AESS Newsletter, Autumn 2004
' HE WERE A CHAMPION FELLA'
The Centenary of Wilfred Pickles
For more than forty years on British radio, Wilfred Pickles was one of the best-loved and most instantly recognizable of broadcasters, still remembered today by many people over fifty, who may be surprised to learn that 2004 is his centenary year.
Have a Go! is the programme that comes most readily to mind for most listeners, but Pickles was also a serious actor and, for a short period during the Second World War, a newsreader heard nationally on the BBC Home Service.
His accent left no-one in any doubt that he came from Yorkshire: he was born on 14 October 1904 in a back-to-back house in Conway Street, Halifax. His father had, by Wilfred's own description, 'a lively wit that made him the immediate centre of attraction in any company. He was a good mixer, a jovial man with a gift for storytelling that kept him out too late and in men's company too long'.
His mother was quite different: a strict Sabbatarian whose Sundays were, for Wilfred, 'a dismal day which I dreaded and loathed'.
But his mother's eldest sister, Aunt Sarah, who never learned to read or write, was the family member who had the greatest early influence, for she encouraged Wilfred to read to her. He looked back on this as an incalculable stimulation to his reading, which 'enabled me to develop a real feeling for the meaning of words and an appreciation for their sounds'.
Aunt Emma was another influence: 'She absolutely revelled in making what probably were very ordinary events into graphic, gripping stories, chiefly with a Rabelaisian twist, and I used to sit wide-mouthed under the impact of her extraordinary revelations'.
Hardly surprising, then, after he left school, and was working in a ladies' and gents' outfitters in Halifax, that his interests turned to the stage, beginning with the plays put on at the church he attended. Whatever his role, as a bit-part actor, prompter, or behind the scenes, he was 'part of the goings-on – and that was what mattered'. He haunted the local theatres, and had a reverence for actors and actresses as 'people from another world, a divine fairyland where folk were perfect and where all human relationships were on a grand scale'. So it was a sobering moment when Fred Terry, an actor he had seen at the Theatre Royal, entered his shop one day to buy – underpants! 'Fred Terry buying underpants! Fred Terry wearing underpants! It was one of the greatest shocks of my youth.'
At eighteen, he joined a newly-formed amateur dramatic society: its first play was to be Julius Caesar, and Pickles learned the part of Brutus in only two days! Soon after that he moved to Southport with his family (helping his builder father lay bricks) and, in a local production there, met Mabel Myerscough, all of whose family had been connected with the stage, and Wilfred found it 'an enriching experience … just to be among these people who talked easily and enthusiastically about all the things that interested me and who had learned so much about drama and the art of entertainment'.
He was soon became part of this family when he and Mabel were married. They were the perfect couple, with many common interests but quite different, though complementary, personalities. The more practical Mabel summed it up: 'You're a dreamer, an idealist. I'll have to look after you.' It was Mabel who suggested that Wilfred would be more suited to the radio than the stage.
His chance came when he successfully auditioned with the BBC's North Regional drama department in Manchester; his first part amounted to four lines! But very soon his diary was full, and he took part in features and Children's Hour programmes. In Manchester the Children's Hour staff included such famous broadcasting names as Olive Shapley, Muriel Levy, Doris Gambell – and Violet Carson, a very fine pianist, in later years to become famous as Ena Sharples in television's Coronation Street. It was Carson who steered Pickles into variety, introducing him to the regional variety producer, from whom he learnt an important truth: quality can be difficult to sustain in broadcasting; over-exposure is dangerous; the public remembers the bad and forgets the good.
With plenty of work in a variety of situations, Pickles was now a successful broadcaster in the North Region. But, once again, around 1938, it was Mabel who analyzed the situation, when she told him: 'I still think you've got something for radio they haven't discovered yet!'.
All his life Wilfred had found people fascinating, often wondering about the real lives of those he passed in the street. Where did they work? What were their homes like? What were their hopes, ambitions, fears? Eschewing the stagey, pretentious parties held by well-known members of the BBC or by prosperous people who did a bit of acting, he came to realize that 'there is nothing quite like the genuine fun to be had from the company of unassuming, workaday folk with no illusions about artistic attainments or fame'. In this direction lay that 'something for radio' Mabel had in mind.
But in the meantime came another break, when he was offered and accepted a job as holiday relief announcer in Manchester. Taking up the post, he made a momentous decision: to use his own voice and, in Mabel's words, 'speak like a North countryman'.
This may not have been very remarkable in Manchester, but during the War, in November 1941, Pickles began to read the news on the National Programme and it is hard now to understand the interest and controversy that this provoked. But the BBC was concerned that, in the event of a German invasion, the accents of the established national newsreaders (Stuart Hibberd, Frank Phillips, Alvar Lidell, etc.) would be too easy to imitate, if broadcasting was infiltrated. This was one of the reasons for the naming of newsreaders, who had traditionally been anonymous, from July 1940 onwards. In the event, his appointment was seen as a triumph, particularly when he dared to end the midnight news by wishing his fellow northerners 'Good neet'. ('We rather like your "Good neet"', said John Snagge.)Back in the North in 1941 Pickles had exercised his curiosity about ordinary folk by travelling among them as 'Billy Welcome'; long after, in 1958, he helped people get in touch with lost friends and colleagues in a show on the Light Programme called Where are you now? But it was Have a Go! on which his reputation chiefly rests. It began in the North Region in March 1946 and was broadcast nationally in the Light Programme from the following September, with the aim of 'presenting the people to the people'. It was the first live, unscripted programme to bring the voice of the people to the microphone, under the thin disguise of a quiz, and by May 1949 Pickles and his team had travelled some 78,000 miles and asked 3,752 questions of 900 competitors. The show continued until January 1967 when the BBC felt it had simply run out of steam.
In its heyday in the 1950s Have a Go! had audiences of 20 million and Pickles is generally acknowledged as 'possibly the most popular radio personality of all time' (Gifford, The Golden Age of Radio). He is of interest to us for introducing the spontaneous voice of the ordinary person to British radio and for his own unashamed use of his native accent in 'serious' broadcasting. Whatever the circumstances, his voice was warm, his clarity impeccable and his work well worth remembrance in his centenary year.
He did, however, have the reputation of being the meanest man in show business. The leader of the orchestra for many years at the Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, who played for him many times and loathed him, tells how, out of all the big stars he played for, Pickles was the only one who never bought the 'boys in the band' a drink at the end of a pantomime run.
It was also said that wherever possible he always used to pay even the smallest debts with a cheque, in the hope that people would frame it instead of cashing it. Roy Hudd, in his entry on Wilfred Pickles in the book, Roy Hudd's cavalcade of variety acts: a who was who of light entertainment 1945-60 , says of him: 'He was Yorkshire through and through and a pal of mine was thanked for playing a sketch with him for an entire summer season with – a glass of sherry!'
But the members of the British public whom he celebrated and were his listeners took a different view. They adopted his catchphrases – ''Ow do, 'ow are yer?' and 'Are yer coortin'?' – and he was content simply to wish for the epitaph 'He were a champion fella!'.
© Garry Humphreys, 2004