Bill Strange dodged subsand dive bombers to make the war more vivid for Canada’s radio audience
"Carry On “ Canada !"
Bill Strange dodged subsand dive bombers to make the war more vivid for Canada’s radio audience
IT’S SUNDAY night in CBC’s Toronto studios —any Sunday, a split second before 8.30.
A moment ago there was bedlam. Soundeffects men were trying out noise makers, playing over recordings of air-raid sirens and bomb blasts. Actors clustered about half a dozen mikes, brushing up on German, French—and English—accents, while orchestra members blew fiat trombones or twanged stubborn G-strings feverishly.
But now, as the “Stand By” signal flashes on the outside wall of the control booth, all is quiet.
“Stand By” changes suddenly to “On The Air.” A stirring voice cries: “Carry On—Canada!” Orchestra and sound-effects men combine to create suitable background from two different studios, while three special announcers go into a multiple build-up of the program’s theme, in a third.
And such is the magic of modern radio that within a minute, in more than 200,000 homes, listeners who have learned to see with their ears no longer sit before sets in Kamloops, Val d’Or, Peggy’s Cove, or Port Credit. They have been transported, in fancy, to one of Canada’s military training centres, to a big war-industries plant, to an air-raid shelter under London’s streets, or aboard a convoy fighting for its life on the North Atlantic.
The action is brisk, thrilling—realistic. A Nazi sub surfaces in the middle of the merchant ships like some wolf among sheep. Dive bombers scream down from threatening grey skies. There is the brisk crackle of anti-aircraft fire from the decks. Seamen’s voices are tense as they go about their duties in the face of sudden death.
“It is so real,” writes a listener, “you’d think you were right there.”
And listeners are not the only ones thus affected. One night, during a. particularly stiff dose of
radio-made machine-gun fire, an actor staggered suddenly. His face looked as if he were going to pass out. He got hold of himself, went on with the act. But when the program was off the air he told others in the cast, “Good heavens! For a minute I thought it was happening all over again.”
That man was Bill Strange, author of “Carry On— Canada,” who also acts in his dramas, and he wasn’t referring to anything he had dreamed up. He meant an actual engagement in which he was involved while crossing to Britain recently to gather the realistic local color that has put the breath of life—and death—into this series of broadcasts.
Work Starts Friday
CARRY On—Canada” is rated by the CBC as the most popular war-theme show on the national network. Each program is written, produced and broadcast in the length of time it takes the average person to read a novel.
So that it may keep up with the headlines, the program you hear on Sunday night doesn’t begin to take shape until sometime on Friday, in a house overlooking Hogg’s Hollow, on the northern limits of Toronto.
It is a big, square old house, maintaining a bluff Scottish maid who has an idea what war is all about, for her cleaning operations are constantly interrupted by invasions of the living room in mid-afternoon, and by sudden orders to set six extra plates for
dinner for the invaders—members of the cast and CBC program men. But the real action takes place on the “quarterdeck,” a two-room suite, aft on the upper floor.
Here is a study in which you’ll find yards and yards of books, a ship model over an open fire, guns on the walls. Underneath the glass plate, on a desk its owner never uses, is his dad’s commission as a British colonial official, signed by Queen Victoria, and out on the adjoining porch stands a chair which looks—and feelslike a bear trap, in which the author of “Carry On—Canada” relaxes between bouts at the battered portable typewriter on a nearby card table.
Bill Strange is quite tall and on first meeting him you are likely to get the impression he’s wearing too many clothes. Then you discover it’s fat. He must weigh all of two hundred pounds, and when he isn’t writing or “relaxing” he pads restlessly round and round his den like some angry giant panda, continually stumbling over a huge British bulldog—his constant companion since he returned from England a few weeks ago to find Bully guarding his fifteen-month-old daughter.
Bill and Bully both bear a striking resemblance to Winston Churchill, for both have heads that are continually shoved forward, aggressively, on what appears to be permanently stiff necks, and when he is at work Bill sits his typewriter in a fighting mood
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Naturally, very little can be done about the program until the script has been written, and this doesn’t even begin until Friday because of the news angle, and because he has another feature script to do earlier in the week for the Department of Information. Time is his enemy. He has no day of rest. “Carry On—Canada” is produced under terrific pressure, and sometimes isn’t ready for rehearsal until late Saturday, at which point Producer Frank Willis takes a hand in things.
Frank first gained recognition several years ago for his broadcast of the Moose River mine disaster. He is tall, dark and taciturn, where Strange is podgy, florid and excitable. Unquestionably Frank’s steadiness helps to modify his co-worker’s brashness— as often happens—Bill decides to pull the whole thing apart and put it together again just a few hours before the broadcast.
The third keyman in the “Carry On—Canada” setup is Samuel Hershenhorn, who is responsible for music, a vital factor in any program designed to stir the emotions. A hardworking veteran of the air lanes, Hershenhorn is particularly valuable to this program—being a genius on short-order stuff. He achieved new heights some time ago when he took the Beethoven chord which is part of the V For Victory campaign, and worked it into all varieties of music from red-hot swing to the sacred strains of hymns of praise. He can always be counted on to deliver music that is toned perfectly to the mood of the script.
His scores not only provide background for the action. They must denote changes of scene and establish the locale and general atmosphere of the scene to follow. And when you consider that Hershenhorn often doesn’t have the foggiest idea what the script is about until a few hours before the broadcast, that’s asking plenty.
