All Systems Freeman – 2 

31 December 2006

Alan Freeman Hosts TOTP

Alan Freeman hosts TOTP

When articles and obituaries appeared about the life and work of Alan Freeman, they rightly highlighted his pioneering role in bringing proper promotion of popular music (at last) to British radio in the fifties and sixties.

Not surprisingly most accounts concentrated on his ground breaking ‘Pick of the Pops’ series which ran for many years on the BBC Light Programme and successor network, Radio Two. Well might these accounts highlight that show for it was ground breaking and changed the face of British music radio and record promotion. It was certainly the show for which he was most famous and will be forever associated.

Surprisingly, however his career in radio was, statistically speaking, focused more on Radio Luxembourg than on the BBC Light Programme.

There was a curiously misleading undertow to some of the background articles on Freeman’s sixties radio career that appeared at the time of his death. These were probably innocent errors based on the original BBC news story of his loss. The news story played down his Radio Luxembourg career and emphasised his very real achievements at the BBC. Today’s news media are incestuous when it comes to sources – and never more so than in this case, where various errors of omission were repeated across many broadcast and press outlets.

The organisation of the British Department of Radio Luxembourg in the sixties is probably now misunderstood by those who did not experience the output of the station at the time. Many obituaries referred to Freeman’s ‘summer relief’ work as an announcer there in 1957 and go on to talk of his discovery by the BBC soon after. But this is only part of the story.

Throughout the fifties and up to 1968, according to advertising rate cards published by the station, about eighty percent of the Radio Luxembourg English Service was pre-recorded in London, with the balancing twenty percent transmitted live from the main studios in Luxembourg itself.

This led to two groups of presenters working on the network output. Sponsored ‘in the can’ shows were usually fronted by celebrity compères from allied fields of entertainment. These included actors, singers, television personalities and nationally known freelance disc jockeys based in the UK. At the same time live shows supported by spot advertising were presented by individual members of the team of resident British announcers at network headquarters in Luxembourg itself – people who plainly lived ‘over there’ full time.

This gave the station an eclectic mix of voices famous and new, featuring both established and upcoming footsoldiers of music programming. In effect popular presenters were now available to Luxembourg in either of two capacities. Ironically, Luxembourg’s management saw its main competitor as being ITV – the titanic struggle for advertising ‘spend’ between the two organisations was actually greater than the apparent competition with the BBC.

Alan Freeman’s recent press obituaries took their lead from the BBC coverage and of course the Corporation was never going to admit (and the public now only hazily remember) that his actual airtime hours per week on Radio Luxembourg were for quite some years in well excess of his Light Programme output. He was in effect a London-based Luxembourg presenter who additionally had a world-beating show on the BBC. You cannot expect the BBC to paint it that way today, if they even remember. As ever it is the victors write the history books.

It seems strange today, given the apparent strong competition between the BBC and Radio Luxembourg for the forty years after the war, that many artistes worked simultaneously for both organisations. Luxembourg represented a source of handy extra income for many mid-ranking BBC and ITV presenters, and in the case of ITV, a whole host of continuity announcers also worked freelance for the continental station. This the BBC would not have permitted, but for their freelance presenters it was hard to stop. They would not pay enough to offer exclusive contracts and so ended up sharing dozens of compères with their competitor station for more than two decades. It was not until the success of the new British offshore radio stations in the early to mid sixties caused a major format change, that celebrity names on Luxembourg gave way to a new generation of young and relatively unknown presenters by the end of the sixties.

So Freeman’s brief summer sojourn to the principality in 1957 was only his introduction to the station, and on return to Britain soon after, he maintained his connections in the Grand Duchy. He was drawn into working for both stations simultaneously for much of the following decade, though pre-recorded in the UK for the commercial company output.

As his BBC success developed he was still recording almost daily for Radio Luxembourg in their London studios, as the erstwhile resident announcer who was now a celebrity disc jockey in his own right rather than a resident station announcer. He was held by the BBC to be appearing on Luxembourg in a ‘different capacity’. By means of this delightful contrivance, the BBC was happy to pretend it had not noticed his work at ‘the other place’.

