Howard Thomas Part 3: The BBC – I 

2 June 2005

Howard Thomas went head-to-head with the BBC three times in his long career. Before the war he help run the competition; after the war, he helped run a different competition; but during the war, he helped make the BBC.

When war broke out, there was panic throughout society. The BBC compressed its services to one, poorly-programmed, radio network. The cinemas shut at government behest. The Isle of Wight was closed for the duration. The young of the doomed cities were quickly, if not efficiently, evacuated from their doomed homes to safer locales in the unfamiliar countryside. Sporting events stopped. Fairs and carnivals closed. The life of the British people was stopped dead.

Unfortunately, no one told the British people to stop living. Expecting bombs to fall and lives to end, the authorities were surprised to find that life went on – whilst the things that made it worth living did not. The panic that gripped government, business and the rudimentary public services of the times didn’t affect the people themselves. Just as they’d lived through war, disease, unemployment and the workhouse before, they would live through this new “falling from the skies” war that the politicians had amazingly managed to bring about twice in just over two decades.

For Howard Thomas, the world had ended. His glittering career in commercial radio was brought to an end by the outbreak of war, as many of the stations he had sold into simply went off air. Those that stayed on presented a market; but the advertisers themselves chose to desert the medium – and advertising completely in many cases – until normality, or a British semblance of it, could be established.

London Press Exchange’s operations contracted to virtually nothing. Howard was kept on, but with nothing to do except await call-up to the forces. Despite the good wage, he couldn’t do just nothing, especially in the face of total war.

He was saved by the sudden market for books and periodicals. He set about his old trade of selling short feature articles to newspapers, themselves hit by panicked redundancy measures when the war came.

But when the world is ending around you, it is very hard to concentrate on writing light entertainment books. The inevitability of being called up to defend one’s country weighed heavy on every man; even one aged 30 with glasses like milk bottle bottoms.

Broke again and engaged in futile work selling light articles and writing light books, the only hope was the cinema or the BBC. But the BBC was busy providing a service of news and “Sandy MacP at his organ” with room for little else.

So it was to the cinema that Howard went, fearing bankruptcy for himself and Hilda and their two baby daughters.

But his new employers, Publicity Films Limited, were also out of work. He saw a market making Ministry of Information films, but it had already been sewn up by cleverer (and, often, state-controlled or -owned) operations.

Another option was the commercial space created by the flight from entertainment that the advertisers had made on the outbreak of war. Eventually the cinemas would reopen and the style of radio advertising – or even newspaper-style spot advertising, an innovation – could be imported to the silver screen.

In theory these ideas were great. But Howard pursued them with little enthusiasm. The evidence was clear that they wouldn’t work – not now.

In the meantime, he continued to make small sales into the BBC, again with little enthusiasm. His call-up came and he was graded A1, but reserved for his poor eyesight: an exemption that would not last in the face of real war.

Job offers from newspapers appeared, but locked him into a past life, churning out populist features that meant nothing in the circumstances. What was an averagely patriotic, committed but impractical, determined but unmilitary man to do?

The answer, fortunately and at last, came from a desperate BBC.

The compression of the National Programme and the regions, plus the Television Service, into one radio Home Service had been a clear failure. A failure with the audience was something the BBC could shoulder. A failure with the armed forces, sat around in France or the channel ports, waiting, waiting, ever waiting, was too much for both the Corporation and the government.

The airwave spaces needed to be filled with something new. Something popular. Something light. Something to fill the gaps, those massively growing gaps, between service actions. What was needed was a light programme to satisfy everybody.

And thus it was born. A new light programme for all. With determined BBC logic, it was called The Forces Programme.

Listen to an audio clip of the Forces programme

And it needed staff. And ideas. And programmes.

The old BBC, conservative and slow and reluctant, was junked, and not before time. In its place came a new BBC, one that still planned to educate, inform and entertain in that order, but one that wanted to do it with a light hand. The people would be educated but wouldn’t know it. They would get information but wouldn’t realise it. And they would be entertained, but it would seem no different to the other categories.

They needed good populist producers. Ones who understood people. Ones who could turn their hands to anything. Ones like Howard Thomas.

He joined the BBC at the end of August 1940, just after the real war had begun.

