Dick Barton – Special Agent


WITH these words: ‘Six years of battle, murder and sudden death just spoil you completely for a nice, peaceful office job. Don’t you agree, Snowey?’ Captain Richard Barton MC, ex-wartime commando, introduced himself to his BBC audience in 1946.

Novelist Norman Collins had just become head of the Light Programme and he thought a daily adventure serial could be a success. His assistant, John McMillan, had pioneered a daily thriller serial called Vic Samson: Special Investigator for Radio Luxembourg before the war, and he wrote the synopsis of Dick Barton – Special Agent, and biographies of the characters. The scripts were written by Edward J Mason and Geoffrey Webb.

The fast and furious theme tune was The Devil’s Galop by Charles Williams (1893–1978).

Like Eric Coates, the composer of the themes for Music While You Work and In Town Tonight, Williams was a successful composer of light orchestral works, many of which remain familiar today. His piece The Young Ballerina was the background to the Potter’s Wheel interlude, probably the best remembered of the fillers the BBC had on standby in case a programme fell short or went wrong. (I find this film frustrating because the potter, a man named George Aubertin, never finishes the wretched pot, just keeps reworking it. He explained later that he was ‘doodling away’ as he had been asked to do.)

Williams’s march Girls in Grey, originally written for the Women’s Junior Air Corps, which was formed in 1939 for older schoolgirls, later became the BBC Television Newsreel theme.

He composed the score for numerous films. This is the theme from Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960) played by Ferrante and Teicher, though I am not certain that this was the version used in the film. Perhaps Williams’s most successful work was his Dream of Olwen for the 1947 film While I Live (does anyone else hear a similarity between this and the previous melody?)

The first episode of Dick Barton – Special Agent went out on Monday 7 October 1946 at 6.45pm. Thereafter the 15-minute programmes went out five nights a week for six months of the year. Each ended with Dick in some impossible situation which he would get out of with ease by the next day. Every so often he would save the planet. The scriptwriters sometimes wrote alternate episodes, leaving the other to find the way out of the deadly trap. An omnibus was broadcast on Sundays.

Dick was played by Noel Johnson, who had been evacuated from Dunkirk and was invalided out of the Army. His sidekicks Snowey and Jock were played by John Mann and Alex McCrindle. There are almost no recordings remaining but here is a snippet from the second episode.

(The BBC made a pretty faithful revival of the first series for its 1972 Golden Jubilee in which many of the original cast, including Johnson, Mann and McCrindle, reprised their roles. You can hear it here.)

Twelve days after the launch, the first review appeared in the Communist Daily Worker: ‘It is so bad as to be almost beyond belief.’ It branded Barton a ‘crypto-fascist’.

Within a month the BBC was receiving 200 fan letters a week. Within six months it was 2,000. At its peak, the programme averaged 15million listeners per episode. It was meant for an adult audience, and the unworldly BBC executives were taken by surprise when it caught on with children. In those days children played outside but at 6.44pm every weekday the streets would empty, filling up again at 7.01 as young listeners met to discuss the latest episode. This popularity caused problems.

A Miss Marion Seddon complained in the Illustrated London News that ‘children have no business listening at the homework hour to the exploits of Dick Barton and other characters leading abnormal lives’.

A letter to The Times read: ‘The BBC seems bent on turning children into a new kind of drug addict. They grow more concerned from day to day about what Dick Barton may do next than about their futures or the future of England.’

In January 1948 the BBC bowed to pressure and published a code of conduct which the characters had to abide by.

The 12 rules of Dick Barton were:

1 Barton is intelligent as well as hard-hitting. He relies as much upon brains as upon brawn.

2 He only uses force when normal, peaceful means of reaching a legitimate goal have failed.

3 Barton never commits an offence in the criminal code, no matter how desirable the means may be argued to justify the end.

4 In reasonable circumstances, he may deceive but he never lies.

5 Barton’s violence is restricted to clean socks on the jaw. (Ed: In extremis presumably slightly soiled ones would do.)

6 Barton’s enemies have more latitude in their behaviour but they may not indulge in actually giving any injury or punishment that is basically sadistic.

7 Barton and his friends do not wittingly involve innocent members of the public in situations that would cause them to be distressed.

8 Barton has now given up drink altogether. Drunken scenes are barred.

9 Sex, in the active sense, plays no part in the Barton adventures.

10 Horrific effects in general must be closely watched. Supernatural or pseudo-supernatural sequences are to be avoided – ghosts, night-prowling, gorillas or vampires. (Ed: What’s wrong with gorillas?)

11 Swearing and bad language generally may not be used by any character.

12 Political themes are unpopular as well as being occasionally embarrassing.

In a later interview Johnson commented: ‘Barton was a proper character at first. He drank, he smoked and had a girlfriend. As soon as the producers cottoned on to the fact we had a youth audience, they felt they had to become moral guardians.’ And in this 1948 interview he makes the point that Barton is not a crook – he always beats the crook: ‘He should be an inspiration.’ (This clip is third in a short compilation and follows a priceless ‘interview’ with Field Marshal Montgomery.)

There was another reason for Johnson’s irritation: he had become a major star, but he was paid only £18 a week (about £620 today). In late 1948 he asked for a rise. The BBC refused. He resigned. The Corporation tried to get him to change his mind and asked him to name his price. When he (probably jokingly) said he wanted £100 a week (about £3,500) negotiations came to a halt.

He went on to have a long career in films and TV. In a 1982 BBC2 play called The Combination he played a magistrate admonishing two ten-year-old boys: ‘If I had to point the finger at any single responsible body, it would be the BBC for churning out Dick Barton every single solitary night of the week. If anything was guaranteed to warp the spirit of the young, it’s that perverted rubbish!’

So the BBC had to find a new Dick Barton. More than a thousand people applied for the role, including a seven-year-old boy who wrote on a postcard: ‘I want to be Dick Barton, I have a gruff voice and I can shout.’ The role was eventually given to explorer Duncan Carse and subsequently to Gordon Davies.

After five years and 711 programmes defeating giant spiders, death rays, plague-infested rats and the Nazis, Dick Barton came up against his deadliest foe – a bunch of everyday country folk.

In the postwar era of rationing and food shortages, the Ministry of Agriculture wanted the BBC to produce a programme for farmers to disseminate the latest information. At a conference to discuss the issue, one farmer said: ‘What we really want is a farming Dick Barton!’ The idea took root and Dick Barton’s writers, Edward J Mason and Geoffrey Webb, were set to work to create The Archers, with the same format of 15-minute programmes Monday to Friday. (This must have been hard work since they were still turning out Dick Barton.)

The new programme launched nationally on January 1, 1951 at 11.15am, and Dick Barton’s days were numbered. The BBC top brass had already been concerned about the programme. The head of drama was Val Gielgud (brother of Sir John). Johnson said: ‘I was aware that Val Gielgud always hated the show for being so downmarket.’ John Mann, who played Snowey, added: ‘I think he thought it was a bad influence on the youth of Britain.’

This was a bit rich since Gielgud was a prolific writer of detective novels and thrillers, including one called Death at Broadcasting House featuring a murder.

However the death sentence was pronounced and Dick Barton was pitchforked out of the BBC on Friday 30 March 1951, having got his reservist call-up papers to return to the Army. The Archers moved into his slot the following Monday, and they have never left it (except that they now go out at 7pm.)

Footnote: Dick Barton’s progenitor, Norman Collins (who also initiated Woman’s Hour), subsequently fell out with the BBC when he was overlooked for promotion and was instrumental in founding its commercial rival ITV. Barton would have been proud.

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