The chief announcing voice of “Carry On—Canada” is one of the best known in Canadian radio. Lome Green always puts a dramatic note even into his 11 p.m. CBC newscasts; but for “Carry On—Canada” he makes an all-out effort.
Show Rates High
WILLIAM STRANGE has come up through seventeen different kinds of jobs—including the teaching of English in Egypt, and bossing an oil crew in the deep black swamps of Trinidad—to his present position as one of Canada’s most colorful radio propagandists.
Born in British Honduras thirtynine years ago, Bill arrived in Canada when the depression was a lusty infant. His first job was working for a brother-in-law who manufactured engineering equipment. The brother-in-law sold out to another firm, and Bill went with the fixtures. One of his chores was handling radio advertising and when the company performed the hitherto unperformed feat of firing him before he had a chance to resign, that pointed the way to what has
since proved his natural vocation.
His first radio program was a book review called “The Library Shelf,” which turned out to be one of the longest shelves in history—five years long in fact. “Reviewing other men’s books revived a desire I’d always had to write,” he explains. So he knocked out a novel based on his Trinidad experience, and wrote short stories whenever the rent was due. By the middle of 1939 he was authoring no fewer than thirteen radio programs every week—six under the title “Let’s Disagree,” five entitled “Who’s Who In Music,” one full-dress drama and the good old “Library Shelf”—which made him one of the busiest radio scribblers in the world.
Then war broke and began to toss all these commercial programs overboard, clearing decks for action. He opened fire with a series entitled “They Shall Not Pass,” which ran for six months. It was so well done it convinced Department of Information and CBC officials he was the logical man to take over “Carry On —Canada,” a rousing battle cry designed to apprise indifferent citizens that there was a war on and that it was a mighty serious business.
That was less than a year ago, and according to Elliott-Haynes, impartial surveyors of public reaction, the program’s rating has since leapt from 3.2 to 14.4 last June, which means its listening audience has doubled twice, and that is considered exceptionally good for a Canadian program. Unquestionably this sudden rise is explained by the fact that Bill hadn’t been handling the program long before he realized that he needed to discover for himself that there was a war going on.
“How,” he asked those in charge, “can I dramatize a war I’ve never seen? Send me over there to poke around a bit and I’ll be able to make a far better job of this.”
Bill knew he must be prepared to risk his neck, and he did—more than once. Crossing in an 1800-ton freighter that was part of a large convoy, he was roused early one morning a week out of Halifax by the sound of six-inch guns. Rushing on deck, he saw that a German sub had surfaced right in the middle of the convoy. During the action that followed three British merchant ships were sent to the bottom and it looked, a number of times, as if the tiny cargo carrier on which he was riding might also be “tin-fished,” as the boys who go down to the sea these days call torpedoing.
Everybody was supposed to stay on deck, but whenever the skipper wasn’t looking Bill sneaked below to his cabin and banged out a few vivid first-hand impressions on his typewriter. A few days later he added to his stock of impression when the convoy was again attacked, this time by dive bombers. And roaming the British Isles in search of copy he had innumerable thrilling experiences that have since helped to make programs in the “Carry On—Canada” series so breath-takingly real.
“Bombs,” he reports, smiling grimly, “are queer fish. They really
explode twice, you know. Once when they suck all the air out of a given spot, and again when there’s a rush of air to fill the vacuum. And it’s this backwash, as they call it, that really does most of the dirty work.” In one case that he recalls, a moment after a bomb landed, the roof of a building 500-feet away was blown toward that spot by the backwash, but a greenhouse roof in between was untouched. In another case, a man was blown through a French window without receiving a scratch. The glass had been blown out only an instant previously by the same backwash. On a third occasion three men were enjoying a game of pool when a bomb came screaming down. They scrambled under the table. The blast of the backwash tore most of the wall off the building and blew three nearby billiard tables to smithereens, yet didn’t touch the table under which they were crouching.
ONE MORNING after a prettystiff raid, Bill arrived at the headquarters of the British Broadcasting Corporation to meet a technician who was to go with him to make recordings of life in war-torn London.
“No need to apologize for being late,” said the chief of that department, “—not after last night’s dust up.” He nodded toward a nearby
desk. “Fred,” he said, naming the man who was to help Bill, “hasn’t shown up yet.”
An hour passed. Then a clerk from the outer office shoved his head in the door. “Sorry, sir!” he said, with a queer expression on his face. “Fred won’t be coming in again.”
“Oh, I say,” murmured the chief, while Bill refrained from asking foolish questions, “that’s too bad. You don’t know of anyone we could get to take his place, do you?”
They found someone, of course, because that is one of the secrets of the British. They are still filling gaps in lines, just as they did at Waterloo and in the hundred and one other engagements that have helped make Britain great.
Among other places, Bill and the substitute technician went down into a public air-raid shelter to make recordings of people’s voices, and he will always remember the date — April 13 for it was only three nights later that one of the heaviest raids of the blitz brought 500 Nazi raiders over London.
They dropped more than 100,000 tons of high explosives, including the first deadly fire bombs, and the voices you heard in “Quiet Night,” another of Bill Strange’s recent broadcasts, were the voices recorded in that shelter.
“Dead people’s voices,” Bill says, “because the shelter was blown to Kingdom Come the night of April 16.”
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