The Birmingham Ballads

Part 1 – Brian Vaughton, writer and compiler

Brian Vaughton compiled and wrote two radio programmes in 1961 and 1962. Both were produced by Charles Parker from the BBC Birmingham studios. One of the performers, Rosemary Redpath, later described these programmes as “The Birmingham Ballads” and that is how we shall call “The Jewellery” and “Cry from the Cut” in this series of articles.

The first part of our survey of The Birmingham Ballads deals with Brian Vaughton himself. His activities in radio and television from the late 1950s till well into the twenty-first century are worthy of note in any case. In the following paragraphs he describes his life and the background to his involvement in documentary features. The words here are Brian’s with only a few corrections and adjustments for the sake of clarity.

The article is divided into the following topics:

  • Introduction; early interest in radio 1940s to mid 1950s (1)
  • Radio documentaries; how they were made before tape and editing machines (2)
  • Mid 1950s; into the new midget tape recorders and early programme commissions (3)
  • “Moments of Truth” programme with Philip Donnellan (4)
  • Other influences (5)
  • Charles Parker; production and tape editing (6)
  • Tape editing; the mechanics and the ethics (7)
  • Interviews (8)
  • Editing the interview and Charles Parker (9)
  • “The Jewellery” radio feature (10)
  • “Cry from the Cut” radio feature; background (11)
  • “Cry from the Cut”; its writing and making and further notes on editing (12)
  • Use of music in radio programmes (13)
  • Further thoughts on Charles Parker (14)
  • Changing times; new technologies and new programmes (15)
  • Changing times; the BBC and the approach to programme-making (16)
  • Changing times; the equipment (17)
  • Recommendation from Charles Parker (18)
  • Programmes and features written and compiled etc by Brian Vaughton (19) with some concluding personal notes

It has not been possible to complete all the dates and other details in this final section. However, it gives an indication of Brian Vaughton’s work over the past sixty years and the links with Charles Parker and other programmes associated with The Midlands.


Introduction; early interest in radio 1940s to mid 1950s
Should any reader wish to know more about the development of documentary radio techniques over the years, and my own very small involvement in the process – read on!

I became interested in the BBC in the late 1940’s, when I managed to arrange access to studio control rooms during live broadcasts of Rae Jenkins and the Midland Light Orchestra in Birmingham, Peter Yorke and his Concert Orchestra in London, plus Ted Heath and his Music, and others. Even today playing recordings of the marvellous Heath band gets the adrenaline going!

I watched and learnt as the programme engineers (now called studio managers) balanced the microphones and controlled the live broadcasts. However, what I was really interested in was to make feature programmes – but I had absolutely nothing to my credit. It was the proverbial chicken and egg situation! Although entry into the corporation as an engineer may have been possible, and lead eventually to a move to ‘programmes’ at a later date, the pay offered to engineers was desperately poor, and a safe place in the family business beckoned – which all added to my personal pressures. Decisions, decisions!

The beauty of being a freelance is that you can choose the subject of your article, radio programme or documentary film that you want to put up for consideration by the powers-that-be. And if they reject your suggestions, it is not the end of the world! But relying on one’s livelihood purely as a freelance was, for me, a non-starter. One has to be realistic for, without yet proving myself, financial quicksands could soon swallow you up!

Although I have to admit I took the ‘safety-first’ route, the creative urge remained strong. Opportunities to indulge in extra?mural activities were satisfied in part by freelance journalistic work – such as feature articles for The Birmingham Post, and The Birmingham Weekly Post. But doing work for the BBC always beckoned.

Radio documentaries; how they were made before tape and editing machines
Radio documentaries then were known as ‘features’, organised by a Features Department, led by Laurence Gilliam. On request, he used to kindly send me scripts to study. Later the unit was expanded, and charged with the development of the radio documentary both in London, and the then Regional centres. The opportunity to explore the possibilities of this new medium attracted talented radio writers and producers. Also a diverse selection of others with already established reputations as poets, dramatists and novelists – anxious to explore the art and craft of radio writing. As Laurence Gilliam wrote at the time, “In the last resort all are exercises, in the most modem of techniques, of that most ancient of all crafts, the art of telling a true story”.

Feature programmes in the early days were all scripted. A producer and writer would spend some days out in the field, researching their subject. The writer would then disappear into a dark room, and eventually produce a script. Actors were brought into the studio, to read his words – hopefully in an accent that resembled the ‘real’ people they were aiming to portray. Very occasionally a few of the ‘real’ people were even trusted to ‘read’ their part. Sound effects were either made live in the studio, by an assistant opening or closing a dummy door, clattering coconut shells against a hard surface to produce horses’ hooves, or rattling dried peas in a wooden box for heavy rain. Imagination and ingenuity knew no bounds in those days – and, perhaps, even does today. Otherwise, if available, some sound effects were played off discs (records), since tape-recorders were not then in use.

