The Week in Radio

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The Independent Culture
IN FRANK Skinner's view, the saxophone break during Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock" is far too "white and clinical", sounding like someone stuck in a traffic jam. The tone is nowhere near "dirty" enough for him, and so on Monday night he offered a few juicy alternatives. In the Days Before Rock'n'Roll (Radio 2) was a look through some records made prior to 1955, featuring the sort of music played inside smoky basement clubs where Haley's "canary-yellow jacket and silly kiss-curl" would be a positive bar to entry. In the first of a series of four programmes, Frank showed the influence of blues men on the development of rock and roll as a genre. Always giving the greatest reverence to the sleaziest sounds, he played Big Mama Thornton's "Hound Dog", Amos Milburn's "Down the Road a Piece", and Jackie Brenston's R&B classic "Rocket 88". According to Sun Records, this last one, from 1950, was the first ever rock and roll song. Well, maybe so, but there were a lot of other musical innovations flying around at the same time, as Fats Domino, Ike Turner, Roy Brown and Chuck Berry all made their presence felt.

Britain's Lonnie Donegan played a part too, because it was one of his performances that initially inspired Buddy Holly to pick up a guitar. The original "Rock Island Line" was sung by Lead Belly, but it was Lonnie's skiffle version (recorded in 1954) that got through to the American mainstream and became a massive hit, in spite of his rather dodgy "Gone with the Wind" vocal tones.

The vocal tones of Ray Galton and Alan Simpson were much easier to place. South London to be exact. In Hancock and Son (Radio 4, Tuesday), Harry Thompson talked to them about their writing partnership, now almost half- a-century old, and in particular, about how Hancock's Half Hour had become the first ever situation comedy.

Apparently they met in a TB sanatorium, where they passed four years testing comic scripts on one another. Perhaps by accident, perhaps not, the position of the interview microphone made them sound as if they were still there. Simpson actually seemed to be speaking from some kind of waiting room, his voice echoing on bare painted walls and tiled floors, while in the meantime Galton hovered near the doorway. This gave the two of them a certain aloofness, quite appropriate to their status as writers rather than performers of comedy. Without having to worry about acting ("That was Hancock's job") they could concentrate on getting the scripts perfect. Between extracts from "The Blood Donor" and "The Radio Ham", we heard how Simpson was "in charge of" the typewriter, editing the ideas they bounced off each other as Galton paced around the room, occasionally rushing over to make sure nothing of his was being thrown out. The resulting comedy was what you get when two men are shut in a room together for two decades, namely, an obsession with detail. They worked for hours to make sure the syntax was right. "One too many syllables in a line can render it unfunny," explained Alan Simpson. So it was that they rejected "just about an armful" of blood and even "nearly an armful", not satisfied until they finally arrived at "very nearly an armful" which was, of course, more precise. Any aspiring comedy writer would have done well to listen.