Alan Ward’s memoirs

Photo from Heather Saunders, no reproduction without permission












Alan Ward, retired senior studio manager, specialising in serious music, sadly died on Wednesday 12th July, aged 85. He enjoyed a long career at the BBC. Some years ago at the request of his family he wrote down a summary of his career, and how he became interested in music. It provides the history of a long and fulfilled career. Alan’s daughter, Heather, has given permission to post Alan’s brief autobiography here:

“Radio and the desire to work for the BBC came into my life when Dad bought our first wireless set (I’ve still got it) when I was very little and I put buttons as knobs on the box it came in, crawled inside and pretended to be an announcer.

Music came into my life when an Uncle, who had three seasons tickets for the Town Hall, often found that one of the family couldn’t go so invited me instead.

Then it was school and a year evacuated to Monmouth which I hated, so Dad brought me back home. At school there was one of the few middle aged male teachers (I discovered later that he didn’t get into the Services because he was gay) and he taught music. Most boys were uninterested but about five of us were and he gave us special teaching about the theory of music mainly.

After that came my first actual contact with the BBC when I was at Five Ways. Next door to the school was the BBC Bookshop and I went in one day intending to ask how I could join the BBC when a man came in, who I later discovered was a senior member of the BBC management called Pat Casey, and took me upstairs to his office. I told him what I wanted to do and he told me the sort of job I should be looking for, but then said that the BBC wouldn’t take anyone until they had finished their National Service.

So next it was being a junior clerk in an insurance company in Colmore Row and then into the Air Force.

They wanted me to go it to the pay corps and train to be an officer – I said NO, I wanted something to do with radio so they turned me into an Air Wireless mechanic repairing radios in aeroplanes that had broken – usually due to bad landings! After training I knew that I didn’t have the aptitude to be an engineer when I had that lowest mark possible without actually failing the course. I was sent to RAF St. Athan in Wales (I had asked for an overseas posting and I got it!!) where I hated it. I turned to the Church and the Padre who I told all abut my ambitions. He said that the camp had a serious morale problem and the C.O. wanted the camp loudspeaker system used to try and cheer people up. The trouble was no one would run it as it meant getting up earlier than anyone else just to wake them up at reveille. When I heard that there was a small studio involved I said – Yes, I’ll do it. It started as just playing music, mainly the big bands that were the rage at the time, such as Stan Kenton, but I realised that there was a demand for information, especially about where people could go when they were off duty. So I started doing the rounds in Cardiff, Swansea and the nearby town of Llantwit Major finding out about events there and building it up into programmes. I took a Civil Service Commission exam (I had totally failed all my School Certs bar three) but did virtually no engineering work, but still got promoted as though I had.

Back to civvy street after two years I couldn’t get anywhere with the BBC and became a cashier at the Municipal Bank. I tried every advert going including one for a temporary sound effects man to work on a programme that was going to have a six week try-out on the Midland Region. It was called “The Archers”!!.. I didn’t get the job but the chap who did was to become a great friend and help to me.

Eventually I saw a job advertised for a recording engineer (what ever that was) in the BBC in London. I realise that the “bogus” qualifications I had come out of the Air Force with gave me a chance for the job and I got it with the hope (completely wrong) that once in I would be able to transfer to the job I really wanted.

In those days programme were recorded on acetate discs and I was sent to the Overseas Service in Oxford Street and seemed to do reasonably well. However it was only a trial post and after two years I had to take an engineering course and only if I passed could I stay in the BBC. However it soon became obvious that the Air Force were right and I was not cut out to be an engineer, and after the two years I failed the course and was told I had to go. However, they said that, although my technical knowledge was appalling, my practical work was good and if I would consider taking a job that was going to mean being away from all my colleagues and working on my own in a new Channel (the name they called a room with recording gear in, which now included the new magnetic tape machines) – if I would consider that they would keep me. Would I consider it!! They sent me to Aeolian Hall in New Bond Street, the home of Variety Department which meant working on and mixing with those involved with such programmes as Take It From Here, The Goons, Hancocks Half-Hour, Life With the Lyons, Educating Archie and many more. Further more, since another engineer and I (we covered an 16-hour shift) were on our own we were able to experiment with lots of ideas that engineers weren’t supposed to be involved in, that had to do with the actual making of the programmes in the first place – just the sort of job I was always hoping for.

