Obituary: Charles Maxwell

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
THE EARLIEST radio producers were anonymous, but by the mid-Thirties "Monday Night at Seven was on the air". So sang Judy Shirley the "Singing Compere" every week as she introduced the items in this hour-long programme. And always she sang the closing credits: "Produced by Harry Pepper and Douglas Moodie too, we hope the programme hasn't caused a frown". And us young fans sang along as we always did with any song we heard more than once, so that by the time 43 Mondays had come and gone we knew at least one important fact about pre-war radio: programmes were produced by producers.

Today the Radio Times does its best to hide that fact, making sure that not only producers but script-writers, devisers, and as many creative behind-the-microphone talents as possible are eliminated from their microscopic listings. Fortunately for historians and nostalgists back numbers of Radio Times, particularly the pre-war and post-war editions, are jam-packed with information on those behind-the- voices professionals who gave us so many hours of mirth and melody.

Charles Maxwell, one of the greatest of these professionals, has left behind him a vast sound archive of some of the funniest programmes ever broadcast: he was producer of Take It From Here, the series where the Keynotes introduced "Half an hour of laughter beckons - every minute packed with seconds!"

Charles Chalmers Maxwell was a Scotsman, born in Fife in 1910. Educated at Edinburgh Academy, he went on to study law at the university, following in his father's footsteps. He qualified as a solicitor, but the stage bug bit him and he abandoned the seriousness of life in the law courts for a career as an actor in London. Answering an advertisement he joined the continental commercial station Radio Luxembourg as a staff announcer and introducer of gramophone records, as disc-jockeys or deejays were known in those long lost days of 1936.

British commercial radio, the brainchild of one Captain Leonard Plugge, had begun in a small way on Sunday 11 October 1931 with dance records by the Ibcolians, the official band of IBC, the International Broadcasting Company. This came from Radio Normandy, whose first sponsored programme came a month later with the Philco Slumber Hour, more dance records, introduced by Major Max Staniforth. By 1936 the rival Radio Luxembourg had not only out-programmed Normandy but also Sir John Reith's BBC.

That deeply religious dictator of British broadcasting devoted every wireless Sunday to church services alternating with classical concerts. Luxembourg fired back with The Ovaltineys Concert Party, The Rinso Radio Revue and The Palmolive Programme starring Olive Palmer, Paul Oliver and the Palmolivers, to name but a few. You can guess who won the battle of Britain's Sundays.

After 18 months as station announcer, Maxwell went over to the rival outfit, Normandy, where he met and struck up a lifetime friendship with their top announcer, Roy Plomley. In the years before Plomley struck it rich with his Desert Island Discs, he was already a big name in commercial broadcasting, eventually touring England as compere of the promotional stage show Radio Normandy Calling. Maxwell returned to England during 1938 where he did his first producing work for IBC.

The Second World War saw him serving a short spell in the RAF, and with the enforced closure of the continental stations early in 1940 (one would become the home of Lord Haw-Haw), he joined the BBC as a variety producer for their new General Forces Programme. His greatest wartime success was Navy Mixture, which started on 4 February 1943 and ran well beyond the war to 22 November 1947.

"Blended to suit the taste of the Royal Navy", this series was compered by Petty Officer Jack Watson, who before the war was better known as "Hubert", straight man to his comedian father, Nosmo King, the black-face monologuist. The original cast included Telegraphist Ivor Pye, who sang sailor songs alongside such vocalists as Judy Shirley and Sam Browne. But the most significant moment of the show was called "Archie Takes the Helm", which featured comical crosstalk between the ventriloquist Peter Brough and his dummy Archie Andrews.

Other seeds for future blossoming included a bright and breezy singing star from Australia, Joy Nichols, and "Professor" Jimmy Edwards, fresh from the Windmill Theatre, in a light-hearted musical lecture entitled "You May Take Notes". The professor accompanied himself on the euphonium, and brought with him a long, lean and lanky scriptwriter called Frank Muir. Another Australian singer-cum-comic was also around looking for work. This was Dick Bentley. Clearly the time was right for all this talent to be combined: all Maxwell had to do was to take it from here.

