Design: The retuning of a radio star

The Roberts was the original personal radio. Then came Walkmans. Now the design classic is back on air. By Charlotte Bingham
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
As a wedding present, we received a brown leather Roberts portable, very much "The Thing" back in the early Sixties. Far away in the future were the days of transistors, Walkmen, personal CD players and ghetto blasters - what you took on your picnic then was 4lbs worth of battery- powered hand luggage fully capable of picking up the Home Service, the Light Programme, the Third Programme, Radio Luxembourg and Hilversum, which was all a girl really needed on her airwaves in those pre-silicon days. What I liked about my Roberts is what I still like about it - its design exudes an indisputable cheerfulness, and it's a doddle to tune.

Like many of my sex, I suspect, I am none too good at locating radio stations with 100 per cent accuracy. Perhaps I inherited this from my mother who also owned a Roberts radio, which, as far as I can recall, she never once had in perfect tune. Given to rising early, she would switch on her radio at full volume and entertain the rest of our still slumbering household with long, indecipherable shipping forecasts and farming reports which sounded as if they had been recorded under-water. Unable to get back to sleep, I would lie in my bed and pretend I was a British agent marooned in war-torn France trying to make radio contact with London, a fantasy which was generally interrupted by a set of out-of-tune pips played fortissimo as my mother turned up the volume to hear the first news bulletin of the day.

Mercifully, I experienced no such difficulties with our first Roberts, even though you had to twiddle the knobs a bit in order to get the station right on line. But the services were so clearly marked that all you really had to do was find the right wavelength and surf the little squares that said Home or Light, or whatever, until all came clear. Once tuned, the reception was faultless and I would either clear away the breakfast things to the music of Housewife's Choice, or write away at my desk to the sound of the Third Programme.

Since it was a wedding present, Mr Roberts naturally came away with us on honeymoon and, naturally, as with anyone with whom you honeymoon, I got overly fond of not only my new partner but also of Mr Roberts, who became very much part of my baggage. Having been with us ever since our marriage, our Roberts now accompanied us everywhere: on picnic, on vacation, to work and to play - even to bed, where he would serenade us from under the bedroom window or amuse and entertain us should we be struck down with the 'flu - as it was known in those pre-virus days.

Imagine then the horror when one night we were woken to the sound of our sports car being stolen from outside our house - not so much at the loss of our well-insured motor but at the hijacking of poor Mr Roberts, whom I had carelessly left in the car boot after a Sunday out on the river. The police eventually found the car but Mr Roberts was lost forever, snatched by a thief with the best of taste.

We bought another one at once, rather as you are advised to do after losing a much loved pet. The new Mr Roberts wore a bright red coat and, to all intents and purposes, seemed no different from his predecessor. He was as remorselessly cheerful and just as easy to tune, but somehow we didn't get along quite so well.

It wasn't to do with old fickle fashion, although I suppose he did look a little overweight alongside the new transistorised models - nor was I worried about his limited range, since I rarely listened to anything else other than the three BBC programmes. Maybe it was all to do with the change in programming which coincided with the loss of our original radio. Into the atmosphere went the Home Service and the Light and the Third programmes and in came Radio One and Tony Blackburn, Radio Two and Jimmy Young, Radio Three and Radio Four, and the sign of the furrowed brow.

Fed up with trying to find something to which I genuinely wanted to listen to, I surfed the dial less and less and Mr Roberts fell more and more silent. All I listened to were the programmes my partner was in, broadcasts to which he would have to pre-tune Mr R before leaving for Broadcasting House. Too old for Radio One and too young for Radio Two, I wrote in silence, watched by the muted radio whose once cheerful grille now assumed an expression of sorrow, as if he too mourned the passing of the radio days gone by.

Then the very worst happened - I was unfaithful. A friend arrived at our house, hotfoot back from the Orient, and with him he brought a Sony Walkman. It was love at first sound. Hardly able to believe the evidence of my ears, I rushed off and bought a Sony of my own. Worse followed. Before you could say: Wow!, they brought out a radio-cassette player as well, then came one you could wear jogging - and swimming - and on horseback. Suddenly there were CDs and satellites, and stacking systems and compact sound centres and hi-fis that brought the concert hall into your bedroom, all of which, once programmed, never again needed tuning. A press of the button and the world was your audible oyster. The trouble was, I didn't know which button to press.

There were so many on offer - besides the remote handsets designed to control everything from the hi-fi to the front door. Time and time again, I would be found standing in front of the television trying to turn it on with the washing machine remote. I couldn't even manage the radio, even though it had 24 pre-programmed stations. And the reason why I couldn't manage it was because I didn't know which button to press to turn the whole thing on - which no doubt is why, for my last birthday, my partner gave me another radio, a brand new un-state of the art retro Roberts portable.

Mr Roberts III wears blue. He also has a different face which says very precisely where to find everything from R2 to Virgin. He has little square tabs which, when pressed, give you FM, MW or LW and he even has a button for tone and a knob marked Tun-ing. Otherwise, he looks as cheerful as ever with his golden grille underneath his familiar autograph. He's back in pride of place as well, underneath the bedroom window where he ushers in each new day by waking us with Wogan and putting us to sleep with a bedtime story. Dear Mr Roberts - if ever there was a simple design designed simply for pleasure, you are It.

Charlotte Bingham's latest novel is `Love Song' (Bantam). For information on the Roberts Radio, ring 01709 571722