Apr 192018

Today is the birthday (1900) of Richard Arthur Warren Hughes OBE, a British poet, short story writer, novelist and playwright. He is best known for his novel A High Wind in Jamaica (1929), but, in the middle of talking about his life and work in general, I want to focus on the fact that he wrote what is generally considered to be the first strictly written for radio drama, A Comedy of Danger (1924), and muse on what subsequently grew out of this small beginning.

Hughes was born in Weybridge in Surrey. His father was Arthur Hughes, a civil servant, and his mother was Louisa Grace Warren, who had been brought up in the West Indies in Jamaica. He was educated first at Charterhouse School and then at Oriel College, Oxford. A Charterhouse schoolmaster had sent Hughes’s first published work to  The Spectator in 1917. The article, written as a school essay, was an unfavourable criticism of The Loom of Youth, by Alec Waugh, a recently published novel which caused an outcry because of its account of homosexual passions between British schoolboys in a public school. At Oxford he met Robert Graves, also an Old Carthusian, and they co-edited a poetry publication, Oxford Poetry, in 1921. Hughes’s short play The Sisters’ Tragedy was staged in the West End of London at the Royal Court Theatre in 1922.

In 1923 Hughes was commissioned by Nigel Playfair of the BBC to write a play strictly for radio, and he produced A Comedy of Danger, broadcast on 15th January 1924. This is usually considered to be the first radio drama in the strict sense of a play produced solely for broadcast on the radio, but a little context is necessary.  Danger was certainly not the first play, or dramatic production, broadcast via radio, but it has a legitimate claim to being the first play written exclusively for radio.

The BBC broadcast Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream on 2LO on 25th July 1923, which predates Danger, of course, but is not, in any sense, a radio drama. Listings in The New York Times and other sources for May 1923 indicate that at least 20 dramatic offerings were scheduled (including one-acts, excerpts from longer dramas, complete three- and four-act plays, operettas and a Molière adaptation), either as in-studio productions or by remote broadcast from local theaters and opera houses. Remember, these were the very early days of public broadcasting, and it took a bit of experimenting to find out what the medium was good at. Commissioning a solely-for-radio drama was a new departure from adapting stage plays for radio, or featuring dramatic components in variety shows.

Bear in mind that this was the era of silent movies, so film drama and radio drama were really two halves of a whole. Movies gave audiences all of the visuals with no sound, and radio was all sound and no visuals. Radio drama could incorporate sound effects and music to heighten the sense of realism, and to fill in for the lack of images, but there was great reliance on well-written dialog. A Comedy of Danger is, rather cleverly, set in a Welsh coal mine in the dark. Thus, what the audience experiences is the same as what the players are experiencing (sound without sight). Not an idea that could hold up for too long, but good for the first effort.

The plot of Danger is simple. Three people – a young couple, Mary and Jack, and old Mr Bax – are trapped in the dark in a mine after an accident. At first, Mary is highly excitable, and Jack provides the calm voice of reason. Then they set about discussing life and death. Both Jack and Mary, while realizing that they have their whole lives ahead of them, contemplate death as a great adventure. Bax, on the other hand, though he has had a great many experiences, does not relish the prospect of death. After an explosion, water suddenly comes into the mine, and the three become restless. From a distance you can hear the rescue squads singing, but nobody knows if they will reach the group in time. In the end, the rescuers make it and save Mary and Jack, while the old Mr. Bax does not survive.

The original broadcast was not taped, but it was recreated 30 years later. Unfortunately, even the recreation has been taken down from YouTube since I originally posted. The script survives here https://emruf.webs.com/british/danger.htm  A short clip can be found here https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p014zwl5

One of the earliest and most influential French radio plays was the prize-winning “Marémoto” (“Seaquake”), by Gabriel Germinet and Pierre Cusy, which presents a realistic account of a sinking ship before revealing that the characters are actually actors rehearsing for a broadcast. Translated and broadcast in Germany and England by 1925, the play was originally scheduled by Radio-Paris to air on October 23rd 1924, but was instead banned from French radio until 1937 because the government feared that the dramatic SOS messages would be mistaken for genuine distress signals. This reminds us of War of the Worlds with Orson Welles, which I covered here: https://www.bookofdaystales.com/war-worlds/

Some radio plays are now legendary, even though many are eminently forgettable. Perhaps most famous is Under Milk Wood, by Dylan Thomas. Although it has been adapted for stage, it works best as a radio drama because it primarily consists in the inner thoughts of the characters stitched together by a narrator. For my money, the best radio drama of all time is Douglas Adams’ Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, which I used to own on cassette and play (repeatedly) on long car trips. Attempts at filming the drama fail miserably for me. The combination of superb writing and great voice characterization (plus sound effects), make attempts at turning the drama into a movie a non-starter for me. I don’t want to see some movie producer’s idea of what Marvin, the paranoid android, or Zaphod Beeblebrox look like. Their voices are enough for me.

Radio drama has had an illustrious history which I have noted in posts on Tony Hancock, The Goon Show, and many others. It is one of my great delights whenever I get the chance to hear rebroadcasts, or when I am driving in the UK. Sadly in the US, radio drama is all but dead, replaced by myriad music stations and call-in shows. Not the main reason I no longer live there, but a contributing factor.

Hughes was employed as a journalist and traveled widely before he married Frances Bazley in 1932. They settled for a period in Norfolk and then in 1934 at Castle House, Laugharne in south Wales. Dylan Thomas stayed with Hughes and wrote his book Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog whilst living at Castle House. Hughes was instrumental in Thomas relocating permanently to the area.

Hughes wrote only four novels, the most famous of which is The Innocent Voyage (1929), or A High Wind in Jamaica, as he renamed it soon after its initial publication. Set in the 19th century, it explores the events which follow the accidental capture of a group of English children by pirates. The children are revealed as considerably less moral than the pirates (it was in this novel that Hughes first described the cocktail Hangman’s Blood). In 1938, he wrote an allegorical novel, In Hazard, based on the true story of the S.S. Phemius that was caught in the 1932 Cuba hurricane for 4 days during its maximum intensity. He also wrote volumes of children’s stories, including The Spider’s Palace.

During World War II, Hughes had a desk job in the Admiralty. He met the architects Jane Drew and Maxwell Fry, and Jane’s and Max’s children stayed with the Hughes family for much of that time. After the war, Hughes spent ten years writing scripts for Ealing Studios, and published no more novels until 1961. Of the trilogy The Human Predicament, only the first two volumes, The Fox in the Attic (1961) and The Wooden Shepherdess (1973), were complete when he died. Twelve chapters, less than 50 pages, of the final volume are now published. In these he describes the course of European history from the 1920s through World War II, including real characters and events—such as Hitler’s escape after the abortive Munich putsch—as well as fictional.

Later in life Hughes relocated to Ynys in Gwynedd. He was churchwarden of Llanfihangel-y-traethau, the village church, where he was buried when he died at home in 1976.

For a recipe you can listen in to the BBC on your radio (if you have one and live in the UK) or on the internet at www.bbc.co.uk Normally I do not post drink recipes but Hangman’s Blood from A High Wind in Jamaica is maybe worth a tip of the hat.

According to Hughes:

Hangman’s blood… is compounded of rum, gin, brandy, and porter… Innocent (merely beery) as it looks, refreshing as it tastes, it has the property of increasing rather than allaying thirst, and so once it has made a breach, soon demolishes the whole fort.

In the 1960s Anthony Burgess (Clockwork Orange) described its preparation as follows:

Into a pint glass, doubles of the following are poured: gin, whisky, rum, port and brandy. A small bottle of stout is added and the whole topped up with champagne… It tastes very smooth, induces a somewhat metaphysical elation, and rarely leaves a hangover.

I don’t drink alcohol, so you will have to tell me how it works out if you decide to take the plunge.

