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26 May

It All Began In 1956 - a Potted History of the Robert Farnon (Appreciation) Society

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David Ades attempts a Potted History of the Robert Farnon (Appreciation) Society

This special edition of Journal Melody demands that something should be written about our Society, but space precludes anything other than an attempt to record the most important milestones. A more detailed account of our activities over the first 57 years will, hopefully, appear on our website one day.

No doubt the seeds of the RFAS (the word ‘Appreciation’ was dropped from our name in 1980) were nurtured during 1955, but it was in 1956 that the first London meeting was held at the Bonnington Hotel, Southampton Row, on Sunday 15 April, and the first issue of Journal Into Melody was distributed to the small handful of members in June.

I learned of the Society through a letter that Robert Farnon had written to my friend Richard Hindley (now living in Australia, but still a member). I contacted Ken Head, the Secretary, and years later learned that I was actually the second member to join (Peter Bunfield beat me!). Ken was ably assisted by his wife Dot as Treasurer, and John Costin was JIM’s first Editor (I am delighted to say that John is still a member of the RFS). John continued as Editor until December 1962, when this important duty fell into the hands of Harvey Greenfield. This coincided with Ken and Dot asking me to take over their duties, as their family commitments were increasing; John also wanted to take a back seat after his sterling work for the first 6½ years. I officially took over as Secretary and Treasurer late in 1962, posts I have held continuously to this day.

Unfortunately Harvey’s tenure as Editor was cut short by illness, and I became ‘Acting Editor’ for issue 33 (November 1970). This was our largest issue to date, which included the first revision of the 1965 Robert Farnon Discography, compiled by Michael Mancktelow (before he changed his surname to Maine) and myself. The magazine also included a list of members, which failed to reach 80. It came as a great shock to us all when Harvey Greenfield died in 1971.

So for the second time I took over as Editor of Journal Into Melody as a stop-gap (I had been a ‘Guest Editor’ in 1961 when John Costin was away in the USA), until another ‘willing volunteer’ could be ‘persuaded’!

I had to wait until August 1974 when Michael Maine offered to edit JIM. Michael was a real asset to our Society: not only was he passionate about Light Music, but he also worked at the BBC! This gave him access to some priceless archives previously denied to us, although I must emphasise that this only extended to information – no records or similar material ever came our way.

I always looked forward to Michael’s issues of JIM, although I started to notice that he was struggling to fit this in with his BBC work. He was a newsreader in various regions (the RFS has an archive video of one of his Bristol news broadcasts) and then he was in the presentation suites of BBC1 and BBC2 (he often told the story of how film buffs hated him for mistakenly ending the film "Citizen Kane" before the final credits rolled!).

It came as no surprise when Michael asked me to take over again as Editor commencing with issue 70 in March 1983. Despite regular requests for some ‘new blood’ in the Editorial office, no volunteers were forthcoming, so I began my final 30-year ‘stint’ as JIM’s Editor.

I can still remember that terrible day at our London meeting on Sunday 15 April 1984 when we were waiting for Michael to arrive. He was due to present some of the music, but the clock reached our starting time, and there was no sign of Michael. One of the audience said that he had heard of a nasty car accident on the Brighton road a few days before, and he seemed to recall that Michael might have been involved. A few days later this awful news was confirmed when we learned that Michael (aged only 33) and a friend had been killed on their way from Brighton to work at the BBC. One can only imagine the wonderful things that Michael might have done for the RFS in future years

had his life not been so cruelly cut short.

I continued to hope that someone would soon come forward to edit our magazine, but no one wanted the main job. But I did have some great help from an Assistant Editor, of which more later.

Recognising that things were happening between issues of JIM (which did not always appear as regularly as in later years) a separate RFAS Special Newssheet was launched in February 1963 – this was later renamed RFAS News. Basically the idea was to keep members up to date with Robert Farnon’s latest work in radio, TV and films – plus new recordings. The Newssheets lasted until No. 67 in July 1979 and some of the issues were edited by Don Furnell - usually when I was involved in mundane matters such as house moves.

Don and Joyce were well known to members at our London meetings, where Don’s popular presentations (usually focussing on the jazzier side of Bob Farnon’s work) were a regular feature. They joined the RFAS in 1956, and later on Don acted as Assistant Secretary. With little warning that she was unwell, Joyce suddenly died in 1999. The shock clearly affected Don deeply, and after a short illness he also passed away on 18 April 2000 aged 65.

At this point it is pertinent to mention the finances of the early years. Incredibly our subscription income for the year ended 1964 was only £19 yes … nineteen pounds! Our subscription rate was 10/- (50p) and the loss for the year was £11.4.0 (£11.20). Hardly surprising, then, that some of the magazines were not very large. (I can still remember the many hours I addressed magazine envelopes by hand – remember computers were still far off in those days!). Poor attendance at some meetings (occasionally no more than around 20) also put further strains on the finances – you might guess at what had to happen to make up the shortfall. We needed many more members, but these were the days when the musical snobs at the BBC were doing their best to kill off Light Music. Our friends in The Light Music Society went into limbo for several years, but thankfully they eventually emerged and are once again a strong force in support of our cause.

Throughout all the lean years the RFS bravely kept going, although there were occasions during the 1970s and 1980s when it could easily have folded. But our finances gradually recovered – helped to a small extent by the first stirrings of what became the RFS Record Service and a gradual rise in membership numbers.

