‘Gather round, boys and girls, it’s time for Doctor Demento!’
Anyone who has ever heard those magic words, knows the glory of radio as she should be done. The Doctor Demento Show launched in 1970 and was syndicated nationwide until 2010, when it went online. This is radio at its very finest. He played a lot of novelty records and was responsible for Weird Al Yankovic’s success.
He would play records like ‘The Elvis Presley Impersonator’s Convention’, where the Italian impersonator sings ‘Blue Sued Shoes’ in an operatic style. You can still catch the show online, and I suggest you do: it’s brilliant!
It sort of takes me back to the early days, when we didn’t have TV. We had Springbok Radio and, seeing the garbage dished up on TV on a daily basis, we were probably better off. They used to call it ‘Theatre of the Mind’, and they weren’t that far wrong. We all had our own image of Mark Saxon, and it definitely wasn’t Brian O’ Shaughnessy! Sergei Gromenko, who could forget him? ‘Ma-a-arrk!
This is giving away my age, I know, but we used to listen to ‘Test the Team’ on a Sunday, and occasionally send in in questions to see if we could stump them. I did once, and won R5.00 for my troubles. Those were the days.
The days of ‘Squad Cars’ and ‘Consider Your Verdict’: The days of high quality radio plays and comedy like ‘The Loudspeaker Show’ and ‘The Pip Freedman Show’. It was so much more than TV ever could hope to be, and I know this is a primarily white thing, as it was aimed squarely at us, but it had a community feel to it.
We also had the ‘A’ program, non-commercial radio, which featured some really splendid stuff; some of it educational, some of it entertaining and some of it plain boring, but radio was it in those bygone years. And radio is definitely not ‘it’ now.
Now you have 94.7, or Five FM, both of which are appalling and strictly play-listed, with jocks trying, and failing, to be funny, entertaining and/or clever.
Or you have 702, which is almost purely talk radio, but they have forgotten the entertainment aspect of radio. Radio can be so powerful when well done, and is so appallingly poor when not. As evidence of that, you just have to listen to the poor quality of radio ads.
In a country that possesses perhaps the highest standards in the world when it comes to advertising, radio advertising is so poor as to make one want to change channels, or just switch off.
Classic FM is great, but limited. Not one of the radio stations now can hope to compete with what Springbok Radio offered. I first heard ‘Heart of the Sunrise’, by Yes, on Springbok Radio, all nine minutes and some seconds. They couldn’t get away with that now! ‘Innagaddavida’, by Iron Butterfly, all seventeen minutes of it. Them were the days!
Thirteen years old, earphone plugged into my ear, pretending to be asleep with the radio playing under the blankets, listening to the forbidden ‘adult’ stuff. ‘The Creaking Door is opening; won’t you please come in?’ Clever, well-written horror stories that relied on our imagination to set the scene and experience the horror being portrayed.
The closest I can think of in terms of using imagination as a fear-producing tool, were the early Hammer Films, with Christopher Lee, as Dracula. They worked on the build-up of tension and the suggestion of deep evil. Dracula hardly made his appearance in the movies, and that was what set these shows apart from anything else today.
Bea Read was this beautiful winsome woman, voluptuous, with a honeyed voice that made you fall in love with every character she played. Bill Prince was the suave, sophisticated man about town, and you just knew he would rival Rock Hudson for looks.
Donald Monat, who wrote many of the plays we heard, was a sneaky worm, you could hear it in his voice, and for some reason, everyone hates the toady more than the real villain. Not one of these people looked the part, but who cares, if the mind is engaged?
When in England, listening to Test Match Special is truly special. The banter between the various commentators, and the fact that Mrs Hudson of Tewkesbury sent them a lovely plum duff to be consumed at the tea-break, adds such a magic to the whole experience that vast numbers of people in England still switch off the sound on the telly and listen to Test Match Special.
Radio has, for the most part, lost its magic, and I fear we live in a more cynical age, where good, old-fashioned steam radio will remain a thing of the past, even if it was a thing of beauty and a joy forever.