BBC Radio 4 Extra’s schedule this morning included Garrison Keillor’s “Prairie Home Companion” followed by an edition of “Band Waggon” with Arthur Askey and Richard Murdoch, an edition first broadcast on 30th September 1939.
Four weeks into what would become the worst war in the history of the world, the BBC Home Service responds to dark news from the world outside with lightness and humour. Askey and Murdoch make a mess of completing their National Registration forms, misspelling words, leaving inkblots on the page, misunderstanding the questions, and putting down schoolboy answers. It was silly and trivial stuff, but no more so than most 21st Century humour.
Tucked in among the repartee, there came a reflective piece about gossip. A man told a story of one person telling him the HMS Rodney had been sunk in the North Sea, a second person saying the Rodney and four cruisers had been sunk, and a third saying that he had heard the war would soon be over because the whole of the fleet had been lost, when the truth had been a single freighter had been sunk. The speaker talked about the pain caused to families by careless and untrue talk.
In the midst of the most grave of threats to Britain, the BBC responded with levity. When rolling news channels now elevate even small stories to matters of national importance to be analysed by voices speaking with great gravitas, to hear issues of autumn 1939 handled with a light touch came as a surprise. This was not the BBC of the history books, the black tied, dinner jacketed announcers; this was a BBC altogether different from what one might have imagined from the newsreels and usual archive material.
The other surprise was that the programme seemed to slip easily into the Saturday morning line up of light entertainment programmes. This was a broadcast from seventy-four years ago, yet a bit of editing here and there and it might have been presented as something far more recent.
It is hard to imagine that popular culture from 1865 might have been the stuff of a radio broadcast in 1939. Certainly, Nineteenth Century novelists would have been popular, but would the content of popular theatre and music halls have had much meaning for an audience seventy-four years later?
Have elements of popular culture remained remained sufficiently static since the 1930s to allow a programme to be re-broadcast in 2013? Or is it that broadcasting itself has created a cultural plateau where Askey and Murdoch occupy one edge and a similar duo in more recent times perhaps occupy the other? Perhaps digital broadcasting with its multiplicity of channels and the Internet with its infinite communities of interest, will bring a final end to that plateau. Perhaps the contribution of Radio 4 Extra, and all the other digital channels, will be to ensure that in seventy-four years time there will be no commonly recognized programmes.