Charles Chilton, who has died at the age of 95, was a BBC radio presenter, writer and producer. He created two classic 1950s radio serials, Riders of the Range and Journey Into Space, and also inspired the stage show and film Oh, What A Lovely War!
He was born during a London air raid in 1917; his father had been killed at the Battle of Arras. As soon as he was old enough he left school, taking odd jobs to support his widowed mother then becoming an apprentice metal worker. He sought a creative stimulus, and joined the BBC as a messenger, rapidly graduating to the publications unit. By 1935 he was in the gramophone library where, at 21, he assisted Alistair Cooke on I Hear America Singing. He and some other lads on the BBC's staff formed a dance band – he played the guitar – and in July 1940 he presented rare jazz recordings from his own collection, a broadcast that resulted in the 1941-44 series Radio Rhythm Club. During the war, RAF flying instructor Chilton joined the Forces' station Radio SEAC.
After the war he became a producer in the BBC's variety department; anthologies of American negro folk music – Cabin In The Cotton (1947) and Glory Road (1951) – alternated with comedy shows like Hello Anybody (1948), The Bowery Bar (1949) and It's A Great Life (1951).
By then Riders Of The Range had become a major step forward for writer/producer Chilton, premiering in 1949. Based on contemporary sources, authentic in song and story, this drama serial with musical interludes involved its fictional characters in actual events such as the opening up of the Chisholm Trail, the building of the Union Pacific railroad, and the lives of outlaws like Billy the Kid and Jesse James.
When the Eagle hired Chilton to adapt his radio show for a weekly picture strip, editor Marcus Morris sent him on a research trip to Arizona. He was made an honorary marshal of Tombstone, while Chief Mountain Lion of the Osage tribe invested him as "Long Knife''. From Christmas 1950, the radio and comic strip versions of Riders Of The Range ran concurrently. Chilton worked on the strip until 1962, but the last radio show was in 1953.
Seven days later Journey Into Space was launched on the BBC's Light Programme. The commander of the spaceship Luna was Jet Morgan, with his crew representing the Commonwealth: an Australian rocket scientist, a Cockney wireless operator (a Chilton self-portrait) and a Canadian doctor. On the dark side of the Moon, they encountered benevolent aliens, time travellers of horrifying appearance but with peaceful intentions. The ethereal theme music and inventive sound effects captured the imagination of a huge audience.
When Chilton started to write his "tale of the future'', as it was billed in Radio Times, he had no real idea how it would end; only when the BBC hierarchy complained about this open-ended approach did the intrepid astronauts, suddenly, decide to head back to Earth. With Chilton getting through 60 cigarettes a day as the weekly deadline approached, the serial originally ran for an unprecedented 18 episodes. Journey Into Space was followed by The Red Planet (1954) and The World in Peril (1955): a classic trilogy. Novelisations of the three serials were published between 1954 and 1962, while Chilton's characters also featured in a fourth adventure, devised for Express Weekly (a rival comic to Eagle), Planet of Fear.
Chilton's literary output in the 1950s included several Riders Of The Range annuals crammed with fact and fiction – quiz sections, information about Indian crafts and customs, lyrics of cowboy ballads, articles on historical characters – which were labours of love. One included an account of the Nez Perce's surrender to the cavalry, written a decade before Dee Brown's Bury My Heart At Wounded Knee.
In 1961 Chilton completed The Book Of The West, an illustrated history of the American hinterland, its flora and fauna, heroes and villains, from Columbus and Cortez to the present day. It benefited from a long visit Chilton had made to the US earlier that year, recording and collecting material for another landmark series of BBC radio programmes, which he devised, wrote and produced. One of the first, on the Home Service in 1961, was The Blue And The Gray, a historical narrative with Civil War marching songs. Later came This Is The Place (1962) about the founding of Salt Lake City, The Trampling Herd, about the Texas longhorn, and The Buffalo People, a history of the Sioux nation. Blood On The Prairie (1963) was a dramatised account of the Indian Wars. Marching To Glory (1965) described the birth of the Salvation Army.
As a BBC employee Chilton was occasionally assigned to other shows. Having survived The Goon Show (1957 and 1958) he attempted to keep order on various Spike Milligan excursions into fantasy like The Spon Plague and The Mummified Priest. He guided another ex-Goon, Michael Bentine, in Round The Bend (1960) and It's A Stereophonic World (1962). In 1964 he produced Spike Milligan's post-Goon series The Omar Khyaam Show, followed by The GPO Show, a Milligan "special" written and performed for an audience of Post Office workers, including the then Postmaster General Anthony Wedgwood Benn.
The most effective application of Chilton's more characteristic formula had been heard in a 1961 production exploring a subject close to the heart of a man orphaned during the Great War. The Long, Long Trail: Soldiers' Songs of the First World War was a 60-minute tribute to the young men who died on the Western Front, inspired by a visit to his father's grave. Counterpointing the official history with the infantrymen's own words in song and prose, Chilton created a masterpiece. When director Joan Littlewood returned to the Theatre Royal at Stratford East in 1963, her first project was a collaboration with the Canadian playwright Ted Allan to adapt it for the stage.
In Littlewood's version, an end-of-the-pier concert party, "The Merry Roosters", personified her non-realistic interpretation, which she called Oh, What A Lovely War! In 1968 Richard Attenborough adapted her basic concept, filming on the derelict West Pier at Brighton with an illustrious cast.
Chilton continued to plough a unique furrow on radio, and was responsible over the next decade for, among other admired programmes, Sweet Thames, Run Softly (1971), The Boston Tea Party (1973) and a nostalgic Victorian Top Of The Pops (1978). A major two-part series, The British Army And The British Soldier (1974-75), employed Chilton to research and direct all the music recordings.
Forays into television were comparatively rare. Lost to posterity is Saddles And Six Guns from the 1950s, in which Chilton described a cowboy's life. The Long, Long Trail used stills to accompany quotations from war poets like Owen and Sassoon.
A World Of Music, scripted by Chilton in 1976, had Douglas Fairbanks Jr introducing selections from The Great American Songbook, and the following year London Weekend Television used Chilton's expertise for the episode "Go Down Moses – War Songs" in Tony Palmer's history of popular music All You Need Is Love.
In 1981 Chilton was persuaded to write the final sequel to Riders Of The Range, "The Return From Mars", for Radio 4. After retirement he was a chirpy, entertaining presence at venues like the Museum of London and the National Film Theatre, delivering impeccable slide lectures on the early days of radio; and he cheerfully attended junkets organised by Eagle comic's appreciation society, where Dan Dare fans would besiege him with questions. Chilton was apt to end his talks with a merry invitation to the audience, if they had enjoyed themselves, to "applaud – or just throw money."
Charles Frederick William Chilton, producer, director and writer: born 15 June 1917; MBE 1972; married 1947 Penelope Colbeck (one daughter); died 2 January 2013.Reuse content