Medium wave of nostalgia

Sat, Mar 29, 2008, 00:00

RADIO REVIEW:  ALTHOUGH I had been looking forward to it all week, I almost missed it. With the four-day bank holiday weekend, Monday becomes Sunday. Sunday is like Saturday, Saturday turns into Friday, Friday doesn't know what it is. Thursday is like . . . Actually, Thursday pretty much stays as Thursday, writes Quentin Fottrell.

Fortunately, on Sunday, the radio went on in the morning like it does, as it's next to the toaster, and there it was, Brendan Balfe's Medium Wave Goodbye (RTÉ Radio 1, Sun), a milestone marking the end of the medium wave service after 82 years.

Who rushes home at lunchtime for The Kennedys of Castleross anymore? Balfe played some. It starred Marie Kean, TP McKenna, Vincent Dowling, Angela Newman and Philip O'Flynn. Dring! Dring! (That was the phone with news that Mrs Kennedy's daughter Ellen was hit by a car.) "A mother's place is with her daughter at a time like this," she said. Next, the voiceover: "What will Mrs Kennedy find in Dublin? Is Ellen seriously injured?" Even if it was 50 years ago, I am dying to find out.

Next up, newsreader Bernadette Plunkett delivering the news headlines in 1939 in her best Queen's English: "British relations with Germany. French flying boat leaves Foynes. Drastic measures in Bohemia. Mr Sean Russell released on bail. Annual meeting of medical union. Death of Englishmen in Shanghai. Statement on lost submarine. British royalty in United States. Hillside fires in Ireland . . ."

Balfe said RTÉ radio announcers all sounded like they were auditioning for the BBC. We had a song by Seamus Clandillon, the first director of broadcasting in 1925, and John McCormack, plus legendary broadcasters Harry Thullier, Micheal O'Hehir, Gay Byrne on the last Howth tram in 1958, Eamon Andrews adding a touch of mink, Larry Gogan and Brendan Balfe introducing their pop music shows. I thought of Val Joyce, another broadcasting trouper, whose Late Date is no longer on the air. We will remember him in years to come. And not the person who so wilfully wielded the axe.

Winston Churchill's May 1945 address was chilling: "If it had not been for the loyalty and friendship of Northern Ireland we should have been forced to come to close quarters with Mr de Valera or perish forever from the earth. However, with a restraint and poise to which I say history will find few parallels, we never laid a violent hand upon them, which at times would have been quite easy and quite natural, and left the de Valera Government to frolic with the German and later Japanese representatives to their hearts' content."

De Valera's famously restrained response has resonance today: "Mr Churchill makes it clear that, in certain circumstances, he would have violated our neutrality and that he would justify his action by Britain's necessity. It seems strange to me that Mr Churchill does not see that this, if accepted, would mean Britain's necessity would become a moral code and that when this necessity became sufficiently great, other people's rights were not to count."

RTÉ lacked breeziness in the 1950s, Balfe said, though confidence crept in with sponsored shows and jingles. Terry Wogan narrating JFK's 1963 visit to Ireland had signs of his Eurovision blarney: "A big white smile under that thatch of brown hair. Now they're throwing what on Wall Street would be ticker tape, but here what is probably only CIE bus roll."

During one of the last GPO broadcasts in the 1970s, a newsreader becomes panicked. It was no 9/11 or anarchist invasion of the studio: a mouse ran across her desk.

Here's a taste of a later pop show promo: "Hi there, popsters, you'll be glad to hear I've a show on Thursday that will bring you cheer, charts and new releases, hits from overseas . . ." I'll stop there. Still, Balfe got the joke

and played Dave Fanning interviewing U2, who all sounded equally hip-and-groovy, if you know what I mean, even though they really made me wanna . . . scream. (That was my own impromptu popsters jingle.)

Balfe played a clip from a comedy show, Don't Look Now, with Maureen Potter. Oh, how I loved her. That portrait of her on the stairwell in the Gaiety always makes me proud to be a Dub (even a Dub with a mid-Atlantic twang).

We also heard Maxi close down Radio One for the last time. In 1997, it would go 24 hours: "On behalf of all the announcers and presenters who signed off on Irish radio during the last 70 years, this is Maxi, wishing you a very goodnight, do sleep well and may God bless you."

Maxi understood the importance of a distant voice in the darkness reaching out to say goodnight. Many no longer had that comfort as they sat by the fire or lay in bed, listening to broadcasters or jingles that probably provided a bridge to their own past. Her voice was crystal clear, but polished in its compassion. It evoked the unseen impact of that era's end. As Balfe did with the end of Medium Wave. Sadly, both these moves were felt by the core and, likely, most loyal listeners. Normal service will resume here next week.