Sensing the writing talent burgeoning from Frank Muir, Maxwell stood him a hefty lunch in the hope of persuading him to write a new half-hour show to star Joy, Dick and Jimmy, as they were soon to become nationally known. Muir thought it much too much for one mere man, and suggested working in partnership with Denis Norden, another long, lean and lanky newcomer to the script market. Soon the new show was set, the only old thing about it being the title. Take It From Here had started in 1943 and had folded after two runs, the first with the wonderful Richard Haydn as the fish impersonator, Professor Edwin Carp; the second with the equally wonderful Arthur Marshall as Nurse Dugdale ("Out of my way dears, instantly!")

Following the Tommy Handley vehicle It's That Man Again, initially known as Itma, Take It From Here was soon shortened to Tifh, pronounced "Tife". David "Dunners" Dunhill, a BBC staff announcer with no sense of humour, announced, and from 4 March 1948 the series took off. It was packed with catch- phrases, the mark of any good radio show in those days, usually bawled by the ebullient Jimmy Edwards: "Wake up at the back there!", "A mauve one!", "Clumsy clot!", "Black mark, Bentley!", to name but a few. Clarence Wright, ex-Itma, played Henpecked Harry Hickory ("Shh! Thought it was her for a minute!"), with other odd voices played by the mysteriously non-existent Herbert Mostyn. This in fact was both Muir and Norden using their middle names as a disguise.

Everybody on the show had characters to create and continue. Joy Nichols, apart from her weekly song, was Miss Arundel, who had a naughty boyfriend Gilbert, and whose answer to most questions was a breathy giggle. "Master" Dick Bentley, the ageing juvenile, was the adenoidal lovelorn who sighed, "Oh Mavis, how ravishing you look in your `nee-glige' with its tantalising glimpses of vest!" Small wonder the new show won both the 1949 and 1951 National Radio Awards.

Wallas Eaton, remembered for his weekly plea, "Come 'ome, Jim Edwards, come back to the buildings", arrived in the second series and stayed on to the end in 1959. Joy Nichols left in 1952 to have a baby, and Sally Rogers from Cheerful Charlie Chester's Gang, took over. Joy finally left for good, and her exceptional talent called for not one but two replacements. Maxwell finally selected the bubbly Alma Cogan to sing the songs, and talented June Whitfield for the funny voices.

The most famous sketch series within the show began with the new look (or new listen) programme broadcast on 12 November 1953. This was "The Glums". Originally introduced as a Typical British Family to comment upon the week's Tifh Talking Point, the extraordinary trio soon came to dominate the programme. Pa Glum (Edwards) constantly interrupted the eager love- making of son Ron ("Come on, Eth, just a kiss") and his wailing fiancee Eth ("Ohhh Ron . . .") with his unwelcome "Allo! Allo! Allo!"

After 12 series Muir and Norden departed for television, and the unlucky 13th turned out to be the last. This 1959 run was written by the newish partnership of Eric Merriman and Barry Took, who did better later with Beyond Our Ken.

Between series of Tifh, Maxwell also produced one of the most popular non-audience comedy shows ever, the quietly amusing Just Fancy (1951). An experiment by Eric Barker, who had had enough of his wartime radio series Waterlogged Spa, wanted to concentrate on the comedy of character rather than verbal jokes.

Just Fancy, impeccably produced, was perfect, particularly with its closing sequence set in the Cranbourne Towers Hotel where two retired old friends, Barker and Deryck Guyler, waffled away to each other that it was only by listening to the other fellow that you get the other fellow's point of view. Kenneth Connor played the waiter Muspratt, and Pearl Hackney (Mrs Barker) was Lillian Forsdyke of the out-of-tune Trio. The series ran for over a hundred half-hours.

In 1966 Maxwell was appointed Chief Producer of Radio Four Light Entertainment, overseeing some 40 comedies a week. It was he who brought those bright new talents from the Cambridge Footlights to the air in the long-running I'm Sorry I'll Read That Again (1964-73): John Cleese, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Bill Oddie, Graeme Garden and David Hatch, who in time would himself become Managing Director BBC Radio.

In 1952 a paperback was published about Take It From Here. The anonymous author wrote of Maxwell:

A man who combines in one person the qualities of father, wicked uncle, martinet and fairy godmother. He must where essential be ruthless. When things come to a sticky pause he must have ideas. When nothing goes wrong, his greatest triumph, he stands happily in the background, knowing that his work has been well done.

Which perfectly sums up every great radio producer, hopefully not a dying breed.

Charles Chalmers Maxwell, radio producer: born 1 September 1910; Chief Producer, BBC Radio 4 Light Entertainment 1966-70; twice married (one son, two daughters); died 4 August 1998.