Obituary: Stewart MacPherson
Saturday 29 April 1995
"Suddenly I hear shots! In two strides I am on the balcony microphone in hand. What I see starts me talking, and talking fast! Tommy-guns chatter! Rifles bark! Bullets whine! Yes, sir, there's more fireworks here than on a Guy Fawkes Night back home!"
The date was 12 July 1947, and Stewart MacPherson, billed as "Dare-devil Stewart, the man behind the headlines", was making his strip-cartoon dbut in Radio Fun, compulsive reading for all young wireless fans in the Forties. To star in this once famous weekly was the highest accolade for broadcasting personalities of the period. "Big- Hearted Arthur" Askey was on the cover, Tommy Handley of ITMA and "Cheerful" Charlie Chester were on the inside, and now "Radio's Ace Commentator, bringing you Red Hot News from the Danger Spots of the World" was on the back page in red and black, as illustrated by the finest adventure artist of the time, George Heath (father of today's newspaper cartoonist Michael Heath).
Presented as an action hero, the bespectacled broadcaster had in fact served as a highly active radio reporter during the Second World War. As a member of the BBC War Report team he covered everything from Atlantic convoys to the Battle of Arnhem. But this was only one side of this brilliant, fast-talking man. Before the war he was the top ice hockey commentator in the country, and afterwards he would enter light entertainment as a comedian, and the most popular panel-game chairman of the day.
Stewart MacPherson was born in Winnipeg, Canada, on in 1908, and came to England in 1936 after he had failed an audition for his local radio. He was a West End shoe salesman for a short while, but soon passed a BBC audition as a commentator for the fast-rising sport of ice hockey. He was helped by his Canadian background and obvious first-hand knowledge of the game, and his transatlantic accent and rapid delivery earned him the sobriquet "The Fastest Voice in Radio". Tried out on boxing matches, he was an immediate success, especially when coupled with inter-round exchanges with the veteran expert and former referee W. Barrington Dalby.
After his excellent reporting work during the war, MacPherson was offered the role of the chairman of Ignorance is Bliss. This comedy quiz, a broad burlesque of serious series like The Brains Trust, was based on a successful American show, It Pays to Be Ignorant. The rights had been purchased by Maurice Winnick, a dance-band leader turned entrepreneur, and with Sid Colin, a former dance-band crooner, anglicising the scripts, the show was launched on April Fools Day, 1946, and took off at once, thanks to brilliant casting.
MacPherson was the desperate, often infuriated voice of sanity failing to control a terrible trio of non-experts, consisting of Harold Berens, the cockney ignoramus, Michael Moore, the upper-class twit, and Gladys Hay, the fat lady. Each had their own catchphrase, Berens with "What a geezer!", Moore with "I have a poem, Mr MacPherson", and Hay (who had learned her timing working on stage with her famous father Will Hay) with "What's your first name, ducks?" She also provided the regular word-play routine which would end with some overweight insult and the cry, "Now we are back to Miss Hay again!" MacPherson's own catchphrase was simple. It was "Shuddup!" The show toured the variety theatres, giving MacPherson another area of showbiz to conquer.
In December 1946 he was the first host of a new record request series, Down Your Way. "Stewart MacPherson with the BBC Mobile Recording Unit visits Lambeth and invites Mr and Mrs John Citizen to choose their favourite records and say a few words to the listeners," said Radio Times describing the first show. It became one of the longest runs in BBC history, celebrating its 1,500th programme in 1981.
Perhaps MacPherson's biggest winner was chairing Twenty Questions, first aired on 14 March 1947. Another series to bear the classic catchline "By arrangement with Maurice Winnick", this show was based on the old parlour game "Animal, Vegetable or Mineral". MacPherson supervised a team consisting of his fellow radio commentator Richard Dimbleby, Jack Train, the popular funny voice man from ITMA, Anona Winn, once a vocalist, and Olga Collett. Collett was quickly replaced by Daphne Padell, another voice new to radio, but this time a successful one. The Mystery Voice who whispered the answers to the listeners at home began a whole new career for the pianist Norman Hackforth.
Under MacPherson the show moved at a cracking pace, something it would lack under the gruff chairmanship of his later replacement Gilbert Harding. It is often forgotten that in 1950 the show moved to Radio Luxembourg, where it was sponsored by Craven A cork-tipped cigarettes.
A highspot of MacPherson's broadcasting career was to star in a Royal Command radio party at Windsor Castle, followed in 1949 by being voted Voice of the Year in the National Radio Awards. These accolades did not however affect his decision to return to his homeland. Family reasons were given as the deciding factor, and MacPherson settled down as a permanent member of the small radio station WCCO, Minneapolis, where he continued broadcasting until his retirement.
What was the secret of his success? MacPherson said, "Talk as if you know what you are talking about, and keep your ears sticking out like Japanese fans."
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