BBC Radio ventriloquism show, aired 1950 - 1958
"...Peter Brough’s ideal medium was radio - when he appeared on TV people could see his lips move..." - WorldWideWords.com
I could barely believe my ears - a ventriloquist on the radio? Surely not. But my Dad assured me it was the case, and that it had been a runaway success. I had to believe him, but it wasn't until recently that I actually had an opportunity to listen to a show, thanks to the BBC and their streaming radio archives. The show aired between June 1950 and February 1958 on the BBC Light Programme and moved to ITV Television from 1958 onward. Was it popular? Not half - in the 1950s the show had a fan club of over 250,000 and had a peak of 15 million listeners.
Archie Andrews was the dummy (or figure, being the term vents prefer), dressed as schoolboy in striped blazer and scarf, the human half of the pair being Peter Brough, of whom it has been said by many people that his radio, um, appearance was much better than his TV presence, largely because the audience could see his lips move. In fact, Peter Guttridge, who at one time worked in the theatre where the TV show was filmed, said "... I remember the agent for radio ventriloquist Peter Brough slipping me a fiver to keep the lights low when Brough was on stage - after all, on radio he hadn’t needed to worry about his lips moving." But despite that, the show went on from strength to strength, largely because the directors had a great eye for (real) talent - the show was written by, among others, British comics Eric Sykes and Marty Feldman, and starred such comedy greats as Beryl Reid, Dick Emery, Hattie Jacques and Sid James, and on the small screen, Irene Handl. The show also introduced the likes of Julie Andrews (at the ripe age of 14!) A grand total of 204 episodes were broadcast in all, so there must have been something in the air, so to speak.
Archie, as a schoolboy, needed tutors, teachers and mentors. His prime mentor was Peter, of course, but a parade of pedagogues came and went, with a slightly music-hall style of dialogue, with a liberal sprinkling of double entendre and good-natured ribbing. Archie was somewhat haughty, ever keen to put Peter down, calling him "Brough" in the tone more associated with that used to address servants, and even commenting on his poor vent skills. He, in turn was oft put in his place ("flippin' kids", was Tony Hancock's standard response to him).
A long line of tutors followed the already well-known Hancock - Max Bygraves with some of the best catchphrases ("That's a good idea - son!" and "I've arrived, and to prove it, I'm here!"), and Alfred Marks and Bruce Forsyth. Beryl Reid introduced some of the show's regulars, including Monica, Archie's dreadful girlfriend. Finally, there were the inevitable musical interludes.
In addition to all of this, there was much successful merchandising - Archie annuals, books, dolls and clothing, and of course, more ventriloquist dummies. Sweets, soaps, scarves and children's clothing, a huge fan club (with a membership topping a quarter of a million) - Archie was an industry. The show also won the Daily Mail's National Radio Award for three years on the trot (1951 - 53). In short, he was a national hero, at a time when post-war morale was still low. Britain was in the grip of austerity, and anything that raised spirits was a Good Thing. Proof of this, were it needed, is shown by the fact that Archie was given a clothing allowance (his clothing was made on Savile Row, an expensive place to shop for humans) and with rationing still a factor of British life, it is evident that his contribution was valued not just by the radio audience, but by the (usually hard-hearted) bureaucracy of the time.
I did mention the show to a friend of mine recently, and his response of "crazy Brits!" I can now throw back. Because, you see, Archie was not the first radio vent's dummy to find fame. Preceding him by twenty years was the great Charlie McCarthy, another radio vent act, voiced by Edgar Bergen (of whom it was also said that his best medium was radio) - this series ran on US radio from 1937 to 1956. Charlie, however, never met the Royal Family, as did Archie. Apparently, they were great fans, as later royals were of The Goon Show. On meeting the pair (for we assume that Peter Brough was there too), several of the royal party insisted on his head being removed to see the inner mechanism. The king (George IV) apparently said that it was the first beheading of his reign.
The Show Must Go On
Except of course, it didn't. The show finally ended, as shows must, and whilst Archie was trotted out for various TV spots such as This Is Your Life and Call My Bluff (as well as the Windsor Castle staff party, would you believe?), he didn't get up to much. Young Archie Andrews was left in a suitcase for forty years. After Peter died in 1999, Archie was bought by a collector, Colin Burnett-Dick, but whether he will ever perform again is open to doubt.
So, a great show passes. But was it that great? Having heard a couple, I can say "not really", largely because tastes in humour are changed, more sophisticated - but as a curiosity, it's still worth a listen if you can find one on the internet The real legacy of the show was the long list of greats who were launched into new careers, and so for introducing so much new talent to the British entertainment scene, it was a wonder of its time.