John Mead: Part I – from Bristol to BFN 

2 October 2011

John Mead

John Mead in the early 2000s

“Tellywelly Wales — I’m sorry to see you go, it’s like the death of an old friend” – the words used by John Betjeman on the last programme of the last night in existence of Television Wales and the West, near midnight on the night of 3 March 1968. I sat in an office in the studio buildings in Pontcanna, in Cardiff that evening in 1968, watching the screens go blank and wondering if I was going to go blank with them.

Today in my dotage, I can look back and tell you freely what actually did happen to me over the last 45 years, most of it spent in the Welsh media. This story is, I hope, informative. It’s also shocking, laughable and, much of it, beyond most peoples imagination.

I was born, brought up and educated in Bristol. While still at drama school, my first professional radio broadcast was in 1947 in a Saturday Night Theatre production of RC Sherriff’s “Badgers Green”. It was all about cricket.

As a fifteen year old boy I stood in the BBC Studios in Whiteladies Road, Bristol, my script in my hand, watching with amusement as what appeared to me to be very very old actors, struggling to put on invisible pads and other gear as they prepared to go in to bat: my first introduction to real radio acting. The only reason I got that job was that I was attending the Hedley Goodall Drama School in Clifton and Hedley provided children to the BBC for radio drama.

While at Hedley school in 1949 I had a memorable trip to Falmouth, Cornwall, to play the title part in Terence Rattigan’s “The Winslow Boy” which had just come to the end of its run in London. This Arts Council repertory company were opening their summer season with the production. Looking back I can see that my ego had probably got quite out of hand, particularly when I received very good notices in the local press for my performance. The company asked me to stay on for another fortnight and play “Jim Fish”, the native boy in that legendary play “White Cargo”, which depicted British colonial (white) characters going to pieces in the heat, after being lured to their destruction by the (black) prostitute “Tondelayo”. Baden Powell’s relief of Mafeking took on a completely new meaning for me. I was just 17 years old. Then in 1950 something called National Service came along.

A man stands behind a BFN microphone

Sgt John Jacobs presenting ‘Family Favourites’ in Hamburg.

I wanted to get into broadcasting and the British Forces Network (BFN) had radio studios in Hamburg. After a slight routing problem (I was initially sent to a Scottish Infantry Regiment in Germany who ran over a battle course every morning before breakfast) and a somewhat telling interview with my Commanding Officer, who however totally agreed with me that I would useless in his Infantry Regiment, I succeeded in getting a posting to Hamburg.

The experience of broadcasting at BFN was second to none. I spent a wonderful eighteen months there. You could do almost anything and everything provided you had the energy knowledge and know how. I even produced a regular half hour poetry programme and of course read most of the poetry myself.

This was early times in broadcasting history. Someone came into my office in Hamburg in 1951 and said, “John, come and look at this new machine that’s just arrived”. I went to look and found a “tape recording machine”. Up to that point in time we had recorded sound radio on wire. I arranged to read morning story five days a week over six weeks, every morning at 10AM. I read Alexandre Dumas “The Queen’s Necklace”. I even got letters of appreciation from army wives. Then I produced a radio pantomime using the Hamburg Opera House Orchestra for free. Well, technically we were still the occupying force.

I read the news, and produced all sorts of drama, news and music programming. We had three BFN orchestras at the time. I remember the BBC asked if our concert orchestra could do a Sunday morning, hour long light music programme but they insisted it must be live, it really had to be live otherwise they said they wouldn’t take it. For all sorts of reasons we just couldn’t get the whole fifty strong orchestra in every Sunday morning. I devised a plan. We recorded all six of the hour long editions in 3 days in the Musikhalle, our broadcasting home in Hamburg. As a result I had to be the continuity announcer on duty every Sunday morning. The BBC in London would come on the phone at about 10.30, and asked for the live feed from our orchestral studio to be fed through to them. I then appeared to talk to the studio manager on the internal talkback, then I would say to the BBC in London (with some 5 minutes to go), “London, orchestra is now tuning”. The tuning came from the same disc which I played to them again from the continuity suite. That done, I pressed the button on the tape machine and the programme commenced. An apparently live broadcast. The Beeb never twigged.


Two men behind a desk with a big BFN microphone upon it

Cliff Michelmore records Gunner Jimmy Cabane for BFN


I met a very jolly young naval officer in Hamburg who used to skipper Goering’s old motor cruiser. He sailed most nights out of Hamburg docks down the Elbe and into somewhere in East Germany — to pick up or drop off the British spooks who were based in Hamburg. His wife Betty and I appeared in a couple of amateur plays in the local theatre, still there today in the centre of the city. The naval officer’s name was John Harvey Jones. I learnt from other sources that in the latter part of the war he had been torpedoed twice in the same day on different ships and had to be rescued again from the second one because he was down in the hold trying to shore up the bulkheads, as she too sank. Later on he got a job with ICI, and later still with the BBC.

Eventually, National Service came to an end and then I had an immediate stint (well, I started the day after I was demobbed) in the theatre with a repertory company called the Unicorn Players with whom I did a number of seasons in Weston-Super-Mare in Somerset and Paignton in Devon. But I couldn’t keep away from BFN and I was soon back, as a civilian, this time in Cologne and I had quite a few stints of presenting, with Jean Metcalfe, a Sunday morning BBC Light Programme show called “Two Way Family Favourites”.


A man plays a large organ

Sgt Stanley Wyllie playing on the BFN concert organ


This is how I sampled, for the first time, contacts with the “Tin Pan Alley” pop music scene, complete of course with music “pluggers”. There were many offers designed to induce me to play “that once in a lifetime disc” landing on my desk in Cologne. Did my mother need a new washing machine? Would I like the best seats in the house for the new London production of “Kismet” (I did take advantage of that one.) On one occasion when the phone rang — someone asked me if I was playing the new Petula Clark number on that Sunday. I said I didn’t have a copy of that disc in Cologne.

Three hours later a young man walked through the doors into the studios in Cologne apparently having just flown over from London, holding the missing disc in his hand. It was the summer of 1955.


Book cover

Excerpted from “Funny things that happen in television” by John Mead, available for £8.54 plus P&P (paperback) or £3.99 (ebook) from Northstar Books.


Your comment

Enter it below

A member of the Transdiffusion Broadcasting System
Liverpool, Monday 20 May 2024