BBC Orchestras in the West of England

Norman Brooks conducting what is believed to be the West Country Studio Orchestra
Picture courtesy of Ann Brooks

Once, it was one of the biggest employers of musicians in the world, with one or more staff orchestras in each region, not to mention countless ensembles of every size broadcasting on a regular basis. Nowadays, however, the BBC relies for the most part on recorded music which is obviously more economical. Granted they still have their symphony orchestras and the BBC Concert Orchestra, all of whose contribution to radio is now much reduced. It is more than twenty five years since the BBC disbanded the last of their light orchestras and many readers of this page will have no memory of the glorious days when studio broadcasts of light music were a substantial part of each day's output.

In London, the BBC not only had their Concert Orchestra but also the BBC Variety Orchestra, Revue Orchestra and London Studio Players - the latter also acting as a pool from which more than thirty other combinations were drawn as well as being the nucleus of larger orchestras such as the London Theatre Orchestra and London Light Concert Orchestra. Based in the regions were the Scottish Variety Orchestra, Northern Ireland Light Orchestra, Midland Light Orchestra, Welsh Orchestra and the Northern Dance Orchestra.

In Bristol, there had also been a history of music making, although, it has to be said, not for as many years. In common with other regions the West had imployed a staff orchestra from the earliest days of radio. Initially called the Western Studio Orchestra under the direction of the distinguished Reginald Redman (1892-1972), it had been renamed the West-Country Studio Orchestra by the thirties. Under this title it continued under the direction of Redman, although other conductors sometimes took the helm - such as John Bath (son of composer Hubert Bath) and, in the late forties, Norman Brooks, a violinist in the orchestra who had previously directed his own orchestra on radio.

In January 1950, the orchestra was reconstituted as the BBC West of England Light Orchestra and John Bath was appointed to the post of conductor, Reginald Redman becoming musical director of the BBC West of England Singers. However, John Bath's tenure was only destined to last a few weeks as he relinquished the position due to what the BBC files describe as "differences with the BBC. "

Frank CantellHastily, the BBC transferred Frank Cantell from the London based BBC Revue Orchestra to fill the vacancy. Frank was born in Birmingham in 1901 and took up the piano at the age of nine, subsequently studying under Arthur Hytch at the Birmingham and Midland School of Music, the piano under Clarence Raybould and conducting under Sir Granville Bantock. After playing in cinemas at the age of fourteen, he became principal viola with the City of Birmingham orchestra. By 1924 he was assistant conductor of the Midland Studio Orchestra under Joseph Lewis, transferring to London in 1934 where he became deputy leader of the BBC Variety Orchestra. After a spell with the BBC Theatre Orchestra, in the same capacity, he returned to the Variety Orchestra as leader and assistant conductor to Charles Shadwell who had previously been conductor of the renown Coventry Hippodrome Orchestra. He was appointed conductor of the BBC Revue Orchestra in 1945.

The BBC West of England Light Orchestra, which was led by Frederick Lunnon, was always a part-time combination. Nevertheless, it appeared in several programmes each week playing standard, traditional style light music as well as some of the lighter classics. According to a personnel list in my possession it numbered thirty two players, but it is evident from the BBC programme listings that twenty-five was more usual. I suppose it depended on the sort of music that the orchestra was playing; it was a fine orchestra which could, and did, turn its attention to serious major works when required, such as the 'Concert Hour' series which ran for many years. Apart from participating in most of the regular light music programmes, such as 'Bright and Early', 'Morning Music' and 'Melody on the Move', the West of England Light Orchestra are particularly remembered for their own series such as 'Old Wine in New Bottles', 'Personally Presented' in which Frank Cantell introduced the pieces, and 'Conducted Tour' which was presided over by the West Region's Senior Announcer, Hugh Shireff.

The BBC West of England Light Orchestra

By the late fifties the BBC had come to the view that the output of some of their light orchestras was too staid and that the public no longer wanted it. (It has to be borne in mind that in those times, as now, "what the public wants" really means "what the BBC wants"!) As far as the West of England Light Orchestra was concerned it meant disbandment in the summer of 1960. Ironically, Frank Cantell died only a few months later, aged only fifty nine.

August 1960 heralded the first broadcast of a new, modern style orchestra - the BBC West of England Players directed from the piano by Peter Martin. Apparently, BBC producer Brian Willey had recommended him for the job. It turned out to be an inspired choice as Martin was an excellent pianist and arranger in the modern idiom. Radio listeners were already familiar with his work with the 'Martin-Wilson Players' - a joint venture with clarinettist Ralph Wilson , which became the Peter Martin Players when Wilson formed his own Septet.

Peter Martin at the keyboard in the '60s
Peter Martin on his 90th Birthday

The eighteen piece West of England Players included many musicians from the earlier orchestra but, unlike its predecessor it was to be a full-time ensemble. Very little use was made of the more traditional style of light music; instead, a bright, new style of repertoire was created, with many of the arrangements specially crafted for the players by Peter Martin. Whilst many will have rued the passing of the old orchestra and its repertoire of standard orchestral arrangements, it has to be conceded that the new group had a sparkle and freshness never before seen in a BBC staff unit. The 'brief' to the Players was that their repertoire should be largely of what the BBC described as 'entertainment light music' thus implying a viewpoint that earlier music was not 'entertaining'. What they were after was a repertoire which consisted of modern, rhythmic light music interspersed with orchestral transcriptions of popular songs.