Aeolian Hall attracted people, especially secretaries, who were star struck and made themselves (as they thought) glamorous and attractive to the famous. One programme I worked on editing was “Semprini Serenade” and the girl who was the producer’s secretary was not like the others, she had lovely dark hair, hardly wore any makeup, was quiet and modest but also very efficient and attractive. I slowly got drawn towards her.

In the mean time my life was one of doing my shift at work and then going and spending the rest of the day in studios watching the studio managers at work – they were the people who mixed the microphones together and played sounds into programmes from records and tapes – THAT was the job I had always wanted. To get it I had to pass a preliminary interview and if successful, go on to a board for the job itself. But every time I applied I was rejected at the first interview mainly because I didn’t have a degree.

I also spent a lots of my time with a BBC amateur drama group who made plays as though they were being broadcast – we were allowed to use the studios if they weren’t being used for proper programmes. This way I continued learning the job I wanted because most people in the group wanted to be actors whilst I was happy to do the programme operations. Then one day Val Gielgud (Brother of John and Head of the BBC drama department), came to us and said that he had an experimental idea which he would like to try out and would the Group do it for him. Of course we would and of course everyone else wanted to act for the great man. I therefore had the chance to do all the mixing of the programme material and at the end of it Val Gielgud said to me, that was good, why aren’t you a Studio Manager, which of course was what I really wanted. I told him that I kept on being refused so he said leave it to him and sure enough, next time I applied for the job I got a board and then got the job. Bliss.

By now it was the late 1950’s and just as I began to really learn my trade Dad had a stroke and was left paralysed. The BBC immediately transferred me to Birmingham and, since by then I had got my self engaged to the lovely Aeolian Hall secretary, the BBC said that when we got married they would transfer her to Birmingham as well.

When I got to the Midlands there was no post for me and therefore no work ready for me to do. I was asked therefore to go and see an eccentric, difficult but absolutely brilliant producer called Charles Parker. He was creating a new totally different type of programme called Radio Ballads which involved recording hundreds of people about their every day lives and building the results into folk music style ballads. This meant using a brand new invention – a tape machine that was small enough to be carried around, and then using techniques that were totally unheard of and which we largely invented ourselves. I got totally drawn into them and the second balled I was involved in was called “Singing the Fishing” and was about the East Coast and Scottish herring fishing industry. The programme was an absolute sensation when it was broadcast and went on to be heard all over the world and won the Italia Prize, which was an annual prize awarded to the best radio programme produced anywhere in the world. There has since been a book written about how we did these programmes and they are still occasionally broadcast and I still get drawn in about them, most recently to a seminar at Bournemouth University and in the book that has just been produced.

When they decided to start dance band and pop programmes in Birmingham there was no one who knew anything about the mixing of the microphones needed so my boss said well you worked with these people in London you do it now. I protested and said that my real love was classical music, but he had his way and I had a great time with all these bands because being a small region we got to know the musicians personally. So it was that when two years later my boss said he wanted me to move to drama I protested because I loved the bands so much and this also included working with the BBC Midland Light Orchestra and a wonderful conductor called Gilbert Vinter. But drama it was, and so my education was being slowly widened. Then the amount of serious music was increased with the addition of two more producers which meant that became the world for me.

I then spent about twenty years in which I was heavily involved with all the Three Choirs Festivals and even more to the point with the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra for whom I did nearly all their broadcasts for radio and latterly for television. It was wonderful and I was so proud and pleased to be doing it, for this was the orchestra from whom I had discovered music in my childhood. There were a lot of other concerts and recitals for we had a very good serious music studio in Pebble Mill. This meant working with, getting to know and, most of all, learning from, some of the greatest musicians around.

