air again for a short while before going into the Forces.

Alistair Cooke had told Chilton he ought to leave Britain because a "terrible war" was coming and Chilton was to see the results at first hand during the Blitz in October 1940. "I remember being on the roof of Broadcasting House putting out the fire bombs that hit it - buckets of sand, trying to damp the fire out. That was before I went into the Forces. As a matter of fact I was glad to get into the Forces and out of the war!

"One night while we were up there we heard an express train coming, felt the building shake and a bomb had come into B.H. through the windows, through an office door into the tower - that's the very centre of Broadcasting House and come to a stop in the Music Library.

"So we went down to the 5th Floor first where the bomb was and there it was lying with its tail all bent and the chap in charge said, 'Look, you go round, go on every floor, tell everybody to get down to the basement, while me, Joe and 'Arry - we'll drag this bomb to the end of the building, so that if it goes off it does least damage.'

"So while we were clearing people from the floors below, they were dragging it along, the bloody thing went off. All seven of them died. I suppose for me it was a miraculous escape. I might have been dragging the bloody bomb. In fact the fireman said 'I'll get the rope, you tell people to get to the basement.' And that fireman - they never found any of him, he must've been blown to pieces.

"They were supposed to be the bomb disposal people. I mean, what can you do if you've got a ten-foot long bomb - suddenly appears on the floor where you're standing - and you know it's going to go off any moment. It was terrible, all those girls who were killed, 'cos the tower caved in on them. They were mostly killed from being crushed or suffocated. Something to tell your grandchildren! It was awful, terrible."

He left the Gramophone Department in Evesham in order to join the RAF. "It was just a great big house, wasn’t it? They built Army huts and housed the Gramophone Library there. We were only Variety, you see - if you wanted Music you had to go to Bedford - all the classical records went to Bedford and light music went down to Bristol.

“I flew for 3½ years. I was supposed to go to bombers, but having passed out they made me an instructor, so most of the time I was instructing other people to go in bombers. I was flying all that time. I was a flying radio instructor. When I was a flying operator I taught people communications between other planes and ground. In other words I taught air crew - radio operators.

“Then I was grounded ‘cos I started to get the bends - what divers get when they come up for air - and so I was told I couldn’t fly for six months, so they sent me down to the Air Ministry to start compiling radio programmes for troops abroad and then they sent me out to run a radio station in what is now Sri Lanka, in those days called Ceylon.

"David Jacobs I knew before I went to Ceylon because once a month I used to come down from Cranwell for a weekend and I'd work on compiling radio programmes for the Forces overseas."

Penny was Charles Chilton's secretary for a while. Her first job was as a shorthand typist at the BBC in the Gramophone Department. While he was in the Air Force she worked in the Italian Section based at Bush House. "She speaks Italian. She's not Italian, she's English. She happened to have gone to school in Italy. You did some broadcasting - 'cos I heard you."

"After the war I went back to the BBC. I wrote a very successful Western serial [Riders of the Range] and after that had been running for about five years Marcus Morris started the children's paper The Eagle and he suddenly got a good idea if I actually if went to where the cowboys were and got experience of it, so he sent me off to America.

"I went to Tombstone in Arizona. Tombstone had invited me to be guest of honour at their Helldorado, I don't know why, they must have heard my programma somehow. And Marcus Morris said, 'Yeah, you go and I'll pay for it' - so he paid for it. Meanwhile I sent dispatches back to the paper for the kids, saying what it was like and photographs of Indians I was with and things like that. Very nice! Kids liked it."

Did he dress as a cowboy? "Oh, yeah! I did everything, I had a horse, I rode. They gave me a whole complete outfit, yeah, silver spurs." He chuckles. Sharpshooting? "Well, I didn't do any, but I had the holsters, I could have had the guns but I chose not to have them." Old timers? "Quite a number... oh there were, yeah. Mrs. Macia, a charming old lady I met in Tombstone, had crossed the prairie as a little girl. Her father had stopped off at Tombstone and decided that was where he would live and she was still living there."