Records before World War II used to be pressed from shellac. Due to the invasion of S E Asia by the Japanese, the source of this material was no longer available. Fortunately a replacement substance was discovered – vinyl, a plastic resin derivative of petroleum. Indeed, older readers’ may well recall seeing photographs of World War II BBC correspondents, such as Chester Wilmot, Frank Gillard, Stewart MacPherson and Stanley Maxted – filing reports after the D-Day landings in France onto vinyI disc recorders, housed in wooden cases resembling old portable record players. Double-sided 10” discs were used, which provided some 3 minutes of recording time per side.

To operate the midget disc recorder, the operator had firstly, and most importantly, to wind-up the double-spring gramophone motor, which spun the turntable. The amplifier, fitted below the turntable deck, was operated by dry batteries. And the actual operation of the machine was controlled by just one knob – which switched on the amplifier, removed the brake on the motor, and lowered the recording head on to the disc.

Larger disc recorders were also mounted into army trucks. And this reminds me of a recorded item I did in my early days for ‘Children’s Hour’ (who remembers Children’s Hour?). I was due to interview a lady on the stage of a village hall in Warwickshire. Sitting outside, in the back of an Outside Broadcast BBC estate car, was a recording engineer huddled over a large portable disc recorder. After checking sound levels on my microphone I was instructed to give him warning when I was going to start for real. “Going ahead in 10 seconds”, was the signal for him to gently lower the sapphire cutter head on to the revolving disc. I am not entirely sure of my facts here but the recorder could have been using 16 inch acetate-coated shellac discs, recording at 33 1/ 3 rpm. Certainly I recall seeing such discs stored in the BBC record library.

And back in the studio the producer could not ‘edit’ the recording, as we understand the term today – you had to choose the best part of a ‘take’. Thus, the production of feature programmes was limited to written scripts, professional actors, studio sound effects, and inserts from vinyl discs. But such limitations were to be radically altered with the invention of the midget portable tape recorder. Documentary radio was never to be the same again.

Mid 1950s; into the new midget tape recorders and early programme commissions
In the mid-1950’s I took a big gamble and purchased one of the early EMI L2 midget tape recorders. Using quarter-inch tape on 5 inch diameter reels running at 7?” per sec, and recording over the full track, it produced BBC broadcast-quality recordings. However, if you wanted to listen to a playback, you had to plug in stethoscope headphones. Also the recorder weighed 14 lbs, which took a bit of lugging about. But they were beautiful pieces of precision machinery. Indeed, I still have mine and, given a new set of batteries, it would probably still operate. The hand-held microphone used with the L2 was a Standard Telephone Company (STC) 4032.

The challenge for me was to try to pay for this tape recorder with broadcasts I hadn’t even then done. I merely thought that I might be able to match some of the material I was listening to at that time! Another problem was that in 1956 the L2 recorder cost the princely sum of £104.00. Cheap at the price, you might think. However, when I tell you that this figure now equates to at least £1800.00, and that I had just got married, it was almost grounds for an early divorce!

I made an early start by contributing recorded items to the then monthly ‘Countryside’ programmes, produced by Arthur Phillips, ?such as an item on the famous narrow-gauge Ffestiniog Railway. This company, the oldest independent railway company in the world, was forced to close in 1946. But by the mid-50’s committed volunteers had gradually started to open up sections of the line again from Porthmadog to Blaenau Ffestiniog. My visit was to cover one of these stages. Today the railway is a top tourist attraction – and the sounds of an approaching up train, puffing and hooting its way up the inclines, still evokes marvellous memories. Famous people such as Ludwig Koch, the well-remembered bird?-sound recording expert, also took part in these programmes. Indeed, the work of this delightful, excitable enthusiast, formed the basis for the BBC’s natural history library. In a pub near Broadcasting House, London, he inspired me to press-on with my minor efforts – he was a lovely man! I was fortunate to live then in the BBC’s Midland Region, with studios based in Broad Street, Birmingham. And on the staff of the station were producers who allowed me to take the first tentative steps up the radio documentary ladder. Edward Livesey tolerated my presence in the studio control room, as scripted features of his were broadcast live. Peggy Bacon produced my first broadcast effort – a Children’s Hour play I had adapted from a book entitled ‘The King of the Goats’ -and pretty riveting stuff it was too! Much later Peggy was to commission me to compile ‘The Cat’s Whiskers’ -a documentary programme to celebrate the 40 th anniversary of broadcasting in the Midland Region.

But the two producers who really changed my perception of radio production, and who themselves made an enormous contribution to radically changing the old documentary radio format, were Philip Donnellan and Charles Parker.

Philip later went on to make marvellous documentary films, giving a voice to ordinary people. He was a man of radical vision and enormous energy – who managed to make the films he wanted to, in spite of the surrounding bureaucracy in which had to operate. And Charles Parker too, of course, had to fight for his comer in the corridors of power – but today is still looked back upon as a ‘radio genius’.

“Moments of Truth” programme with Philip Donnellan
Philip Donnellan gave me my first important chance when he asked me to record actuality for a 40 minute programme ‘Moments of Truth’ – the Birmingham Bull Ring. I had previously written a series of articles for The Birmingham Weekly Post on the place, which has been Birmingham’s commercial heart since 1166, when Henry II first granted Peter de Bermingham a charter to hold a weekly market fair around St. Martin’s Church.