For many years finding good printers for the magazine was a real headache. I have lost count of how many different ones we had. At the start the only affordable technology available was Gestetner: you had to type onto flimsy skins (using copious amounts of bright red correcting fluid) which were then delivered to a copy bureau. Photocopying techniques gradually became affordable, which meant that the magazine was pasted up onto sheets (sometimes to be reduced in size) and then delivered for processing. It wasn’t possible to proof read the results, and occasionally I was shocked at the poor quality when the magazines were delivered to me. Eventually things improved dramatically when our member, Michael Phillips, the owner of Chartwell Press, offered to print JIM for us. (He thus became an official ‘Assistant Editor’). This was when word processors and computers were starting to appear, and floppy discs were the means of transferring the text. Sometimes an issue would take up to around 15 discs, which must have been a real headache for the printer. Happily CDRs came along, and one magazine now occupies a small portion of the space available on each disc, and the quality is identical to the original.

Michael sold Chartwell Press, and we continued using them under the new owners. For a while he continued to help me, until I became proficient with Microsoft Publisher, and he was then able to leave everything to me. This has continued to this day. Chartwell also distribute the magazine, using address labels supplied by Albert Killman, and they also take them to their local post office for distribution. Apart from a few annoying delays in the post, the system has worked reasonably well.

I had noticed that I was getting requests from members to help them to obtain deleted Robert Farnon LPs. Through a small number of contacts I was able to oblige, and things suddenly took a dramatic turn for the better when Chappells were discarding hundreds of surplus 78s and LPs, and they generously gave them to us. The few pence we made on selling all these records to members provided the financial strength we so badly needed: it is surprising how the pennies add up, and it helped us to keep subscription rates within reasonable figures.

Although I derived pleasure from helping members to obtain these rare recordings, I must confess that running the RFS Record Service could, at times, be a chore. Parcels got ‘lost’ in the post (I hope that when they were ‘found’ the contents were enjoyed by a postal worker somewhere!) and there was one member who returned his batch of records after a week saying that he didn’t like them. When this happened a second time I had to ban him from receiving any more. I explained that we were not operating a record lending library. No doubt his tape recorder wasn’t so busy thereafter!

Running the Record Service as well as being Secretary, Treasurer and Magazine Editor was beginning to cause serious problems with my spare time. If it hadn’t been for the fact that I was made redundant in 1989 I could well have had to make some serious decisions about what I could continue to do. Even being officially retired, I was getting busy doing other things for music publishers and record companies, so it was a great relief when two things happened. Albert Killman offered to become Membership Secretary in 2000 and Malcolm Osman (nobly assisted by his wife Jane) took over the RFS Record Service in 2008. They have all been a tower of strength, for which I am most grateful.

Looking back over so many years I continue to be impressed at the quality of the articles and features submitted by members. It is often said that with only a small percentage of members able to attend our London meetings, it is the magazine that is the most important thing that the RFS provides for the majority of them. I am going to resist the temptation to name any names, because I am sure to regret missing out some important ones when this article appears in print. But you know who you are, and one of you in today’s magazine also contributed to JIM issue one!

I have so many pleasant memories of the London meetings. Top of the list has been the many times that Robert Farnon was present. Often he travelled over from Guernsey just to be with us, although I hope that he managed to fit in some meetings with his publishers, and maybe the BBC, while he was in London for a few days. The first time I saw a Chappell record was at my first London meeting, when Jim Palm had them on his two-turntable record deck. How envious I was … those 78s were so strictly controlled by Chappells that it was many years before we could get them for members. But Robert Farnon generously gave us one 78 each year, containing two of his compositions, starting in March 1957, and members received a total of 11 before the final one in November 1968 at a time when 78s really were being consigned to history!

Today our London meetings have superb audio and video facilities operated expertly by Tony Clayden. It wasn’t always like that! Various parts of the equipment used to be brought along by different members, and I can still remember John Parry having to use matchsticks to fit the wires from his tape recorder into the electricity supply because his plug didn’t fit!

Another of the major benefits of membership, at least to many of our British members, has been the opportunity to attend Robert Farnon’s radio and television broadcasts, and the occasional recording sessions.

Arthur Jackson was the first ‘personality’ to attend our meetings. As well as being the Recorded Music Manager at Chappells, he was also a respected record critic, and he remained loyal to the RFS until ill health took its toll. Among the many other celebrities who we met were Angela Morley, Clive Richardson, Sir Vivian Dunn, Robin Boyle, Adelaide Hall, Alan Dell, Malcolm Laycock, Roy Oakshott, Philip Brady (from Australia), Rosemary Squires MBE, Ron Goodwin, Ernest Tomlinson MBE, Eric Parkin, John Fox, Joy Devon, Trevor Duncan, Heinz Herschmann, Paul Lewis, Edmund Hockridge, Nigel Hess, Iain Sutherland, Neil Richardson, Debbie Wiseman MBE, Brian Kay, John Wilson, Mike Dutton, Sigmund Groven, Anthony Wills and most recently Sir Sydney Samuelson … the list is almost endless, and many of them became firm friends.

One chapter of The Robert Farnon Society is now closing, with this, the final printed issue of Journal Into Melody. But make no mistake – the RFS will continue through our internet website. The enthusiasm of the members who have agreed to look after it in the future makes me very confident that it will be a place where Light Music fans from all over the world will want to visit regularly.

This article first appeared in the December 2013 issue of Journal Into Melody

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