The BBC Midland Light Orchestra

The BBC Midland Light Orchestra rehearsing with Rae Jenkins

To anybody under 40 years of age, the concept of popular radio being anything other than a series of disc jockeys and personality presenters must be difficult to comprehend. Nevertheless, radio entertainment up until the late sixties was totally different from today, and for me, much more enjoyable. Because of the BBC's 'needletime' agreement with the Musician's Union, music on record was strictly limited, thus ensuring regular employment of 'live' musicians in the studio. The benefit to listeners was that it was possible to hear programmes by light orchestras, dance bands, brass and military bands etc many times a week — often several times a day.

In addition to using many outside orchestras, the BBC had their own Regional Staff orchestras specialising in light music, based in London, Birmingham, Glasgow, Bristol and Belfast. Even the more symphonic Cardiff based BBC Welsh Orchestra took part in light music programmes until the early sixties. Of these orchestras, the BBC's 'Pride and Joy' was the BBC Midland Light Orchestra, which could be heard 'on the air' several times a week and whose versatility knew no bounds.

Rae JenkinsLet's look at the origins of the orchestra. As a title it came into being in 1941; however, there had always been a BBC orchestra in the Midlands. In the early days there was a small combination called the 'Midland Studio Orchestra' but in 1934 this was succeeded by the 34 piece BBC Midland Orchestra — of necessity a part- time combination, as it was drawn from the ranks of the City of Birmingham Orchestra. Upon outbreak of war, in accordance with an order to the BBC from the Military Service Tribunal, the Midland Orchestra was disbanded — the view being that in war-time the BBC should employ fewer musicians. However, this order was partly rescinded in 1941 and from the core of the previous orchestra was established a 24-piece orchestra entitled the BBC Midland Light Orchestra — the BBC's argument being that to have their own orchestra would reduce their need for outside combinations.

Initially, like its predecessor, it was part-time and drawn from the C.B.O. A number of well-known theatre musicians conducted it in the early years — Richard Crean, Clifford Greenwood and Harry Fryer amongst them. However, by 1943, Rae Jenkins had been installed as resident conductor. The orchestra had once again nearly been lost in 1942 when the National Service Tribunal again tried to get it disbanded but this time the BBC put their foot down, stating that "such action would deprive the Corporation of their principal ensemble for providing light music programmes".

In 1944 the M.L.O, which had been moved to Kidderminster for much of the war, returned to Birmingham and was reconstituted as a full-time orchestra, no longer reliant on the C.B.O for its musicians. In 1946 it was augmented to 31, at which time Rae Jenkins was moved to the BBC Variety Orchestra, newly returned to London after its war-time 'posting' to Bangor in North Wales. Many readers will recall that Rae Jenkins later had a long association with the BBC Welsh Orchestra in Cardiff.

Gilbert VinterHis replacement in the M.L.O. was Gilbert Vinter, a respected bassoonist, who had just left the Royal Air Force after several years as bandmaster of their Flying Training Command Band. He was destined to be associated with the M.L.O. (albeit intermittently) for the rest of his life. Although guest conductors such as H.C. Burgess and Harold Gray were sometimes used, the majority of broadcasts were under the baton of Gilbert Vinter until 1952 when he was appointed conductor of the newly formed BBC Concert Orchestra (formerly BBC Opera Orchestra). His place was taken by Leo Wurmser who was also the official staff accompanist in Birmingham. However, he was not destined to hold this position for very long, as Gilbert Vinter (disenchanted with the BBC Concert Orchestra) returned to Birmingham the following year. He went free-lance in 1955, establishing the British Concert Band, The International Players and the International Light Orchestra in London.

After some months of using guest conductors in Birmingham (including Vinter) it was decided to appoint 29 year old Gerald Gentry (formerly Assistant Conductor of the BBC Scottish Orchestra) to the position of conductor of the BBC Midland Light Orchestra with Leo Wurmser as his deputy. Mr Gentry was a viola player and commenced his professional career at the age of 15. He had been a member of the BBC Concert Orchestra, working with choirs, orchestras and operatic societies in his spare time. From his background it might not appear that he was the obvious choice to conduct a light orchestra, however it should be noted that for many years the orchestra 'doubled' as a symphony orchestra dropping the word 'light' from its title and playing in the predominantly classical lunchtime series 'Concert Hour' playing such works (Haydn, for example) that could be performed by a 39 piece orchestra — they had been augmented in 1953 (sounds painful!). Also, the orchestra's repertoire had been largely of the older, more classically orientated light music — Ketelbey, Charrosin, German, Haydn Wood, Fletcher etc, and until a few years ago, their recording of 'Barwick Green' by Arthur Wood introduced the daily events at Ambridge in 'The Archers'.

