Obituary: Ben Lyons, sound and radio broadcast technician

Sound man who set highest of standards working with BBC. Picture: Contributed
Sound man who set highest of standards working with BBC. Picture: Contributed
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Born: 2 April, 1923, in Glasgow. Died: 11 July, 2015, aged 92.

Izzy Lyons, better known to his colleagues and friends as Ben, was a sound and radio man to his finger tips; a man of uncompromising broadcasting standards in the best tradition of Lord Reith.

Born in 1923 in Glasgow’s North Albion Street to parents Ettie and Berko, he often joked that he was only one day away from being an April Fool. But Ben was nobody’s fool as his subsequent career was to prove.

The family moved to Pollockshields when he was two years old and there he spent his entire childhood. He had an interest in music and he played the violin to a good standard, a secret known only to his close friends.

As a child, he enjoyed walking into town and observing the characters – like the rotten fruit and veg sellers outside the Panopticon Theatre. He’d explain that the produce was thrown at some unfortunate act on the night – something apparently not unknown in the hard world of Glasgow Theatre.

His overriding passion was, however, sound and radio, and at an early age he built himself his own crystal radio set.

On leaving school he started work with JD Cuthbertson in Sauchiehall Street where he worked with radios, gramophones and records. His technical talents were soon recognised and he was appointed as radio mechanic for the firm. Customers saw in him something of a miracle fixer, so expert was he in solving their problems and restoring their sets to good health.

He recognised that a brighter future might lie ahead and he successfully applied to the BBC, joining the organisation for a training course in Maida Vale, London.

In 1942 he was called up and drafted into the Royal Signals where he spent the subsequent five years. He considered himself hugely fortunate to have come through the Normandy Landings unscathed, but made light of this, preferring to recall how, as a radio operator, he was on one occasion required to put through a call from “Monty’s mother to the Field Marshall himself”!

On leaving the military he rejoined the “Beeb” as a sound effects man, before being appointed as studio manager at Queen Margaret Drive where he worked alongside most of the broadcasting luminaries of the day, such as “Auntie” Kathleen Garscadden, Lavinia Derwent, of Tammy Troot fame, and Howard Lockhart.

His talents were recognised by Eddie Fraser who promoted him to the role of radio producer.

It was in this new role that I got to know and worked with Ben when he asked me in 1964 to do 13 one-hour shows On Tour from Scalloway in the Shetlands to Gretna in the Borders.

It was a memorable time for all involved: the Corries and Paddy Bell, Jack Radcliffe, Willie Joss and The Jim MacLeod Band, to name but a few.

Ben was meticulous in his work ethic and on occasions would spend ages trying to detect the source of some “buzz” or extraneous noise which although undetected by us, was offensive to Ben’s well-tuned ear.

One of my lasting memories, among many, was the occasion when, during rehearsals in Tomintoul, he emerged from the control room to have “a word” with Jack Radcliffe, one of the biggest names in showbusiness at the time and star of The Five Past Eight Show in Glasgow’s Alhambra Theatre. He “requested” Jack to drop a gag from his act because it involved the use of the word “corsets” which Ben felt was not quite “BBC”. How times have changed.

He himself was not beyond criticism and there was an instance of this when, during a break in rehearsals with the Jimmy Shand Band for the Scottish Dance Music programme, the fiddler with the band, referring to the previous broadcast, used an opportune moment in the “gents” to lean back and say to Ben “the fowk in ‘Muchty” tell me they cannae hear the fiddle”. How about that for an oblique criticism of the sound balance? To his lasting credit Ben saw the funny side of where, and how, the comment was made.

Ben “retired” in 1983 but soon after there was a request from one Noel Edmonds for Ben to return and produce The Derek Jamieson Show for Radio 2 from 1986-91.

Noel remembered Ben from having shared time together in their Radio 1 Club days and as a result Ben was still working as a producer 12 years later.

He loved his music and especially his orchestral programmes with the BBC Scottish Radio Orchestra, working with conductors, the likes of Michael Collins, Vilem Tausky and Iain Sutherland, and was credited with being the only person who was able to keep the orchestra under control.

He was always thoroughly prepared for his programmes and demanded nothing less of his artistes, the list of whom reads like the “who’s who” of Scottish theatre.

The names of Gordon Jackson, Moira Anderson, Kenneth McKellar, Chick Murray, Barbara Dickson, Cilla Fisher (The Singing Kettle), The Marmalade, The Average White Band, Alastair Macdonald, Peter Morrison, Jimmy Logan, Stanley Baxter, the Alexander Brothers and Jimmy MacGregor come to mind.

He gave Barbara Dickson her first broadcast and smiled at the fact that the expense of taking her to the programme in Arisaig was greater than her fee. Likewise he gave Billy Connolly and The Humblebums their first broadcast in the 1960s and later became a good friend of “Big Yin” Billy, who would greet him by lifting him off the ground and calling him “wee Ben”.

Ben’s family were touched by the many letters and messages they received, expressing sympathy on their loss and gratitude for what Ben had meant to them personally, including one from Billy himself.

He was a great supporter of the Scottish Showbusiness Bene­volent Fund and his presence at their functions will be very much missed.

Ben was also a great admirer of Robbie Shepherd for his integrity as host of Take the Floor, the successor to Scottish Dance Music, and recently he took part in a tribute TV programme to Robbie.

If wealth is to be measured in life’s experiences and friendships made, then Ben Lyons was a very wealthy man.

He will be sadly missed, but fondly remembered, and whatever we have lost in his passing, it is more than compensated for by what he has left in the hearts of those fortunate to have known him.

Ben is survived by his wife Louise and daughters Beverley and Yvette, of whom he was so proud.