Those opening words and the heartily jolly tune Puffing Billy which preceded them are symbols of a Fifties childhood as evocative as Meccano, balaclava helmets and chilblains.
Every Saturday morning that kindly old voice, a sort of surrogate grandfather introduced Children’s Favourites on the BBC Light Programme. Anybody born after 1964 won’t have heard ‘Uncle Mac’ playing requests as he retired in that year.
He was born Derek McCullough in Devon in 1897 – from a very different generation to that of his young listeners. He signed up for the Western Front at 17, lost his right eye at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, when another bullet lodged in his lung and was only removed some years later.
He joined the BBC in 1926 and spent most of that time working in children’s broadcasting, becoming head of that department in 1933 until 1951. He resigned due to ill health. He wasn’t the luckiest of chaps – in 1938 he had lost a leg as the result of a road accident and was pretty much in constant pain ever after.
But he returned to the BBC in 1954 to present Children’s Favourites.
He played all types of music: not just children’s pieces but a wide range from novelties to light classics. I’m pretty sure that many of the requests were sent in by parents so that their children could have the thrill of hearing their names over the radio.
I think my mum had that idea one year and asked me what I’d like to hear if a birthday request was played for me. I think she was hoping that I’d ask for something by her own special favourite – the pianist Russ Conway – and she looked a bit scornful when I requested The Ballad of Davy Crockett by Fess Parker. Whether she bothered to send in a request I doubt but the song about the ‘king of the wild frontier’ appeared often enough for it not to matter.
The music was what would today be called eclectic – anything from ‘Mars the Bringer of War’ from Holst’s Planets Suite, to Mandy Miller trilling Nellie the Elephant, Then there was The Happy Wanderer by a bunch of Austrian children (presumably with scrubbed, shiny faces and togged out in dirndls and lederhosen) which strikes me as especially weird in retrospect. Burl Ives sang cheerily about the Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly or the Big Rock Candy Mountain where ‘a bum can stay for many a day and he won’t need any money’. Back in the mid-fifties ‘bum’ meant only one thing to me so that line was especially puzzling.
Uncle Mac’s final outing was on 5 December 1964, after which he retired, but Children’s Favourites went on with other presenters including Leslie Crowther. He died in 1967 looking much older than his 70 years. In the same year the Light Programme became Radio One, the title changed to Junior Choice, with a new signature tune (Morningtown Ride), and by now at university I rarely heard the show again.
But the ‘Boomer’ generation was brought up on the songs which formed the main repertoire of Uncle Mac’s show, and they’re very hard to shift from that part of the memory that stores music. You don’t really know they’re there until an opening line, or even the first chord brings it all back.
I can still sing most of the words of Max Bygraves’s Gilly Gilly Ossenfeffer Katzenellen Bogen by the Sea as much as I might want to forget it. His I’m a pink toothbrush – you’re a blue toothbrush is another similar song.
So it was that when we had a housewarming party – archly called an ‘at home’ – in January 1972 a group of old university friends gathered at our recently acquired semi-detached house in south Manchester and rather than slump into dope-raddled haze, or drunken stupor we started to have a sing song.
Sounds bizarre now, doesn’t it, but I suppose we were only following that great British tradition of making our own entertainment. The repertoire was a weird mixture, anything from Bob Dylan and Donovan to boy scout campfire songs, and musical hall ditties. Luckily (?) I recorded the whole event on a reel-to-reel tape recorder. Perhaps one day all the songs will turn up on YouTube or Spotify. That’s either a promise, or a threat, depending on your point of view. Probably the main source of our material was Children’s Favourites: like this one – Tulips from Amsterdam – another from the inevitable Max Bygraves which reached no 3 in 1958.
There’s a ring of truth to the old story about a burglar who ransacked a house but then broke back in the next night to return the Max Bygraves LPs he’d taken in error.
These days of course – with Spotify – it’s easy to find those songs which mostly disappeared from the airwaves at the end of the sixties. Just search for ‘Children’s Favourites’ and you can hear again the story of The Runaway Train coming over the hill, The Laughing Policeman laughing till he cried ‘with all his blessed might’ or Danny Kaye with Frank Loesser’s version of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Ugly Duckling: ‘Swan? Me a swan? Aw go on!’
The request Uncle Mac was about to play in that short clip right at the beginning of this piece was Sugartime by Alma Cogan. By the time she died in 1966 music tastes had changed but – known as the ‘girl with the giggle in her voice’ – she had a string of big hits in the late fifties mostly covers of US hits 1958. Uncle Mac always played the whole of a song, and never talked over the beginning of it, so I’m doing Alma that courtesy.