When Gerald Gentry departed, early in 1959, the orchestra was without an 'official' conductor for about 18 months, during which time most of the conducting was shared between Gilbert Vinter, Leo Wurmser — and Jack Coles, a man of considerable talent. Having left Kneller Hall in 1943 with the Gold Cup for the Best Pupil of the Year, it was not long before he was playing lead trumpet with George Melachrino and the Band of the Allied Expeditionary Forces. By the mid-forties he had formed a ten-piece dance band (The Music Masters) as well as his 'Orchestre Moderne' which, as its title would suggest, specialised in the contemporary light music of the day. For a long time the BBC had held Jack Coles in high esteem. He had guest conducted both the BBC Revue Orchestra and the BBC Concert Orchestra — the latter being for the BBC Festival of Light Music at the Royal Festival Hall. During the last quarter of 1958 he was asked to do a weekly programme in the series 'Melody on the Move’ conducting (in sequence) the BBC Welsh Orchestra, West of England Light Orchestra and Midland Light Orchestra — effectively being given his 'pick' of the orchestras when a vacancy occurred. His future was probably clinched in May 1959 when he was asked to take the BBC Studio Choir on a broadcasting tour of Holland. The BBC were so delighted with the results that they told him that he had exceeded their wildest expectations, stating "you will probably say that these were professional engagements, but there are professionals and professionals!"

Jack ColesHe was officially appointed Conductor of the Midland Light Orchestra in August 1960 but this came at a time of change and new thinking at the BBC. A review had been conducted into the repertoires of the Staff orchestras and as a result, it was felt that some of them were 'not sufficiently light'. So, two major changes were implemented. With the retirement of Frank Cantell from the BBC West of England Light Orchestra, it was decided to reduce their personnel to 18 players; they renamed it the BBC West of England Players directed by Peter Martin (from the piano). Their speciality became 'popular music' rather than light music. The M.L.O. was reduced to 30 players and the brief to Jack Coles upon taking over, was to imprint his own personality upon the orchestra, doing (or commissioning) new arrangements of popular music and contemporary light music. With his dance band experience, it came naturally to Jack and he evolved a distinctive and highly attractive style for the orchestra which the musicians clearly enjoyed. The brass section packed a terrific 'punch' and in their rhythm numbers they really did swing! There was one problem — Jack could not do it full-time, as he lived in London and had no wish to move. Consequently, he commuted between London and Birmingham, staying at a hotel for two or three nights whilst doing some broadcasts then returning to London — where he undoubtedly worked on his arrangements for the orchestra. It was therefore necessary for the BBC to recommission Gilbert Vinter as Co-Conductor to cover the days when Jack was in London. With his more traditional background, he could not really be expected to play the 'swing' arrangements that Jack had introduced (although he quite often slipped one in!) Consequently, his shows were of more traditional light music — albeit a little Iighter than before. The BBC in London warmed to the idea of having an 'all purpose' orchestra and fully approved of the contrasting styles of the two conductors, feeling that it effectively gave them two orchestras for the price of one! Having said that, BBC Birmingham were less happy about it, feeling, understandably that their 'light orchestra' should be precisely that, not a dance band! However, they were overruled by London who liked the idea of an orchestra that could (and did) play everything from Mozart (in 'Concert Hour') to Nelson Riddle!

Both Gilbert Vinter and Jack Coles were prolific composers, the former being known best for 'Portuguese Party', 'Lisbon Carnival', 'Rattlesnake' and 'Serenade for a Veiled Lady' apparently dedicated to his rather secretive teenage daughter. He also wrote a number of more serious works. Jack Coles' most famous composition was 'Tyrolean Tango' — recorded by George Melachrino and Duke Ellington. Other favourites of his included 'Paraqueets and Peacocks', 'Mexican Serenade', 'Spanish Mule Dance', 'Gentle Persuasion' and 'Dude Ranch'.