Aug 282017

Today is the birthday (1906) of Sir John Betjeman, English poet, writer, and broadcaster who described himself in Who’s Who as a “poet and hack”. He was Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom from 1972 until his death. In his own words:

I was born in London and so were my parents. I have lived in London most of my life. I was born in 1906. I am a poet and prose-writer, particularly on English architecture and topography. I founded and for many years edited the Shell Guides. I edited Collins’ Guide to English Parish Churches. I started in journalism as Assistant Editor of the Architectural Review. I was for some years architectural correspondent to the Daily Telegraph. I am a Companion of Literature and an Honorary Associate of the Royal Institute of British Architects. Until my extended term of office expired last year. I was a member of the Royal Fine Art Commission. I am an honorary advisor to the Historic Buildings Committee of the GLC and one of her Majesty’s Commissioners of Ancient Monuments.

I’ll add a (very) little to this, but mostly appraise his poetry. Betjeman is a bit of a kindred spirit of mine in a way. He detested Oxford University teaching but enjoyed the overall experience (particularly the libraries and the fellow students), loved the English countryside, traveled a great deal, and saw humor in even mundane things.  Where we part company is in our view of England in general. His England was a comforting and reassuring home for him, full of foibles that could be endearing or irritating.  I mostly find the country irritating, with endearing bits around the edges.

Betjeman was born “John Betjemann”. His parents, Mabel (née Dawson) and Ernest Betjemann, had a family firm at 34–42 Pentonville Road which manufactured the kind of ornamental household furniture and gadgets distinctive to Victorians. The family name was changed to the less German-looking “Betjeman” during the First World War. His father’s forebears had actually come from the present-day Netherlands and had, ironically, added the extra “-n” during the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War to avoid the anti-Dutch sentiment existing at the time, more than a century earlier, setting up their home and business in Islington, in north London.

Betjeman was baptized at St Anne’s Church, Highgate Rise, a 19th-century church at the foot of Highgate West Hill. The family lived at Parliament Hill Mansions in the Lissenden Gardens private estate in Gospel Oak in north London. In 1909, the Betjemanns moved half a mile north to more opulent Highgate. Betjeman’s early schooling was at the local Byron House and Highgate School, where he was taught by T. S. Eliot. After this, he boarded at the Dragon School preparatory school in North Oxford and Marlborough College, a public school in Wiltshire. In his penultimate year, he joined the secret Society of Amici in which he was a contemporary of both Louis MacNeice and Graham Shepard. He founded The Heretick, a satirical magazine that lampooned Marlborough’s obsession with sport. While at school, his exposure to the works of Arthur Machen won him over to High Church Anglicanism, a conversion of importance to his later writing and conception of the arts.

Betjeman entered the University of Oxford with difficulty, having failed the mathematics portion of the university’s matriculation exam, Responsions. He was, however, admitted as a commoner (i.e. a non-scholarship student) at Magdalen College and entered the newly created School of English Language and Literature. At Oxford, Betjeman made little use of the academic opportunities. His tutor, a young C. S. Lewis, regarded him as an “idle prig” and Betjeman in turn considered Lewis unfriendly, demanding, and uninspired as a teacher. Betjeman particularly disliked the coursework’s emphasis on linguistics, and dedicated most of his time to cultivating his social life and his interest in English ecclesiastical architecture, and to private literary pursuits.

Here I resonate very much with Betjeman.  I have no doubt that Lewis was a self-important prick who looked down on his students. His writings on Christianity are grotesquely simplistic and the Chronicles of Narnia are not much better – 19th century “muscular Christianity” dressed up as fantasy. He was the quintessence of the Oxford scholar I could not stomach at any cost: thinking that all things in the world worth knowing are contained within half a mile of Carfax, and the top of Magdalen tower is the pinnacle of the universe.

At Oxford Betjeman was a friend of Maurice Bowra, later (1938 to 1970) to be Warden of Wadham. Betjeman had a poem published in Isis, the university magazine, and served as editor of the Cherwell student newspaper during 1927. His first book of poems was privately printed with the help of fellow student Edward James. He famously brought his teddy bear Archibald Ormsby-Gore up to Magdalen with him, the memory of which inspired his Oxford contemporary Evelyn Waugh to include Sebastian Flyte’s teddy, Aloysius, in Brideshead Revisited.

It is a common misapprehension, cultivated by Betjeman himself, that he did not complete his degree because he failed to pass the compulsory holy scripture examination, known colloquially as “Divvers”, short for “Divinity”. In Hilary term 1928, Betjeman failed Divinity for the second time. He had to leave the university for the Trinity term to prepare for a retake of the exam. Betjeman then wrote to the Secretary of the Tutorial Board at Magdalen, G. C. Lee, asking to be entered for the Pass School, a set of examinations taken on rare occasions by undergraduates who are deemed unlikely to achieve an honours degree. In Summoned by Bells Betjeman claims that his tutor, C. S. Lewis, said “You’d have only got a third” – but he had informed the tutorial board that he thought Betjeman would not achieve an honours degree of any class.

Permission to sit the Pass School was granted. Betjeman famously decided to offer a paper in Welsh. Osbert Lancaster tells the story that a tutor came by train twice a week (first class) from Aberystwyth to teach Betjeman. However, Jesus College had a number of Welsh tutors who more probably would have taught him. Betjeman finally had to leave at the end of the Michaelmas term, 1928. He did pass his Divinity examination on his third try but was sent down (expelled) after failing the Pass School. He had achieved a satisfactory result in only one of the three required papers (on Shakespeare and other English authors). Betjeman’s academic failure at Oxford rankled with him for the rest of his life and he was never reconciled with C.S. Lewis, towards whom he nursed a bitter detestation. This situation was perhaps complicated by his enduring love of Oxford, from which he accepted an honorary doctorate of letters in 1974.

This all seems wearily familiar. The vast bulk of my friends at Oxford plodded through their work and got average degrees before settling into a lifetime of drudgery in civil service, the military, or middle management; a sprinkling were meteorically successful so that I include among my erstwhile companions, Nobel laureates, knights bachelor, Oxford college heads, bishops, and the like; and a few, like myself and Betjeman, found the academic system laughably rigid and stupid, and so spent our time educating ourselves in the things that mattered to us and, having barely crawled through the examinations, found successes in various arenas of life.

Betjeman’s poems are often humorous, and in broadcasting he exploited his bumbling and fogeyish image. His wryly comic verse is accessible and has attracted a great following for its satirical and observant grace. W.H. Auden (an Oxford friend) wrote in his introduction to Slick But Not Streamlined that Betjeman was “so at home with the provincial gaslit towns, the seaside lodgings, the bicycle, the harmonium.” His poetry is similarly redolent of time and place, continually seeking out intimations of the eternal in the manifestly ordinary. There are constant evocations of the physical chaff and clutter that accumulates in everyday life, the miscellanea of an England now gone but not beyond the reach of living memory.

In a 1962 radio interview he told teenage questioners that he could not write about ‘abstract things’, preferring places, and faces. Philip Larkin wrote of his work, “how much more interesting & worth writing about Betjeman’s subjects are than most other modern poets, I mean, whether so-and-so achieves some metaphysical inner unity is not really so interesting to us as the overbuilding of rural Middlesex.”

Here’s one of his earliest poems which I like partly because its appraisal of death is, at best, comically sardonic, and partly because I lived for a year in Leamington which is the perfectly lackluster setting for a lackluster demise.

Death In Leamington

She died in the upstairs bedroom
By the light of the ev’ning star
That shone through the plate glass window
From over Leamington Spa

Beside her the lonely crochet
Lay patiently and unstirred,
But the fingers that would have work’d it
Were dead as the spoken word.

And Nurse came in with the tea-things
Breast high ‘mid the stands and chairs-
But Nurse was alone with her own little soul,
And the things were alone with theirs.

She bolted the big round window,
She let the blinds unroll,
She set a match to the mantle,
She covered the fire with coal.

And “Tea!” she said in a tiny voice
“Wake up! It’s nearly five”
Oh! Chintzy, chintzy cheeriness,
Half dead and half alive.

