STARTING in 1933, only 11 years after the BBC went on the air as 2LO, In Town Tonight could be described as the prototype BBC chat show. The 30-minute programme went out on Saturday evenings and comprised interviews with personalities, stars and otherwise interesting people arriving in London over the week.
The theme music was Knightsbridge from Eric Coates’s London Suite, written earlier that year, overlaid with sound effects including a flower seller in Piccadilly Circus (who featured on a set of cigarette cards about the programme). You can hear it here. The opening announcement declared: ‘Once more we stop the mighty roar of London’s traffic and, from the great crowds, we bring you some of the interesting people who have come by land, sea and air to be In Town Tonight.’ But I wonder if this could have been the original line – in 1933 air travel was very unusual. Maybe they changed it later. At the end of the programme the announcer would order: ‘Carry on, London!’
Coates (1886-1957) also wrote Calling All Workers, which became the signature tune for the BBC radio programme Music While You Work, By the Sleepy Lagoon (1930) which introduces Desert Island Discs to this day, and part of his Three Elizabeths suite introduced BBC TV’s Forsyte Saga.
According to Coates’s biographer Geoffrey Self, Knightsbridge was chosen for In Town Tonight at the last minute, apparently without even telling the composer. Coates’s wife Phyl heard it going out and called to her husband, who was in his study: ‘They’re playing something of yours on the radio; I can’t think what it is.’ He listened a moment and said ‘No, neither can I.’ Half an hour later she called him again. ‘Dear, they’re playing this thing again; it must be a signature tune or something.’ He emerged again and said: ‘Yes, well I don’t suppose it will do it any harm!’
The music was a huge hit with the listeners. The BBC received 30,000 letters in six weeks asking for the details, and it had to print reply slips to cope with the demand. Eric Coates was turned into a celebrity.
The first presenter of In Town Tonight was Eric Maschwitz (1901-1969). His name may not be familiar now but he was a real force in 20th century light entertainment.
Sometimes using the pen name Holt Marvell, he wrote the screenplays of several successful films in the 1930s and 1940s. He co-wrote the 1939 adaptation of Goodbye, Mr Chips, and shared an Oscar nomination with his co-writers R C Sherriff and Claudine West. The film’s leading man, Robert Donat, beat Clark Gable, James Stewart, Laurence Oliver and Mickey Rooney to win the Best Actor Oscar.
In the 1940s Maschwitz wrote the lyrics of A Nightingale Sang in Berkeley Square (music by Manning Sherwin), performed here by Nat King Cole, and These Foolish Things (music by Jack Strachey), with the immortal lines
A tinkling piano in the next apartment
Those stumbling words that told you what my heart meant
It is sung here by Ella Fitzgerald.
After a varied career, including war service in the Intelligence Corps, he rejoined the BBC as head of television light entertainment in 1958, when he said: ‘I don’t think the BBC is a cultural organisation. We’ve got to please the people. The job of a man putting on a show is to get an audience.’ (I had to read this twice to be sure that this was a BBC man talking.)
In 1962, as assistant to the BBC’s Controller of Programmes, he requested ideas for a science fiction drama series. The result was Doctor Who, which started the next year.
A subsequent presenter of In Town Tonight was John Ellison. I can find out very little about him, which is surprising as he was a household name for many years. He presented the radio show Pick of the Week from its inception in 1959 until his death in 1974. He was also a question-master on the BBC’s Top of the Form. (In case I don’t get back to the programme in this series, here is the signature tune, called Marching Strings.
When the show was killed off in 1986 the producer, Graham Frost, was reported to have said that the competitive nature of the show jarred with modern educational philosophy, and promised a new non-competitive schools quiz where there would be no right or wrong answers. This quote is all over the internet but I cannot find the source of it – though this time it certainly sounds like a BBC man talking. (The new quiz show never materialised.)
There were less well-known guests, for example Una Duval, who was imprisoned in 1909 during the campaign for women’s votes. In this 1955 discussion with interviewer John Ellison, Mrs Duval is introduced to photographer Arthur Barrett, who took a picture of suffragettes Emmeline Pankhurst, her daughter Christabel and Mrs Flora Drummond in Bow Street court while the magistrate was passing sentence of three months in jail. You can see it here.
In this 1952 excerpt John Ellison interviewed air-to-air photographers Cyril Peckham and Russell Adams (what a brilliant topic for a radio programme).
In the 1940s an outside broadcast segment was added, and this was run from 1948 to 1952 by Brian Johnston under the name Let’s Go Somewhere. Here he visits a fire station. (Click on the tab on the right labelled In Town Tonight).
The fire station is now the Chiltern Firehouse restaurant.
Among Johnston’s many other stunts was lying between the rails as an express train hurtled over him, bareback riding in a circus, piloting a light aircraft, riding on a Big Dipper, singing Underneath the Arches live with Bud Flanagan, being sawn in half by magician Robin Harbin and broadcasting live from the coalface of Snowdown colliery in Kent.
From April 1954, the show was broadcast simultaneously on radio and television. Here is a full programme from 1955, featuring Tito Gobbi and Alastair Sim, and here is a 1955 interview with former SS officer Heinz Linge, who was Hitler’s personal attendant.
After a couple of years, during which time ITV was launched, viewing figures were down so the show reverted to radio only for another four years.
In 1960 the 1,000th radio edition was broadcast, with guests including Errol Flynn, Doris Day, Gary Cooper and Jane Russell, who had all made regular appearances over the years. The hosts by this time were Nan Winton, who became the first woman to read the BBC TV news in June 1960 (the Evening Standard commented: ‘Miss Winton usually hides herself behind a desk. Pity. She has a 36-25-37in figure’) though she lasted only a few months before BBC audience research concluded that viewers thought a woman reading the news was ‘not acceptable’, and Tony Bilbow, later a presenter of BBC TV’s Late Night Line-Up.
A few weeks later In Town Tonight was moved to lunchtime and renamed In Town Today. It survived five more years before succumbing to the inevitable axe, and the mighty roar of London’s traffic carried on.