Jack Coles talking to MLO leader and sub-leader James Hutcheon and Stanley BrowneIt was of some concern to the BBC when appointing Jack Coles, that being both a composer and publisher, he might seek to take advantage of the opportunities afforded by broadcasting several times a week, He was therefore required to give a guarantee that he would never include in any programme, more than one piece in which he had a financial interest. In addition, both Vinter and Coles had a clause in their contracts forbidding them to play each other’s compositions — they both completely ignored this!

Although Jack Coles did many arrangements for the orchestra, it was obviously impossible for him to do them all, so some were done by members of the orchestra such as pianist, Harold Rich and trombonist, Peter Atherton. Others were commissioned from a variety of arrangers, including Peter Hope, Neil Richardson, David Francis, Roy Green and Roy Jones — the latter being responsible for some very clever modern arrangements of Ketelbey favourites, although they would have probably had the maestro doing headstands in his grave!

The success of the 'new' M.L.O. was in no small measure due to its excellent rhythm section — Harold Rich (piano), Alan Edwards (guitar), Bill Hoare (bass) and Norman Parker — surely one of the best percussionists in the business; they also broadcast in their own right as the Harold Rich Quartet. Another factor which surely helped, was that they were a 'mature' orchestra which included a large number of middle-aged men and women — unlike today’s BBC Concert Orchestra which is very youth dominated.

The aforementioned Harold Rich told me that his many years with the orchestra (he joined in 1960 and stayed to the bitter end) were the happiest of his life. Indeed the M.L.O. was regarded by guest conductors as the happiest orchestra in Britain. They were, of course, extremely lucky with their conductors, compared with some of the other regional orchestras. David Curry (Northern Ireland Light Orchestra) would refuse to use a musician on a broadcast if he was five minutes late for a rehearsal — Jack Leon (Scottish Variety Orchestra) was regarded as a positive tyrant with his temper tantrums and his refusal to even speak to his musicians other than in the studio!

The BBC Midland Light Orchestra conductor Jack Coles

Harold Rich tells me that by contrast, Jack Coles was an absolute pleasure to work with; he was highly respected by the orchestra, both as a musician and as a person — a sociable man who was always happy to enjoy a joke with his musicians, even if it was at his own expense. He was also very generous; he had only to be told that a musician had hit hard times and out would come his wallet. No Christmas would ever pass without Jack giving a present to each of his 30 musicians. (I must say that from my few encounters with Jack Coles, I always found him the epitomy of courtesy and good manners).

Gilbert Vinter was also well liked, although he was more formal and perhaps a trifle staid — Harold Rich describes him as a 'traditional English Gentleman'. He too, was generally calm and courteous, although he could get a little 'prickly' if there was a full moon! — The orchestra kept a close watch on the calendar!

Tragedy struck the M.L.O. in 1969. One evening, whilst driving home from the studio, two musicians, the leader James Hutcheon and the principal trombonist Peter Atherton were killed in an accident. The following morning Jack Coles attempted to address the stunned orchestra, but broke down in tears. As if this wasn’t enough the sudden death, a few months later, of Gilbert Vinter at the age of 60 was a further blow. He was not replaced; instead a number of guest conductors, including Michael Moores, Peter Martin and Stanford Robinson took the helm when Jack Coles was in London. Harold Rich also conducted the orchestra on many occasions.

The BBC Midland Light Orchestra conducted by Michael Moores
(Photo courtesy of Alan Bunting)

In 1972, Jack Coles was told that his contract was not to be renewed and he apparently disappeared without announcement — the orchestra regretting the fact that they had no opportunity to give him a big send-off. He spent the next ten years living in Italy in a place called 'Positano' — the title of one of his compositions.

In 1973 the BBC Midland Light Orchestra was disbanded and replaced by the Midland Radio Orchestra under another respected musician - Norrie Paramor. For me, it was just not the same; it had no brass section and many of the other M.L.O. musicians were replaced. Stylistically it was quite different and it specialised in the popular tunes of the day, its main programme being 'Radio Two Top Tunes'. Norrie Paramor died in 1979 and the orchestra, together with several other BBC orchestras, was finally wound up in 1980 after a long industrial dispute in which the Musicians Union (and the orchestra) attempted to save it. This ended 50 years of music making in the Midlands.