The BBC West of England Players directed by Peter Martin

It wasn't long before the players were broadcasting several times a week. Clearly very popular, the Players became the first regional BBC Staff orchestra to appear in the annual BBC Light Music Festival. I have happy memories of sitting in the front row of the Stalls listening to their section of the Concert. With the BBC Concert Orchestra already in place, the Players had to be situated in front of them to the right of the stage.

The West of England Players seemed to have an extraordinary amount of airtime. One long-running series was 'Late Date' which went out at 11.30pm. There were various afternoon slots such as 'Bristol Fashion', 'Strings 'n Things', 'Moving to Music'; evening programmes such as 'Music on the Move' and 'Music at Seven'. They made weekly appearances in 'Morning Music' and were sometimes heard three times a week in 'Bright and Early'!

The following programme, broadcast on 20th April 1964 is a typical example of one of their 'Bright and Early' programmes:

Fun in the Sun
While Paris Sleeps
The Piccolino
Waltzing to Harlem
Tickled Pink
Sadie's Shawl
Happy Blues
Skiffling Strings
Wally Stott
Tony Osborne
Johnny Pearson
Fred Hartley
Carstairs and Lorraine
Ortolani and Olivier
Ron Goodwin

With so much broadcasting to their credit, coupled with the fact that the players were well thought of by the BBC, the decision to disband them early in 1965 after only four and a half years came as a surprise to many, not least the players. Peter Martin continued to broadcast as a reserve conductor to the other orchestras as well as giving piano recitals on radio. On some of these he was joined by the players' leader, William Reid.

The reason for the the disbanding of the players was that the BBC wished to establish a 'pool' of musicians for training purposes, who would, in due course, be able to fill vacancies in their other orchestras. The BBC Training Orchestra, as it was called, also gave recitals of serious music on the Third Programme. Later renamed 'The Academy of the BBC' the orchestra functioned until 1977 when it too, was wound up. Perhaps, with the ever decreasing amount of studio music on radio it had outgrown its usefulness. This meant that the Western Region became the first region of the BBC to have no studio orchestra - all of the other light orchestras, plus the Northern Dance Orchestra (latterly the Northern Radio Orchestra) disappeared in the early eighties.

Click here!
Listen to 'Music On The Move'
played by the BBC West of England Players
Directed by Peter Martin
in 1964

Click here!
Listen to The BBC West of England Players - Leader: William Reid
Directed by Peter Martin
Announcer: Ronald Short

Directed by Peter Martin
as broadcast at 3pm on The Light Programe on 17th September 1963.

Springtime Romance
La Solana
I'll Close My Eyes
Murder She Said
(Theme from the film)
Prelude Without a Name
(Piano: Peter Martin)
Dixieland Strings
(Violin: Willaim Reid)
Bitter Harvest
(Bongos: Peter Martin)
The Pied Piper
Lewis / Robinson
Rudolf Lewysohn
Harry Dexter
Billy Reid
Ron Goodwin
William John Brown
Peter Martin
Laurie Johnson
Shake Keane
Steve Race

Click here!
Listen to The BBC West of England Light Orchestra
conducted by Frank Cantell
playing 'Majorca' by Louis Gaste
(45 second clip)

CONDUCTED TOUR at 4.45 p.m. on 25th February 1960
with the BBC West of England Light Orchestra
Conductor: Frank Cantell

(Sig.) The Young Prince and Princess ('Scheherezade')
White Cliffs (Overture)
Windows of Paris
Cresta Run ( from 'St. Moritz Suite')
Morning Bells (from 'Mountain Sketches from Sicily')
Five Minutes in Old Vienna
Under Czech Skies
A Dream of Hamelin (from the suite 'The Pied Piper')
Frankfurt Polka
Sig.) The Young Prince and Princess ('Scheherezade')
Rimsky-Korsakov arr. Hartmann
Eric Coates
Clive Richardson
Tony Osborne arr.Ray Jones
C.Yvoire arr. L. Phillipp
Baker & Stone arr. David Francis
L.Gaste arr. Ernest Tomlinson
Fred Hartley
Vilem Tausky
Harry Dexter
Rimsky-Korsakov arr. Hartmann

6.33am. on Saturday 3rd. May 1958 - Home Service
BBC West of England Light Orchestra
Conductor: Frank Cantell

Waltz: Live, Love and Laugh
Blue Tango
Waltz: Vienna Blood
Dance Tambourin (Suite Intermezzi)
Tolchard Evans arr. Ronald Hanmer
Heymann arr: Ronald Hanmer
Leroy Anderson
Jack Helyer
Johann Strauss arr. Dennis Gomm
Vincent Mondez

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