Paul Wilson, Radio curator, writes:
Greatly saddened to hear of the passing on Wednesday (January 2) of Charles Chilton, aged 95, probably the longest surviving and most prolific of BBC radio writers and producers. Chilton began at the BBC as a porter in January 1933, then worked in the BBC Gramophone Library before taking up the producer/scriptwriter and on-air presenter roles for which he later became famous. Although he officially retired in 1977, he was still contributing to programmes and submitting programme ideas to the BBC until close to the end of his life. With the assistance of his wife and life-long professional collaborator, Penny, he finally got around to publishing his autobiography, Auntie’s Charlie, in 2011 – the last of more than a dozen books, factual and fiction, which he also found time to write over the course of his career.
In a 1989 interview recorded for the British Library’s Oral History of Jazz in Britain, Chilton recounted in his familiar London-accented voice how, after listening in the dark to bands such as the Savoy Orpheans playing on the radio in the “terrible slum back kitchen” of his grandmother’s St Pancras home, the fourteen year old landed a job interview at the BBC:
‘I walked into Portland Place and saw them building the BBC. And it was just operating then in 1932, so I walked in and said ‘How does one get a job here?’
With foresight, Chilton deposited his personal tape archive at the British Library in 2005, where it remains a jewel of the radio collections, providing a uniquely detailed audio record of his career as producer and writer. Additionally, the many reels of untransmitted production material also give a rare insight into the programme production process and the painstaking research which lay behind every programme. Although especially renowned for such innovative and enormously popular 1950s drama serials as Riders Of The Range and Journey Into Space (a radio forerunner of BBC Television’s Dr Who), the Charles Chilton Collection also reveals him to be an underrated producer of both radio and television features on diverse themes, many with a socio-historical, literary or musical flavour. His wife Penny co-researched many of their remarkable musical documentaries – “illustrating history through song,” as Chilton put it – using the British Museum library (now British Library) music and street ballad collections. Notable examples include A Ballad History of Samuel Pepys and Dickens’ London. But his meticulously researched music hall recreations with Roy Hudd seem particularly ambitious.
Each programme attempted to recreate the authentic sound and content of a night at a particular music hall, at a specific historical juncture, using carefully rehearsed modern singers to reproduce the style and voices of the great Victorian and Edwardian music hall stars. If you wish to discover today what it would have been like to experience an evening at a London music hall during the Crimean War, look no further than Chilton’s Songs For The Times feature The Eastern Question (C1186/2-3) or A Night at Wilton’s (C1090/1). These, along with hundreds of other Chilton productions spanning almost his entire career can be auditioned through the Library’s on-site Soundserver or via the Listening & Viewing Service.