In 1939, due to the outbreak of war, the BBC reduced its hours of broadcasting, and used its own musical resources on its new ‘National’ service’. By 1940 this became known as the ‘Home Service’ until after the war when it became known as the ‘Light Service’ as the then ‘Home Service’ was mostly entertainment, interspersed with news, which is when the ‘Home Service’ became more the spoken word, and subsequently, ‘Radio Four’.
The War Department put it to the BBC that regular daily programmes of uninterrupted music would boost morale and therefore, production in the factories. On June 23rd, 1940, in the Radio Times, there was a statement saying
‘This coming week there will be, twice everyday, half an hour‘s music meant specially for factory workers to listen to as they work, you will find it in the programme pages for each day under the title ‘Music While You Work’!’
Dudley Beavan played the first edition of MWYW on Sunday 23rd June 1940 at 10.30am at the theatre organ, with a first edition at 3pm by a group called the ‘Organolists’.
Over the years, the BBC tried many formulas for the show, but what the factories wanted was tuneful, unpretentious and predominantly familiar music that workers could sing along with or whistle to as they worked. Various signature tunes signed on and off the programme, until in October 1940, Eric Coates’ new march ‘Calling All Workers’ was adopted.
It soon settled into a twice daily, seven days a week programme with many different bands, orchestras and soloists on the theatre organ from all over the country.
It was felt that the music should not be too lively, else accidents may occur at work, or equally, too distracting for the loss of concentration! Modern slow waltzes were banned due to their ‘soporific’ qualities, nothing ‘lethargic’!
The volume level had to be sufficient to penetrate machinery noise, but not too loud to demand attention. The pieces had to be played ‘segue’ with no intervals or talking and with a regular beat linking the chosen pieces and nothing virtuistic or with complicated orchestrations!
Eventually, the programmes were broadcast three times a day with repeats, thereby entertaining the workers twenty-four hours a day.
Many conductors, bandleaders and orchestras were involved over the years and factory owners noted increased production when the programmes were broadcast.
The programme was finally broadcast in 1967, but was revived in 1982 to celebrate the BBC’s Diamond Jubilee. After this week of revival broadcasts, there was such a public outcry, the programme was reinstated in 1983 on a daily basis. Whilst soloists were used in wartime broadcasts, the revivals did not.
In the original programmes, orchestras, bands and soloists had to audition for the live broadcasts, whilst the revivals were pre-recorded in a studio and were ‘non-audition’ bands, which was not always a successful policy with some bands not having the pre-recorded programme broadcast a second time or not at all! This revival series lasted one year only.
However, 1990 saw a further revival to celebrate fifty years since the first broadcast of MWYW, and a one-off programme in 1995 with Victor Sylvester Jnr and his orchestra ended the last broadcast after fifty-five years!
‘MWYW meant a great deal to many people, not least to the musicians involved’. ‘It was an unforgettable programme, truly an era in broadcasting’.
After much research, today’s programmes are based on published programmes found in a book entitled ‘Music While You Work – An Era in Broadcasting’ by Brian Reynolds, who has meticulously gathered together the full story of MWYW!
Available from Brian Reynolds, 8 St. Augustine’s Avenue, Bickley, Kent. BR2 8AG