Stephen Williams and Radio Luxembourg
Roger Bickerton

I got into broadcasting through being a good Boy Scout.....I used to read the lesson in Church. There was a very old Parson, aged 87, who wasn't very well one weekend, so the churchwarden rang up and said would I help by reading the lessons in the Church service (which laymen could read), and I said 'yes' - I was 15 or 16 at the time. Anyway, I did, and I lost my place - there was a slight pause - I found it again very quickly but it gave me a hell of a shock. However, I got away with it and it all went smoothly. At the end of the service, the Verger came along and said 'there's a lady who would like to speak to you'.

I went down and found a very dignified lady - large in proportions - who introduced herself as Miss Katherine Compton. She had been a famous West End actress (one of the last to be announced on her hand bills as "leading part by Miss Compton", not quoting a Christian name, that was the fashion then) and had married a playwright named RC. Carton. She said to me 'I felt so sorry for you this morning, but I think you did it very well and I think you have possibilities in that voice. If you'd like to come and have tea with me, I think I could give you a few hints about projecting your voice'. So I said I'd love to and it was duly fixed that I would go round whenever I could (in the holidays etc.) and, over the next 2 years she gave me a lot of useful tips.

She then introduced me to the then "Zoo Man" at the BBC - he did a kind of Johnny Morris act and his name was Leslie G. Mainland. He was known as "LGM" of the 'Daily Mail', a news editor. He heard me, and got me an audition by the BBC during a White City outside broadcast (I was then about 17 or 18). I passed, but they couldn't give me anything then, and got a bit tired of waiting, but it was he that said to me 'would you like a bit of experience : if you'd like to spend about 2 months of your school holidays on a yacht around the coast of Britain, I can give you the job of running the show'.

This was the steam yacht "Ceto", which the Daily Mail had chartered in early 1928. The paper had, in May, 1920, included two columns of news 'collected by wireless telephone' and had printed several enthusiastic reports about a 'Voyage of Wireless Discovery' which Marconi was planning in his yacht "Electra".

Although Lord Northcliffe, the paper's proprietor, was suspicious of these first wireless experiments, he suggested that a special 'Daily Mail' broadcast should be planned and on 15th. June, 1920, Dame Nellie Melba broadcast from Chelmsford. The transmission was heard all over Europe and as far away as Newfoundland and the event captured the imagination of the general public; it was a turning point in the history of broadcasting. The Mail's initiative stemmed from its conviction of the importance of radio as a news and promotion medium.

Stephen Williams was to be the announcer on board "Ceto", and would be in charge of all its programmes.

"The idea (familiar enough 30 years later when the Radios Caroline and London came along) was to broadcast at sea from just outside the 3-mi!e limit and advertise the 'Daily Mail', the 'Evening News' and the 'Sunday Dispatch'. With a small transmitter on board, we set off from Dundee for trials. All seemed to go well until we met a bit of a sea; even a very modest sea was enough to vary the distance between our aerial and the water, which caused our signals to fade severely. Finally, we had to abandon the idea of transmitting, and the German firm of Siemens-Halske came to our rescue with 4 super loudspeakers, each weighing 6'l2 hundredweight (330 kg.). These were capable of being heard clearly for more than 2 miles on a moderately fine day, and were mounted on the yacht's superstructure.

The yacht cruised round the East, West and South coasts of Britain in the summer of 1928, blasting out gramophone records, plugging the desirability of the 3 sponsoring newspapers and 'selling' the Mail's Free Insurance Scheme. As the "Independent's" obituary put it : "at one stroke, Williams had introduced off-shore commercial radio and the ghetto-blaster". To which, I suppose, one could add "the mobile disco".

The idea of a sponsoring yacht had come from Valentine Smith, who had been the Daily Mail's Circulation and Publicity Director. Smith had subsequently moved to the 'Sunday Referee', which was principally a family and sports paper (owned by Isidore Ostrer of the Gaumont British Picture Corporation), and decided to involve the paper in broadcasting. Stephen Williams joined the 'Daily Chronicle' in 1929 and when it was merged with the 'Daily News' in 1930, he joined the Referee as its broadcasting correspondent at Smith's invitation. His brief was to look into the possibilities of closer collaboration between the press and radio, to their mutual advantage.

previous page / 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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