Caught by the River

Last Train to Hilversum

Andy Childs | 28th February 2019

Andy Childs reviews Charlie Connelly’s ‘Last Train to Hilversum: A Journey in Search of the Magic of Radio’, recently published by Bloomsbury.

When I last counted (this morning) we had five radios in our house, not including the facility to listen to the radio on the various phones, ipads and laptops scattered around the place. Plus there’s a radio in the car. More radios than clocks or watches or indeed any other gadget. And I suspect we’re far from alone in our need to be close to a radio. As Charlie Connelly says in the opening lines of his very agreeable and informative book : ‘We are all radio people…..According to Radio Joint Audio Research, the independent body that measures radio audiences in Britain, 90 per cent of the adult population listens to the radio every week. Not once a year or a couple of times a month: every week’.

At a time when there is more quality television than ever before, ever more demanding social media and online diversions, a million and one podcasts on every specialist subject you can imagine, and more music being made than can find a meaningful audience, radio, notwithstanding the recently published fall in listening figures for Radios 1 and 4, continues to dominate our attention – a weekly average of 21.3 hours per listener according to Connelly.

All of us have our own radio stories – the programmes and DJs that shaped our musical tastes, those moments of revelation when a whole new world is opened up between your ears, or the reassuring presence of a voice that you can trust. Certainly Connelly has his own personal set of familiar voices to whom he pays due homage in these pages. Charlotte Green, Peter Jones (the best football radio commentator ever, by some distance), and Cerys Matthews command their own chapters in a book that is in part a personal quest (as the subtitle implies), but also a potted history of the genesis and development of radio, a series of entertaining cameos of well-known key people in the history of radio – Guglielmo Marconi and the ‘frankly terrifying’ Lord Reith chief among them, and, most intriguingly, snapshot biographies of several lesser-known characters whose significance in the scheme of things is matched only by their idiosyncrasies. Take for instance the extraordinary Leonard Plugge, born in south London but raised in Belgium. He is widely credited with launching independent (of the BBC) commercial radio, broadcasting first from the small Normandy town of Fecamp on a Sunday evening to complement the austere Reithian BBC Sunday schedule. His story, as unlikely as it is romantic and endearing, is probably deserving of a book of its own. One of the many memorable incidents in his story sees him, in 1925, giving a 15-minute broadcast, sponsored by Selfridges, from the top of the Eiffel Tower during which he extolled the virtues of that store’s range of women’s fashions. As Connelly points out: ‘It happens everywhere now, and every time it does there’s a small tribute to the man who did it first. Not for nothing is it known as a ‘plug’.’

Other long-forgotten individuals are equally engaging. Sheila Borrett – ‘the first woman announcer ever to appear on British radio’ ; Capt.Teddy Wakelam – Britain’s first sports commentator (in 1927); the hilarious Tommy Woodroofe, commentating on the Royal Navy Coronation Review of 1937 ‘as tight as an owl’; and Beatrice Harrison, cellist, twenties ‘classical music superstar’, muse of Delius and friend to Elgar, whose groundbreaking recording of a duet with a nightingale in her garden became an unprecedented international hit. With a cast of such characters it would be hard to write a dull book, and Connelly himself seems far from dull. There’s a hint of Bill Bryson in his style which he never overplays as he maintains a self-deprecating and affectionate stance throughout. And he is pleasingly nonchalant about the amount of research that was obviously necessary to make his book reliably informative as well as entertaining. A sometime radio broadcaster himself, he travels extensively – to the Haven Hotel in Dorset and to Chelmsford where Marconi variously operated from, to the island of Utsira off the coast of Norway for his chapter on the shipping forecast, to the remote Scottish town of Gairloch to visit Two Lochs Radio, ‘Britain’s smallest commercial station’, and, finally, to Hilversum, the small suburb of Amsterdam that accommodates all of Dutch radio broadcasting, and a name etched memorably on the dial of every wireless set of a certain age. To Connelly and generations of radio listeners alike, Hilversum is a name that ‘seemed to symbolise the magic of those nights by the dial when voices crossed borders without impediment and one could eavesdrop on the conversations of nations…..a mythical place, part of the mixture of magic and science that made radio happen’.

I love this book for its casual authority, its moments of wide-eyed fun and sheer panache within its stories, and for its generous spirit. Perhaps most of all though it makes me even more grateful that we have the gift of radio ever-present in our lives.