Despite the new arrangements, the BBC still didn’t quite know what to do with the likes of Howard Thomas. The obvious answer was to slot him into an existing programme. Preferably one that no one, the BBC, the services, the Ministry of Information, loved. Thus he became the co-producer of Ack Ack Beer Beer, a general entertainment programme for Anti-Aircraft and Barrage Balloon workers.

These were people with the ultimate in important but boring jobs. Whilst the dormant military at least got drilled, the AA/BB lads simply sat where they were. Someone with general, light and popular entertainment experience was needed. Howard fitted in instantly.

The Ack Ack Beer Beer programme, thanks to a mix of the stars and the entirely mundane, became so successful, not just with the AA/BB squads but also with ‘home’ listeners and anyone else with time to spare on duty, that the BBC hurriedly sought to promote Howard. Did he have any other ideas? Something for Light Entertainment or for Talks perhaps?

He did. A programme aimed at those sat about in the barracks and messes of the country – there were a lot of them after the Dunkirk victory/debacle. Someone to sing to them, to welcome them, to make them feel loved and wanted – just like the popular entertainers of Ack Ack Beer Beer had done, but on a much more personal basis.

He found the voice he wanted singing for her supper off the West End. The girl in question had no pretensions, no over-riding ambitions, no care for the trappings of stardom. She simply had a great voice and a passion she used in words she believed in.

With the right songs and the right caring note in the programme, ‘something for the boys’ would be born. That a legend would follow wasn’t clear before or even during her peak – but her name still causes an emotional reaction in Britons born long after her immediate star had faded. The show was simply called: Sincerely Yours, Vera Lynn.

Vera Lynn and Howard Thomas

The birth of a legend should never be easy. If nothing else, legends are born from adversity: not an easy ride.

So, whilst Vera Lynn got a very easy ride from her listeners, and her rendition of We’ll Meet Again was to be in the charts for the entire war, the reactions from the top brass at the Services and the BBC were less appreciative.

Sentimental rubbish. Not conducive to creating a marshal spirit in the lads. Soppy. Insults from all sides – except from the listeners. The listeners, inside and outside the services, were delighted. The programme’s lifetime was obviously to be limited by the duration of the War, but the star would go on for the rest of the century and beyond.

The Board of Governors had started to flex their muscles. Emboldened by the change in style of the BBC and the change of mood in a country at war, they started to interfere in programme content for the first time.

Snippy little notes started to arrive from individual Governors and from the Board as a whole. “Sincerely Yours deplored, but popularity noted,” read one. Howard ignored them manfully but each one sapped his will to go on.

The War Office (Army) and the Admiralty (Navy) also poured scorn on the show. An exception was the RAF at Adastral House, who were thrilled at how the show inspired the members of their service – perhaps because the RAF was the smallest force, the Wing Commanders could keep a closer ear to the ground.

The radio critic of The Observer, Joyce Grenfell, was clear that the programme was nothing but a force for good. “What is it that Vera Lynn has that the other gals haven’t got? Vitality? No. Glamour? No. Sincerity? Yes, yes, a thousand times yes, and that, I think, is her power.”

Outside of the BBC, but still within show business, the great and the good of theatreland had noticed Vera Lynn, and, as show people, knew the source of her power – her producer, Howard Thomas. Whilst the BBC deplored, Emile Littler rhapsodised, “I do hope that Miss Lynn and all concerned know and realise how much the popularity of Miss Lynn’s programme and her sudden rise to stardom are due to the work of her producer.”

This sort of glowing notice and the fame it brought him would be useful in later years, when Howard was dealing daily with Mr Littler’s brother Prince and the other Shaftsbury Avenue impresarios who leapt in at the start of Independent Television.

The BBC continued to try to force changes on Sincerely Yours. To put a stop to it he diverted them by providing exactly what they had asked for – a full-blooded belligerent programme of martial music and rousing marches called I Am John Citizen. It attracted no complaints.

No praise, either.

This was perhaps a good thing, as Howard had embarked upon a simultaneous project that would attract nothing but praise and complaints; a project that would be debated heatedly in the home, the workplace and the barracks – and ultimately, even in Parliament. In the history of broadcasting in the Second World War, three programmes get mentioned. ITMA; Sincerely Yours; and Howard’s new project: The Brains Trust.

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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Liverpool, Friday 1 March 2024