Saturday, 30 January 2016

Barry Humphries' Forgotten Musical Masterpieces (BBC Radio 2 series currently available on iplayer)

Fans of the late Hubert Gregg who have happened upon this blog may be interested in a series of three hour-long programmes currently available on BBC Radio iplayer. The last episode was broadcast a few days ago so don't hang about if you want to hear them: at the time of writing (January 30th) there are thirteen days left to hear the first show. Links are provided at the end of this post.

Presented by Dame Edna's alter ego, the show's title is Barry Humphries' Forgotten Musical Masterpieces, and there are many selections of the sort which Hubert Gregg used to play on his Thanks For the Memory programme. I may be right, I may be wrong, but I'm perfectly willing to swear that the Beverley Nichols-penned Little White Room, sung by "Johnny" Mills (yes, that one) and Frances Day hasn't been heard on Radio 2 since the debonair Gregg left his square chair once for all.

A charming number in the mode of Noel Coward's A Room With a View, I've long suspected that it also played a part in inspiring Sandy Wilson's pastiche A Room in Bloomsbury. And as those iplayer links won't last forever, and I know the internet generation have issues with delayed gratification, here it is on youtube:

Thanks For the Memory (the show, I mean) contained a fair amount of Greggian reminiscence but Forgotten Musical Masterpieces actually doubles as a memoir: the story of Barry growing up and coming to England. But it's not a dry talk, or a reading, with musical inserts: voice and music often overlap; sometimes pieces of music are used merely for scene setting; quite often once we've heard enough to get the point a song is making it's faded out and we're on to something else. This could become annoying, but the balance - of talk to music, and talk over music - feels precisely right, and of course Mr Humphries has an interesting story to tell.

Nor are we in Greggland the entire time: in the final episode we hear a Spike Milligan B side, unfamiliar to me, in which two or three minutes of nothing very much are made hilarious, and an exceedingly obscure (and muddy) song by Charles Jolly (aka Penrose) about being eighty two is momentarily poignant. And where else would you hear Hutch these days? Or Randolph Sutton, for that matter.

And an anecdote about a job Barry once had smashing 78s (having been assured by his boss that the future was in the microgroove) reminds us of the fragility of what we are hearing - what Ken Tynan dubbed, when talking about the songs of the Master, "bat's-wing melodies.". How many records have, indeed, been smashed to smithereens, dear dead discs beyond recall, when record companies weren't fully aware of the treasures in their keeping?

I am twenty five years younger than Mr Humphries so my nostalgia can't be the same as his, but listening to his programmes I felt a pang of loss for Hubert Gregg ... and, I suppose, Radio 2 as it was - in the seventies and eighties especially, when every second programme in the evening schedule seemed nostalgiac in tone. I absorbed so much about the music of the twenties, thirties and forties, not to mention music hall and variety performers, from that time.

The axing of Russell Davies's Sunday show about the songwriter's art, already two years ago now, seems symbolic of the change at the station. True, Mr Davies is still around, as one of the writers on the excellent Jazz Junctions series, currently being repeated, and as interviewer on The Art of Artists, but it isn't the same. Where now on Radio 2 can we hear such a wideranging selection of music intelligently presented in a single show?

The answer, I fear, is nowhere - at least, not on a regular basis. So Barry Humphries' Forgotten Musical Masterpieces is especially welcome for the few weeks it remains on the iplayer. Don't miss it.

Listen to Barry Humphries' Forgotten Musical Masterpieces here ... while you still can.  

[14/9/16: This series is currently being repeated and is therefore available again on BBC iplayer until around 14th October 2016. The above link still takes you to the relevant page on the BBC website.]

My tribute to Hubert Gregg here.
A post about Russell Davies here and about his axing here.
An appreciation of other BBC greats Benny Green and Robert Cushman here.

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