There was a lot of pretending going on in the BBC at the time.

The forgotten list of not-forgotten famous names who had simultaneous contracts with both Luxembourg and the BBC in the sixties is very long. Jimmy Savile, Jack Jackson, Pete Murray, David Jacobs, Keith Fordyce, Bill Crozier, Alan Dell, David Gell, Don Moss, Brian Matthew, Jimmy Young and even (heaven’s above) the nationally iconic Jean Metcalf managed to balance commercial and public service work in a way that might seem unlikely in retrospect.

Jack Jackson, a legendary wartime band leader who after the war changed tack mid-career to become an equally legendary radio presenter (you were either legendary or nothing in those days) was considered by many the senior figure in the deejaying ‘profession’ in the early sixties. He even achieved the unique double of recording his Luxembourg and BBC shows at his own studio in the Canary Isles each week and mailing both tapes to his London agent in the same packet. When his agent was not available he famously sent the combined mailing to Luxembourg’s London studios who ‘popped round’ to Portland Place with the BBC copy. What the BBC doorman said went unrecorded but no one in power seemed to mind.

It was this example of riding two horses at once that Alan Freeman successfully emulated.

Freeman’s airtime docket for Luxembourg was impressive. In the mid sixties he was clocking up about three hours a week on the commercial station, spread over seven programmes in two long running series, while his BBC Radio output remained limited to one hour a week.

That he is remembered more for the latter than the former is actually not so surprising. Among the familiar pop music presenters of the day he was surprisingly a ‘bigger fish in a small pond’ at the BBC and a ‘smaller fish in a bigger pond’ at Radio Luxembourg. This was a function, not of his relative fame or indeed of the power Luxembourg wielded, but of the vanishingly small amount of pop music played on BBC radio at that time. Pick of the Pops on the BBC Light Programme, still only an hour a week by the mid-sixties, remained a vital beacon of light in a rather dark BBC radio musical landscape at a time when newly-empowered teenagers were crying out for more attention to be given to their supposedly ‘specialist’ musical tastes. As a teenager of the late sixties, this writer remembers the strange sense of detachment with which BBC Radio treated pop music. It was solely a radio problem, as BBC Television seemed oddly more in touch with the needs of the young than its audio counterpart.

Once BBC Radio was woken from a twenty year post-war slumber by the newly (and literally) launched offshore radio stations, the position was rapidly reversed and Freeman quickly came to equal Jack Jackson as most senior and long standing name on the suddenly mushrooming BBC deejay payroll.

Deservedly, television work sprang from his growing influence and when chosen as one of four rotated co-presenters on the new Top of the Pops in 1964 his future was assured. His own TV show All Systems Freeman followed and he soon became a permanent part of the UK popular music scene. This writer had the pleasure of meeting Alan Freeman in 1966. It was very instructive.

Next month Kif looks in more detail at Alan Freeman’s television and film acting work, and recalls not only the sponsors and formats of his ongoing Luxembourg shows but an interview conducted with Freeman for the original Transdiffusion in 1966 at 38 Hertford Street, Radio Luxembourg’s London studios.

You Say

2 responses to this article

Tamas Benedek 10 August 2014 at 10:24 am

Am 68 this year, so that I have a strong nestalgy about the different Radio Luxembourg shows including the “Allen Freeman shows” as well as the late Sunday night “Top twenty” shows with Alain.
One of my favourits however, was “The Battle of the giants” show – I guess with “Jimmy Young “.
Especially, the signal/gingle song made deep cut in my mind. Still coming back again and again!
If you plse could help me in finding this song to record, or in fact recorded, I would greatly appreciate!
I wish you all the best, kind rgds: Tamas

Ken 8 January 2015 at 5:48 pm

The BBC radio output was so tightly controlled pre 1967 that the Freeman ‘Pick Of The Pops’ had his trade mark ‘not half’ ‘greetings pop pickers’ etc written down as a script he strictly adhered to.

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