What the BBC really thought about some of the biggest names in entertainment

A hit record or West End smash didn't always guarantee a spot on the BBC – you still needed to impress the suits. Just ask the Rolling Stones. Spencer Leigh trawls the archives

Friday 29 February 2008 01:00 GMT

Early in 1962 the Beatles had an audition in Manchester for BBC radio. The producer Peter Pilbeam made comments: "Paul McCartney – no, John Lennon – yes. An unusual group, not as rocky as most. More country and western with a tendency to play music. Overall – yes."

Pilbeam invited the Beatles to appear on Here We Go, an audience show on the Light Programme in March 1962 and, within a year, a studio manager, Vernon Lawrence, thought they should star in their own radio series, perhaps called Beatle Time.A manager replied: "I'm not sure about the title but I like almost everything else about this. Young Lawrence certainly has good judgment of contemporary values." Young Lawrence certainly did and the series was the highly successful Pop Go The Beatles.

But, while the Beatles were finding success at the Beeb, the Rolling Stones couldn't get their foot in the door. They were informed in May 1963: "The recording has now been played to our production panel with a view to general broadcasting, but we regret to inform you that the performance was not considered suitable for our purposes. However, this is an instance when it would seem likely that it might be of help to you to know our opinion in a little more detail." Brian Jones rang the BBC to be told that their lead singer sounded "too black".

Watch The Rolling Stone's performing 'I'm Alright' at the NME Poll Winners Concert - Apr 26 1964

Up until the mid-1960s, the mere fact that you had a record contract, made a film or were appearing in a West End play was not enough to secure you the right to appear on the BBC. Performers would have to pass an audition – possibly two, one for radio and one for television – before they could be broadcast. Passing an audition was by no means a shoo-in and well-known performers were initially rejected. Some rock'n'roll hitmakers had been created in the recording studio and weren't capable of performing well in public. This created a dilemma for the BBC, succinctly expressed by Josephine Douglas, the producer of the teenage show Six Five Special, in October 1957: "The fact remains that the record personality is the one in which our public is interested. Is it right therefore to present him in a mediocre performance? Is it wiser not to present him at all?"

Although many files have been destroyed, thousands more are stored at the BBC Written Archives Centre in Caversham. The correspondence gives a marvellously detailed picture as to how the BBC operated.

Although the BBC was bombarded with recommendations from performers' families, it often relied on the public to alert them to regional talent. In 1962, a young lad, David John Smith of Preston wrote to the BBC and suggested that they appeared on TV: "These boys," he wrote, "combine their schoolboy looks with a thick sound which produces one of the most exciting atmospheres ever to come from white artists."

The BBC was impressed but, assuming he was one of the group or their manager, they sent him an audition letter. As it happens, Smith did form a group, David John and the Mood, who recorded for Joe Meek.

On 10 December 1952, Mr W Barber of Wood End Stores, Maghull, wrote to Ronnie Waldman with the enthusiasm of a man who had been on the road to Damascus rather than to a Liverpool music hall:

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"Dear Sir. This is the first time I have written to the BBC but I must let you know about this future star of television as I know you need a star or two. I don't want to say a lot about him. I want you to come up here and see for yourself. I will even pay your expenses. His name is Ken Dodds [sic] and he is appearing at the Shakespeare Theatre this coming week. He is funnier than Norman Wisdom and by the way, he doesn't know me from a crow so I am writing to you because he is a real find. His act is purely visual and he would be of no use on radio. If you are not interested, remember the name, Ken Dodds, and try not to reproach yourself."

The BBC responded politely, but for two years they did not act on recommendations from Dodd's fans. In September 1954, Ronnie Taylor from the BBC in Manchester saw his act: "We certainly feel that Ken Dodd has a lot to offer, although at present he works with little finesse. We hope to use him in one of our sound programmes from the region quite soon."

The files on Dodd's early programmes show that, while his timing was perfect, his timekeeping was appalling and, in those highly unionised days, overrunning was a problem. One exasperated producer after another attempted to bring him into line. This is typical: "I am sure that in Ken Dodd we have a very valuable commodity, his basic weakness being his inability to realise the importance of producing his own material in time in order than we can pass on information to all servicing departments. Someone in high authority needs to speak to him about the absolute necessity of producing a script of his own material at a specified time."

But Dodd realised only too well the importance of not producing his material in time – it meant that there was less time for anybody to change it.

A committee was often able to assess a performer accurately from a short audition. George Melly would have loved to have read the notes on his audition, but probably never saw them. A BBC manager, Albert Stevenson, commented: "a rather hungry looking dark young man of untidy and rather effeminate appearance in black trousers and windcheater".

George sang "Frankie and Johnny", and it was described as "vocals with actions". If you ever saw George perform "Frankie and Johnny", you'll know that he turned his back on the audience and with his hands, caressed his body to simulate Frankie and Johnny making love. I rather fear that George did that in 1955 – at his BBC audition.

