Saturday, 22 December 2012


Field Marshall Montgomery will have his own memories, but for me the most significant moment of the war came during the bacchanalia which suffused the population on V.E. Day. Mrs Kitty Williams, the wayward wife of our religious neighbour, had her way with me behind our garden shed. The celebrations which followed our atomising of the Japanese were marked in a similar way with my Sunday school teacher. I began to regret there were not more enemies to defeat.

These momentous days began innocently enough when our parents brought tables and chairs into the street and the children worked their way through mountains of Shippon’s Fish Paste sandwiches, strawberry jam butties,  fairy cakes and vast troughs of jelly on which armadas of cake boats with paper sails sailed tranquilly. In the evenings it was the turn of our parents to celebrate with dances under waxed lanterns and Glenn Miller on the gramophones. It was then that Kitty struck. God Bless Her.

Disappointingly, the army seemed less anxious to secure my services. It was 1947 before they summoned me to their colours - and spent the next two years regretting it. I was designated an O. R 1 (officer material) before they really knew me, and less than a year after achieving that proud moment I was undergoing a humiliating physical search for cigarettes, in a place I would not have dreamed of hiding them, as preparation for 56 days in a military prison.

The trouble started within 48 hours of my enlistment when I was designated to take a party of fellow recruits to Chester, 20 miles away, to be fitted with spectacles at Saighton Camp. We had a jolly journey down and we were laughing and joking when we climbed off the bus, but all soon went silent. What I took to be the Voice of God roared “WHO IS IN CHARGE OF THIS F……SHOWER?”

It wasn’t God. It was a huge sergeant whose polished cap brim had been readjusted to flatten his nose and who shone from badge to boots. I would have preferred God.

In the army sergeants manage to make all their words run into one another: “YOUORRIBLELITTLEMANGETTHEMFELLINANDMARCHINASOLDIERLYMANNER!”
He was not very impressed with my attempts. His own were much more impressive. Shivering with fear, it seemed to take less than a minute to reach the Optical block. I was so shaken that when we returned to the railway station I discovered that I had left the travel warrants back at the camp. With my new found authority I ordered several of my men to go back and bring them. Alas, they had picked up the one word indispensable in the army: “F… If you want the f…….travel warrants, you go and get the f……. things.”

So I did. Unfortunately when I returned to the station they had all gone home and I returned to camp alone, carrying 24 travel warrants.The Orderly Officer was obviously impressed. “ F…..  me,” he invited. “You have lost 26 men? We didn’t  f…....  lose that many on D-Day.”

It soon became obvious that the army and I marched to a different tune. We O.R. Ones were given aptitude tests. The most taxing was to assemble a domestic light fitting. I had a picture of preparing to charge a mythical enemy when my C.O told me: “There are Hun cavalry to the right of you, on the left a battalion of Japanese spinners, and ahead a squadron of Prussian artillery. God knows what you can do." “Leave it to me,sir,” I reply. “I will assemble a domestic light fitting.”

What with the prison sentence,  three courts martial  and various little escapades, it was nearly two years before I joined my regiment. The commanding officer carried a Cromach, a long walking stick with a hook on the end, of the kind shepherds used. Try as I might I could not think of any way you could win a war with a flock of sheep, hurling domestic light fittings at a baffled enemy.


At last an addition to the sadly small list of competent BBC interviewers.

Olivia O’Leary is unobtrusive, thoughtful in her choice of questions. Her voice has warmth which envelops both  the audience and the interviewee. Her questions are brief and always to the point and she manages to sound as though she wants to know what the answer will be and is not just waiting for a slice of silence which she cannot wait to gobble up. And she NEVER says “what you are saying is this…” All things considered, I am amazed she got the job.

