Posts tagged ‘Mellis’

Sep 8, 2022

The Day the Music Died – on the BBC. Glasgow Orpheus Choir.

It caused a great stooshie that got a mention in the UK parliament – the BBC’s practice of censoring opinions it doesn’t like. This has nothing to do with Emily Maitlis but occurred back in the 1940s.

Today, the BBC is far more unpopular in Scotland than it is in England with 13% of Scottish households choosing not to buy a BBC licence compared with 7% in England, 6% in Wales and 10% in Northern Ireland. In Scotland it is criticised for reflecting the corporation’s southern metropolitan bias and for its determined and continuing promotion of unionism that flies in the face of at least 50% of Scottish opinion.

We should not be surprised after all the BBC is unionist – it says so on the tin and is British establishment to its core. There is a pretence is that it reflects life in these islands. Of course, it does nothing of the kind. It does nowadays what it has always done – represent a tiny section of ‘British’ society and stuffs its management with dependable British establishment types to ensure it upholds the values of people like them.

Back in the 1930s, the choral master of the Glasgow Orpheus Choir, Sir Hugh Roberton, seemed like a dependable chap. The choir, his choir, had a reputation second to none in the UK and were frequent performers on the BBC. However, come the Second World War it was drawn to the BBC’s attention that Roberton was not one of them. He was a socialist and pacifist and member of the Peace Pledge Union.

 War and art is an impossible combination, impossible as hate and love. War is in an insidious position. It scars and brutalises us unconsciously…Oh the vanity and hypocrisy and brutality of the world, oh the ignorance of the people.

The words of Hugh Roberton during World War One.

Come the Second World War, they banned him and his choir from broadcasting on the BBC.  

Roberton was portrayed as a disloyal citizen by Corporation – that moulder of opinions.  During the Second World War the BBC was the government’s powerful medium for disseminating government propaganda – George Orwell was part of that structure between 1941 and 1943 and used his experiences at the BBC in his portrayal of the propaganda arm of government, the Ministry of Truth, in his novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Roberton wasn’t alone in being proscribed by the BBC which has a history of denying access to mics to people it regards as not one of us. Michael Redgrave was among a number of actors whose services were not required during the war. Redgrave accused the BBC of –

…an unwarranted infringement of the civil liberties of the individual.

The BBC’s defence was that anyone with views ‘opposed to the national war effort’ as they described it – would not be allowed on the BBC. That members of the Orpheus Choir were on active service abroad or in the Home Guard or ARP carried no weight which drew this comment from one choir member –

 Joan of Arc has been a long time dead, but it appears that the English heresy-hunter still runs to type

It was not only his pacifist beliefs that made Roberton a thorn in the flesh of Britain’s most conservative elements. The custom was that concerts would close with the national anthem. Roberton would have none of it, and always ended the Orpheus Choir concerts with a rendering of Auld Lang Syne. Such behaviour enraged a Colonel W. Mellis from Aberdeen who wrote to his local newspaper, the Press & Journal, expressing his disgust that at a concert he attended God Save the King was not performed. For those of you too young to know, the national anthem used to be played at the end (and sometimes the start) of every public activity or performance and the audience was expected to stand up to listen to it. But people increasingly ignored this custom so it was stopped in cinemas in 1974. It carried on elsewhere until recent times and is still played at the end of BBC Radio 4 daily broadcasts. Mellis deplored that ‘a man like Sir Hugh Roberton’ (I think he meant such as Sir Hugh Roberton) be allowed anywhere near a microphone.

Ian Shaw MacPhail of Aberdeen, wrote a response to what he called Mellis’ ‘hysterically loyal support of the recent childish attitude of the BBC to the Glasgow Orpheus Choir and its pacifist conductor.’ He added that a man who ‘cannot enjoy a choir when it is conducted by a pacifist’ is no music lover and argued that music cannot be controlled by government, laws or opinions and asked if Mellis thought the choir would lure the public to their moral doom by the exquisiteness of its singing? He wondered if Mellis understood what the war was being fought for –

…men have died and are at this very moment dying in the belief that their sacrifice is made so that we may retain these precious rights of mankind – liberty of conscience and freedom of citizenship and speech

MacPhail, about to join the armed forces after graduating from Grey’s School of Art in Aberdeen, backed Roberton’s right to his opinions –

This black-balling of the musician is reminiscent of the unforgivable and dishonest attitude of the B.B.C. to that immortal animal lover Grey Owl* whose crime was that in his script he made a very pertinent indictment of the ‘sadistic cruelty’ of fox hunting.

He called the BBC doctrinaire – selecting who it allowed to broadcast and who it did not. For his part MacPhail wrote he was not concerned with whether –

…the milkman is an admirer of Stalin, whether the butcher has a moustache like Hitler’s or whether Sir Hugh Roberton is a pacifist.

(Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The BBC’s ban on the choir was raised in parliament. A Mr McGovern, MP for Glasgow Shettleston, raised the issue of ‘partiality of the propaganda and choice of propagandists by the British Broadcasting Corporation and the way in which it is being directed on totalitarian lines’ so eliminating different views on the BBC and instead of the BBC being ‘an instrument of democracy’ it was ‘one for the creation of an authoritarian regime in this country.’

Another Glasgow MP, Mr Stephen for Camlachie, said he noticed that after the ban on the Orpheus Choir had been lifted following the matter being raised with the prime minister, the BBC seldom put it on air. He described this as the BBC’s ‘victimization of this choir because of the anti-war views of the conductor.’

So, the BBC reduced its engagements of the choir after the ban was lifted. It was noticed it didn’t even merit a place on Scotland’s bit of the BBC, the ‘Scottish Half Hour’ which represented the BBC’s impressions of Scotland. The BBC’s regional director in Scotland was Melville Dimwiddie who in 1934 had issued a denial of an accusation from Hugh Roberton that the BBC was ‘an English institution with a branch office in Scotland.’ Dinwiddie’s denial was disingenuous since it most certainly was and is.

When the B.B.C. was formed it was formed with a charter akin to autocracy. Today the position of the governing body is that Scotland has no voice and Ireland had no voice. In two years’ time the charter is to be reviewed. I hope when this is done that Scotland will be given a certain measure of Home Rule.

(Sir Hugh Roberton, 1934)

Dinwiddie said there could be no better Scotsman representing Scotland than the Director General of Broadcasting, Sir John Reith. Trite nonsense and offensive to Scots with a brain. It was Dinwiddie who a decade later who told Roberton that if he changed his pacifist views he would be allowed to broadcast. Roberton insisted his views were his own business and not the BBC’s.

Hugh Roberton was unbending over substituting Auld Lang Syne at the end of concerts which he regarded was more in keeping with Scottish sentiment.  

We have a history, a tradition, all of our own … and I am sure it comes out in our singing…English choirs on the whole are probably more competent than Scottish ones: they are also more facile…their work wants root.

Roberton’s own roots ran deep in the soil of Scotland. He recognised the value of Scotland’s rich folk song tradition and rearranged many for his choir as well as writing his own songs based on old Gaelic and Scots ones.

All this happened between 80 and 90 years ago. A lot has changed at the BBC since then. Oh, wait: no, it hasn’t.

*Grey Owl was a Canadian naturalist who spent time in the UK giving talks on wildlife in the 1930s. He was the son of a Scottish father and Apache mother. One-time trapper, Grey Owl deplored hobby slaughter of animals and swapped his rifle for a pen.  “It took civilisation to teach us that killing was a sport” he said, which along with his condemnation of fox hunting, did not go down well with BBC chaps.