But the BBC was changing and sound operations, there were just thirteen of us, (and by now my boss had retired and I had taken his place), were to be merged with television sound. I bitterly opposed the way this was going to be done as I believed it to be unworkable, however to my horror I found myself appointed to be head of the whole shenanigan. I revolted and said NO – I would rather take a step backwards and go on just doing operational work making programmes and it was the best decision I ever made work wise. The chap who got the job, had a break down after six months, his marriage failed and the equivalent manger in Manchester also had a break down and then a fatal heart attack – I was well out of it, but now the senior operations man. I carried on with music programmes and had some marvellous experience – one of which was the chance to go to Los Angeles. A live television broadcast of the CBSO was planned from there and it was to be handled by an American Television Company. However, when people went out from here to check what was going to be needed they discovered that there was no one amongst the television team who had either done any vision mixing or sound mixing for a symphony concert. As one American engineer said to me the trouble is you can’t put adverts every ten minutes into a Sibelius symphony. So it was agreed that the vision mixer and studio manger would come from the BBC and Simon Rattle, bless his heart, said that he wanted me to do it – and what Simon said, was done.

And so my life went on – I arranged it that my last programme before retirement would be the Royal opening of Symphony Hall since I had had a lot of involvement with the sound services that went into it. But it wasn’t to be. I had some years previously put two discs out of my spine lifting a rostrum and matters were getting more and more painful until my doctor said that I should talk to the BBC about retirement because if I carried on I was likely to be unable to move by the time I was 65. I went to London and saw the chief medial officer who gave me the option of retiring immediately on full pension or, if I really wanted to, carrying on working.  I had no option, so in 1990 I retired, although the CBSO invited me to carrying on working for them on their archives.”

Alan Ward


The following comments were left on the Pebble Mill Facebook page:

Pete Simpkin: ‘Wonderful story by a very talented and excellent man, one of the BBC Treasures. He was most helpful in helping the late Barry Lankester and I start to record our annual Brass Band competitions at Pebble Mill for Radio Birmingham/WM.’

Andy Freeth: ‘I did my first OB with Alan in 1985. Wolverhampton Civic Hall, crawling around the attic in my best suit! Always enjoyed working with him.’

Jane Ward: ‘He really was lovely…! And, although we weren’t related, we always used to let people think we were…!’

Carolyn Davies: ‘Lovely man, a real gent, taught so many of us in Audio Unit.’












Pebble Mill back in the day – Robin Valk

(This blog by Robin Valk is copied from his site, with his permission Copyright resides with Robin Valk, no reproduction without permission.)

Twenty years ago,  I started working at BBC Pebble Mill. It was an extraordinary place. By no means perfect, it had something we don’t have any more: a huge mix of talent.

From Robin Vanag's Flickr

From Robin Vanag’s Flickr

Landing at the BBC’s then Birmingham base after twenty-plus years in commercial radio. I couldn’t believe my eyes: unheard-of skills, facilities, staffing and space. 

Space? Oh yes, there was space. Pebble Mill had lush, extensive, landscaped gardens, perfect to lounge in on summer lunchtimes, and a canteen, a clubhouse and a bar. There were tennis courts beyond the clubhouse. The place boasted an on-site medical facility in case you went sick. You could enjoy subsidised aromatherapy and yoga sessions. There were dressing rooms for the TV people, and showers if you wanted to go for a run in nearby Cannon Hill Park. And hundreds of people of all shapes, sizes and skillsets worked there.

It could not have presented a bigger contrast to the world of commercial radio. 

The splendour! The empires! The drawbacks! 

Pebble Mill also had all the awful trappings of a large organisation. There were empires to protect and maintain, barriers to prevent progress, favouritism and worse. I also met a disconcerting amount of elitist snobbery reserved for commercial radio incomers.

I was there to set up the playout systems for, and then to produce, the overnight shows for BBC Radio 2. That meant I had six hours a day to look after. This was rather more than any other producer in the building, some of whom had to wrestle with, ooh, as much as 45 minutes a week. It wasn’t a stretch: at BRMB/XTRA, across town, I’d looked after 42 hours of programming each day. 

But the music made it an engrossing and wonderful task. Radio 2 had range and depth. It still does, and that’s one of the reasons it continues to grow and prosper. We catered for the station’s overnight audiences with some splendid, if touchy, presenters. 

I had joined a team that provided impressive specialist programming. Radio 3 took a large chunk of Pebble Mill output. From the same department, Folk, Country, Blues, Big Band shows and more flowed out to Radio 2. And a steady stream of Sony Awards flowed back to Pebble Mill’s broadcasters. 