Do you know that the stucco is peeling?
Do you know that the heart will stop?
From those yellow Italianate arches
Do you hear the plaster drop?

Nurse looked at the silent bedstead,
At the gray, decaying face,
As the calm of a Leamington ev’ning
Drifted into the place.

She moved the table of bottles
Away from the bed to the wall;
And tiptoeing gently over the stairs
Turned down the gas in the hall.

Some of his poems have been set, quite successfully, to music. This one, “A Shropshire Lad,” concerning the death of Capt. Webb, famed channel swimmer (https://www.bookofdaystales.com/captain-webb/ ), has been popular among my friends for years.

His pre-war poem (1937), “Slough,” takes issue with the general quality of life in the new Trading Estate in Slough with its grimy and faceless factories, opening with the now famous lines:

Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough!
It isn’t fit for humans now . . .

Bombs did, in fact, fall on Slough during the Second World War and Betjeman later repudiated the poem although it was not written so much about Slough in particular but about burgeoning industrial growth in general. On the centenary of Betjeman’s birth in 2006, his daughter, Candida Lycett-Green, visited Slough and apologized for the poem saying her father “regretted having ever written it”. During her visit, Mrs Lycett-Green presented the mayor of Slough, David MacIsaac, with a book of her father’s poems. In it she wrote: “We love Slough”.

In the first series of The Office, which is set in Slough, Ricky Gervais, in the character of David Brent, reads extracts of the poem interjected with comments such as, “You don’t solve town planning problems by dropping bombs all over the place.”

In his deeply ironic “In Westminster Abbey” Betjeman shows his true feelings for people who pray for bombs to fall:

Gracious Lord, oh bomb the Germans.
    Spare their women for Thy Sake,
And if that is not too easy
   We will pardon Thy Mistake.
But, gracious Lord, whate’er shall be,
Don’t let anyone bomb me.

Keep our Empire undismembered
    Guide our Forces by Thy Hand,
Gallant blacks from far Jamaica,
    Honduras and Togoland;
Protect them Lord in all their fights,
And, even more, protect the whites.


Betjeman loved Victorian architecture and crusaded in its favor at a time when Victorian arts in general were lampooned as outdated and cluttered monstrosities. His statue stands outside St Pancras station in London which was in danger of being torn down until he put up a vigorous campaign to stop the destruction.

Victorian desserts are similarly ornately over the top so go for broke.

Meanwhile I’ll go with something a little less flamboyant in looks, but outrageously delicious: apple snow.  First, Mrs Beeton:


(A pretty Supper Dish.)

  1. INGREDIENTS.—10 good-sized apples, the whites of 10 eggs, the rind of 1 lemon, 1/2 lb. of pounded sugar.

Mode.—Peel, core, and cut the apples into quarters, and put them into a saucepan with the lemon-peel and sufficient water to prevent them from burning,—rather less than 1/2 pint. When they are tender, take out the peel, beat them to a pulp, let them cool, and stir them to the whites of the eggs, which should be previously beaten to a strong froth. Add the sifted sugar, and continue the whisking until the mixture becomes quite stiff; and either heap it on a glass dish, or serve it in small glasses. The dish may be garnished with preserved barberries, or strips of bright-coloured jelly; and a dish of custards should be served with it, or a jug of cream.

Time.—From 30 to 40 minutes to stew the apples.

Average cost, 1s. 6d.

Sufficient to fill a moderate-sized glass dish.

Seasonable from July to March.

Next a video of an even more decadent recipe for apple snow that includes the cream that Beeton serves on the side.

Apr 012016


The spaghetti-tree hoax was a three-minute spoof report broadcast on April Fools’ Day 1957 by the BBC current-affairs program Panorama, purportedly showing a family in southern Switzerland harvesting spaghetti from the family “spaghetti tree.” At the time spaghetti was relatively little known in the UK, so that many Britons were unaware that it is made from wheat flour and water; a number of viewers afterwards contacted the BBC for advice on growing their own spaghetti trees.

The report showed a family in the canton of Ticino in southern Switzerland as they gathered a bumper spaghetti harvest after a mild winter and “virtual disappearance of the spaghetti weevil.” Footage of a traditional “Harvest Festival” was aired along with a discussion of the breeding necessary to develop a strain to produce the perfect length – every strand equal in length. Some scenes were filmed at the (now closed) Pasta Foods factory on London Road, St Albans, in Hertfordshire, and at a hotel in Castagnola, Switzerland.

Panorama cameraman Charles de Jaeger dreamed up the story after remembering how teachers at his school in Austria teased his classmates for being so stupid that if they were told that spaghetti grew on trees, they would believe it. The editor of Panorama, Michael Peacock, told the BBC in 2014 how he gave de Jaeger a budget of £100 and sent him off. The report was made more believable through its voiceover by respected broadcaster Richard Dimbleby. Peacock said Dimbleby knew they were using his authority to make the joke work, and that Dimbleby loved the idea and went at it with relish.

At the time, 7 million of the 15.8 million homes in Britain had television sets (about 44%). Pasta was not an everyday food in 1950s Britain, and it was known mainly from tinned spaghetti in tomato sauce and considered by many to be an exotic delicacy. An estimated 8 million people watched the program on 1 April, and hundreds phoned in the following day to question the authenticity of the story or ask for more information about spaghetti cultivation and how they could grow their own spaghetti trees. The BBC reportedly told them to “place a sprig of spaghetti in a tin of tomato sauce and hope for the best”

Here’s the original:

If you know 1950s Britain you’ll understand what a perfect spoof this is, and how people could be taken in. This is exactly like an original report of the time, and Dimbleby’s sangfroid is spot on.

It’s also quite true that Brits, even into the 60s had no idea how spaghetti was produced. Around 1966 I was at a boy scout camp talking to a fellow patrol leader about spaghetti, and he told me that he had found out how easy it was to “make” spaghetti.  I thought he meant using flour, water, and eggs, because my father often made pasta from scratch like that. NO!!! In all earnestness he explained to me that you could buy it dried in packs and boil it, instead of opening a tin. I was shocked at his naiveté.

There have been numerous other April 1 spoofs like this 1857 ticket to see the annual washing of the lions ceremony at the tower of London:


Or this “accident” at the new Copenhagen Metro:


But, for my money the BBC spaghetti harvest stands sublime and will never be equaled. The 2009 report by Terry Jones showing Antarctic penguins flying to South America for the winter is well done, but its just not the same.

What better dish to celebrate than spaghetti on toast?  To people in the U.S. and Italy this sounds like a joke of its own. But it was, and is, a common favorite. We used to have it for a light evening meal on Sundays in place of the more common baked beans on toast when I was a boy. I liked it very much and would probably still enjoy it if offered to me. (I know, that’s a terrible admission). It’s a kind of childhood memory of comfort food.


You don’t need a recipe – heat a tin of spaghetti and pour it over fresh toast.

Dec 192015


The BBC World Service began as the BBC Empire Service on this date in 1932 – a shortwave service aimed principally at English speakers in the outposts of the British Empire. In his first Christmas Message, King George V stated that the service was intended for “men and women, so cut off by the snow, the desert, or the sea, that only voices out of the air can reach them.” First hopes for the Empire Service were low. The Director General, Sir John Reith (later Lord Reith) said in the opening program: “Don’t expect too much in the early days; for some time we shall transmit comparatively simple programs, to give the best chance of intelligible reception and provide evidence as to the type of material most suitable for the service in each zone. The programmes will neither be very interesting nor very good.” This address was read out five times as it was broadcast live to different parts of the world.

The BBC World Service is the world’s largest international broadcaster, broadcasting radio and television news, speech and discussions in 29 languages to many parts of the world on analogue and digital shortwave platforms, internet streaming, podcasting, satellite, FM and MW relays. It was announced in November 2015 that The BBC World Service will start broadcasting in Nigerian Pidgin and Yoruba in Nigeria, when this service starts it will bring the total number of broadcast languages to 31. The World Service was reported to have reached 188 million people a week (TV, radio and online) on average in June 2009. The English language service broadcasts 24 hours a day.