Charles Chilton acted as a producer for The Goon Show. Not all the scripts were the work of Spike Milligan. "90% of them were his and the rest were by another chap whose name I forget. Well Milligan started up this scriptwriters' agency and so people used to send stuff in - the good ones - when he was running out of ideas he'd drag them in to help him write The Goons."

Regarding Journey into Space he recalls, "Space was in the air and lots of people sent in scripts for a space series and the BBC turned 'em all down and then one day Michael Standing sent for me and said 'I'd like you to write a space series.' So I said, 'Space? I don't know anything about space.' He said, 'But you write a serial every week.' I said, 'That's cowboys.' He said, 'Anybody that's able to write cowboys must be able to write space.'

"So I said, 'Well, all right, I'll have a go.' So I joined the British Astronomical Society. I studied the sky for a bit and after about six months I started this new thing called Journey into Space which was a much bigger hit than the Western."

"I started writing musical documentaries. I wrote 170 programmes like that. [to Penny's interjection of this figure] She did most of the research. We used to go to the British Museum, look up things. She did all the backroom work and I got all the glory."

He met some of the great figures associated with the BBC while others were more elusive. A lot depended on where you worked.

Richard Dimbleby: "He was in the same department as I was for some time. He was in what was called Recorded Programmes, which was attached to but didn't operate like the record programmes. Recorded Programmes were the programmes the BBC recorded themselves, the record programmes were programmes made out of commercial records.

"Well, I started out with the commercial records. I never did work in Recorded Programmes, did I?" "No." "No. And then when I went back after the war I didn't go back to records at all, I went back to [the] Variety Department and became a producer in Light Entertainment."

"I never met George Orwell. I would've liked to have done. Did he write The Road to Wigan Pier?"

Penny's department in Bush House during the war was "rather isolated" from the many notables coming and going, broadcasting to the rest of the world.

Charles: "Well, originally it was called the Empire Service. I remember when it was instigated. It was decided that we should broadcast to the British Empire and they opened special transmitters at Daventry and from that the World Service developed. There were lots of studios in Bush House that commercial companies used as well. During the war they were all over the place."

Then there was the composer Michael Tippet: "He lectured for an hour and a half and he said, 'Any questions?' and the chap got up next to me and put his hand up - 'Yes'. He said, 'What the hell have you been talking about?'

"And Tippet said, 'Oh, I appreciate that, lots of people ask me that!'"

Penny: "Because you found some song for Tippet in the States, didn't you?"


"He was doing one of his things about - had American folk songs in it."

"Oh yes, he wrote to me, didn't he? I gave him some material, yes."

After his official retirement from the BBC Charles Chilton became involved in London Walks. "It was our daughter's husband who started them. Then I gave them up and did what I called 'Armchair Walks'. I did lectures on London here with illustrations on lantern slides and recorded songs." He used to conduct the walks with long socks pulled up over his trousers.

Charles Chilton used to lead the Hampstead Walk.

Favourite places in London: "No. London - I like London. I am a Londoner, I like being in London. I like to walk around London. Probably the area where I was born, I like to walk through there occasionally, see how it's changing - it never seems to change. A lot of it was bombed of course."

Eras? "Well, I think Victorian London's the most interesting and Edwardian - and of course my own period - early Georgian! Not this Georgian, the previous Georgian. No, I mean London's a fascinating place, it's got a wonderful history."

His son David now runs a production company, Essential Music.

Journey into Space has continued in recent radio adventures such as Frozen in Time: "That was his idea. My son's idea."

The Queen Mother presented his MBE at Buckingham Palace. She seemed aware of his work. "I expect somebody informed her what to say, because standing by her as we went up I could hear somebody mumbling, 'This is Joe Smokes the miner,' and she'd say, 'Hello, how's the mine?' - you know. 'This is Charles Chilton of the BBC.' 'Oh, we always listen to the BBC!' A bit like that really."

Charles Chilton's tapes went to the British Library and should finally be available to the public in autumn 2009.