During my research for the articles I had become well-acquainted with the area – and it appealed to me then as being awash with actuality, and loads of local colour.

For those unaware of the importance of the Bull Ring, not only has it been the centre of Birmingham for centuries, but it has been knocked down, built up, and knocked down again – several times. And it was prior to yet another demolition that I took a microphone and tape recorder into its midst. The place is a magnet for barrow-boys, religious fanatics, strong-men, street?-cleaners sluicing away the rubbish at 4.00am, and the general riff?raff of society that you find in a big city. Not forgetting, of course, the solitary, lonely man sitting in a St. Martin’s church pew, contemplating on the hard knocks that life had brought his way – and hoping, perhaps, that God could help him.

To interview people like those found in the Bull Ring, is an education. Some people may well query how a so-called educated guy, with a possible plummy voice, could ever persuade people like those mentioned above to talk into a microphone. But most of them do, fortunately! Perhaps it just needs an honest, sincere approach in trying to find out what makes the other man tick. Every interviewer probably has his own thoughts on the answer to this question.

Philip compiled and produced the Bull Ring programme, but kindly wrote to me afterwards to say, ‘the actuality you obtained was the best I have ever heard!’ From such a man this was praise indeed and, perhaps, helped towards my being commissioned by Charles Parker for my next assignment -‘The Jewellery’ – an actuality radio ballad on the Birmingham Jewellery Quarter.

Other influences
Other people who influenced me were John Seymour who, after a gruelling wartime in experience in the Burma campaign, came home to become a writer, broadcaster and an advocate of self?-sufficiency. Also, Phil Drabble, the Staffordshire countryman who is best known for presenting the much-loved TV programme ‘One Man and His Dog’. These two men were into actuality ?getting real people to talk, rather than just the pundits.

Also there was Mary Baker and Jimmy Bailey, tape editors, whose technical expertise I found invaluable in the learning process. They also did not get too upset if the piece of recorded tape, that you desperately found you wanted, had already been consigned to the cutting room floor! And Alan Ward, a programme engineer, who used a TR 90 tape recorder as just another instrument in the studio when Charles was creating the Radio Ballads.

Charles Parker; production and tape editing
It was Charles, of course, a superb tape-editor, who brought together the talents of Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger – and their joint efforts created the now legendary ‘Radio Ballads’. After the first such programme, ‘The Ballad of John Axon’ in 1958, the then BBC director-general, Hugh Greene said, “It seemed to me to be the most originally conceived, most brilliantly executed and most moving radio programme I have ever heard.”

Indeed, Charles Parker went on to win the prestigious Italia Prize for Radio Documentary in 1960 for his production of the Radio Ballad -‘Singing the Fishing’. The golden age of documentary radio had arrived and, with the help of the new tape recording equipment, came the eventual realisation that audio speech could be edited in a creative manner.

Briefly, for any readers not familiar with the Radio Ballads, John Axon was a steam-locomotive driver, who was posthumously awarded the George Cross for an act of heroism. Initially, Parker and MacColl took out an EMI L2 recorder to record background information, prior to writing a dramatic reconstruction script for use by actors in the conventional manner. But when they had recorded Mrs Axon, and John Axon’s mates, it suddenly dawned on them that these voices – of real people – could actually relate the story, and communicate the authentic excitement of the moment, in a far superior and candid manner than the most brilliant of writers’ and actors’.

Tape editing; the mechanics and the ethics
The technique of tape editing, using a razor blade and sticky tape, has been around for at least the last 50 years. Briefly, you recorded original material on your midget recorder at 7?” per second. You then took your tapes into an editing suite, and dubbed off the sequences you thought you may require at 15″ per second. This was done to provide you with twice the length of tape to work on, so that you can physically cut between words, to eliminate unwanted coughs, sniffs, and surplus audio material.

You then find the exact place to make your ‘cuts’ by ‘rocking and rolling’ the tape spools to and fro across the replay head on a tape-?deck, which produces ‘monkey chatter’. Having pinpointed the precise point for the cut, you mark it with a chinagraph pencil, before applying the razor blade to the tape, which is being held steady in an editing block. Then you can dispose of, or retain, the length of tape you have cut, and join up the two loose ends of tape on the spools with splicing tape, and then start the process all over again and again – ad infinitum, or so it seems sometimes!

When working on tape recordings of people you have interviewed it is vital to have a conscience, if your programme is to be acknowledged as the truth. The reason is that by a cut there and a join here, you can easily end up by misrepresenting or distorting what people actually said.

The beauty of recording tape is that it can be edited. For instance, the questions from the interviewer can be cut out, leaving the true essence of the speaker’s story to be highlighted. Thus, real people can then seemingly talk to you personally, in their own vernacular – with a minimum, or no interruption whatsoever, from a narrator. At least, that’s the idea I ultimately aim for!