You can find it streaming online here:


On 3 January 1938, the first foreign-language service, Arabic, was launched. German programs commenced on 29 March 1938 and by the end of 1942 broadcasts were being made in all major European languages. As a result, the Empire Service was renamed the BBC Overseas Service in November 1939, and a dedicated BBC European Service was added in 1941. These broadcasting services, financed not from the domestic license fee but from government grant-in-aid (from the Foreign Office budget), were known administratively as the External Services of the BBC.

The External Services broadcast propaganda during the Second World War. Its French service Radio Londres also sent coded messages to the French Resistance. George Orwell broadcast many news bulletins on the Eastern Service during World War II.


By the end of the 1940s the number of languages broadcast had expanded and reception had improved following the opening of a relay in modern day Malaysia and of the Limassol relay, Cyprus, in 1957. On 1 May 1965 the service took its current name of BBC World Service and the service itself expanded its reach with the opening of the Ascension Island relay in 1966, serving African audiences with greater signal and reception, and the later relay on the Island of Masirah.

In recent years, financial pressures have decreased the number and type of services offered by the BBC. Due to the launch of internet-based services, the need for a radio station is less frequent in countries where the population has easy access to the internet news sites of the BBC. The German broadcasts were stopped in March 1999 after research showed that the majority of German listeners tuned into the English version of the service. Broadcasts in Dutch, Finnish, French for Europe, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese and Malay were stopped for similar reasons.

Traditionally, the BBC World Service relied on shortwave broadcasts, because of its ability to overcome barriers of censorship, distance and spectrum scarcity. To this end, the BBC has maintained a worldwide network of shortwave relay stations since the 1940s, mainly in former British colonies. These cross border broadcasts have also been used in special circumstances to broadcast emergency messages to British subjects abroad, such as the advice to evacuate Jordan during the Black September incidents of September 1970.


The BBC World Service on shortwave was a great boon to me in the 1970s through to the end of the 1990s. I used to listen to the news regularly as a counter to the national news services of the USA, which omitted so many international stories that I was interested in. I would also tune in to comedies, quiz shows, and dramas, for a change of pace, and, of course, on Christmas Eve I always put on Carols from Kings. Long distance shortwave can often be temperamental, and the BBC routinely switched frequencies throughout the day. So I had to keep a log of when the different frequencies were active, to be able to catch programs I liked. <sigh> . . .days long gone with the advent of high speed internet, live streaming, and podcasts.

Cooking shows are not very common on the BBC World Service because radio is far from ideal for conveying recipes; television gives much more scope. But I found two places where you can tune in. Go here for the latest episodes of Paula McIntyre’s show “Cooking with Paula McIntyre.” I don’t know how long this link will work, but you can always go to the BBC home page and search for cooking shows that are current.


Also of interest to me is a current series called “Marguerite Patten’s Century of British Cooking.” This is a 10-part series currently in progress, with some past episodes available for a brief period. I don’t know if they will be archived. For now here is the 1930s episode:


Patten, who was a BBC home economics broadcaster for many years, gives an excellent account of cooking salient British events, decade by decade. Well worth a listen. In this episode she has a certain amount to say about the proper way to make bread sauce to go with roast chicken. If all else fails, go here for the current BBC recipe for bread sauce:



As Patten points out, bread sauce is delicious when cooked properly, or much like old-fashioned library paste if not. Bread sauce is basically a milk sauce thickened with breadcrumbs and seasoned with onion, cloves, and mace. The secret, Patten says (and as my mum made it), was to properly infuse the milk with the seasonings, which involves bringing a pan of milk to the boil with an onion studded with cloves plus a blade of mace, and then letting it sit to cool for several hours before adding the breadcrumbs. When I was a boy bread sauce was an essential component of Christmas dinner.

Nov 022015


The BBC Television Service officially began regular broadcasts on this date in 1936 from a converted wing of the Alexandra Palace in London. The big live offering of that first night was Picture Page – a visual version of Radio’s In Town Tonight. It was billed as a ‘magazine of topical and general interest’, a talk show with a quirky, faked element of viewer participation. Joan Miller would introduce guests from a telephone switchboard, pretending to receive calls.


On 1 September 1939, two days before Britain declared war on Germany, the station was taken off air with little warning. The government was concerned that the VHF transmissions would act as a beacon to enemy aircraft homing in on London. BBC Television returned on 7 June 1946 at 15:00. Jasmine Bligh, one of the original announcers, made the first announcement, saying, ‘Good afternoon everybody. How are you? Do you remember me, Jasmine Bligh?’. A Mickey Mouse cartoon of 1939 was repeated from an original broadcast twenty minutes later.


The BBC held a statutory monopoly on television broadcasting in the United Kingdom until the first Independent Television station (ITV) began to broadcast on 22 September 1955. The competition quickly forced the channel to change its identity and priorities following a large reduction in its audience. The 1962 Pilkington Report on the future of broadcasting noticed this, and that ITV lacked any serious programming. It therefore decided that Britain’s third television station should be awarded to the BBC.


The station, renamed BBC TV in 1960, became BBC1 when BBC2 was launched on 20 April 1964 transmitting an incompatible 625-line image on UHF. The only way to receive all channels was to use a very complex “dual-standard” 405- and 625-line, VHF and UHF, receiver, with both a VHF and a UHF aerial. Many households, including mine, did not have a UHF setup, so could only receive BBC1 and ITV. Takes me back to think that in those days 2 channels were enough. BBC2 was for “toffs.” For us, BBC1 was about all we watched. ITV’s programming was rather inane, and the constant commercial interruptions were annoying. I still find commercial television irritating. Old 405-line-only sets became completely obsolete in 1985, when transmission in that standard ended.


BBC1 was based at the purpose-built BBC Television Centre at White City, London between 1960 and 2013. Television News continued to use Alexandra Palace as its base—by early 1968 it had even converted one of its studios to color—before moving to new purpose-built facilities at Television Centre on 20 September 1969. In the weeks leading up to 15 November 1969, BBC1 unofficially transmitted the occasional program in its new color system, to test it. At midnight on 15 November, simultaneously with ITV and two years after BBC2, BBC1 officially began 625-line PAL color programming on UHF with a broadcast of a concert by Petula Clark. Color transmissions could be received (in monochrome) on monochrome 625-line sets until the end of analogue broadcasting.

In terms of audience share, the most successful period for BBC1 was under Bryan Cowgill between 1973 and 1977, when the channel achieved an average audience share of 45%. This period is still regarded by many as a golden age of the BBC’s output, with the BBC achieving a very high standard across its entire range of series, serials, plays, light entertainment and documentaries


I have never watched a lot of television. In England as a young boy in the early 1950’s we did not own a set. My grandparents did but I seem to remember that programming by the BBC was not very interesting. In South Australia there was no television until the late 1950s and we did not get a set right away. When we did, I saw some BBC programming (notably the first series of Dr Who https://www.bookofdaystales.com/doctor-who/ ), but most of the programming came from the U.S. In England in the late 1960s I had a few favorite programs, but then from 1970 to 1999 I did not own a television and did not miss it. Then, when my son was 8 years old he agitated for a set and I caved. But he was the main viewer in the house. Since he went to college in 2008 I have not bothered to watch – in Argentina, China, or Italy. I can’t, therefore, be said to be terribly knowledgeable about BBC programs. I am not a huge fan of the current iteration of Dr Who. Quite by accident one evening in 2014 when I was worn out from a hike around Otmoor in Oxfordshire, I turned on the box and saw the first episode in the latest series. I lost interest and turned off. I do try to catch episodes of Sherlock when I can, I will admit.

