THIS IS London Calling! Night after night all through Canada, people sit and listen to the voice of a British Broadcasting Corporation announcer, thousands of miles away in London, bringing the day’s news to them from a city deluged in war.
Night after night, from the very centre of the struggle, while the Nazi raiders are droning in the London sky and men and women in the London streets are fighting fire and death, the calm voice crosses the ocean to North America, giving listeners a feeling of confidence no matter what the news may be.
Whose voice is it?
What is the personality behind that calmness and imperturbability?
Many Canadian listeners are firmly convinced that they hear only one BBC announcer—the “Voice of London.” Actually, there are two continuity announcers alternating duties with each other, Derek Prentice and John Ellison. There is one announcer reading headline news and announcing the newsreel. He is Robert Beatty. The two chief news readers are Robert Harris and Bob Dougall.
Personalities of the Air
T’LL TELL you about Derek Prentice first. He’s very much connected with the Empire, both by birth and by marriage. He was bom in Krugersdorp in the Transvaal, has relatives in Port Elizabeth and Pietermaritzburg; and in April last year he married Katherine Welford, an Australian girl from Melbourne. He has just become the father of an extremely bonny daughter.
Prentice has had an up-and-down and decidedly varied life. He was educated at Winchester and at New College, Oxford, studying, in between, at the Sorbonne in Paris where he gained his diploma in French. While at Oxford he became Secretary of the University French Club. As such, he approached a brilliant young language scholar of Christ Church and asked him whether he would take part in a French play which the society was putting on. The young man accepted; and that, says Prentice, was how Emlyn Williams, now so well known as an actor and playwright, came to make one of his earliest appearances on the stage.
In 1925 Prentice started work as an office boy with a large London firm manufacturing motor and aircraft instruments. After studying engineering and going through the works, he qualified for such interesting and important jobs as helping to test instruments fitted to Schneider Trophy planes, and engaging in tariff research for the clock industry, preparatory to the Ottawa Conference of 1932.
All this time, however, Prentice held onto his enthusiasm for the theatre. In fact, he found himself doing so much producing, acting and stage-managing that a day arrived when he had to choose between engineering and the stage. He chose the stage.
That was in 1933. Since then, as a character actor, Prentice has played parts of all kinds, but he likes most his appearances in various plays by Bernard Shaw at Malvern Festivals, at the Open Air Theatre in Regent’s Park, and with the Birmingham Repertory Company. He speaks warmly of Shaw as a courteous and helpful producer of his own plays. “As he talks to you about your part.” Prentice says, “the character becomes vivid and lifelike in your mind.”
Once, when Prentice had been cast for the part of Vaughan in “Fanny’s First Play,” Shaw switched him over to play Flawner Bannal, with the explanatory remark: “Now, you’ve got the face of a bom idiot.” (Any listener who has heard Shaw broadcast will be able to imagine the disarming charm with which he made the comment.) And Prentice remembers that Shaw, speaking of dramatists, used often to refer to the three great S’s: the other two were Shakespeare and Sheridan.
In 1936 Prentice joined the cast of “French Without Tears,” the successful stage comedy. For twro years and more he understudied and played the part of the French professor, in London, and acted it on tour. When the company appeared in Dublin, the French Minister there was in the audience one night. He was asked what he thought of the Frenchman in the play. “Frenchman? Was there a Frenchman?” “Yes,” he was reminded, “the French professor.” “Oh,” said the Minister, “was he talking French? I thought he was talking Esperanto.”
Prentice has travelled a lot, knows France, Norway, Sweden and Germany intimately. He’s a baritone singer, a keen photographer, and a writer of poetry.
The other continuity announcer is John Ellison. I can’t tell you much about him. because his life has been lived in the R.A.F.—and you know what sticklers the Services are for No Publicity.
But John was a fighter pilot, and from recent news stories of the R.A.F. you will have some idea of all that these few words imply. He was invalided out of the R.A.F. after a serious accident, and joined the BBC as an announcer. He is married, and his wife also works on the BBC staff.
And now for a Canadian, Robert Beatty. Bob hails from Hamilton, Ontario, where he was born in 1908. He’s six feet tall, has black hair, black eyes, strong features and altogether is not such a bad-looking fellow.
Bob is a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Toronto, and an actor. At one stage of his career he was understudy to renowned Raymond Massey, of Abraham Lincoln fame.
He is a benedict in every sense of the word, having been married less than three months. He was auditioned for the BBC, in fact, the day he was married.
There’s another Bob— Bob Dougall. The voice of Robert Dougall. the senior overseas announcer, must be one of the bestknown in the Empire. Although he is used to making difficult calculations—he was in the BBC’s Accounts Department for nearly two years before becoming an announcer—he cannot give even a rough estimate of the number of news bulletins he has read, or programs he has introduced, since he made his first announcement in November, 1934.
Awkward Moments On the Air
DOUGALL looks back on his early days in the Overseas Service with the special pleasure that comes from being in
at the beginning of an imixirtant enterprise. In November, 1934, the service was not quite two years old. The technique of shortwave broadcasting had not been firmly established; what is now routine was then an adventure, and there were occasional awkward moments. He remembers with affection some of those awkward moments—one particularly, when the recording of a speech by an important personage was put on backward !
He himself was involved in many nervetesting incidents. Once, in the small hours, an overzealous engineer cut off the lighting supply when Dougall was reading a news bulletin: Dougall struck matches and
carried on. Another time he overslept and nearly missed announcing an early morning broadcast: there were only a few seconds to spare when, tousle-haired. a gaudydressing gown over his pyjamas, he arrived in the studio.