The Archers' staircase from BBC website

The Archers’ staircase from BBC website

Walking deeper into the block, you penetrated – cautiously – into Archers territory. One week in four, the Archers’ cast filled a generously appointed green room area, waiting to speak their lines in the fabled Studio 3. Studio 3 bristled with special effects. It had a genuine Aga stove with real pots to bang, every kind of door and window closure you could imagine, with flagstones and slabs to walk across. At the back, a flight of stairs had three different surfaces. This allowed people to be recorded climbing or descending carpeted, concrete or steel steps. There was a ‘stable’ with leftover reel to reel tape on the floor to sound like straw, or fire when the script called for it. The place had hundreds of sound effects, marked up and sorted so you could hear Dan Archer starting his car, or a tractor coming in to the yard.  

Slipping past the Archers cast’s frosty glances, you passed a more conventional studio, Studio 5. There never was a Studio 4; it became an office instead. Finally you came to the two studios that hosted Radio 2’s overnight shows, with an office for the tiny team that looked after them. 

The studios were at the end of the block, as far as you could go. So the aged air conditioning struggled to cool the place down on hot summer nights. There was a quantity of new-fangled computer kit in Studios 6 and 6a, which generated a lot of heat. 

That was the network radio side. The television side, where I rarely ventured, was just as lavish and productive. The list of shows that came out of those studios from the 70s to the 90s is long and varied. Then, beyond these two blocks, there were five floors of administration. The canteen was on the top floor, offering sunny views over leafy Edgbaston. Corner offices catered to the most senior of managers. 

All told, this was a splendid set of facilities, with magnificent people to match. By the standards of the day, it was luxurious and expansive. That said and acknowledged, pretty much the first thing I heard after I arrived was how bad things had become. I didn’t believe it, and I didn’t care. I’d come out of commercial radio, where every penny spent on programmes had to be fought for. 

from Media UK. 15 years of BBC 2 growth

from Media UK. 15 years of BBC 2 growth

I didn’t care because I had such a great gig. This was at the start of Radio 2‘s move from uncool and obscure to radio giant. 

Think, if you will, of the 90s station as an ancient beloved aunt who smelled of dust and lavender. 

As the station swung into the 21st century, that aunt had morphed into a sleek, hot forty-something. She smelled a lot more expensive, and she showed a daring amount of skin. And she reached a lot more people. 

The Beeb gets wise

In truth, by the early 90s, the BBC was only just beginning to cotton on to the fact that commercial radio had been doing a lot of things right. Old stagers there could not begin to imagine that there might be better, faster, and more efficient ways to deliver great programmes. Others did, like my far-sighted bosses, Geoffrey Hewitt and Owen Bentley, who gave me my head for five fruitful years. 

I think it could and should have gone on for longer, but sadly, Pebble Mill fell victim to a venomous internal market. John Birt’s infamous ‘producer choice’ policy set departments against each other. Radio 2 teams in London resented their colleagues in Birmingham for winning the funding for Overnights. Departments that should been collaborating for the greater good of the BBC – a public service organisation – competed instead. 

In the end, the London teams got it all back; they usually do. They went on to grab a host of other shows along the way, shows that Pebble Mill had quietly and efficiently produced for decades. That spelled the end for network programming from Birmingham to any significant degree. Pebble Mill, a hive of creativity and cost-efficient production. was sidelined. As best as I could tell, there was no serious examination of its flaws and assets, costs or long term development. 

Decline and fall

At the end of the 90s, and on through the noughties, month by month, one by one, BBC Birmingham’s brilliant staffers exited the organisation. They either quit, disillusioned and demoralised, or they were sacked, or they moved to work for the BBC elsewhere. The decision was taken to move from Pebble Mill, which was on a peppercorn rent, to a more expensively rented city centre location: the Mailbox. This was a smaller place, with no television facilities save those used for regional news. Whole radio networks moved to Manchester. Key television shows moved, north and south. In fairness, new technology was also bringing in massive change, freeing producers from fixed locations. But no attempt was made to keep production centres in the region, and so the talent leaked away. 