That all being said, I do think that BBC television productions have been of a high standard for many years, and have influenced programming globally. In the ‘80s when U.S. stations wanted to improve the quality of their shows, they looked to the BBC as a model, and PBS in the U.S. still airs BBC programs regularly to counteract the atrocious local diet of mindless sitcoms and such. What also impresses me is that BBC television is commercial free, funded by the proceeds of television licenses that viewers are required to have.

Nowadays BBC cooking shows tend to be as dreary as those in other countries, although some of them have a certain lightheartedness, such as Two Fat Ladies, and their successors, the Hairy Bikers. “Celebrity” chefs worldwide bore me. But Philip Harben who is arguably the world’s first television celebrity chef (or even first television chef), was a favorite of mine when I was just beginning to learn to cook. Harben’s first television appearance was on BBC television on Wednesday, 12 June 1946 in his new show called simply, “Cookery.” The program aired at 8:55pm and was just 10 minutes long. He showed how to make lobster vol-au-vents in the first episode. The show aired until 1951.


Harben tended to focus more on technique than recipes, which is what appealed to me at the time as I was just learning basic methods and ideas. Fault me for my excellent memory, but I still remember him doing a whole show, in around 1967 (probably a weekend re-run), on the fallacy behind the notion of searing meat to seal in the juices. He’s right, “sealing” was a poor word choice and an erroneous notion. But browning meat is perfectly legitimate culinary practice, because the process enhances flavor. Nevertheless, I did buy his The Grammar of Cookery (1965) at some point.

I could not find any of Harben’s cookery shows online but here is a video of him doing commercials at a food show in Cardiff. You get the idea of the man’s style anyway, and a sense of why I loved his shows.

Extolling the virtues of pure lard is priceless, as is the whole mood – so very earnest and sincere. Not like modern food shows at all. I miss those days.

May 282015


On this date in 1951 The Goon Show aired for the first time on the BBC Home Service, and continued as a colossal hit from 1951 to 1960, with occasional repeats on the BBC Light Programme. The first series broadcast from 28 May to 20 September 1951, was titled Crazy People; subsequent series had the title The Goon Show, a title inspired, according to Spike Milligan, by a Popeye character.

The show’s chief creator and main writer was Spike Milligan. The scripts mixed ludicrous plots with surreal humor, puns, catchphrases and an array of bizarre sound effects. Some of the later episodes feature electronic effects devised by the fledgling BBC Radiophonic Workshop, many of which were reused by other shows for decades. Many elements of the show satirized contemporary life in Britain, parodying aspects of show business, commerce, industry, art, politics, diplomacy, the police, the military, education, class structure, literature and film.

The show was released internationally through the BBC Transcription Services (TS). It was heard regularly from the 1950s in Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, India and Canada, although these TS versions were frequently edited to avoid controversial subjects. NBC began broadcasting the program on its radio network from the mid-1950s. The program exercised a considerable influence on the development of British and U.S. comedy and popular culture.

Milligan and Harry Secombe became friends while serving in the Royal Artillery during the Second World War. Famously, Milligan first encountered Secombe after Gunner Milligan’s artillery unit accidentally allowed a large howitzer to roll off a cliff, under which Secombe was sitting in a small radio truck: “Suddenly there was a terrible noise as some monstrous object fell from the sky quite close to us. There was considerable confusion, and in the middle of it all the flap of the truck was pushed open and a young, helmeted idiot asked ‘Anybody see a gun?’ It was Milligan.” Secombe’s answer to that question was “What colour was it?” Milligan met Peter Sellers after the war at the Hackney Empire, where Secombe was performing, and the three became close friends.


The group first formed at Jimmy Grafton’s London pub called “Grafton’s” in the late 1940s. Sellers had already débuted with the BBC, Secombe was often heard on Variety Bandbox, Milligan was writing for and acting in the high profile BBC show Hip-Hip-Hoo-Roy with Derek Roy, and Michael Bentine, who appeared in the first series, had just begun appearing in Charlie Chester’s peak time radio show Stand Easy.

The four clicked immediately. “It was always a relief to get away from the theatre and join in the revels at Grafton’s on a Sunday night,” said Secombe years later. They took to calling themselves ‘The Goons’ and started recording their pub goings-on with a tape recorder. The BBC producer, Pat Dixon heard a tape and took interest in the group. He pressed the BBC for a long term contract for the gang, knowing that it would secure Sellers for more than just seasonal work, something for which the BBC had been aiming. The BBC acquiesced and ordered an initial series, though without much enthusiasm.

Throughout its history, each episode of The Goon Show, which usually ran just under 30 minutes, was essentially structured as a comedy-variety program, consisting of scripted comedy segments alternating with musical interludes. There were 10 series in all, many of which survive (and can be found on YouTube). Series 1 to 3 no longer exist and some episodes of 4 to 6 were erased by the BBC (following their archiving policy).


From Series 3 onwards, the principal character roles were:

Neddie Seagoon (Secombe)

Eccles (Milligan)

Bluebottle (Sellers)

Henry Crun (Sellers)

Minnie Bannister (Milligan)

Hercules Grytpype-Thynne (Sellers)

Count Jim Moriarty (Milligan)

Major Denis Bloodnok (Sellers)

The traditional plots involved Grytpype-Thynne and Moriarty getting Neddie Seagoon involved in some far-fetched plan, and meeting the other cast members along the way.

Many characters had regular catchphrases which quickly moved into the vernacular; among the best known are:

“He’s fallen in the water!” (Little Jim)

“You dirty, rotten swine, you! You have deaded me!” (Bluebottle)

“You can’t get the wood, you know.” (Henry, Minnie)

“You silly, twisted boy, you.” (Grytpype-Thynne)

“You can’t park ‘ere, mate” (Willium) — Milligan’s dig at officious BBC commissionaires.

“Ying Tong Iddle I Po” (various) — which became the basis for a novelty hit as “The Ying Tong Song”

The Goon Show has been variously described as “avant-garde,” “surrealist,” “abstract,” and “four dimensional.” Broadly the Goon Show engaged in ‘sound cartooning’. That is creating cartoons by means of sounds – voices, sound effects (FX), gramophone recordings of noises (Grams), orchestral effects etc. – all performed live in front of a studio audience. In the scripts themselves, Milligan explored the use of ‘subject transference’. In particular he used three methods – transference of time, transference of place, and transference of utility.

For example, if time causes calendars, calendars can cause time. If you drop a bundle of 1918 calendars on German troops in 1916, then they will all go home, thus shortening the war. If one lives in a house, and one can say that someone lives in their clothes, then the two are interchangeable. Therefore a recurring theme in the shows is of someone living in the basement of someone else’s clothes, or of someone taking the lift up and down inside someone’s suit. (e.g.: “What are you doing in my trousers?? – ‘Slumming!'”) The best example of this is in “The Policy”, Doors give you entrance into a different place, so a door can transport you anywhere. A door in the Himalayas can take you back to London etc. In “Six Charlies in Search of an Author” Bloodnok is wearing a room in which  he and other characters are attempting to escape from a stick of dynamite, but find themselves still in the room (“Of course! I’m still wearing it!”) until he takes the room off.

Milligan swapped functions between objects haphazardly and to comic effect. Pianos become vehicles of transportation, theater organs become divining machines, two bananas become binoculars, Eccles becomes an omnibus , gorillas become cigarettes (“These gorillas are strong! Here, have one of my monkeys – they’re milder”), photographs of money become legal tender, etc.


The settings for the shows were a revolution in themselves. Rather than the tepid everyday world of Britain in the ’50s, Milligan set most of the shows in foreign locations, especially India, North Africa, South America, the Wild West, places where he had lived or had been posted during WWII, or had been fascinated with when a boy. It gives the shows a “boys’-own-story” atmosphere to the plots, and also an extraordinary sense of realism. The episodes set during wartime and those located in India, highlighted the absurdist humor played out against the realistic backdrops.

