COLLECTING / Mr Wells's mission to explain: If ever a sound were destined to become a museum piece, it is that of BBC medium wave. John Windsor is almost persuaded by a man determined to preserve it - along with 1,000 vintage radios that share his home

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The Independent Culture
IN A QUIET street in Dulwich, south London, in the house where he was born, Gerald Wells twiddles a moulded Bakelite knob and the sound of times past wafts into his parlour. Round and resonant and reassuring, this is the BBC as heard by grandfather in the days of Tommy Handley, ITMA, Uncle Mac and that charming announcer Mr Hibberd, who used to say, 'Goodnight everybody. Goodnight.'

There is a notice on the wall: 'No transistor radios. No hi-fi systems. No stereo of any kind.' We are listening to the BBC on an old valve wireless - tuned to medium wave. Soon, the only way you will get BBC on medium wave is with the help of a radio wave converter. Mr Wells, defender of the airwaves, champion of British culture, happens to have a supply of them. He also has his own medium-wave radio station in a back room.

BBC MW has been disappearing fast since the early Nineties, when the Corporation's five national radio stations began transferring their broadcasts to VHF-FM - abandoning medium wave to the commercial stations. If ever a sound were destined to become a museum piece, it is the sound of BBC medium wave.

The 1,000 wirelesses that share Mr Wells's home are museum pieces. Their valves cannot take new-fangled VHF-FM - and nor can he. Wireless buffs who used to delight in listening to their collectables broadcasting BBC Radio 1, 2, 3 and 4 can now receive only BBC Radio 1 on medium wave - and by the summer, that too will be available only on VHF.

There's the newcomer Radio 5 on medium wave, of course, but that is due to become news and sport only by the end of next month. Or homely Radio 4 (the old Home Service) still transmitting intermittently on long wave but doomed to a diet dominated by test-match scores in the summer. Apart from those, MW and LW now mean commercial radio.

It's bad enough that VHF-FM - FM stands for frequency modulation - sounds to Mr Wells like 'an angry wasp in an empty milk bottle', while MW resonates with mellow, old-fashioned AM - amplitude modulation. What really irks him is that the output of the commercial stations - 'Radio Council Estate', he calls them - is out of tune with 'old-fashioned English people'.

Old-fashioned English people? 'You know - people who can still string a sentence together. People who can use a telephone without saying 'er'. People who read Homes & Gardens, The Lady, Harper's & Queen. There are not many of us left.'

He would not object to the commercial stations, he says, if only they 'played good tunes and spoke English'. Good English, he means; not the mid-Atlantic, trans- Atlantic or even the estuary variety. 'They are trying to de-English us,' he complains. 'The only way to hear good, middle-class English on medium wave these days is to tune to Radio Sweden in the early evening. They have good quality travel programmes aimed specifically at the British Isles. They are not the only foreign station to have taken pity on us.'

With his white lab coat, bald pate and cloud of white hair, Mr Wells looks like one of those boffins who used to be wheeled on to BBC children's programmes in the Fifties to explain the mysteries of, say, the wireless. I would not have been surprised if he had offered me Ovaltine and asked whether I had ever managed to tune in to Hilversum.

It is not that he lives in a time warp, though he might prefer to. For him, times have changed since the days when it was considered impolite to turn one's back on the wireless when Saturday Night Theatre was on. He no longer walks out after dark. At 64, he has not adapted to the multi-cultural society and is not likely to. When a party of eight, including two Rastafarians, visited his home to see the exhibits he felt afraid.

Suggest the word 'obsession' to him and he lights up like a wireless dial, not in the least offended. That was the psychologist's diagnosis after he stole a radio from a shop window at the age of 14 and ended up in an approved school in Newton-le-Willows, North Yorkshire. 'Obsessed,' he muses. 'I could have told him that.'