Another milestone was Oh, What A Lovely War!

"I did the original show - on the radio - it was called The Long Long Trail. Then with Joan Littlewood we did the stage show. Then Richard Attenborough made a film of it - made a terrible mess of it. He didn't stick to what we did, he tried to make a musical out of it, he tried to create a character - hero - we never had heroes. The only hero we had was the war. But it served us well, didn't it? Lovely War? "

"Oh, yes!"

"It still goes on after sixty years."

"It's a very good show for amateur dramatic [societies] they can do more or less what they like, I mean there really isn't a script. Hardly at all."

Charles: "No. Hardly at all." I asked about influences. "Never seen any Brechtian theatre! That was all Joan Littlewood. All that hi-falutin' stuff!

"The first night we went on there was no script, so what we did, the second night we recorded the show on the stage and made the script out of that. Quite an experience, wasn't it? Didn't get any sleep, but quite an experience."

Penny: "She was a very dynamic sort of person, quite irresponsible in a way."

Charles: "The day we moved in here we had crates of furniture and crockery everywhere and there was a knock on the door and - 'Who the hell's that?' - opened the door, it was Joan Littlewood: 'Oh, here you are! How's your new house?' I don't know what she wanted that day."

"Well, I do, after Gerry (Raffles, her partner) had died -"

"Oh yes, that's right."

"And Gerry's finances were always very suspect."

"Terrible mess."

"And he'd made no will and she was desperate for money she should be getting from the show, because Gerry used to do all that and she said, 'Well, could you tell me how much you got last week in your royalties and then I can find out how much I should have got'."

Charles Chilton wrote a book called Victorian Street Songs.

Penny: "And we keep on getting royalties from Japan from this thing."

Charles: "Don't know why."

Had the Corporation's political neutrality ever been a problem?

"No, no. Occasionally the BBC got a bit worried 'cos I was a bit left-wing, but I mean the BBC is accused of being left-wing anyway. No, they left me to my own devices, left it to me to judge."

"The only thing you got was from the brewers, wasn't it?"

"Oh, yes! I did a programme called Demon Drink, showing how the Victorians nearly drank themselves to death. And this programme went out, was a great success and the brewers objected!"

"He'd said it was all their fault practically and the Director-General wrote you a letter to say, 'What's all this about?' didn't he? And you looked at it all and all the things that we quoted were in the British Library - British Museum, whatever they call it, but it was all as we'd said in the programme, luckily and the brewers hadn't a leg to stand on."

Charles: "Hadn't a leg to stand on, because they did deliberately do things that made the poor drink. I mean the Salvation Army used to sing outside pubs, hoping to stop people drinking and the brewers created something that was rather like the Salvation Army, a mock copy of it, which persuaded people to drink. And we put this in the programme and the brewers were furious."

Is he still in contact with the BBC? "Oh, yeah. You never lose contact with the BBC, once you're on the staff, you're on the staff for life, you're called 'retired staff'."

Penny: "Before living here we lived in Keston in Kent where we brought our family up then we moved here because it became too big for us - big garden. And we wanted to be in London because most of the things we did were in London."

Charles: "I mean we had this huge house, it was wonderful when the family was growing up, but when they've all gone what do two of you do with a huge house and an acre of land? It's too much!"

Two sons and a daughter. "They're all in some kind of show business." Ten grandchildren, ranging from 25 to three in age, but no great-grandchildren yet.

Penny: "Well, that's another reason why it's so good to be in London, 'cos they all live in London. We see quite a lot of them."

Sometimes Essential uses the house for recordings. "They want different acoustics. They came and did The Picture of Dorian Gray 'cos they wanted a house with creaking stairs and attics and things, all of which we have, you know, for background."

Charles: "If you stop and listen - there's not a sound. No traffic. We're a perfect radio studio."

© Picture and text Roger Howe 2009; used by permission

ND / Diversity website

Charles Chilton's autobiography "Auntie's Charlie" is now available through Amazon.

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