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Radio recordings: comedy and light entertainment

The significance of light entertainment as an engine of both social change and cohesion is often underestimated. The Library's extensive radio collections open up this fundamental aspect of popular culture for further study.

Comedy and variety performers were among the first to appear on British radio in the 1920s and were initially drawn from the music hall circuit. Some of the earliest extant comedy recordings have been collected in retrospectives such as Russell Davies's 12-part series Radio Fun (1988). Radio students will also find here a useful historical overview of the genre, interviews with early stars, such as Helena Millais ('Our Lizzie') and Malcolm McEachern ('Flotsam and Jetsam'), and selected clips from American radio for comparison. Other American radio comedy/variety of the 1940s and 50s is interspersed through a rare collection of Grand Ole Opry Recordings (catalogue no: C178).

The Library's collections include examples of many of the key British series of the 'Golden Age of Radio' - comedy shows Band Waggon (1938-) and ITMA (extant from 1940-), panel show The Brains Trust (aka Any Questions, 1941-), and travelling 'meet the people' series such as Wilfred Pickles' Have a Go! (extant 1947-), and Down Your Way (extant 1948-).

Some of these programmes, transferred from BBC Archive recordings or donated by collectors (Stephen Williams Collection), include many of the most highly regarded and influential series of the 1950s-60s, such as Hancock's Half Hour and The Goons. Our BBC Radio International collections are also rich in classic programming in this vein, including parody/sketch show Round the Horne (1960s), Morecambe and Wise's 1970s radio show, and The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1978-2005). Additional material, such as Radio 4's After Henry (1985-1989) and Radio 1's controversial satirical sketch series, The Mary Whitehouse Experience (1989-1992) are available on request from the BBC Sound Archive.

Accessing the collection

To access sound and moving image material:

  • Use the online Sound and Moving Image Catalogue to search for recordings.
  • The Listening and Viewing Service provides free public access to the Sound Archive's collections of recorded sound and video in St Pancras. Sound recordings can be accessed in Boston Spa also.
  • The Sound Archive Information Service is based in Humanities - floor 2 in St Pancras where books, discographies, periodicals and magazines are available on open access.
  • Many sound recordings have been digitised and are presented on the British Library Sounds website. A large number of the recordings are freely available for listening online though some are restricted to users in accredited Higher Education establishments.
  • The Transcription Service can provide copies of recordings once the appropriate copyright has been cleared.

Further information

Paul Wilson
Curator, Radio
The British Library
96 Euston Road
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7446
Fax: +44 (0)20 7412 7441