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Pirate BBC Essex – this could be the last time?
By Tom Read M1EYP, G-20843, BDXC-1040
(this article originally appeared in the October 2007 edition of Radio User magazine)
It is with some surprise
that I see, when looking back, it is a full five years since my last "Radio
Trip to Essex", and ten years (where did it go?) since my first. A “Radio
Trip to Essex” is what I call a camping holiday with my sons, deliberately
scheduled to coincide with a major offshore radio commemoration broadcast,
of which there have been numerous in that part of the country over the past
decade. I have been to the favoured Strangers Home campsite in the village
of Bradfield for a camping holiday with the lads three times since (we grew
to like the area on its own merits, radio aside!), but the last radio event
in the area coincidental with the camping was the Radio Mi Amigo RSL
On the Friday night we
first took a meal at the excellent 'Mogul' Indian restaurant in Manningtree,
then drove around to Shotley to participate in the 'flashing' during Johnnie
Walker's programme. It was Johnnie Walker himself who used to coordinate
the famous “Frinton Flashing” during his 9 to midnight Radio Caroline
show in the offshore era. This was good fun, and it seemed scores were
parked up around Shotley, Felixstowe and Harwich for the flashing! In this
part of Essex, 729kHz was easily the best frequency for both day and night
reception. 765kHz was also usable with a little noise, but 1530 offered
barely a squeak. In fact, sometime between 2100 and 2130BST on the Saturday
night, 1530kHz contained a strong signal from a religious programme in
English, but with other languages at other times. I suspect that this was
The following contact details were mentioned on air:
Text number: 07786 200765
Johnnie Walker mentioned a
request from "Mike in Bournemouth" – I assumed that this was my friend and
fellow BDXC member Mike Terry, who I knew was planning to drive across to
Harwich for the last day of the broadcast on 14th August. It was
rather peculiar to hear dedications and requests coming in from all over the
UK, Europe and even USA, Canada and Australia on a BBC local radio station.
Some 'flashing' resumed later with Johnnie Walker and co-presenter back out
on deck and soliciting votes for the 'Record of the Week'. On the
voice-over station identification announcements, the line “This could be
the last time”, taken from the Rolling Stones track “The Last Time”, was
On Saturday morning, we visited Ha'penny Pier in Harwich to view the exhibition of offshore memorabilia from a previously rarely seen collection. In addition, I bought a Pirate BBC Essex T-shirt for son Liam (he loves anything with a TV ident logo on it!) and a Pirate BBC Essex mug as a present to bring back for my wife, Marianne (she loves coffee!). Later on, Roger 'Twiggy' Day and Dave Cash were in the exhibition hall chatting and posing for photographs. Admission to this excellent exhibition was free.
Other events were taking
place at the famous Electric Palace theatre in Harwich. On at least three
of the broadcast days, there was a late afternoon “Meet The Pirates” session
hosted by one or more of the Pirate BBC Essex presenters. There was an
admission charge for this event.
We booked on the 11am foot
ferry out to the LV18. The tender moored up alongside the lightship, and
reamined there for half-an-hour or so to allow those on board to chat with
the presenters, all of whom were out on deck leaning over, chatting,
exchanging banter, and signing books that were passed up to them. These
included Roger 'Twiggy' Day in his trademark 'Growing old disgracefully'
T-shirt, Dave Cash and Keith Skues amongst others. A large old-fashioned
portable radio was on the deck of the foot ferry, providing the Pirate BBC
Essex output as a soundtrack to our visit. An amusing moment arrived with
the station jingle. My ten year old son Liam leapt to his feet and sang
loudly to it, word and note perfect. At the end, he was greeted with a loud
cheer and applause from the presenters, crew and trippers! Click
on any of the photographs of the radioship to see a short video.
Back on the pier after the
trip, some of the said presenters had also come ashore and were unhurriedly
chatting with enthusiasts. I got my photo taken with Keith Skues, the author
of my favourite ever book - "Pop Went The Pirates", and well-known for many
years as the “Voice of the BBC in the Eastern Counties” for his popular late
evening networked programme. Inspired by the holiday, Jimmy had lots of
questions about the offshore era. (No sooner had he got out of the car and
greeted his mum upon returning home, he swapped the bookmark from his
recently finished 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows' over to my prized
Keith Skues volume).