But he had his most trying experience only a day or two after he had become an announcer. Shortly before a recording of a reminiscent discussion between two footballers was due to be broadcast, it was found that the recording was no good. It was impossible to get hold of the speakers in the time available, so Dougall and a colleague obtained a copy of the script and acted the discussion before the microphone, reproducing as faithfully as they could the tones and emphases of the two footballers.
It is not only as an announcer that Dougall has been heard by listeners to the BBC’s programs. He was with many of the Lucky Dip shows and acted as narrator in the series Excerpts from the Light Operas. And when he went off duty on Coronation Eve, he wandered for two hours around the West End and was so impressed by the spirit and enthusiasm of the vast crowds that, instead of going home, he returned to Broadcasting House and gave a talk describing what he had seen.
Dougall plays most games and is particularly good at squash—he is, in fact, the BBC’s squash champion. He has travelled over most of Europe, but his great ambition is to go round the world, seeing all the places he has at times been speaking to during the last six years, and meeting some of the listeners who have written to him.
There’s a real character of a lad called Tony Ainsi ie, who looks after the “At Your Request” end of the Canadian program.
Anthony Andrew Ainslie was bom in 1904 in New York City. He broke into radio fourteen years ago, and with the exception of a year in the army, he’s been at it ever since. A year ago Tony found himself up in Vancouver enlisting in the Canadian Army after throwing up a good job as news broadcaster and production man in California.
Early in June of last year he sustained a few fractured arms and legs, and having been seconded to the BBC, now stumps about the corridors of Broadcasting House with one leg in a plaster cast and the other
in tartan trews! A Mackenzie on his mother’s side, Tony is appropriately enough a Seaforth Highlander of Canada, and thinks he looks like a typical Scotsman. When final victory is Britain’s, he hopes to remain in London and see what England is like in peacetime. We hope he does too.
The Priestley Talks
OF COURSE you know about Jack Priestley—J. B. Priestley, the most popular broadcaster of the lot. He is a Yorkshireman, and to an Englishman that means a man of sturdy, independent outlook. In his broadcasts he gives his own individual views of events as they occur.
He attaches the utmost importance to his Britain Speaks broadcasts, and devotes considerable time and care to the writing of his scripts. The main part he writes during the day of the broadcast, usually selecting some topical theme, and in Britain today that almost invariably means some subject connected with the war. He types out his script himself, and he brings it into the BBC headquarters during the evening, in time for him to hear the midnight news bulletin, so that if any news items in the bulletin affect the subject of his talk he has time to amend his script before his broadcast.
Priestley is intensely interested in people. During the evenings he spends in Broadcasting House he is most difficult to find, for he is almost sure to have dropped in on someone and to be deep in conversation.
In the British Isles Priestley is famous for what he describes as his “talks to the people,” which he gives in form of postscripts to the Sunday evening news bulletin. In these he speaks as an ordinary citizen to the ordinary citizen about the everyday problems of life today.
Clemence Dane is unique among BBC speakers because she insists upon always standing up to broadcast. She finds that she breathes better this way; but it involves BBC officials in a lot of trouble in rearranging microphones.
Leslie Howard has been broadcasting to Canada for some months. He writes very good scripts, and before he became a famous actor he wanted to be a writer. Some weeks ago he broadcast a discussion with his son, Ronald, who worked in my newspaper office before joining the Navy as an ordinary seaman.
They are tremendous friends, but throughout the talk Howard always addressed his son very seriously as “Seaman Howard.” Just before the talk, he was in his flat in Chelsea with his son and Richard Greene, who had arrived from Hollywood. A bomb fell on the block of flats, and the three of them just escaped in time, leaving all their belongings in the flat, including the script of that night’s talk. However, father and son arrived at Broadcasting House without delay, dusty and dishevelled, and gave their talk imperturbably.
Colonel M. G. Christie gives a weekly
talk called “Here Lies the Nazi,” in which lie exposes many of the tricks and propaganda methods of the Nazis. He has a unique knowledge of them, because he went to Germany from school in England at the age of. sixteen, studied at the Technical High School of Aachen and returned to England to work on German patents.
He went to the United States as representative of a German firm, and returned on the outbreak of war in 1914. He then began a distinguished connection with the R.A.F. which lasted for fifteen years. For four years he was Air Attaché in Washington and for three and a half years Air Attaché in Berlin, during which time he came to know personally Hermann Goering and many of the Nazi leaders.
Air Marshal Sir Philip Joubert gives a talk every Wednesday night at 01.30 G.M.T. During nights of the blitzkrieg on London, he used to cause BBC officials great anxiety by donning his steel helmet and firmly walking back to his office in the worst of the bombing, looking neither to right nor left.
Holt, Wilmot, Pelletier
ANOTHER speaker who has recently - begun to give talks to Canada is William Holt, who is a colorful character. He started life as a weaver in Yorkshire and taught himself four foreign languages while weaving, writing his exercises in the dust on the steel breastbeam with the point of his reed-hook. The call of adventure took him all over the world—to Japan, Germany, the United States, and nearly a score of other countries, where he worked as a lumberjack, sailor, film extra, coal salesman, war correspondent, and goodness knows what.
Gerry Wilmot comes from Vancouver, and was on the announcing staff of the CBC in Montreal. He came over in April; he is unmarried and lives with his mother, who came over here soon after him. His special work with the CBC Overseas Unit is as master of ceremonies in light entertainment programs.
H. Rooney Pelletier is a French-Canadian—his mother Irish and his father French. He was assistant program director with the CBC in Montreal before the war, and in 1938 studied at the BBC’s staff school. Before joining broadcasting he was a journalist on the staff of the Canadian Press. His work in London is specially concerned with broadcasts to French Canada.
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