It was a bit of a surprise to hear Jarvis Cocker, the embodiment of cool and former frontman of Pulp, confessing to a love of Singing Together, a BBC programme straight out of the 1940s, with its clipped pronunciation and uptight pronouncements. But in his edition of Archive on 4, broadcast just as the Advent season began (and produced by Ruth Evans), Cocker took us on a musical journey back into his past and to his memories of singing in the classroom, ‘which certainly left its mark’ on him and millions of others. He reminded us that children were once at the heart of BBC programming and Singing Together was thought to be a great way to ‘improve young minds’. Catch them young and you’ll hold on to them for life was the idea; make sure they learn the listening habit.
Cocker is living proof of the potency of these programmes. He still believes in the value of singing along, encouraging listeners to his 6 Music programme to join in by playing them clips from old Singing Together programmes. He has a booklet from the series, dated autumn 1974, with his name on the front cover (in long, angular lettering, just like him), and he can still sing all the songs he learnt as a knobbly-kneed schoolboy in Sheffield. In Archive on 4 Cocker took us back in time to remember those Monday mornings when, prompt at 11, teachers across the UK switched on the radio to hear William Appleby urging everyone to join in as the first notes began of ‘Soldier, Soldier, Won’t You Marry Me?’ or ‘Green Grow the Rushes, O’.
The teacher could sit back and let the radio take over. A single box placed high on the wall in one corner would instead control the classroom. As for the children, they didn’t need to have a good voice, or know how to read music. No one was compared with anyone else. No marks were awarded. It was a time for self-expression in song, for letting the imagination wander into the stories told by the songs, which came from around the world as well as from Britain. It was also about joining together, sharing an experience.
Could such a programme work now, in our multi-platform, interactive, yet solitary age? One of the reasons why Singing Together was finally dropped in 2004 was that it didn’t speak to the national curriculum. Just to sing, to listen, to join with others in music was not regarded as an adequate learning experience. Cocker and his fellow enthusiasts disagree. Those weekly sessions of pure singing could switch on a light in a child’s mind and suggest, ‘Maybe I can make music, maybe I can write my own songs.’
Cocker went in search of episodes of the programme and discovered that only three now survive (out of more than 50 years of weekly programmes). He appealed on PM for listeners to send him their memories. ‘Singing always helps,’ said one teacher, who recalled how important the programmes had been in the early days when children who had been evacuated to the country and were separated from their parents were often very sad. ‘What a lovely idea,’ replied Cocker, who asked us all to join in as he launched, unaccompanied, into ‘In Dublin’s fair city, where girls are so pretty...’
What’s now left of schools broadcasting? It still exists but there’s no longer any sense of that ‘live’ experience, of schools across the country being united in time and space as the radio is switched on. Downloads and podcasts mean that teachers can pick and choose what they want to take from a programme, and when. There’s also a lot of emphasis on the visual content, with videos attached to every song, as if words and music alone are not enough. But adding visuals misses the point. They break the connection, dispel the concentration. No longer is the whole class joined together in song, looking up from their desks and at each other. The images take over, forcing the eyes down and the focus inward.
As for children’s radio, it’s all but disappeared. Once upon a time at Christmas on the BBC there would have been specially commissioned adaptations of classic stories and new dramas that could be enjoyed by children and adults alike. But where now are the stories by Jacqueline Wilson or Michael Morpurgo, Anthony Horowitz or J.K. Rowling? You can find Adrian Mole on Radio 4 Extra and Just William, but nothing to interrupt the Radio 4 schedule, as if children should be seen and not heard. At least Radio 2 has revived that Saturday-morning staple, Junior Choice, for a one-off special on Christmas Day, hosted by Ed Stewart.
But there’s not much cost involved in putting on a request programme, and it ticks that all-important box: proof of listener involvement. In time for next Christmas we need Jarvis Cocker to campaign for money to be diverted away from new digital departments such as BBC Trending and back into what was once thought of as the core BBC radio audience: children.