Here is Albert Stevenson's assessment: "George Melly has a small light baritone voice well used to the mike, which he uses intelligently, and he has plenty of attack, assurance and showmanship. All this, however, needs canalising, and with his tendency to overplay and an effeminate approach, it is doubtful if he would survive camera close up. Performance is quite unsuitable, but if toned down and presented it might prove worth considering for jazz type programme."

The auditions were daunting but didn't faze Max Bygraves: "Very talented and self-assured performer," wrote the BBC in 1947, "and should go far."

Invariably, the panel was comprised of BBC management and it must have been especially difficult for comedians. Tony Hancock was physically sick before his audition, although he got through.

In 1947, Benny Hill looked the part – "a young man of very pleasant appearance in dinner jacket" – but despite making a good first impression, his actual impressions and comedy routines were feeble. Ronnie Waldman, later the head of TV Variety, had been part of the panel which was skeptical about Hill's talent: "The only trouble with him was that he didn't make me laugh at all – and for a comedian that's not very good. It's a mixture of lack of comedy personality and lack of comedy material." Whereas Hill was dressed like a BBC announcer, Morecambe and Wise were made up as "Healthy Hank and Lingering Death" in April 1948. The BBC was cautious: "Part of this act might be suitable. Suggestive material and dancing together should be omitted."

It was no disgrace to fail a BBC audition. The famous Wagnerian soprano Rita Hunter had one of the best voices in the UK, but when she sang "One Fine Day" at her BBC audition, it wasn't a fine day at all. Being part of the Sadler's Wells Opera Company was not enough. This is from the Music Booking Manager in October 1968: "We have to tell her, with regret, that her audition was not successful and so we cannot offer her an engagement in a national wavelength programme from London. Meanwhile, will she please accept our good wishes."

The comedian Tom O'Connor had no trouble in passing his BBC audition but he upset one of their old-time comedians. The BBC received a copy of this letter to O'Connor from Al Read's solicitors: "Our client tells us that you have been presenting an act that in format and wording bears very close resemblance to the act performed by our client on television, radio and the stage. A number of members of the acting profession have pointed out to him that you are 'doing an Al Read'. Our client is prepared not to take any serious steps in the matter if he receives an assurance from you that, before you begin your act, you make some reference to your reliance on our client's presentation. Instead of his catchphrase, 'have you noticed', you could say, 'as Mr Al Read says...'"

The BBC decided no action was necessary: "I do not think that there is any question of O'Connor stealing Read's material. In fact, O'Connor's material appears to be more original than most comedians."

Whereas the comics would audition with their stand-up routines, actors would present extracts from a variety of roles. The musical-comedy star Dora Bryan requested an audition in 1947, saying, "I can do any dialect well except Welsh and broken accents, which aren't so good." She was told that the waiting list for auditions was very long indeed, but, luckier than most, was assessed a few months later as "a beta++ blonde, quite a character for comedy". She was described as "vivacious, intelligent, quite attractive", but her career was almost over before it began, as the BBC did not permit advertising in any form, and she referred to Butlin's holiday camps on a live broadcast. "I'm ever so sorry about mucking it up. Because I said 'Butlin's', I got nervous and mucked up the rest. I had an awful feeling that you'd think I'd done it on purpose and I got worried."

With neat bold handwriting which suggested a positive personality, Patricia Routledge requested an audition in May 1954, although it did not take place until the following January. She had already spent some time in rep and so it is hardly surprising that her "trained Shakespearian voice" was appreciated. She was rated "beta+, a competent young repertory actress with some sense of period. Useful North Country and American accents. Her French accent is correct with fairly strong English undertones." The only drawback was that her selection from Antigone was "without personality".

With his baby face and gaping mouth, Derek Nimmo achieved fame playing silly asses and was ideally suited to clerical sitcoms. In 1956, he wrote to the BBC saying that he was a 26-year-old actor whose experience included "West End and touring plays, musical comedy, pantomime and variety and I have spent four years in rep. At present, I am walking around with sandwich boards but am desirous of a change." The reply was characteristically blunt: "I do not think that there would be much point in arranging an interview at the moment. Your sandwich boards sound most uncomfortable but there it is."

When Nimmo did pass the audition in 1956, he received a walk-on part in the soap The Groves, and other programmes followed. Here he is writing to BBC management in May 1957: "Dear Sir. My recent television appearances include being a party member in The Groves, a Beefeater in Kenilworth, a bystander in Peter Simple, a boat-race watcher, a highland dancer in The Appleyards, a photographer in Escaped and a monster that lived in a sewer in Straight Line to Danger. Could I please have a speaking part?"

Everything in the BBC was above aboard and there was no question of favouritism. You may not have heard of the bandleader Hal Graham, but that's hardly surprising as he blotted his copybook with the BBC in August 1946: "Mr Graham himself called here on Tuesday and I am greatly distressed and angered as a result of the interview. It is most displeasing when a gentleman of the dance-band profession endeavours to force a bottle of whiskey on me during the interview, which one would expect to be conducted in a businesslike manner. I would object to any engagement being offered to the band in question."

