It’s the height of the London Blitz and, deep underground at the Criterion Theatre, the BBC light entertainment programme’s flagship show, Variety Bandwagon, is in trouble. Flamboyant frontman Sammy Shaw has gone AWOL (though not for long), and there’s a Tatar of a producer on duty who’s determined to do everything by the book, including passing all content to the Ministry of Information for vetting prior to transmission. The problem is that Shaw (Gary Wilmot) is a showman who’s used to doing things his way, both in front of and away from the microphone. He’s already jilted fiancée Olive (Sara Crowe) at the altar and now seems hell-bent on driving her back into the arms of former lover, matinee idol Gary Strong, played by Michael Hobbs.
On paper, Radio Times seems like a viable enough outing and many familiar songs of the era (Run, Rabbit, Run, Hey Little Hen, There’s Something About a Soldier, Who’s Been Polishing the Sun?) are shoe-horned into a paper-thin plot which, along with some nicely polished vocal performances from the ensemble cast, manages to sustain interest. Indeed, it was very well received by its intended demographic but it has to be said that this is not a work destined to be a classic.
While his charms abound and he has a credible singing voice, Wilmot is no dour Tommy Trinder and lacks the brutal edge of Max Miller. True, Radio Times is a nostalgia-fest rather than a source of any meaningful social message, but the radio stars of the era were rich, vibrant and clearly flawed – the eternally smiling Wilmot is simply not convincing in the role of Shaw. Crowe gives a believable enough performance as Olive (despite seeming to struggle a little with her voice) but there’s little chemistry to speak of between her and Wilmot, which detracts from the overall cohesion of the piece.
Ben Fox as Shaw’s sidekick, Wilf, excels, but particular mention must be made of John Conroy as the BBC producer, Heathcliffe Bultitude, who brings a real third dimension to his role. The gags aren’t just ancient – and in many cases second-hand – but also segued by painful pauses. Arthur Askey’s “Ithangyew” catchphrase is pinched and littered through the script, even in places where it’s not particularly appropriate. It’s difficult to engage with any dramatic narrative when there are constant comic asides to the audience, even during tender moments.
In saying that, Radio Times doesn’t claim to be Ibsen or Shakespeare. It’s quite happy fulfilling its role as a vehicle for star casting and some Noel Gay songs. The producers are happy with that, the mainly elderly audiences are happy with that. Who are we to disapprove?
If foot-wide smiles, jazz-hands and corny jokes are your thing, then pull up a sandbag - you’re in for a treat.