It had turned out that Dave Cash's 6pm to 9pm show on the Saturday had been
networked on all FM and MW frequencies. This explains why I picked it up
around 8pm on BBC Radio Kent's 104.2MHz in Harwich, ahead of another
Johnnie Walker 'flashing' session. The programming included The Big L Fab 40
and several (granted) requests for famous theme tune, knows as either "Big
Lil" or the Big L Sonowaltz.
Sunday saw more casual listening, in the car on the way to and from the beach, and in the tent at night. This remarkable corner of the UK maintained it's extraordinary record of exceptionally good weather for my holidays there, and the only times we weren't in T-shirts and sandals was when we were swimming in the sea at Walton or Frinton! I had a resonant halfwave dipole for 40m strung up at the campsite, and took some slack time in the afternoon to practice my morse. Stations from Scotland, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland and Latvia were worked easily with 5 watts. CW is a great mode for low power - no-one ever hears my calls on SSB with the microphone!
A pleasant interlude during
the Sunday afternoon was a presenter on Pirate BBC Essex selecting more easy
listening music in the style of the old Thames Estuary fort-based Radio
I listened to one Johnnie Walker show where his wife Tiggy sat in the studio with him. Johnnie and the crew were later collapsed in hysterical laughter as they realised that his “goodbye kiss” with Tiggy before she returned on the tender to land, had been caught on the webcam, and was being shown around the world on the internet!
Between the records of the era, the classic jingles, and the occasional recordings of actual output from 1964-1967, the presenters told stories and shared memories of the events and people in the original offshore era. A fascinating tale was revealed in an on-air chat about the Hollies famous record “Carrie Anne”, which was heavily played by the pirates in the 1960s. The presenters told how it was originally “Marianne”, and was about Marianne Faithful, but record producers and managers involved at the time suggested that Mick Jagger may not be too impressed, and advised the subtle change to the title of the song!
The one aspect missing from
the overall authenticity of the ‘watery wireless’ sound was the
advertisements, which of course are not carried on the BBC! However, some
of the famous commercials were remembered by the presenters in their chats,
and one or two recordings were played.
The party atmosphere, with anecdotes, laughs and silliness prevailed in the Johnny Walker and Friends programme, culminating in the whole packed studio of presenters singing loudly along to “James, Hold The Ladder Steady”! A more poignant and reflective tone was restored as Johnnie recounted the moment at which Radio Caroline was, once again, alone in the North Sea, after having considerable company (and competition) for most of the previous two years.
Ed Stewart was himself ‘in the chair’ to closedown Radio London at 3pm on 14th August 1967. Here he was, exactly 40 years later charged with the task of doing the same for Pirate BBC Essex. In a faithful reproduction of the Big L closedown sequence of four decades earlier, the Big L Sonowaltz ‘Big Lil’ was followed by “A Day In The Life” by the Beatles, and the announcement “It’s 3pm, and Pirate BBC Essex is closing down”, chanted in unison by all on board. However, it wasn’t quite the end, with a half-hour documentary about the events and changes in radio in 1967 and the outside broadcast from Ha’penny Pier, Harwich to follow.
The documentary covered the campaign by the Wilson government to silence the pirates, and how with English companies banned from advertising on the offshore stations, and English launches banned from tendering them, that all but one took the decision to close. The one that continued was Radio Caroline, with Johnnie Walker making the famous midnight announcement:
"Radio Caroline would like to thank Mr Harold Wilson and his Labour government for at last recognising this station's legality, its right to exist, its right to be here and its right to provide you with entertainment, because we belong to you, and we love you. Caroline continues."
This was followed by the Beatles “All You Need Is Love” as Caroline attempted to survive in a new fugitive era.