Orchestral introductions, links and accompaniment were provided by a hand-picked big band made up of London based session musicians. The arrangements and musical direction were done by Wally Stott from the third to the 10th series. Stott produced many arrangements and link passages, further improved by the first-class sound quality the BBC engineers managed to achieve. Members of the band featured prominently in the comedy proceedings, particularly jazz trombonist George Chisholm who frequently played Scots characters. The show’s concluding music was usually either “Ding-Dong! The Witch Is Dead” or a truncated and ironic rendition of the Alte Kameraden (Old Comrades’) march, followed by Max Geldray and the Ray Ellington Quartet playing “Crazy Rhythm” as play-out music.





In keeping with the variety requirements of the BBC’s “light entertainment” format, The Goon Show scripts were structured in three acts, separated by two musical interludes. These were provided by the Ray Ellington Quartet—who performed a mixture of jazz, rhythm & blues and calypso songs—and by harmonica virtuoso Max Geldray who performed mostly middle of the road numbers and jazz standards of the 30s and 40s accompanied by the big band. Both Ellington and Geldray also made occasional cameo appearances; Ellington was often drafted in to play stereotypical ‘black’ roles such as a tribal chieftain, native bearer or Major Bloodnok’s nemesis (and counterpoint to Bloodnok’s affliction) ‘The Red Bladder’. Geldray’s roles were short and infrequent, and by no coincidence he was referred to in the show as the world’s worst actor. Both musicians endured constant references to their physical appearance without apparent rancor, mostly Ellington’s skin color and Geldray’s nose – but then again so did Secombe, whose height, girth and/or alleged lack of neck were mentioned in almost every show.


It was in its use of pre-recorded and live sound effects that The Goon Show broke the most new ground. Part of the problem was that “not even Milligan knew how to capture electronically the peculiar sounds that came alive in his head – he just knew when it had not yet happened”. An example of this comes from an often cited story of Milligan filling his two socks with custard in the Camden Theatre canteen, in an attempt to achieve a squelching effect. Milligan asked the BBC canteen ladies to make some custard; they thought he must have some stomach trouble so lovingly made him a fresh custard – which he accepted with thanks and immediately poured into his sock, much to their horror. Secombe recalled “Back in the studio, Spike had already placed a sheet of three-ply near a microphone.” One after the other, he swung them around his head against the wood, but failed to produce the sound effect he was seeking (“So, a sock full of custard and no sound effect!”). Secombe noted that “Spike used to drive the studio managers mad with his insistence on getting the sound effects he wanted. In the beginning, when the program was recorded on disc, it was extremely difficult to achieve the right sound effect. There were, I think, four turntables on the go simultaneously, with different sounds being played on each – chickens clucking, Big Ben striking, donkeys braying, massive explosions, ships’ sirens – all happening at once. It was only when tape came into use that Spike felt really happy with the effects.” An FX instruction in one script read “Sound effect of two lions walking away, bumping against each other. If you can’t get two lions, two hippos will do”. Over time, the sound engineers became increasingly adept at translating the script into desired sounds, assisted from the late 1950s onwards by specialists in the BBC’s newly formed Radiophonic Workshop.

In creation of the Goon shows, long and acrimonious shouting matches occurred between Milligan and BBC managers as he tried to get his own way. Was he a diva? “I was in the Goon Show days”, he told Dick Lester.[46] “I was trying to shake the BBC out of its apathy. Sound effects were ‘a knock on the door and tramps on gravel’ – that was it, and I tried to transform it.” Using techniques already developed by the drama department, he went on to give the show an indelible sense of reality, going out of his way to achieve maximum believability by the use of FX  and Grams, making the show the first comedic production of its kind to try actively to persuade the listeners that the events were real, and especially to create alternate realities or surreal audio imagery that would be impossible to realize visually.

Many of the sound effects created for later programs featured innovative production techniques borrowed from the realm of musique concrète, and using the then new technology of magnetic tape. Many of these sequences involved the use of complex multiple edits, echo and reverberation and the deliberate slowing down, speeding up or reversing of tapes. One of the most famous was the legendary “Bloodnok’s Stomach” sound effect, created by the BBC Radiophonic Workshop to represent the sound of Major Bloodnok’s digestive system in action, which included a variety of inexplicable gurgling and explosive noises. Lewis (1995, p. 218) states Bloodnok’s stomach “was achieved by overlaying burps, whoops from oscillators, water splashes, cork-like pops, and light artillery blasts”. This effect kept turning up on later comedy shows, and can even be heard on a track by The Orb.

As a small boy I did not really get most of the humor at the time (I did later). My favorite character was Eccles (modeled on the voice of Disney’s Goofy). But I do recall how much The Goon Show seeped into our daily lives. We all used the tag lines and could do fair imitations of the voices of Bluebottle and Eccles. Here’s the “The Dreaded Batter Pudding Hurler (Of Bexhill-on-Sea)” as a lead-in to the recipe of the day.


Batter pudding is really a generic term. It means pretty much anything made with egg batter which could include Yorkshire Pudding, Toad in the Hole, or Fruit Batter Pudding. They can all be a bit stodgy if not made right (as befits 1950s Brit cooking), but if you work at it they will be reasonably puffy. My Yorkshire puddings are really light – soak up beef gravy a treat. Here’s my video on making the basic batter:



Here’s a fav of mine:

Apple Batter Pudding

To start you’ll need one batch of egg batter.

Preheat the oven to 220°C/425°F.

Put 2 tablespoons of cooking fat (lard), or cooking oil for the health conscious, in a shallow baking dish and heat in the oven for 5 minutes.

Peel, core, and thickly slice 4 cooking apples. Remove the baking dish from the oven (carefully !!) and spread the apples evenly in the hot fat. (You can sprinkle on a little powdered cloves, cinnamon, or allspice if you want). Pour over the batter, making sure it is even.

Bake for 30-40 minutes until browned and well risen (yes, it does rise if you are a good batter maker.

Serve very hot with golden syrup and whipped cream or ice cream.

Apr 182015


People who tuned into the BBC news on this date in 1930 heard the announcer say, “There is no news.” Piano music filled the rest of the program. Puzzling, certainly, until you understand the background. This stunt was a skirmish in a protracted war between the BBC and the government over which had ultimate control of content and style in delivering the news.

By 1930, the BBC was beginning to throw off the shackles of the news agencies. Reuters and the like were still supplying most of the raw material but the BBC was now taking the lead in the selection and editing of stories for its bulletins. This was made possible following the installation of a full service of news agency tape machines in the newsroom at Savoy Hill. The editorial staff was doubled, and soon found its hands full.

In addition to the output of the tape machines, information began pouring in from the various arms of government. This was largely in the form of official announcements – such as advice to post early for Christmas, and warnings about heavy traffic. Eventually, the bulletins became so cluttered with these “official notices” that a separate slot had to be created for some of them – leaving the news staff to concentrate on the real news.

But there were indications at the same time of a readiness at government level to try to exploit the real news. In 1930, for example, on the evening before Good Friday, the Home Office was desperate to deny the contents of a newspaper account of an interview with the home secretary. It was aware that no newspapers would be published over Easter so it contacted the BBC – to ensure the denial was included in the evening radio news.


Within 24 hours, however, the flood of news, official or otherwise, had dried up, presumably at the instigation of the government. To put pressure on the BBC. Hence, listeners who tuned in to hear the bulletin on Good Friday itself were informed, “There is no news,” in retaliation. An uneasy stalemate followed.

At the time what kind of animal BBC news was, was far from clear. The BBC did not hire its first journalist with newspaper experience until 1932. This is perhaps not too surprising. Radio news was perceived by the BBC from the start as being very different from the behemoths created in Fleet Street. Those in charge of the Talks Department, where News was based, drew a definite distinction between “BBC news values” and “journalistic news values”.


It was an absolute rule there should be no “sensationalism”. Parliamentary news, not known for its ability to grip the listener, was given special prominence. Yet the audience continued to grow. One factor, certainly, was the appeal of the newsreaders. Just as in entertainment and drama, appearing on the radio – if only to read the news – was a passport to celebrity. Newsreaders seemed a species apart, who dressed accordingly (since January 1926, announcers had been under orders to wear dinner-jackets in the evening, as a mark of respect to performers – such as classical musicians – also obliged to dress formally).