As distinct to a ‘question and answer’ type interview, if you are recording for ‘actuality’ you do have to employ a different technique. It is not one that you would normally associate with John Humphrys or Jeremy Paxman – pressured, persistent and confrontational. The ‘interviewers’ of old have now been replaced by ‘presenters’. Unfortunately, many of them, across the radio spectrum, consider themselves to be stars in their own right. As a result you tend to hear far too much from them, and not half enough from the person being interviewed. Indeed, sometimes the presenter will virtually answer the question he has just asked, before handing over to the person you really want to hear!

Obviously when recording actuality you ask questions, but have to pitch them in a different manner. It is important that the interviewee makes clear what he/she is actually talking about? since you know that all your questions will be eventually edited out. So, the approach might me, “Tell me about…” But at other times you can also provoke a reaction by cajoling, questioning a fact, ridiculing even what has been said – and, by sensing when an answer is coming, to ‘zip your lip’ so that you don’t get two voices on the tape at the same time. On occasions, I’ve almost made my lip bleed to stop myself making any sound. Instead you become an expert in facial expressions, by smiling, nodding or shaking your head, raising your eyebrows in disbelief, and other mannerisms. Such behaviour not only keeps you involved – but, most importantly, it is as a silent witness. You can usually gauge when the interviewee is going to talk, and cut short any interjection. Failing that you can always say, “Sorry, what were you saying….”

The important thing to bear in mind in this type of actuality documentary is that you are not purely interested in ‘facts’. ‘Feelings’ and ’emotions’ are equally important. And these can be obtained as you dig down beneath the surface -“Go on…tell me more!”

Editing the interview and Charles Parker
You might well end up with a lot of surplus material before, out of the blue, come the words of magic that you have been waiting for. The interviewee forgets he’s being recorded, and speaks from the heart. And that then makes all the effort worthwhile! Later you can pick out the salient points of an interview, and concentrate on the remarks that really matter. And, perhaps, inter?cut what one speaker says with another.

Another reason for editing is to get rid of any unnecessary verbiage that you will have recorded for, almost without exception, we all tend to be untidy speakers on occasions -“You know -um, you know, what I mean, don’t you? (Cough -sniff-not to mention a loose set of dentures) Er, you know!” It might sound all right the first time it’s heard – but not too often!

Editing for a news item insert is somewhat different to editing for a documentary programme. With a deadline probably fast approaching the recorded interview is pared down to the proverbial ‘sound-bite’. There is often no time for any finesse to be employed, and often it clearly shows. People talk, and apparently don’t breathe for a long time! And interviews are often literally chopped-off in mid-sentence, because there is no time to do any better. Hopefully, in documentary work editing can become more of an artistic activity, where people breathe naturally, and take pauses between sentences. But, by the same token, in the editing process you sometimes have to be prepared to introduce an intake of breath, or a pause, if your cutting activities have upset the normal rhythm of the speaker.

There are probably few documentary producers who would agree to allow an outsider to look over their shoulder during an editing session. After all, it is a time when imagination, thought and originality are required, and many people prefer to work alone and undisturbed. Fortunately, having already displayed some ability in previous programmes by recording useful ‘actuality’, Charles Parker realised that I was genuinely interested in the actual programme-making process, and allowed me to sit in to watch and listen to the results of a master tape-editor at work. So, I spent many hours closeted in an oversized BBC broom cupboard, as Charles edited tapes on an EMI TR90. (Radio Times photograph -page 13, issue 9-15 May 1981.)

I became like the proverbial fly on the wall. It wasn’t just a matter of not talking, but hardly breathing too – so as not to interrupt the creative process! But it was an experience not to be missed. As a result, what little I now know about audio editing I owe largely to the late Charles Parker.

“The Jewellery” radio feature
For the making of ‘The Jewellery’ – an Actuality Radio Ballad on the Birmingham Jewellery Quarter, I had an advantage. You may recall I had opted for a ‘proper job’ and this, by chance, happened to be in an old established family business located in ‘The Jewellery Quarter’. Indeed, I spent 18 years working there and, by having to make regular use of specialised ‘outworkers’, I was walking around the area most days. So, the concentrated research that I had to do later before starting the recordings for ‘Cry from the Cut’, was not necessary for ‘The Jewellery’.

My reason for putting up the programme idea to Charles was to document a passing lifestyle, before it was lost for ever. As a result of the post World War II recession, employment levels fell drastically. I well recall that many craftsman were tempted by the high wages offered by the Austin Motor Company, Longbridge. And if you lost one specialist out of a small, skilled workforce, that person was almost impossible to replace at the time.

For those unfamiliar with the Birmingham Jewellery Quarter it occupies a square mile of the city, in which almost every business is somehow connected with the manufacture of ‘jewellery’ in its widest sense. For over 200 years the Jewellery Quarter has been home to some of the most highly-skilled goldsmiths, silversmiths, and jewellery makers in the world.

The former old Victorian and Edwardian houses in the area were converted into workshops – some, frankly, not much better than garrets. But from such humble surroundings came the most marvellous examples of craftsmanship – involving gold, silver and precious stones.

The average age then of the proper jewellers, the old school, was 60 to 65 years. Some of the buildings they worked in were practically condemned, and the workers’ were just waiting to be pushed out. There was talk at the time of flatted factories being built, but would the old craftsmen be able to afford the new rents?