Interviews were held on Ha’penny Pier, Harwich, as roving reporters from BBC Essex grabbed words with the ‘Pirate’ presenters as they were returned to land by the foot ferry. Eventually, at 4pm, a more formal and less excited voice offered “It’s 4 o’clock – BBC Essex News…”, and it really was all over. I felt a little sad it had finished, for I had enjoyed the fun so much. I was born in 1970, and can hardly imagine the sadness felt by around 20 million listeners at the time of the original switch off on 14th August 1967.
I doubt I am alone in the opinion that commercial pop music radio has become bland and uninteresting. It is splendidly ironic that an antidote in the form of lively, stimulating and fun radio has been provided – by the BBC! More or less, the opposite of what happened at Easter 1964!
The full team of presenters that contributed to Pirate BBC Essex, and a list some of the other stations (offshore pirates underlined) in their illustrious careers, is as follows:
Mike Ahern – Caroline North, Caroline South, BBC Radio 1, Capital Gold
Pete Brady – Radio London, Radio Jamaica, BBC Radio 1, Radio Luxembourg
Dave Cash – Radio London, BBC Radio 1, Radio Monte Carlo, Capital Radio, BBC Radio Kent, Radio Luxembourg, Invicta Radio
Ray Clark – Radio Caroline, Invicta Radio, Breeze AM, BBC Essex
Graham Cooke – BBC Radio Kent
Gord Cruise – Caroline South, Caroline North
Ian Damon – 2RG, 2LF, Radio London, BBC Radio 2, KFM, County Sound
Roger “Twiggy” Day – Swinging Radio England, Britain Radio, Radio Caroline, Radio Andorra, Radio Luxembourg, Radio Northsea International, Piccadilly Radio, BRMB, Invicta Sound, Pirate 102, Jazz FM, BBC Radio Kent, Canalside Radio
Tom Edwards – Radio City, Radio Caroline, BBC Radio Norfolk, BBC Radio 2
Tim Gillett – Essex Radio, Breeze AM, BBC Essex
Guy Hamilton – Radio Essex, Britain’s Better Music Station, Radio 270, Wiltshire Radio
Keith Hampshire – Radio Caroline, CKFH Toronto
Alison Hartley – BBC Essex
John Kerr – 2PK, 2DU, 2CA, Radio Scotland, 2UE
Keith Martin – Radio Atlanta, Radio Caroline, Radio 390, BFBN
Emperor Rosko – Radio Caroline, Radio Luxembourg, BBC Radio 1, Classic Gold
Steve Scruton – Essex Radio, BBC Essex
Keith Skues – BFBN, Radio Caroline, Radio Luxembourg, Radio London, BBC Radio 1, BBC Radio 2, Radio Hallam, BBC Eastern Counties
Glenn Speller – BBC Essex
Norman St John – 3UZ, 3CS, Radio City, Radio Caroline, Radio London, Radio Luxembourg
Ed Stewart – Radio London, BBC Radio 1, BBC Radio 2, Radio Mercury
Johnnie Walker – Swinging Radio England, Radio Caroline, BBC Radio 1, KSAN, BBC Wiltshire Sound, BBC World Service, GLR, BBC Radio 5, Talk Radio UK, BBC Radio 2
Graham “Spider” Webb – Radio Monte Carlo, Radio Norway, Voice of Germany, Radio Caroline, BBC Radio 2, 2SM
Mark Wesley – Radio Essex, Britain’s Better Music Station, Radio 270, Radio Scotland, Radio Northsea International, Radio Luxembourg, Radio Orwell, Radio Nova International, Capital Gold
Ian Wyatt – BBC Essex
At the time of writing, there is still no progress in the planned longwave station from the Isle of Man. Isle of Man International Broadcasting - IoMIB, founded by Paul Ruisling, has the licence to broadcast on 279kHz, but none of the plans to base the transmitters on a specially constructed offshore platform, or even from a ship have come to fruition. The project is named "MusicMann 279", although there is speculation that the on-air name - if it ever gets on air - could be something more like Caroline 279 or even a resurrection of the Radio Nova name! However, continued lack of development or plan to site the transmitters, together with Paul Ruisling leaving IoMIB, leaves the prospect of the Isle of Man commercial longwave station looking ever more distant.