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The Lost BBC: Have a Go!

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REGULAR readers of this column will be aware that throughout the early years of the BBC the only accent heard was Received Pronunciation, which many today would characterise as ‘posh’. It was a major breakthrough, therefore, when proud Yorkshireman Wilfred Pickles arrived on the airwaves, making no concessions to the pronunciation police.

Pickles was born in Halifax in 1904. He worked with his father as a builder but had a keen interest in the stage. The family moved over the Pennines to Southport in 1929, and in an amateur dramatics production he played opposite Mabel Myerscough. They married a year later at Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Church in Southport.

In 1931 Pickles successfully auditioned as an actor for the BBC’s Northern region and appeared in local programmes. In 1941 the Ministry of Information came up with the idea that a regional accent on the news would be harder for the Germans to imitate (I suppose they must have feared an enemy takeover of the BBC) and Pickles was brought in to the Home Service. There was some surprise when he signed off his broadcasts with: ‘Goodnight everybody, and to all you Northerners wherever you are – good neet’.

After the war the BBC was searching for new programmes. Have a Go! was the brainchild of Philip Robinson, a programme assistant based in Leeds, in response to a request for ideas for a ‘quiz programme with audience participation’, and he became the first producer. It was intended from the start that Wilfred Pickles would be the host, and he came up with the title. The format was to ask ordinary folk to tell their heart-warming stories and share their experiences of life. Then they were invited to answer quiz questions for prizes of a small amount of cash and sometimes local produce. The theme music was written by Jack Jordan and the audience at each week’s show would sing along to these words:

Have a go, Joe, come on and have a go
You can’t lose owt, it costs you nowt
To make yourself some dough.
So hurry up and join us,
don’t be shy and don’t be slow.
Come on Joe, have a go!

Here is an example from Ramsbottom, Lancashire in 1953 (note the contrast in speech between the announcer and Wilfred Pickles, though I would say that Pickles’s accent was actually pretty refined).

The first broadcast, from Bingley, was in February 1949 on the Northern Home Service only but after six months the show was such a success that it was moved to a national slot on the Light Programme with the first show on 16 September 1946 coming from Bridlington.

Soon Pickles’s catchphrases ‘How do, how are yer?’ and ‘Are yer courting’? were familiar everywhere. Producer Philip Robinson was replaced by Barney Colehan, who handed out the prize money, giving rise to the catchphrase: ‘Give ‘im the money, Barney’. In 1953 he in turn was replaced by Mabel Pickles, who became ‘Mabel at the table’. The background was that in 1939 the couple had lost their only child, seven-year-old David, to polio, and Wilfred was in a position to insist that he and Mabel, who had lost another baby in pregnancy, were together as often as possible.

From 1947 to 1953 the programme’s pianist was Violet Carson, who had previously worked with Wilfred on many editions of Children’s Hour. As everyone knows she went on to play Ena Sharples in Coronation Street. Here is her immortal first appearance in 1960.

(To me, the master stroke is having Ena make herself comfortable on the chair at the counter which many shops used to provide, so that the hapless Florrie Lindley knows she is in for a long session as a captive audience.)

Have a Go! became one of the most popular shows ever broadcast on either radio or television. At its peak in the 1950s it was said to attract an audience of twenty million a week plus a mailbag of around 5,000 letters. Pickles, with his bluff ‘man of the people’ style, was a celebrity. Here is a profile by Pathé News.

The YouTube legend says it was made in 1947, but that sounds a bit early to me – the show had started only the previous year.

Have a Go! went all over Britain. In 1959 it visited Tintagel in Cornwall. One participant was Mary Symons, who reported that Pickles was a charming host and put the contestants at ease. She said to him before the broadcast, ‘I’m very nervous’ and he replied, ‘Not as much as I am!’ A slightly less flattering remark came from the head chef at the Wharncliffe Hotel, where the team stayed. Tommy Knight said that Pickles was ‘an awkward customer who liked his whisky’.

Here is an extract from a show in Padiham, Lancashire.

I think this is from Wales as the audience are singing in Welsh

And here is a whole show from Ramsbottom, also in Lancashire. (The introduction of this show is featured at the beginning of this article.) At the end the audience sings the closing song:

Have a go, Joe, you’ve been and had a go
And you can tell your friends as well
You’ve been on radio
So listen in again next week
And hear another show
Have a go! Have a go!

Then presumably because they had finished a bit early the pianist segues into She’s a Lassie from Lancashire. (Acknowledgments to www.turnipnet.com )

In 1966 there were 1,500 outstanding invitations for Have a Go! to visit. Nevertheless the BBC felt the programme had ‘run out of steam’, and the final edition went out of January 10, 1967.

Pickles later took on a number of acting roles. He played Tom Courtenay’s father in the 1963 film Billy Liar. Here is a clip. (It is billed as a trailer but I don’t think it is.)

He was Hayley Mills’s uncle in The Family Way (1966). I couldn’t find a decent clip so I thought I would include the theme music, which in my opinion is one of Paul McCartney’s better compositions.

(In passing, as a schoolgirl I had a crush on Hayley Mills’s co-star Hywel Bennett, but sadly he married ‘Queen of the Mods’ Cathy McGowan instead. Note in this clip how despite being mobbed by photographers he manages to get a cigarette lit.)

Pickles starred as widower Walter Bingley with Irene Handel as Ada Cresswell in Thames TV’s For the Love of Ada in 1970 and 1971. Here is a scene from 1971. A film sequel was made in 1972. Here is a trailer. (I can’t say it looks very good.)

Wilfred and Mabel Pickles were generous donors to charity. All royalties from their TV and radio work were given to the disability charity Scope, which still benefits from them. In 1955, he opened the Wilfred Pickles School in Rutland for children with cerebral palsy. (I suspect that, like the very few other such schools at the time, it may have catered also for children disabled by polio.)

Pickles died aged 73 in 1978 and Mabel followed in 1989 aged 82. They are buried with their son David in Southern Cemetery, Manchester.

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Margaret Ashworth
Margaret Ashworth is a retired national newspaper journalist. She runs the Subbing Clinic in a hopeless attempt to keep up standards, and co-runs A & M Records where she indulges her passion for 60s pop.

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