Also, these news readers often imparted facts that must have seemed alien to the lives of many of their listeners. For example: again in 1926, the first bulletin announcing the general strike had also carried the result of “the annual Stock Exchange London to Brighton walk” (victor: “last year’s winner, S.M. Ayles”).


Adding to the air of mystery, the BBC insisted that the announcers remain anonymous on air – though the Radio Times did sometimes publish the odd photograph. However in 1932 the Daily Express gave the names of Stuart Hibberd, T.C. Farrar, John Snagge, Godfrey Adams and Freddie Grisewood. Clearly, the public held them close to its heart. One chronicler of the BBC observed that: “An announcer could not cough during a broadcast without receiving presents of everything from cough-lozenges to woollen underwear.”

The act of rebellion in 1930 was the start of a change in the nature of journalism. Newspapers had to deal with a new kind of competition. Before then they just competed with one another. Now they had to deal with something completely different – news presented by real people whom they could relate to. Furthermore, the news was encapsulated, so you did not have to wade through page upon page. Of course that could be positive or negative. Many people liked to sit down in the evening after dinner and relax with the paper. But times were changing.

The BBC’s show of displeasure with the government’s meddling in its affairs was carried out in such a quintessentially British way that I feel the need to give you a quintessentially British recipe. But in reviewing previous posts I find that I have covered all the obvious candidates — roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, Cornish pasties, steak and kidney pudding, full English breakfast and so forth. So I thought I would be as quirky as the BBC and give you chicken tikka masala, a dish of Indian origin, but now firmly established as a British favorite; some even going as far as to refer to it as a British classic (to which Indian food writers object loudly). But the title is fair. While it is true that its origins are in India, it has changed from the Indian original to suit British palates. Chicken tikka, which is centuries old, is chunks of chicken marinated in spices and yogurt, then baked in a tandoor oven, a clay pit that is very hot. Masala is a spicy sauce added to chicken tikka to accord with British tastes for gravies. A tomato and coriander sauce is common, but there is no standard recipe for chicken tikka masala. A survey found that of 48 different recipes examined, the only common ingredient was chicken. The sauce usually includes tomatoes, frequently as a purée; cream and/or coconut cream; and various spices. The sauce or chicken pieces (or both) are colored orange with food dyes or using foodstuffs such as turmeric powder, paprika powder, or tomato purée.


Chicken Tikka Masala



1 cup plain yogurt (not Greek)
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 teaspoons turmeric
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons cayenne pepper
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon minced fresh ginger
4 teaspoons salt, or to taste
3 boneless skinless chicken breasts, sliced in half lengthways.


1 tablespoon ghee or clarified butter
1 small onion, peeled and coarsely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 (or more) hot chile pepper, finely chopped
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons paprika
2 teaspoons garam masala
3 teaspoons salt, or to taste
1 (8 ounce) can plum tomatoes
1 cup heavy cream (or half cream, half plain yogurt)
½ tablespoon tomato purée
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro plus  more for garnish


In a large bowl, combine the yogurt, lemon juice, 2 teaspoons cumin, turmeric, cinnamon, cayenne, black pepper, ginger, and salt to taste. Stir in the chicken to coat well. Place in a zip top back and seal with a small corner left open. Squeeze out all the air, lay flat, and refrigerate overnight.

Preheat a charcoal grill or broiler for the highest heat. Remove the chicken from the marinade an grill or broil until black specks appear (turning once). Cut into bite sized pieces. It may be pink inside.

Put the butter in a large heavy skillet over medium heat. Sauté onion, garlic, and chile for 1 minute or until soft but without taking on color. Add 2 teaspoons cumin, paprika, cilantro, garam masala, and salt to taste and sauté 1 minute longer. Add the tomatoes and break them up with a fork until they are a mush. Add the tomato purée and cream. Simmer on low heat until the sauce is thick, about 30 minutes. Add the grilled chicken, and simmer for 10 minutes more. Transfer to a heated serving bowl, and garnish with fresh cilantro. Serve with basmati rice and warm Indian flat bread (or pita).



Oct 182014


On this date in 1922 the British Broadcasting Company (later Corporation) was founded by a consortium, to establish a nationwide network of radio transmitters to provide a national broadcasting service. Radio broadcasting took off after World War 1 with stations like KDKA Pittsburgh broadcasting the November 1920 US Presidential election results and later the Baseball World Series. The U.S. went radio crazy with Stations launched at such a rate that by 1924 there were some 530 of them and radio receiver manufacturing was a booming business.

Britain’s first live public broadcast from the Marconi factory in Chelmsford took place in June 1920. It was sponsored by the Daily Mail’s Lord Northcliffe and featured the famous Australian Soprano Dame Nellie Melba. The Melba broadcast caught the people’s imagination and marked a turning point in the British public’s attitude to radio. However, this public enthusiasm was not shared in official circles where such broadcasts were held to interfere with important military and civil communications. By the autumn of 1920 pressure from these quarters and uneasiness among the staff of the licencing authority, the General Post Office (GPO) was sufficient to lead to a ban on further Chelmsford broadcasts.

But by 1922 the GPO had received nearly 100 broadcast licence requests and moved to rescind its ban in the wake of a petition by 63 wireless societies with over 3000 members. Anxious to avoid the same chaotic expansion experienced in the United States, the GPO proposed that it would issue a single broadcasting licence to a company jointly owned by a consortium of leading wireless receiver manufactures, to be known as the British Broadcasting Company Ltd. John Reith, a Scottish Calvanist, was appointed its General Manager in December 1922 a few weeks after the Company made its first official broadcast. The Company was to be financed by a royalty on the sale of BBC wireless receiving sets from approved manufacturers and by a license fee.


The financial arrangements soon proved inadequate. Set sales were disappointing as amateurs made their own receivers and listeners bought rival unlicensed sets. By mid 1923 discussions between the GPO and the BBC had become deadlocked and the Postmaster-General commissioned a review of broadcasting by the Sykes Committee. The Committee recommended a short term reorganization of licence fees with improved enforcement in order to address the BBC’s immediate financial distress, and an increased share of the license revenue split between it and the GPO. This was to be followed by a simple 10 shillings license fee with no royalty once the wireless manufactures protection expired. The BBC’s broadcasting monopoly was made explicit for the duration of its current broadcast license, as was the prohibition on advertising. The BBC was also banned from presenting news bulletins before 7pm, and required to source all news from external wire services.

Mid 1925 found the future of broadcasting under further consideration this time by the Crawford committee. By now the BBC under Reith’s exceptional leadership had forged a consensus favoring a continuation of the unified (monopoly) broadcasting service, but more money was still required to finance rapid expansion. Wireless manufacturers were anxious to exit the loss making consortium with Reith keen that the BBC be seen as a public service rather than a commercial enterprise. The recommendations of the Crawford Committee were published in March the following year and were still under consideration by the GPO when the 1926 General Strike broke out in May. The strike temporarily interrupted newspaper production and with restrictions on news bulletins waived the BBC suddenly became the primary source of news for the duration of the crisis.

The crisis placed the BBC in a delicate position. On one hand Reith was acutely aware that the Government might exercise its right to commandeer the BBC at any time as a mouthpiece of the Government if the BBC were to step out of line, but on the other he was anxious to maintain public trust by appearing to be acting independently. The Government was divided on how to handle the BBC but ended up trusting Reith, whose opposition to the strike mirrored the PM’s own. Thus the BBC was granted sufficient leeway to pursue the Government’s objectives largely in a manner of its own choosing. The resulting coverage of both Striker and Government viewpoints impressed millions of listeners who were unaware that the PM had broadcast to the nation from Reith’s home, using one of Reith’s sound bites inserted at the last moment, or that the BBC had banned broadcasts from the Labour Party and delayed a peace appeal by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Supporters of the Strike nicknamed the BBC the BFC for British Falsehood Company. Reith personally announced the end of the strike which he marked by reciting from Blake’s “Jerusalem” signifying that England had been saved.

