Brian Willey recounts the history of the BBC Dance Orchestra from
its 1928 birth to its 1952 demise
It would seem that the BBC, right from its infancy at Savoy Hill, set out to promote dance music by hitting the airwaves in February 1926 with broadcasts by the London Radio Dance Band, a nine-piece unit led by violinist, Sidney Firman. The band made about a dozen records for the Columbia label and did sterling work as the mainstay of radio dance music for two years until a new combination, the BBC Dance Orchestra, was formed and took over its duties. The new sounds were first heard on March 12th 1928 and, according to a Melody Maker report: ‘Despite a limited opportunity for rehearsal, gave a satisfactory performance’.
In its first manifestation it evolved from a dance orchestra directed by Jack Payne that had entertained for some four years in the Hotel Cecil in London’s Strand. (The hotel was demolished in 1930 to make way for Shell-Mex House)
Jack Payne had first broadcast from there in late 1925 and it was he to whom the BBC turned when it decided to feature its own dance orchestra.
Once established, the new unit became highly popular and Jack Payne became a household name throughout the land. He also secured a recording contract with Columbia Records and it is interesting to note that the record labels stated ‘Jack Payne and His BBC Dance Orchestra’. The BBC was initially cautious about the establishment of such an orchestra and had decided the musicians would not be on its own payroll but assembled and employed by Jack Payne, to be hired when required for broadcasts. But that billing was appropriate only for the commercial records and not for the radio – but it was a ruling that would change!
The Melody Maker noted that in July 1928 ‘Ray Noble, the brilliant British orchestrator, who has been with the Lawrence Wright Music Co., has left to take up an engagement with the BBC.’ - thus ensuring the orchestra would have first-class scores in its library.
All went relatively smoothly until April 1930 when Jack Payne decided to take the orchestra into variety at the London Palladium and the Holborn Empire followed by a Royal Command Performance, at which time he was billed as Jack Payne and his BBC Band. Naturally this was much to the annoyance of the Director-General, Sir John Reith – but Payne, having asserted himself, the BBC finally caved in and allowed the Radio Times billings to read ‘Jack Payne and his BBC Dance Orchestra’.
By late 1931 Jack had grown tired of BBC studio restrictions and, without any prior reference, audaciously announced his resignation on the air. Although this caused an outcry from many thousands of radio fans, it cannot have caused too much aggravation with the hierarchy, for according to Jack’s autobiography, ‘Signature Tune’ he recounts that Reith was present in the studio to bid farewell to him at the final transmission. With the broadcast ended, Reith then addressed the assembled members of the press, saying how proud he was of what Payne had done for the Corporation and, if at any time he wanted to return to the BBC he would personally see that he had his job back.
I find it most hard to believe, but fortunately the statement was never put to the test, for Jack knew exactly where he was going. He had become enormously popular via his radio appearances and now, having taken the orchestra with him, it was to be personal appearances on stage during extensive country-wide and European tours and also starring in a film ‘Say it with Music’.
It was January 1932 when Henry Hall received the BBC invitation to form a new orchestra. It is not known exactly how he got selected for the job, for at the time he was in the employ of the LMS Railway Hotel chain in control of 32 bands. Prior to that appointment he had been directing the Gleneagles Hotel Band in Manchester’s Midland Hotel, and not surprisingly he readily accepted the offer and the New BBC Dance Orchestra made its debut in March 1932 from the newly-built, but as yet unfinished, Broadcasting House.
This time the orchestra was a fully-fledged staff house-band and remained under Henry Hall’s direction for five years, broadcasting daily from 5.15 to 6 o’clock, while also frequently recording for the Columbia label.
Back in the days when ‘78 rpm’ records still ruled the turntables, the orchestra’s 1932 recording of The Teddy Bear’s Picnic contained such a plethora of wonderful bass frequencies that, in 1942 it was re-issued under a new catalogue number and a special pressing made and sited in practically every studio control room throughout the BBC for use as a loudspeaker test!
There were two significant events to affect Henry’s life during the mid-1930s that are worth noting. In March 1934 ‘Henry Hall’s Guest Night’ made its first appearance as a regular Saturday night feature, a format which would later became a popular programme in its own right and run for 21 years.
The other event was considerably more short-lived, for in May 1936 Henry Hall was given leave of absence from his BBC duties to become the director of the dance orchestra aboard Cunard’s new liner Queen Mary on her maiden voyage from Southampton to New York and, until he returned, pianist Bert Read took over his BBC job.
By 1937 dozens of hotel dance bands were regularly broadcasting and the BBC Dance Orchestra seemed suddenly superfluous, so Henry decided to resign. The orchestra made its final Columbia recording in the July of that year and on September 25 1937 gave its last radio performance before being disbanded and immediately reformed to become Henry Hall’s own orchestra, which he then successfully took on tour for the next two years.
For the BBC it meant a two-year gap before a new Dance Orchestra was established, this time under the baton of Billy Ternent who arrived right at the start of the Second World War with a ready-made unit from the Jack Hylton Organisation.
It was soon dispatched to Bristol which had been selected as Variety Department’s first refuge from the London blitz and when Bristol began receiving undue attention from the Luftwaffe the department made a further move to Bangor, North Wales.
Known simply as ‘The Dance Orchestra’ its main use during those years was to accompany the many variety shows that had become firm favourites with the radio audience of the time, and Billy Ternent with his strong Geordie accent had become popular as a stooge for the many comedians that lightened the wartime airwaves.
In 1944 ill-health forced Billy to resign and the next conductor to inherit the BBC baton was Stanley Black who directed the orchestra until 1952 – calculating that during those eight years he conducted some 3,000 shows.
Stanley had introduced two vocalists to the orchestra’s personnel – Diana Coupland and Monty Norman – both of whom went on to achieve further fame in other directions. Monty became a composer for the musical theatre and famously created the James Bond Theme. Diana became an actress, probably best remembered as the TV-wife of Sid James in the 1971 sitcom ‘Bless this House’.
Stanley Black’s departure heralded the final curtain for the then veteran dance orchestra which was almost immediately replaced by a 17-piece big band. Named The BBC Show Band, under the direction of Cyril Stapleton – who coincidentally had been a violinist with Henry Hall exactly twenty years earlier – it contained the cream of the music profession and performed brilliantly for five years until guitars, amplifiers and rock ’n’ roll rang the death knell for the big bands’ supremacy – but that is another story!
This feature appeared in the August 2013 issue of ‘Journal Into Melody’
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