DCSIMG

Lest we forget, this was a voice to remember

The Forgotten Broadcaster, Radio 4, Thursday

A Saucerful of Secrets - The Early Days of Pink Floyd, Radio 2, Saturday

Fame, they say, is a fickle master. Name in lights one day, short obituary the next.

Howard Marshall was famously "the best-known voice in Britain", but he died with a whisper. The Forgotten Broadcaster looked at the life of this remarkable man, who pioneered campaigning broadcasting, was first to take up what we now call "yoof" issues, and offered unparalleled versatility in everything from cricket commentary through fireside chats to the Normandy landings, all delivered in a comforting, cake-and-brandy voice.

He was, in the words of this programme, "a sort of David Dimbleby, John Simpson and Christopher Martin-Jenkins rolled into one". Born in Surrey in 1900, his background was deeply conventional: public school then Oxford. The first sign of unconventionality came when he left Oxford without a degree and, needless to say, joined the Essex oyster fleet.

After a spell in the Merchant Navy, he worked for his father, who published magazines such as Model Railway, then for the Westminster Gazette, which folded. His mother advised: "Why don’t you join the BBC? You’ve got a very good voice." He had an audition and was hired by John Reith himself.

Such connections, and his privileged background, did not stop him investigating poverty, a subject about which he felt passionate. Indeed, he invented a new style of social reporting, providing on-the-spot reports from the slums.

The conditions he reported were so bad that listeners thought he must have been making it up. Either that or he was a Communist, hardly likely for someone who gave fireside chats to the Empire in a programme called Under Big Ben.

However, he did have "strong socialist convictions", which did not stop him becoming involved as the English narrator of Leni Riefenstahl’s controversial documentary film of the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. Perhaps love of sport overruled political doubts that are easier to have in hindsight.

He covered the Coronations of 1937 and 1953, became director of the BBC’s war reporting unit, and told listeners after his boat was hit at Normandy: "My notes are sodden and at the bottom of the sea."

He covered the liberation of Paris. He covered VE Day. And then, like a slowly turned-down volume button, he faded. After the war, he took a job as director of welfare of a steel company, stood unsuccessfully for Labour in a local election, and co-founded the Angling Times.

When Parkinson’s Disease struck, he bore it uncomplainingly and died in 1973. His death made no headlines, just dutiful obituaries, among which Alan Gibson’s in the Times noted: "It is, after all, a brave - even great - man who can put fame behind him with a snap of the fingers."

Still snapping their fingers and getting on down after all those years are lovers of Pink Floyd, the latest great rock band to get the treatment on Radio 2.

A Saucerful of Secrets took us from psychedelia through the greatcoat-wearing underground to the accountant-rock of today, in the company of Dave Gilmour, the band’s guitarist, an eminently sensible and logical man, with little time for whimsy and myth. He even admitted that some of the band’s experimental offerings now made him cringe.

Crucially, these came in the period between the artistic demise of Syd Barrett, the band’s founder, and the onset of the Dark Side of the Moon. Once an experiment, now a brand, once avant-garde now old guard, once inspired by nature, latterly by sociology, the Floyd mutated from colourful butterfly to corporate caterpillar.

So what happened to drugs and psychedelia? Gilmour has little time for either. He admits they played a part in Syd’s time, but the drugs did for this otherwordly sage and his tales of a gnome named Grimble-Gromble. Logical or no, Gilmour feels for Syd who, because he lived, became the most tragic figure in rock history. These days, he might have been cured at the Priory but, in the 1960s, it was just love that was offered. "I’m not sure that I still believe that’s the best way," said Gilmour, who placed his faith in medicine.

And indeed in alcohol. It transpired that, Syd apart, the band had more whisky-macs than acid tabs. All a bit of a con really, but Gilmour insists it was not of their making.

Of the album Ummagumma he insisted: "People are still convinced we did it all on LSD. They don’t want to hear you got in the studio at 10 o’clock in the morning and worked hard all day."

He added: "You have to learn your craft. It takes a long time." Inspiration? It’s nothing but perspiration.

How strange that a band, whose tale began with a piper playing at the gates of dawn, should end with such an old-fashioned moral: work hard to succeed. And, with luck, someone might remember you.

 
 
 

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