OBITUARY: Ronald Fletcher

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An episode of The Goon Show first broadcast in 1955 - "The Greenslade Story" - celebrated one of the features of the golden years of radio: the inclusion in comedy shows of announcers better known for their more solemn activities on news bulletins and weather forecasts. Wallace Greenslade had followed Andrew Timothy as a sort of speaking butler to the Goons. In the script purporting to tell of Greenslade's defection to a better- paid world beyond the BBC, John Snagge gravely intoned over the Last Post: "So this then is the end of the once great BBC announcing staff. Where are they now, that noble band? Andrew Timothy - missing. Alvar Liddell - went down with his lift. And, finally, Ronald Fletcher - gone to the dogs . . . "

Now, with the death of Ronald Fletcher, the last active member of that noble band, one might say that the joke has expired, too.

In truth, there was only one joke; that these men with godlike voices, more usually bringing news of fresh disasters, were equally capable of letting their hair down and mingling with the clowns of light entertainment. But it was a good joke and somehow typical of the age that bred it. Fletcher did not capitalise on his abilities in this field as much as he might have liked, but that may have had something to do with the nature of the man and the route he took to the microphone.

Born in Salisbury in 1910, son of a chartered accountant "who played golf and went to the office", he came from monied stock. His grandfather had wealth from coalmining and bestowed on the infant Ronald and his younger sister Helen a considerable legacy which paid for Ronald to go to Shrewsbury School and Cambridge University (where he read English) but did not give him much incentive to work.

An insight into this upbringing was provided in 1986 by the posthumous publication of his sister's autobiography, Bluestocking (written in the mid-1940s just before her career as a film critic and writer was cut short by her death in an accident). Helen Fletcher portrays her own childhood as that of a bluestocking in the making who was considered an oddity by her family. Compared with her rejection, she writes, Ronald was "adored" and, although always generous and loyal, he had "the disarming sweetness of spoilt princes."

Sent down from Trinity Hall because he preferred to spend his days on the golf course (where he showed considerable promise) or at the races, he spent his twenties having a good time, rather like a feckless character in P.G. Wodehouse. He got into scrapes, developed an admiration (which never left him) for anything in a skirt, and even tried to make a go of being a crooner in South Africa. By the outbreak of the Second World War, he was "down to his last thousand" as he put it, and served as a lieutenant in an anti-aircraft regiment.

It was round about this point in the 1940s that his sister was exclaiming:

Dear Ronald, the world has dealt as cruelly with him as it deals with all spoilt princelings. Girls who won't be kissed, cars that won't be sold, jobs that influence cannot hold, separate him from the boy I once knew. Only, so strong is the child in man that even on those days when the Bank Manager mars his breakfast with his peculiarly caddish invective, nothing can ever mar Ronald's conviction that the day will be fun.

With the coming of peacetime, what was this slightly raffish individual to do when there wasn't a war to be brave in (or at least to stand and wait in) and when there wasn't any family money left to gad about on like a playboy? Was there something not very demanding that would enable him to pursue his now well-established enthusiasms?

In those days, if you were blessed with a distinctive voice, and believed in your luck, you tried for a job as a BBC announcer, and Fletcher got one soon after demobilisation. At first with the Light Programme, in time he proved himself capable of the whole range of announcing duties, right up to reading the news on the Home Service and even on the Third Programme.

He became a featured personality when appearing on Bernard Braden's shows Breakfast with Braden and Bedtime with Braden in the early 1950s. One of his most fondly remembered endpieces from these shows was: "It is an offence to have a wireless on too loud these still summer evenings. It can annoy your neighbour. An even better way is to throw a dead cat on the lawn . . . " On another occasion, he gave a homily on the effects of loud radios - and encouraged listeners to test the offensiveness of their radios by leaning out of the window: ". . . a little more; a little bit more; just a bit more . . . oh, I beg your pardon!"

With debonair looks and a personality to match, Ronald Fletcher never ceased to give off an air of the racetrack and the golf-club, two places he continued to frequent, even on the meagre pickings of a BBC salary, and where he was more likely to feel at ease than in a broadcasting studio. He was known as a gambling man, and John Snagge's line about him -"gone to the dogs" - was undoubtedly an in-joke. As Eric Nicol used to recall, at one stage Fletcher was in debt for several thousand pounds and the bookmaker in question offered to write off the debt if Fletcher promised never to back another horse; that night he went to the dog track. On another occasion, it is said, he offered a bank manager his BBC salary as collateral for a loan, but when Fletcher revealed what the salary was, the manager replied, "Would a pound be all right?"

In the late 1960s Fletcher left the BBC staff and appeared, again as an announcer, on television shows like Twice a Fortnight and Braden's Week (famously losing out to Cyril Fletcher through a bureaucratic bungle when the latter programme transferred to television as That's Life).

Then, in 1975, when John Lloyd and I were looking for someone to read the quotations on what was to become known as Quote . . . Unquote on Radio 4, I do not think we ever considered anyone else for the role. His official- sounding voice, with that delicious streak of irony, was capable of putting audible quotation marks around anything I gave him to speak - whether it was a line from the Bible or Shakespeare, or a joke (for which he never failed to inspire laughter). Ill-health forced him to retire two years ago, just after we had recorded the programme's 200th edition. Previewers in the Independent talked of his "magisterial voice" and "effortless authority", but it was the voice's quality of lightness and its suggestion of an earlier, more carefree age that I shall always hear.

Nigel Rees

Ronald Fletcher, broadcaster: born Salisbury 10 July 1910; married 1938 Terri Hann (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1958), 1959 Rita Dando (one son, one daughter); died Roehampton 6 February 1996.