Even mass-production was beginning to infiltrate into the work of the Jewellery Quarter, which meant that when the individual craftsman eventually went, there’d be nobody to replace him. The standards of workmanship were getting lower all the time, and the desire for speed was killing the craft. Indeed, one old man told me, “Now they’ve got a machine out in London – they cost £1000 and you can produce wedding rings with a lovely pattern on – like turning sausages out!”

Indeed, to stress the point, our own business made use of a quotation attributed to John Ruskin: ‘There is scarcely anything in the world that some man cannot make a little worse, and sell a little more cheaply. The person who buys on price alone is this man’s lawful prey’.

So, this was the environment that existed then, which I tried to capture before these craftsman characters passed on. Fortunately, I gather now that since the 1980’s major restoration and conservation work has been carried out in the Jewellery Quarter ?and once again it is beginning to become a place where people want to live and work. But major changes can affect any trade or place – and the people associated with them. You’ve just got to catch them whilst you can. To my regret I’ve had people die on me before I’ve made the effort to catch, and record them!

After transmission the programme attracted a critical letter in The Birmingham Post. However, since the author did not have the courage to sign his name – name withheld – one tended to regard their comments with disdain. Whilst any creative artist desires the plaudits of the public, he certainly should not avidly chase them. It is a big mistake to try to please everybody!

“Cry from the Cut” radio feature; background
On looking back I find that the majority of my documentaries have been aimed at capturing the past, before it is too late. ‘Cry from the Cut’ was to be no exception.

During the end of the 1950’s it became apparent that the commercial boat traffic on the narrow canals was dying a slow death. In the first instance the canals had suffered from competition from the railways – and now the final nail in the coffin was to come from new motorways, and the vast increase in lorry traffic in particular. As to why it is considered necessary for consignments of goods to be rushed across the country to arrive at their destination the very next day ?when, in many cases, it would not matter one iota if the goods had travelled for a week at 4mph on a canal boat, has never been fully explained. However, by the early 1960’s not only were the commercial narrow boats disappearing, but also the complete way of life of a race apart – the boat people, and the landsmen who worked on the ‘Cut’. For centuries the boat people, independent folk at the best of times, had followed their unique way of life, with their own customs and traditions.

So, before it was too late, I put up the idea to Charles for a radio ?documentary programme -‘Cry from the Cut’, to try and capture this fast disappearing part of life on our inland waterways.

As the title infers this was a real cry for help; a cry of desperation even. And the boaters’ themselves could do little about it. The people in power, most of whom displayed by their decisions little true knowledge of the subject – allowed politics and economics to destroy a unique way of life.

Such drastic changes, even when only affecting a minority group, are usually conveniently classed as ‘progress’; although one does really begin to wonder sometimes. The problem lies in the fact that, in this modem age, everybody has to fall into a convenient category. We have to be all compartmentalised so that the state can exert control over what we do, and how we do it. There is no real place left for the ‘characters’ of old, who put local colour into our lives, and the landscape in which they lived. The present pace of life, which we vainly try to keep up with, is coupled to the enormous advances in technology that have taken place during the last century – and continue apace. In times past, life very largely went on as it always had done. Certainly, the mere act of living was very hard for some – but everyone was in the same boat, so to speak! And instead of our present materialistic approach to life, people enjoyed the simple pleasures that were on offer – and certainly seemed more happy and content than many of us appear today.

The gradual disappearance of the working boats, together with the boatmen and their families, and the landsmen associated with the waterways, was a significant historical happening. But, so far as I was aware, no one had yet specifically documented the final days of the canal people. Certainly some well-known authors have detailed the chronological events that cover the construction of the canals, and their slow decline in face of other forms of transport. Other writers have described the appalling conditions under which the occupants of the early working boats had to operate.

But, whether writers or reporters, all their words have given their own interpretation of the scene, or the story they were describing. At no point, I think, have the actual words and thoughts of the boaters’ themselves featured in the plethora of pages on canal history. And since many boat people couldn’t read or write, it was hardly a task that they could undertake themselves. Also, as a group of people, they were mainly considered to be a rough and ready lot – which most writers perhaps didn’t want to mix with too closely anyway! Indeed, they had a reputation for being extremely insular, with little time for those who ‘lived on the land’.

However, to listen to the voices of the boaters’ themselves is surely a guarantee that their story comes from an unimpeachable source. There is little doubt that the human voice, with its distinctive local dialect and inflection, can add a totally new dimension to even the best writer’s attempt to reproduce the vernacular on the printed page. However, knowing the boat people’s reputation for being isolationists could I, as a man from the land, be allowed to gain an intimate insight into their life on the ‘cut’?

“Cry from the Cut”; its writing and making and further notes on editing
My first task was to become something of an instant expert on canals. Research was the name of the game – reading books and old documents, examining photographs and trying to visualize the lifestyle of the people I was due to meet. At least I had to try to give the impression of knowing something about the subject when I switched the tape recorder on!

Over a period of some months in 1961 I recorded 64 midget tapes of material – speech, music and dance, and sound effects. I met some wonderful, generous characters, who invited me into their boat cabins, into their offices, took me to several pubs, and helped me to understand their tight-knit lifestyle – and the magic of the canal environment.

