Obituary: Bill Prentice, veteran radio presenter

William Douglas Prentice, broadcaster. Born: 16 February 1923 in Haddington, East Lothian. Died: 11 July 2019 in Bonnyrigg, Midlothian, aged 96.

Black Diamond FM DJ Bill Prentice.
Black Diamond FM DJ Bill Prentice.

William “Bill” Prentice was born in Haddington in 1923, the third of five children of William Prentice snr, a watchmaker and jeweller, and his wife Joanne.

The family later moved to Montague Street, in Edinburgh’s Southside, until 1929, when they were rehoused in one of the first Corporation houses in Craigmillar, where his youngest sister, Mary, was born. From Portobello School Bill entered an apprenticeship as a bookbinder at Waddies Print Works, but he was called up for war service in 1941.

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With three schoolfriends he applied to enlist in the RAF, but marginally failed the eyesight test, so was assigned to the Fleet Air Arm.

He believed this saved his life – his friends all died in action. In 1942 his squadron embarked on the former cruise liner, Queen Mary, then in camouflage colours and popularly known as “the grey ghost”.

The destination was undisclosed, in line with Admiralty security procedures, but as it plied due west from Gourock those aboard soon worked out where they were headed. After the attack on Pearl Harbor America needed British ships, airplanes, and servicemen; Prentice’s Fleet Air Arm squadron arrived at Boston in October 1942 for two lengthy tours of duty.

Bill’s time in America would be a revelation, particularly after he was given a serviceman’s free pass to Broadway’s top musical theatres. This was the height of the big band swing era, but with stars like Glenn Miller drafted to entertain GIs in Europe, there were changes afoot – the trumpeter Elizabeth Rogers joined Woody Herman’s big band, while Tommy Dorsey’s orchestra featured an all-female, 19-part string section. Singers of the calibre of Deanna Durbin were enjoying cult status as Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong and Sarah Vaughan packed them in at Harlem’s Apollo Theater.

As he himself admitted, he had a good war, and kept the free pass all his life – having outlived almost all the venues.

Bill’s love of the music of the period would pay off half a century later, when he became an award-winning volunteer presenter and producer on community-based Black Diamond Radio.

The intervening years were not uneventful. He married Nancy in 1944, and returned to the printing industry, first in Glasgow, where his brother John was an artist and illustrator, and then to Slough, Berkshire, where his youngest brother, Tommy, was in the metal fabrication business. Family ties were always important to him. He was also supportive of his two sisters, Winnie and Helen, when they set up the Craigmillar Festival Society.

Bill Prentice was a manager with the British Printing Corporation when it was acquired by Robert Maxwell, a man who, he said, “combined charm with wanton ruthlessness”.

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Unpersuaded by the “charm”, Bill negotiated his departure with pension intact shortly before the final denoument which brought Maxwell’s empire crashing down, and £600 million worth of pillaged pensions with it.

The Prentices retired to Bonnyrigg in 1984 shortly after the tragic death of their son, Richard, and he become active in the voluntary sector, as well as politics and the peace movement, but it was not until he was in his eighties, shortly after Nancy’s death, that he was discovered by Bob Miller of Black Diamond Community Radio and given his own Senior Hour Sunday slot.

The time he’d spent haunting New York’s music venues half a century earlier proved to be playlist gold, and his knowledge was encyclopaedic.

A skilled harmonica player, Bill’s musical tastes ranged from the 1930s to the 1960s, and he would actively research lesser-known past releases rather than repeat popular hits, but he would often include contemporary singers and musicians who reflected his chosen genre, and selected favourites such as Johnny Cash.

Although he described his programme as “by a senior, for seniors” and preferred the label “radio music presenter” to DJ, he had an appreciative following in all age groups.

With the attentive support, in particular, of his partner Rosie, his youngest sister Mary and his niece Helen, Bill was outgoing and sociable to the end.

In seniority of his service as a radio presenter, Bill overtook Radio 2’s Alan Keith, who died aged 94 in 2003, and Alistair Cooke, who was 95 when his last Letter from America, was broadcast. He was also seven months older than Nicholas Parsons, presenter of Just a Minute. He was believed to have been the oldest music presenter in the world, his last pre-recorded show going out three days before he died.

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Bill is survived by his youngest sister, Mary, his partner Rosie, and several nephews and nieces.