The radio block and beyond

Once in the Pebble Mill building, you went past reception and down to a crossroads of passageways. There you turned left to the radio block. Its spine was a long, wide, institutional corridor with lots of 70s wood panelling. On the left was the huge Studio 1, built for live audiences. On the right Pebble Mill boasted a magnificent multi-track music studio, Studio 2. It could hold maybe 60 musicians. Two weeks after I arrived, I found the CBSO rehearsing on the left, while Van Morrison, Georgie Fame and the BBC Big Band were rocking hard on the right. But that was not a typical day. 

Pebble Mill flattened

Pebble Mill flattened

Pebble Mill was emptied of staff and mothballed. Then it was stripped of all its equipment. Eventually the wreckers moved in to tear everything down. Pebble Mill road became a place where, finally, you could park your car. For a decade, the site lay empty, a sea of rubble. I’d drive past and look; it was a strange feeling. Now, a new medical campus is being built to tie in with other facilities a mile down the road. 

I wasn’t the only one who looked. If you search online, there’s a wealth of nostalgic shots of the flattened site, taken by ex-staffers. Here’s one from Elliott Brown’s flickr page.

A critical creative mass

It’s not the buildings that I miss, though, fond though I became of the place. There was a critical mass of creative people in broadcasting in Birmingham twenty years ago. Now? There just isn’t. I met and worked with people of undisputed genius. It was inspiring. There was experience and knowledge so different, so far beyond what I had been used to up to that point. I dealt with craft skills I’d never encountered before. Ideas were exchanged and lives enriched. 

But please don’t think that it was anything approaching perfect. Pebble Mill, like every place, had its share of bullies and vain, stupid, lazy people. Like everywhere else, you learned to work around them when you could. But the exchange of ideas, the richness of many strands of knowledge, and the extraordinary, diverse, creativity was something rare and precious. It was invaluable, and it won’t – it can’t – be replaced. 

Maybe something new and 21st century will emerge, aided by digital technology. I really would love to see that happen; nothing would give me greater pleasure. But ideas need champions and talent needs gatekeepers, mentors and coaches. Pebble Mill had all that. We need those people back now, for the sake of the coming generations of broadcast talent. 

Robin Valk

Trials of Live Radio OBs – Pete Simpkin

PeteI was recalling for somebody else the other day one of my more hysterical broadcasts and thought you might like to hear it too!

I can recall a story involving stereo transmissions, when in the mid ‘80s Radio WM along with several other stations finally ‘went stereo’. To celebrate we broadcast each evening a particular style of music to demonstrate to local musicians the possibilities stereo would bring to their ‘on air’ experiences. …Folk, Country, Asian etc.

My duty turned out to be the below stage concert broadcast announcer for a relay of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and I spent ages boning up on the works to be played and the musicians involved. I discovered for instance that there was no agreed pronunciation of the conductor’s name Neeme Jerve. Anyway the time arrived for me to announce the arrival on stage of the Leader and the Conductor and in true BBC Proms tradition I had my script marked so that I could physically cue them to walk from their position beside me, below stage and arrive in front of the audience at precisely the moment I said their name on air. The first two worked well but when I got to the name of the solo pianist for the evening, Peter Donohoe, he did not arrive on stage and my announcement of his name was greeted with an unexpected silence from the audience. I put down the microphone and rushed to the steps leading to the stage to discover what mishap had befallen him, at the same time attempting to assemble some words in my mind to explain to the listeners what had happened. I could see that he had got halfway to the stage but had turned back to collect a small canister of muscle spray which pianists keep close at hand and which he had passed by where he had left it at rehearsal at the foot of the steps to the stage. At that moment he reached the stage and the applause resulting gave me the time to get back on air and introduce the music.

At the end of the first half I handed back to Ken Dudeney in the studio for a pre-recorded 20 minute interval feature only to discover to my horror that the said piano soloist had decided to give the audience an impromptu encore which went on for some 6 minutes meaning that not only were the players of the CBSO being denied their interval lubrication but I was faced with an impromptu session of my own as the orchestra had decided to stick to their scheduled 20 minutes sherry consumption. Luckily Ken had a variety of trailers to help fill the gap, but I too had lots of fascinating facts about the second half programme and the history of the Town Hall with which to regale the mystified listeners until the Orchestra got back on stage and the rest of the concert continued without more heart stopping moments!

Pete Simpkin