The BBC did well out of the crisis which cemented a national audience for its broadcasting and was followed by the Government’s official acceptance of the Crawford Committee recommendations transferring the operations of the Company to a British Broadcasting Corporation established by Royal Charter. Reith was knighted and on 1 January 1927 becoming the first Director General of the British Broadcasting Corporation.

While the BBC tends to characterize its coverage of the General Strike by emphasizing the positive impression created by its balanced coverage of the views of Government and Strikers, Jean Seaton, Professor of Media History and the Official BBC Historian has characterized the episode as the invention of “modern propaganda in its British form.” Reith argued that trust gained by ‘authentic impartial news’ could then be used. Impartial news was not necessarily an end in itself.


To represent its purpose and (stated) values, the Corporation adopted the coat of arms, including the motto “Nation shall speak peace unto Nation”. The motto is generally attributed to Montague John Rendall, former headmaster of Winchester College and member of the first BBC Board of Governors. The motto is said to be a “felicitous adaptation” of Micah 4: 3 “nation shall not lift up a sword against nation.”


The BBC (or “Beeb”) has, of course, become a massive broadcasting empire known internationally, with dozens of regional radio stations as well as national and local television broadcasts, the latter beloved by millions around the globe. Where would I be without my periodic doses of Dr Who or Sherlock?


Long car journeys were often made delightful by episodes of this on tape:


As a teen I woke every morning to BBC 1’s Tony Blackburn playing the latest pop hits, and did my homework on Sunday afternoons to John Peel’s mellow tones as he spun “alternative” music.


When I first moved to the U.S. I had a shortwave radio so that I could tune into the BBC World Service. I still listen to BBC radio live streaming because of its fabulous mix of programming. It’s where I go to hear commentary on the Boat Race or Carols from Kings.



Amazingly The Archers (one of the earliest radio soaps) is still going strong.

Cooking shows are, of course, a mainstay. This is a website I frequently go to for classic recipes that have been broadcast on radio and television:



Worth a look. The best of British cooking is here, classic and modern. What I like about the recipes is that they are always coming up with new twists on old favorites. Shepherd’s pie is a great example. First let me clear up a common misunderstanding. Shepherd’s pie is made with minced LAMB, not beef. With beef it is called cottage pie. The basics are a filling of minced lamb plus vegetables – often peas and carrots – with a rich gravy, and topped with mashed potato. Very simple. In fact you can use a topping of mashed potato (nicely browned under the broiler) for ANY pie filling. I make steak and kidney pies that way sometimes. But here’s a twist I had not thought of until writing this post – use mashed parsnips instead of mashed potatoes:



OK – off you go to the kitchen and expand your horizons.

Jun 022013



BBC announcer

On this date in 1896 Guglielmo Marconi applied for a patent on the wireless transmission of signals, “Improvements in Transmitting Electrical impulses and Signals, and in Apparatus therefor.” As suggested by the title, Marconi did not invent wireless transmission, but his system was the first one that actually functioned effectively. Thus he is considered the father of radio.  His interest at the outset was purely in the realm of long distance wireless telegraphy, which he steadily improved on in the subsequent decade.  He had begun his work in his native Italy but he had trouble getting sponsors there. One letter he sent to the ministry of Post and Telegraphs asking for research money was found later with an annotation on the front that essentially said, “he belongs in an insane asylum.” So he moved to England where he found backers.

Marconi was born in Bologna in 1874, second son of Giuseppe Marconi, an Italian landowner, and his Irish/Scots wife, Annie Jameson, daughter of Andrew Jameson of Daphne Castle in County Wexford, Ireland and granddaughter of John Jameson, founder of whiskey distillers Jameson & Sons.  Marconi was educated privately and spent most of his teen years in physics labs learning from the pioneers of the study of electromagnetic waves, such as Augusto Righi, who laid the foundations for the understanding of the electromagnetic spectrum, and was the first physicist to generate microwaves. These were the very early days of the study of electricity and magnetism and Marconi was in on the ground floor with help from the best.

Once established in England Marconi worked on improvements in his system so that he was able to go from sending a signal a few miles, to sending one across the Atlantic (although his earliest claims at success in this regard are disputed).  He established The Wireless Telegraph & Signal Company in 1897 to manufacture wireless telegraphic equipment.  The company, eventually under the Marconi name, survived until 2006 when it was bought out by a Swedish corporation.

The Wireless Telegraph & Signal Company had a major hand in developing wireless telegraphy for transatlantic shipping.  It was Marconi equipment and Marconi employees  aboard RMS Titanic that sent out distress signals when the ship hit an iceberg off Newfoundland.  The equipment was actually intended for the use of passengers primarily, but could be used for professional maritime purposes as well.  Marconi took more time than perhaps was necessary to branch out from telegraphy into audio broadcasts, although it can also be said that until he got into the field in 1915 the technology for audio transmissions was barely existent.  The Marconi Company was instrumental in setting up experimental audio broadcasts in 1920 (his first was a transmission of Nellie Melba singing which was heard as far away as Newfoundland). He registered a radio station in 1922 with the call sign 2LO in the Marconi Building in London. This station became the BBC.  Marconi is decidedly dressed down as he broadcasts in comparison with the first BBC  “DJ’s” — as pictured.

Almost from the start of public broadcasting, cooking shows were an intrinsic part of variety programming.  It is generally accepted that the first radio show on cooking was aired in Paris in 1923 featuring  Dr. Édouard de Pomiane, an eminent food scientist at the Institut Pasteur, and devoted foodie.  He hosted a weekly program on Radio-Paris, telling stories of his kitchen experiences and providing recipes suitable for home cooks. As a popular and respected cook, he was arguably the food world’s first media personality. His shows were not just recitals of recipes, but were  sprinkled with humor and anecdotes. Cooking with Pomiane is a cookbook that came out of his broadcasts (still in print). Here is his recipe for Hollandaise Sauce (in translation) taken from the book.  Although I just came across this recipe in researching this post, it is identical with the one I have used with zero failures for decades. Here I was thinking I invented it! I must have been channeling the spirit of the good doctor when I first made Hollandaise for eggs Benedict this way around 1979. It is dead easy and belies the general belief that making Hollandaise is so complicated that it is best left to professionals.  It is also amusing to note that if you search for “Marconi” and “recipe” on the internet, you will come across dozens of recipes for “Marconi and Cheese.” It’s not so much that the typo exists, and is hilarious when you conjure up an image of the dapper Guglielmo snacking on provolone as he operates his radio equipment, but that so many people mindlessly cut and paste other people’s recipes into their own sites without even bothering to check them.

Hollandaise Sauce

Put a spoonful of cold water, a little salt and two yolks of eggs into a small saucepan. Put this little saucepan into a large one containing boiling water, holding the smaller one firmly. Stir quickly, with a fork, the mixture of water and yolk of egg. This begins to thicken. At this moment lift the small saucepan out of the water, add two ounces of butter cut into pieces the size of a nut. Put it back into the hot water. Stir the mixture all the time with a wire beater. The butter melts and the sauce becomes creamy. Lift it out of the water a little. Add two more ounces of butter cut in pieces. Stir. Put it back into the water. The sauce thickens. Keep on stirring. Dip your finger into the sauce. If it burns, lift the saucepan out of the hot water. Stir fifteen seconds more. The sauce is ready. It should be thinner than mayonnaise. It should, however, coat a spoon which you dip in and lift out again. If you like the flavour of lemon, add a few drops at the beginning of the operation, before the butter. You are then much more likely to be successful with your sauce.

I have never succeeded in spoiling a sauce hollandaise. Follow my example.

This sauce is a luxurious accompaniment to boiled fish or tinned asparagus warmed in its own juice.