Incidentally, I still have my original recording tapes which, even after all the years, are mostly usable. I am currently working on a transcript of all the tapes, since I hope that the words of the boaters’ and landsmen might eventually be published. They would certainly form a definitive description of the dying days of commercial boat traffic on our narrow canals. A story straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak!

As a start to compiling a documentary programme I immerse myself in the contents of the tapes, and make copious notes. Gradually you get to know and remember what actuality you have available, and who said what. Chronological sequences start to fall into place and, when you have decided on the actuality that has potential, you can mark start/finish points on the midget tapes with small paper markers. This is done so that when you struggled into an editing suite in Broad Street with a load of tapes you could make best of use of the booked time to get the sections required dubbed off at 15″ per second.

Then it was back home carrying more tapes than you started off with – the extra reels being 15″ per sec material that you will now be working with. And then you start to ‘bum the midnight oil’! I used a Brenell tape deck for editing purposes, which had easy access to the replay head, quick rewind/forward speed, and on/off brakes. The usual yellow spacer tape was used where music or FX would be inserted in the final mix. It may sound somewhat ‘Heath Robinson’ – but it worked!

Use of music in radio programmes
Since I have mentioned ‘music’ I had better come clean as to my own thoughts on the subject. Although the folk song activists will doubtless raise their hands in horror, I have to tell you that I do not go along wholeheartedly with the overwhelming amount of music and lyrics that ended up in some of the Radio Ballads.

My argument, of course, being an actuality man, is that when you have recorded and edited some superb actuality speech, why not let it run? Sometimes the flow falters when lyrics are written and sung, solely based on someone else’s actuality. However, having made this point, I hasten to add that to use music and lyrics to ‘enhance’ an actuality sequence, and by so doing to raise the emotional level of the listener is, on occasions – quite marvellous. Here are two examples, employing the contralto voice of Lorna Campbell, and the other from soprano, Rosemary Redpath.

 We do speculate, and you think, well I wonder what this stone could say if it could only speak. It may have been in a maharajah’s turban, or his sword, or it may have been in a princess’s necklace. It can be in a hundred romantic situations during the centuries, and then today it is just a nice little piece in a nice little ring, a nice little piece of jewellery. That is the romance of stones.

Music (“Riley the Fisherman” Catty Collection MS. B’ham)
LORNA: to guitar

Today I’ll wear a diamond clear
Tomorrow perhaps a pearl
Or emerald green or ruby red
All stones to thrill a girl.
It can be hard to choose the kind
Topaz, or sapphire blue?
And even then I’ll change my mind
As any girl can do …

(Fiddle takes a verse to conclude behind:-)
Fahy: It is the skill of the diamond cutter with diamonds, and the lapidary with the other stones, which really brings out the beauty of the stones.

There is a ‘courting’ sequence, with actuality from Sister Mary Ward, and boatman Alf Best. Accompanying this section were three verses from the song ‘The Water Is Wide’ (O Waly, Waly) sung slowly, and romantically, by soprano Rosemary Redpath. Unfortunately, I only have an amended draft script to hand, and the only lyrics I can trace are slightly different to those actually sung. Nevertheless, I am sure someone will put me right!

Music: The Water is Wide (O Waly, Waly)
Rosemary: with guitar

The Water is wide, I cannot get o’er
And neither have I wings to fly.
Oh go and get me some little boat,
To carry o’er my true love and I.

(Music lilts behind)
Sister Mary Ward: Well, of course, you can hardly realise the way they make love, and I’ve no right to say this anyhow! It’s very difficult to find out that they’re lovers at all.
Alf Best: That is a big problem, courting on the canal because I mean if you’re going along, I mean your girl friend, she’s working with somebody else, and you’re working with someone else, you probably see a girl friend once every month.

Rosemary: with guitar

I put my hand into one soft bush,
Thinking the sweetest flower to find.
I prick’d my finger to the bone
And left the sweetest flow’r alone.

(Music & Chorus lilts behind)
Sister Mary Ward: A girl will get off of one boat, and a boy will come up from another pair of boats, and you’ll never know that they love each other until you see the girl take the boy’s hat off and throw it in the lock. And, course, the boat people never kiss each other in public – the boat people don’t do that.
Alf Best: That’s gone on from generation to generation ?that’s how they do it.

Rosemary with guitar:

There is a ship sailing on the sea,
She’s loaded deep as deep can be’
But not so deep as in love I am;
I care not if I sink or swim.

(Music & Chorus lilts behind)
Sister Mary Ward: A man will run forward and get a lock ready for a girl. It’s a wonderful thing to do really – the thing that’s so hard for the girl is to open the locks, drop the paddles and so forth – and the man who is in love will do that for her. And, the funny thing about it, I stand here at this window and later on a boy will come in and say to me, “Sister Mary, we’re going to be married”.
I find these two sequences perfect examples of actuality, and music and song, in total harmony. They almost bring tears to my eyes!

