Stephen Williams and Radio Luxembourg
Roger Bickerton

In May, 1940, Stephen Williams suggested that ENSA should include regular factory broadcasts in the schedules. At first, BBC officials were reluctant to entrust the idea solely to ENSA, but the Minister of Labour, Ernest Bevin had decided that he would like to open a live programme from a dangerous position.

I consulted some of our service people and they said that that at this moment, with all the bombing going on, you'd be hard put to find a more dangerous situation than in the high explosives area within Woolwich Arsenal ..... that's where we launched the 'Break for Music' programme.

... I said to the Manager of the place 'where are we going to put the Minister?' ........

.... this chap and I rigged up 2 heavy tables and a couple of beer crates as steps up.........

When the time came for the Minister to talk, we helped him up on to these 2 tables, and he was a very heavy man, this Bevin.

You know that when people speak in public, they shift from one foot to another - well, every time he did so, one table or the other groaned and we were getting complaints through our control line.

The line people were saying 'there's some very funny noises coming from you Minister of Labour down there'. They'd got people asking if he was suffering from wind!

Stephen also generated the ideas for "By Way of Music": revivals of old tunes popular between the Wars and "ENSA at Home", where members of the Broadcasting Council played host to theatrical friends.

When Basil Dean was faced with the problem of entertaining widespread army units and ships at sea, he didn't know what to do, so he got hold of me and I reminded him that Radio Luxembourg had often transmitted their programmes on records .....I hot-footed it over to HMV to put the project to them .... they had an ulterior motive which we didn't understand at that time, as they knew that if they had extra supplies of vinyl for this project, they could probably also manufacture a larger number of their ordinary records ..... this helped keep them in business during the War.

I got an arrangement with the Musicians' Union, Equity, the Variety Artists' Federation and the Concert Artists' Association under which we could record, without payment of Royalties, any broadcasts that went out from the BBC, exclusively for re-playing to Forces serving in theatres of war or to ships at sea .... this developed into an enormous business ..... we were turning out I don't know how many hundreds of records each week from the BBC, down the Land Line, to Abbey Road".

"There are thousands of these records dotted about all over the world. Still they turn up, now and again. The BBC has tried to get them back because they were contraband in a way, as no Royalties were paid and there was an agreement that after the War, they would be destroyed, but anyone who destroys about 2 million gramophone records is barmy.

As can be imagined, working conditions could be most dangerous ..... another time, there were 6 musicians sleeping in one of the underground studios. It had been selected because it had 6 floors of buildings above it and that was considered secure.

About 4 a.m., there was a loud bang and there, in the middle of the floor, was standing a bomb, so high, with its nose buried in the ground, so naturally, everybody belted to the door.

We'd got as far as the stage (it was a theatre) and the bomb blew up ... .its force was sufficient to bend the safety curtain which is solid steel - bend it up like a folded handkerchief".

In 1942 Stephen was involved in a car accident on his way to an ENSA concert, suffering a triple fracture of one leg. He was on sticks for nearly 12 months, but did his programmes from his hospital bed for a time.

The pressures of producing 12 programmes week in, week out, were intense, but it was clearly a labour of love.

There was "Broadway Calling", "ENSA Half-Hour", "London Carries On", "Brighten the Break", "Works Wonders", "Break for Music", "Midday Music Hall", among others.

Along with his ENSA activities, Stephen joined Cecil Madden's wartime BBC Overseas Entertainment Unit, based at the Criterion Theatre in London, producing many of that unit's programmes directed to places all over the world - "It's All Yours" and a famous Madden-Williams creation, "Variety Bandbox", Madden editing, Williams directing.

This was broadcast weekly from the Queensbury All-Services Club to a vast audience.

George Mitchell, who was working in the Pay Corps in Ruislip, wrote to Stephen asking if there was any chance of getting on to "Variety Bandbox".

..... they'd put together this swing choir consisting of 8 people and he was its leader.. ... they did me an audition at the Queensbury in front of about 4,000 uniformed troops, it went down exceedingly well, so I squeezed up the programme, which was due to go out that evening, and slotted them in for 4 minutes ..... they made a hit and it became George Mitchell's Swing Choir for a long time, then he started expanding and ultimately the Black and White Minstrels arrived.

On another occasion, I had Billy Reed & His Accordion Band and he said to me just before the interval 'I've got a girl singer who I think is rather good. She hasn't been auditioned for broadcasting, can you do anything about it?'

Well, we could, because as programme Directors, we could audition anybody you wanted to, so I did. We put her on in front of the audience and she had the soldiers biting their finger­nails with her interpretation of "Some Of These Days".

And so she went on to become the number one singer of the Forces Network - Dorothy Squires".

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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