As it turned out, the school's headmaster was a wireless buff, too. He scoured shops for rare parts before young Wells had a chance to nick them. 'Finest school I ever went to,' Mr Wells recalled. 'They set me up with a wireless workshop. At Dulwich prep and St Joseph's, all they had wanted me to do was play cricket.' From then on, it was radios morning, noon and night. The obsession blossomed. He never married.

At the bottom of his garden are wooden outhouses with glazed clerestories (he makes them for neighbours, to earn money for the museum). Here is most of his collection, and his workshop. He casts his own knobs, winds his own coils; routs, turns, frets and bends metal. He once repaired a vintage television for J Paul Getty Jnr, who had bought it at auction. Mr Getty was charmed. He bought Mr Wells a patch of land next door to accommodate his overflowing collection and continues to pay his rates and electricity bill.

Mr Wells's reproductions of the world's most expensive vintage model - the Ekco AD65 of 1934-5 - are on a bench awaiting a coat of paint, revealing that they are cunningly made from wood, not Bakelite. An original AD65 fetched pounds 18,250 at Academy Auctioneers in London in September. It was the only known green one - an exhibition model. The sale sent rumours flying among collectors: the buyer was the seller's nominee, the buzz went, and the radio had then been sold in the United States at an artificially inflated price. Academy Auctioneers vigorously deny it. 'It was bought by a telephone bidder in the United States. We know the names of both buyer and seller - and they are not connected.'

Prices for valve models, rising in the late Eighties, have remained static since the recent switch to VHF, Mr Wells says, because collectors can no longer get medium wave on them. An Ekco AD65 or AD76 in a standard colour, black and chrome for example, can be had for pounds 300 to pounds 500 from dealers. A Pye of 1929-34 with fondly- remembered sunburst fretwork is worth pounds 150 to pounds 200. Late Fifties and early Sixties combined valve and VHF models are cheapest: pounds 40 to pounds 50 buys a Philips 353A in a flea market and a measly pounds 25 a flashy, American-style Pye Continental. Without VHF they would fetch more, Mr Wells says: 'VHF is the kiss of death.'

As for those valves, just the aroma of a rekindled dusty one can make a radio buff turn skittish. And the sound. 'Pleasant, round, easy on the ear and all the better for coming from a wooden box and not a metal one. Like a violin. Far superior to transistor sound with all those sibilants,' he hissed through his teeth.

And stereo? 'An orchestra in your living room? What a gruelling idea. The biggest con since Poll Tax. They would have us believe that because we have two ears we hear in stereo. Does that mean we enjoy sitting in the front row at a concert so that we hear the violins in one ear and the percussion in the other? Of course not. We avoid the front row because it gives us nausea. We sit well back to avoid the stereo effect at all costs.' Did I know that Wagner had designed the Bayreuth Opera House to avoid the stereo effect of the orchestra?

He handed me a leaflet, Getting Radio 2 On Your Vintage Radio, advertising his device, smaller than a biscuit tin, which converts VHF, FM, stereo and all that, 'back into the Medium Wave, where it belongs'. It was developed by a top BBC engineer, he says. Very hush- hush, but 'too small for the DTI to worry about'. The price is pounds 110. There is a device for vintage television sets, too. The size of a large biscuit tin, it converts 625 to the old 405-line standard. Complete and boxed: pounds 500.

In a shed in his garden is the 405-line television transmitter used by the BBC in 1953 to broadcast the Coronation to the Isle of Man. It was a gift from the BBC, he says. Strange generosity, in view of what he gets up to. In another shed is a petrol-driven 4-kilowatt electricity generator, strictly non-VHF - 'just in case we get the wrong government and get power cuts'.

Or in case an extreme government, broadcasting exclusively on VHF, were to ban medium and long wave radios capable (unlike VHF) of receiving broadcasts from abroad. I raise an eyebrow. 'Hitler would have loved VHF,' says Mr Wells.

Mr Wells's Vintage Wireless Museum, 081-670 3667.

(Photographs omitted)