With records like "The Green Door" and "The Garden Of Eden", Frankie Vaughan was one of the biggest stars of the 1950s – the late 1950s, that is, as he had difficulty attracting anyone's attention at the start of the decade. Vaughan was born in 1928 and, in his early twenties, he made an impact on variety bills up and down the country. He recorded for Decca, and his agent and friends were keen to have him performing on the BBC, which, in terms of broadcasting, was a monopoly. At a 10-minute audience in October 1951, Vaughan sang "Jezebel" and other hits of the day.

This was the panel's assessment: "Frankie Vaughan – baritone vocalist. Extremely good looking, swarthy, black haired young man – rather like Victor Mature – in light blue suit and bow tie. Points for – Has natural, small volumed light baritone voice well suited to the mike, magnetism and a cavemannish charm which would certainly register with most people and appeal to most women. Points against – Twisted lip movement in slow numbers and a marked tremolo which may be due to nerves. Also has exaggerated tricks of showmanship."

Vaughan was rejected but the bandleader Henry Hall still wanted him on his radio programme, Henry Hall's Guest Night. Hall forwarded Vaughan's new record to his producer, Alistair Scott-Johnson, hoping he could use his powers of persuasion.

"My dear Henry. I return this recording of Frankie Vaughan. I must say that I am not over-impressed with it. He handles the fast number fairly well, but as regards the slow number, I'm afraid I don't like this at all. He sings this at the back of his throat as if we were wearing a new dental plate, and the effect, to my mind, is sugary. To sum up, I don't see that he has anything to offer us that makes him in any way better than those vocalists we have used in the past."

The BBC files show that, throughout his career, Vaughan had great resilience and was never prepared to accept "no" for an answer. With puppy-like eagerness, he wrote directly to Ronnie Waldman, then the Head of TV Variety: "This may sound pure conceit on my part, but I'm convinced that my act is one that is suited to television and in addition, I am confident that if I was given just one opportunity to prove myself, I would not let you or your producers down. I would stress that I am not just one of the long line of singers that have invaded the BBC on the sound side, but that I endeavour to use the whole of my personality as well as my voice."

And he was right. Vaughan started broadcasting in 1953 and soon everybody wanted him. Indeed, there were complaints from senior management that perhaps he was even appearing on too many programmes.

On the other hand, the BBC secured Lonnie Donegan at especially cheap rates and wanted to exploit his talent. "Rock Island Line" was in the Top 10 and Donegan was performing for a modest seven guineas: "Even if we have to raise this, he will still be moderately cheap, especially if he becomes the sensation that his agent seems to think," is one BBC report.

When the BBC formed Radio 1 in 1967, many of the pirate DJs wanted to join the establishment. The most outlandish was Kenny Everett, who had been sacked from Radio London. A panel considered his audition tape in March 1967.

"Member one: 'A pseudo-American voice. Sounds experienced and seems to fancy his luck. Yes.' Member two: 'By far the most original of the young DJs. I found the stilted bits in bad taste but with suitable restraint and encouragement, Kenny Everett could be one of the BBC's best DJs. Yes.' Member three: 'Without the hard sell and the occasional phoney American accent, a good pop DJ. Must be made to curb the funnies and the voices. Yes.' Member four: 'I found the continuous changes of voices irritating and his personality supercilious but he certainly has some talent. Should be available but would need very firm production. Yes.'"

The BBC concluded: "A competent and experienced pop DJ. Would need very firm production to curb his non-stop funny voices. With the right encouragement, he could be an asset to the corporation."

John Peel was more unlucky – at least at first. He sent in his audition and somehow the BBC lost it. Still, with his track record at Radio London, he was passed for broadcasting.

In 1972, Alan Bleasdale was submitting scripts about his creation, Scully, to BBC Radio Merseyside. These short scripts led to his breakthrough. An early script was handwritten and his apologetic letter reads like a script for Jack Dee: "I would have typed this out except: (1) My typewriter is on the other side of the world on a boat. (2) This place in Liverpool that hires out typewriters wanted me to put £20 security on the machine during the time that I was borrowing it. I didn't have that much cash. (3) I went next door to this old bloke who's got a colour telly and one eye and borrowed his. He bought it at a jumble sale for five shillings. It was a Corona and built like a sewing machine. It was so old it spelt 'SHOWN' as 'S-H-E-W-N' and it collapsed and died before the end of the first page. Two ball-bearings fell out. Really. I never knew there were still ball-bearings in a typewriter. When I was bringing it back to him, the handle fell off and the letter 'T' came away. I spent two hours with him trying to fix it. I failed miserably and I am now rushing this and the story off freehand because I'm as tired as hell and got a train to catch in the morning."

In the early years, there was, however, another path to getting on the BBC without an audition. The date is 19 July 1942 and this is from the six o'clock news:

"Here are some of this week's gifts towards the cost of tanks. The Panda Sports Fund has sent £60 and the ladies of Sector 160 ARP of Liverpool have sent £10. A German bomb which fell near the Crown Hotel, Heathfield has been used as a collecting box and nearly £50 has been raised. Derek Nimmo of Liverpool and his friends have got together 30 shillings towards the cost of tanks by making golliwogs and staging a grand fair for other children."

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