BBC Pirate Radio Documentary Published 57 Years Late

I recently received this recorded BBC radio documentary programme about the 1960s pirate radio stations called “The Pirates Of Pop” from my friend, John Ker, who says the tape was given him many years earlier by Graham Bunce, who in 1966 worked for pirate Radio City and later joined the BBC as Engineer and Studio Manager until his retirement in 2013. It is now published at Mixcloud and after all these years Graham can’t now remember how he originally obtained the recording.

Voices heard in this programme include Simon Dee, Radio London Managing Director, Philip Birch, Donald MacLean of the BBC’s Popular Music Department and Brian Emmett of BBC Audience Research.

There are several unknowns about “The Pirates Of Pop”. Why the peculiar programme length? What was the name of the programme’s producer? When was it produced? And most importantly, was it ever broadcast?

We don’t know for sure who presented the programme but it was most likely John Benson, for many years famous as the voice on Nicolas Parson’s “Sale of the Century” from Anglia TV. As for who produced the programme, I asked now retired BBC Radio 1 producer, Johnny Beerling, and he suspects that John Muir, who did the programme’s interviews, was also the producer.

When was “The Pirates Of Pop” Produced?
We know this documentary was made in January 1967 because its interviews clearly suggest this and additionally some content is mentioned in Robert Chapman’s 1992 book: “Selling The Sixties” where on pages 228/229 he quotes Donald MacLean of the BBC’s Popular Music Department. This is heard about 5-1/2 minutes from programme start.

Why is the Programme Length Peculiar?
BBC radio programmes of the time usually ended by naming the producer and other credits, which is not the case here. Instead, the programme ends somewhat abruptly with a few bars of the 1945 melody “We’ll Gather Lilacs” by Ivor Novello.
Also, the quality of the recording is very good, unlike off-air recordings of the 1960s, which were prone to hiss with possible crackles or tape “drop-outs”. So the excellent quality suggests it is probably a pre-transmission listening copy for later editing down to a final 30 minute version.

Was “The Pirates Of Pop” Ever Broadcast?
I believe that the BBC never broadcast “The Pirates of Pop” programme because its content was not approved by the UK government represented by the then Postmaster General, Edward Short.

Firstly there is no trace whatever of this programme in the extensive and very detailed BBC online Genome programme listings.

We must also remember that in 1967, the then UK Labour Government was not only vehemently against offshore pirate radio, they were also dogmatically opposed to the introduction of any land-based commercial radio stations in competition with the BBC, even though such competition would likely improve job opportunities and conditions of service for radio employees, many of whom would be likely Labour voters.

This very point is raised at about 15 mins. from programme start, when an anonymous union member (Association of Broadcasting Staff) makes the case for greater job opportunities and better conditions of service if more employers existed — a comment which the then Labour government would have obviously not wanted aired.

It’s intriguing that the then Postmaster General, Edward Short, when debating the Bill to outlaw pirate radio in Parliament on 15th February 1967 chose to mention: “We’ll Gather Lilacs” when plenty of other memorable melodies of the 1940s exist. He claimed there was no demand for non-stop pop and continued: “Clearly the housewife who is at home during the day – and some still are – likes to hear something like “We’ll gather lilacs” and that sort of nostalgic music. She likes a rather different kind of light music.”

My hunch is that the BBC had submitted a copy of “The Pirates of Pop” to the Postmaster General for approval before broadcast – approval that wasn’t given. But, as we know, the programme ends with “We’ll Gather Lilacs” which Edward Short remembered since he had listened to this programme tape only a few days earlier.

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