Further thoughts on Charles Parker
Charles Parker was a perfectionist as regards tape-editing – and it shows. And hopefully, along the way, I have picked up some of his strengths.

That you have the power to manipulate speech is a power to be used with the greatest care. However, on one occasion my work even elicited some kind words. When I went to record Sister Mary Ward, at the Boatmen’s Surgery, Stoke Brueme – for ‘Cry from the Cut’, she was far from being a well-lady. Her contribution to the programme was vital – but her voice-delivery was painfully slow and drawn-out. The only thing was to try and speed up what she was saying! This meant several hours of work, literally closing up gaps between almost each word she spoke.

Any doubts that I may have had about my action were softened when I received a congratulatory letter from her following the broadcast.

“Many congratulations. Your broadcast was a great success – true to life, the very speech of our boat people; typical of the race. How you managed to get them to talk is marvellous. They appeared to forget themselves – unusual I can assure you. Generally most self-conscious. Of course, I approve of the final result. Glad I did not ruin it, actually sounded happy. Thanks for your understanding – your difficult task – well rewarded. God Ever bless you. Yours sincerely, Sister Mary.”

Changing times; new technologies and new programmes
Whilst I picked up what I know about tape-editing from Charles Parker, the technique of audio-editing has also moved on – like most things!

The last time that I used a razor blade and sticky tape was to produce an audio cassette, as a Millennium project. The purpose of ‘Life…as it was’ was, once again, to record disappearing ‘living history’. In this case it was the amazing changes in lifestyle that the older residents of my local Devon villages had lived through.

Quite literally they had witnessed rural life, from the horse age to the jet age. And the compiling/editing of this actuality took me months and months. With no studio facilities available I had to do all my own initial dubbing on a Revox B77, using miles of tape in the process. Then, of course, came the compiling and editing. But now, after only a few years, and 50% of the people recorded having died – we have spoken memories that would otherwise have been lost for ever.

But in this age of technological wizardry even audio editing has undergone a radical transformation. How it is done today? Yes ?you’ve guessed, it is yet another function that can be undertaken on a computer. You can now sit at a PC, and let a ‘mouse’ do the work. And, what’s more, full studio facilities are at your fingertips!

Quite by chance, I came into fortuitous contact with a guy who works in BBC/TV who, when he heard of my radio background, immediately ordered, “Throwaway the razor blade, and sticky tape, Brian – and get into the digital age!” But trying to learn an alien new technology at an advanced age, takes some effort. How can you possibly edit sound using a computer, rather than a tape deck? Fortunately my friend, whose patience and perseverance deserves a medal, sent me emails galore and answered queries that only the totally ignorant are ever likely to ask. But he did not give up on me – thank goodness. And finally, to a degree, I got the hang of the basics of digital editing. Indeed, this new-found knowledge was enough to allow me to make an audio-documentary CD in 2005, to mark the 250th anniversary of the making of the first Axminster carpet.

Following this is another CD, which will accompany an illustrated book – ‘The Last Number Ones’. Those with a knowledge of canal history will know that, during the days of commercial boat traffic on our narrow canals, the boat people termed ‘Number Ones’ owned and operated their own boats ?rather than working for a canal-carrying company.

Two of the boaters, Joe and Rose Skinner, who I recorded in 1961, are the subject of the book and CD. They were lovely people, who epitomised the best of the boating fraternity, living and working on the ‘cut’. Indeed, they were from the old school, and had no time for these new-fangled diesel-engined narrow boats. They had the last horse-drawn boats too.

Changing times; the BBC and the approach to programme-making
Over the intervening years, since the above programmes were made, there have been major changes in the system of commissioning of BBC radio programmes. In days gone by you put an idea up to a producer for consideration, he cleared it with the Head of Programmes, and away you went. Nowadays it is far more complicated, as are most things in life! What concerns me is when you get a commissioning editor from Radio 4 stating that one reason they had to reject a (brilliant!) idea is that, “you were offering yourself as producer and presenter, (that dread word again) and I’m afraid that only in exceptional circumstances would we consider that possible. The thinking is that most programmes need a second ear across them and that therefore the creative relationship between a reporter and producer is critical.”

Expressions such as ‘a second ear’, and ‘the creative relationship between a reporter and producer’ leave me aghast. I fear that the lady in question must have been brain-washed, or was suffering from a surfeit of political correctness. Or is it just the present system that makes such demands? Individual thought is not to be allowed, it seems! I can just imagine what the reaction to such restrictions would have been from the likes of Charles Parker and Philip Donnellan!

And to come to think that I did two 30-minute programmes, one on Diamonds, and the other on Precious Stones that had no presenter, no narrator – just actuality flowing from men and women who loved, and lived for their work. And, what’s more, it worked too! So much for the demands of a ‘second ear’.

Changing times; the equipment
Over the years portable recording equipment has vastly improved too, especially in weight and size. My original EMI L2 midget recorder weighed in at 14 lbs. The UHER Report Monitor that followed was 7.9Ibs. Today, my Sony Portable Mini-Disc recorder, whose output can be fed directly into a PC, will fit into the palm of my hand, and weighs in at 5.2 ounces! Where will it all end?