Many interviews remind me of the time my bookmaker Willy Birchall rang an optical firm for a progress report on the binoculars he had sent for repair. He announced himself “Willy Birchall from Chester” and the girl on the other end said: “Is that a suburb of Manchester?” Proud Cestrian that he was, Willy asked her through gritted teeth if he could speak to a man and he told him: “I have just been talking to your beautiful receptionist.” “How do you know she is beautiful?” the man asked. “There is no other way she could have got the job,” said Willy.


The most innovative TV producer I met in thirty years as a broadcaster was called Jess Yates. He devised shows that attracted multi-million viewers like “Come Dancing” and launched “Miss World",  but "Stars on Sunday", the ITV show he wrote, produced and presented, was his major contribution to TV. It was watched in its two-year run by 3,500 million viewers. It was the ultimate “God spot” and inspired a series of imitations, among them Harry Secombe’s “Highway” and “Songs of Praise”. It is the only religious programme that had more viewers than “Top of the Pops” and it received fan mail of 2,000 letters a week. 

The Pope agreed to appear on the programme and gave it his blessing. ITV boasted in its glossy brochure:
“Stars On Sunday has succeeded in fulfilling its aims. And more! Today, it attracts a regular viewing audience of 15,000,000, which on occasions has reached 17,000,000, and it never falls far short of the 10,000,000 mark, even in the summer months. In January 1972, when it completed its centenary programme, it celebrated the event by becoming the first ever religious programme to enter the television viewing charts. And during its first year in 1969, over 250,000 requests were received. That figure has well and truly exceeded the 500,000 mark today.

“But probably the strongest testimonial for Stars On Sunday is the list of stars and distinguished people who have appeared on the programme. It includes the Archbishops of York and Canterbury, the Earl Mountbatten of Burma, Sir John Gielgud, Sir Ralph Richardson, Dame Anna Neagle, Raymond Burr, James Mason, Raymond Massey, Gerald Harper and Bill Simpson - who have all been featured regularly reading extracts from the Bible. Miss Gracie Fields, Miss Violet Carson, Anita Harris, Moira Anderson, Eartha Kitt, Shirley Bassey, Nina, the Beverley Sisters, Sandie Shaw, Harry Secombe, Cliff Richard, Lovelace Watkins, Norman Wisdom, Roy Orbison, Bobby Bennett, Howard Keel and the Poole Family, are just a few of the star names who have graced the programme and added their own interpretations to many well-loved songs.

“Yorkshire Television’s Stars On Sunday has now carved a unique place for itself in television history.”

The show's line-up of stars and the way they returned week after week was impressive. Even more
 impressive was the fact that none of them was paid more than £40, the union minimum for a day’s work of several recordings. No show cost more than £1,000 to produce. The elaborate sets - a palace, a ruined abbey and a country house library - were all borrowed.

Yates’s secret was that he had noted the way tape inserts were used in news bulletins. For “Stars” he taped eight songs or religious readings by every star that appeared, using songs from their repertoire which did not need rehearsal. Then he scattered the tapes through a season of programmes.

Perversely, the Independent Television Authority and its successor the Independent Broadcasting Authority, the controlling bodies of commercial TV, hated the show and loathed its presenter. Although it had no right under the Television Act to interfere with the content of shows, it re-wrote his scripts and finally used a savage newspaper campaign, based on half truths and inspired by a fading TV star Hughie Green, to wreck the show and destroy Yates. 

The News of the World missed a bigger story. Green had an affair with Yates’s wife a year after they were married and fathered her daughter Paula Yates, the wild child who married Bob Geldorf. In a torrent of spite from beyond the grave he boasted of cuckolding his one time friend. Think of him when you watch the rubbish the TV companies rehash over Christmas.

Good Heavens, is it that time already? I am off to watch "It’s a Wonderful Life" and "A Christmas Carol". Such a pity "Henry V" (the Olivier one) is worn out. I watched that film so often I qualified for the Agincourt Cross and was mentioned in despatches for climbing the Town Walls at Harfleur.

Do your best to enjoy Christmas, despite the fact that the next time we meet it will be Year 13. Those Mayans. They never got anything right.