Acknowledgement: I am grateful to Harold Rich for some of the information recounted in this epistle.

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Listen to The BBC Midland Light Orchestra conducted by Jack Coles
on 5th November 1966

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Listen to The BBC Midland Light Orchestra conducted by Gilbert Vinter
circa 1964

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Listen to 'Midland Melody'
played by the BBC Midland Light Orchestra conducted by Jack Coles
The Harold Rich Quartet
Rosemarie Brett Davies and Marie Cooper at two pianos

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Listen to 'Music On The Move'
played by the BBC Midland Light Orchestra conducted by Jack Coles
on 18th February 1964

MUSIC ON THE MOVE on 18th February 1964
played by the BBC Midland Light Orchestra conducted by Jack Coles

Spanish Harlequin
Mad About the Boy
The Scales of Justice
Spring is Here
Mes Champs Elysses
September in the Rain
Skiffling Strings
Peter Haysom arr. Hanmer
Noel Coward
Johnny Douglas
Richard Rodgers
Pablo Ruiz
Tony Osborne
Harry Warren
Marguerite Monnot
Jack Coles
Ron Goodwin arr. Tilsley

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Listen to 'Music On The Move'
played by the BBC Midland Light Orchestra conducted by Jack Coles
on 26th May 1964

MUSIC ON THE MOVE on 26th May 1964
played by the BBC Midland Light Orchestra conducted by Jack Coles

Piping Hot
In the Blue of the Evening
Night Ride
It Happened in Monterey
Sweet and Twenty
Lincolnshire Poacher
Room 505
Jimmy Leach
D'Artega arr. Roy Green
Jack Coles
Tolchard Evans
Mabel Wayne
Ron Gardner
arr. Peter Atherton
Eric Maschwitz
Albert Marland

Click here!
Listen to 'Music On The Move'
played by the BBC Midland Light Orchestra conducted by Jack Coles
on 9th June 1964

MUSIC ON THE MOVE on 9th June 1964
played by the BBC Midland Light Orchestra conducted by Jack Coles

Cuban Heel
Duke's Joke
Slightly Latin
In a Persian Market
Dear Friend
Marching Through Georgia
Jack Coles
Tony Osborne
Alan Clare
Jackie Brown arr. J.Douglas
Albert Ketelby arr. Ray Jones
Jerry Bock
George Scott-Wood
Arr. Peter Hope

MELODY ON THE MOVE at 8.15 a.m. The Light Programme on 6th October 1960
played by the BBC Midland Light Orchestra conducted by Jack Coles

Melody on the Move (Sig)
Lady of Madrid
Canzone d'amore
Toni's Tune
The Girl from Corsica
Riverboat Serenade
You've done something to my heart
Westminster Waltz
Pines of Portofino
Poor Little Rich Girl
Mr. Lucky
Holiday Waltz
Melody on the Move (
Clive Richardson arr.Coles
Tolchard Evans arr. Coles
E.Kalman arr. Coles
Donald Phillips arr. A.Roper
Trevor Duncan
George Scott-Wood arr.Hanmer
Cy Coleman arr.P.Nash
Jack Coles
Noel Gay arr.P.Hope
Robert Farnon
Roper and Ross
Noel Coward
Henry Mancini
Roger Senicourt
Clive Richardson arr. Coles

11.30am. on Thursday 21st. November 1963 - Light Programme
Conductor: Gilbert Vinter

(Sig) Life is Nothing without Music
Washington Post
Cuban Boy
Maria's Tarentella
Singin' in the Rain
Forgotten Dreams
Goose Green
Cuckoo Polka
Little Lisa
Songs of Czechoslovakia
Sig) Life is Nothing without Music
Fred Hartley arr. Jack Coles
John Philip Sousa
Frank Chacksfield arr. David Francis
Phil Green
Nacio Herb Brown arr. Jack Coles
Leroy Anderson
Ivor Slaney

Bernie Wayne
Johann Strauss
James Warr arr. Harold Rich
arr. Gilbert Vinter
Fred Hartley arr. Jack Coles

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Text by Brian Reynolds : e-mail