Recommendation from Charles Parker
“Over the past eight years I have worked very closely with Brian Vaughton. I have formed a very high opinion of his capacities, especially in the field of documentary radio, and his imaginative grasp of radio and recording techniques, and the sympathy and understanding he brings to his interviewing.

In particular, I have collaborated with him on the production of ‘The Jewellery’, a radio ballad on Birmingham’s fast disappearing jewellery quarter, and I am currently working with him on a similar treatment of Midland canals. As a colleague he has also given extremely potent expression to ‘The Birmingham Bull Ring’, a programme which was recommended for consideration as an entry from the Region for national selection for the Italia Documentary Prize.”

(From a reference given by the late Charles Parker.)

BBC productions compiled and written by Brian Vaughton
1948: THE KING OF THE GOATS…Children’s Hour play adaptation (40′)
1959 or 1960: MOMENTS OF TRUTH…The Birmingham Bull Ring (40) (this production is not currently listed on the Friends of the Philip Donnellan website. But is documented in the Charles Parker Archive).
1961: THE JEWELLERY…The Birmingham Jewellery Quarter (60’)
1962: CRY FROM THE CUT…a documentary survey of the narrow canals, and the way of life of those who worked on them during the dying days of commercial boat traffic. (60′)
1963 or 1964: A GIRL’S BEST FRIEND…(2 Programmes – Diamonds/Gemstones) (30’ each)
1969: THEY BROUGHT THE SEA TO MANCHESTER…75th Anniversary of the Manchester Ship Canal. (60′)

Circa 1964 to 1968 In the ‘A WORLD OF SOUND’ series, making use of BBC Sound Archives and new actuality interviews:

Actuality soundtracks for SCAN items – the Midlands TV magazine programme:
Inserts for the monthly ‘Countryside’ programmes:

1958: HOLIDAY HOUR…Brixham trawler voyage, from Ramsgate to Antwerp. (25’)
LATCH-KEY CHILDREN…Midland Region current affairs programme
CHILDREN’S HOUR…recorded feature

Personal productions
1976: ‘SEAWAY TO THE WORLD’ a 16mm documentary film on the Port of Manchester (Manchester Ship Canal). This film was later made into a VHS cassette in the ‘Maritime Britain’ series, and sequences were shown on BBC/TV.
1978 ‘GOING PLACES’ a 16mm documentary film tracing the pioneering container ship operation of Manchester Liners Ltd (ML). From Manchester Docks services went across to Canada, up the St. Lawrence Seaway to Montreal, and onwards to Chicago. Travelling eastwards ML served Malta, Greece and Turkey.
2001: ‘LIFE…AS IT WAS an audio-documentary cassette/CD recording what life was like in rural Devon in times past. These unique recordings describe the lifestyle in the countryside for much of the 20 th century – and highlight the amazing changes that have taken place, as we moved from the horse age to the jet age. This documentary provides memories for the older generation – and enlightenment for the new. Listen – to living history.
2005: ‘THE WEAVERS’ TALES an audio documentary CD, to celebrate the 250 th anniversary of the making of the first Axminster carpet.
2007: THE LAST NUMBER ONES One of four contributors to a book celebrating the life and times of the boating couple, Joe & Rose Skinner, and the maker of an audio-documentary CD to accompany the book. (Joe and Rose were two of the canal boat people interviewed in 1961 for ‘CRY FROM THE CUT’.)

Background notes of a purely personal nature
Feature articles contributed to Birmingham Post, Birmingham Weekly Post, The Daily Telegraph, and specialist magazines.

RAFVR pilot 1950-6.

Accredited MOD correspondent – mainly for aviation article assignments in aircraft, such as – Wellington, Lancaster, 1000mph Club (Lightning), HMS Ark Royal (steam catapult launch in a Buccaneer), Red Arrows aerobatic team, two cockpit trips in RAF VC10’s to Hong Kong, low-level sortie through Snowdonia, go to RAF Waldenrath in Germany to fly Harrier, Victor tanker from RAF Marham for in-flight refuelling sortie, nine-hour patrol in a RAF Nimrod from Malta, to check on Russian surface vessels and submarines, Sea King, Whirlwind and Gazelle helicopters, RAF Survival Course in Bavaria, RAF Mountain Rescue exercise in Snowdonia etc. Also, four days spent aboard HMS Andrew; the last operational Royal Navy submarine fitted with a deck gun.

… and looking back – just a few afterthoughts

If any young people happen to read through all the above, they may end up with the impression that I have enjoyed an eventful life. I would entirely agree, and I recommend it wholeheartedly!I consider myself extremely fortunate. However, as in most things in life there are good and bad parts. I’ve been out of work twice, but round the world once, and many places in between. And you’ve got to have a bit of luck on the way. The secret is to take full advantage of it when it occurs. And don’t hesitate to ‘ask’ people in authority for what you would like to do. People can only say ‘no’, and will do on numerous occasions. But sometimes, just sometimes, the fact you have shown interest, and are keen to learn, they will say ‘yes’. And away you go – and then it’s up to you to make one chance lead on to another!

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