Norfolk broadcaster recalls Christmas at the BBC
Former BBC Radio Norfolk broadcaster Tony Mallion recalls some memorable moments from Christmas carol and other services over the years while also looking ahead to life after lockdown.
High up in Norwich Cathedral is a wide gallery called the triforium, a vantage point where I’ve spent several Sunday afternoons producing outside broadcast recordings of special services for BBC Radio Norfolk. We covered the moving and memorable, from the Queen Mother’s death to the centenary celebration of Norwich City FC when the congregation sang ‘On the Ball City’ accompanied by the organ. We were even nominated for a local radio award – I think the judges approved the attention to detail of our sound engineer, the late Stewart Orr, who proudly fixed microphone wires to the floor with Canary coloured green and yellow sticky tape!
Working in local radio – as I did for 25 years of my career – was certainly wide ranging. One minute out and about reporting, the next behind the microphone in the studio hosting a variety of live programmes while also producing comedy quizzes and shows at venues from village halls to the Theatre Royal. But as a Christian having the chance to share church services live or recorded, particularly at Christmas, was special, if occasionally challenging too.
Take Acle for example. We were in our outside broadcast vehicle in the church yard; the recording going well with a full congregation singing carols when suddenly a mysterious voice came over the speakers in the van. Clearly this wasn’t some heavenly messenger but more likely our system picking up some other signal nearby. I hot-footed to the church hall to find a children’s party in full swing complete with an entertainer. The problem was obviously coming from his radio mic so I marched up the front declaring: ‘Boys and girls, this magician is so clever that when he speaks into that microphone on his lapel,’ I pointed dramatically to the offending object, ‘we can hear it in our recording van outside. Isn’t that an amazing trick?’ The conjuror immediately cottoned on and whispered that he would switch his mic off and work without it. Problem solved, recording saved!
It was the reverse at Sheringham parish church. All went smoothly but later we discovered we’d inadvertently done a live broadcast to the adjoining care home because the church’s loop system was picked up loud and clear by the hearing aids of the residents next door. They were delighted.
My broadcasting began in 1984, moving from 15 years in newspapers to be one of the founders of Radio Broadland. Initially going to the newsroom, clearly God – and programme organiser Mike Stewart – had other ideas as Mike called me into his office. ‘We need a religious programme. You’re religious and you’ve done some hospital radio. You can do it’ he said and so, in that first week on air, I was creating and presenting Gospel Scene - a Christian magazine and music show, landing a recorded interview with Cliff Richard to launch it. He was at Ipswich on a Tear Fund concert tour. I was nervous - he wasn’t. My faltering questions were met with eloquent answers.
It wasn’t long before I suggested recording a carol service. We didn’t have enough equipment, so I drafted in help from Hospital Radio Yare in Yarmouth (where, like so many others, I had my first experience of radio), and asked St. Andrew’s Church in my home town, Gorleston, to hold a special service. As a youngster I first attended Sunday School at that church, but it was in my teens, through the work of Crusaders, that I became a Christian and soon after felt journalism and later broadcasting were a calling for me.
That St Andrew’s service was followed by scores of others, most memorably broadcasting live for several years the annual Theatre Royal Pantomime cast service (oh yes we did!) from a packed St. Peter Mancroft. It was the last thing I did before I retired. Not a bad finale.
Since hanging up my headphones I’ve had the privilege of producing and presenting a series of Festivals of Remembrance in Great Yarmouth with the last, to mark the centenary of WW1, at the Hippodrome Circus where, like the Royal Albert Hall, poppies rained down from the roof for the two minutes’ silence.
I’ve also staged an annual carol service for my own church (Cliff Park Community, Gorleston) at the local Pavilion Theatre – though sadly not this year. Instead, we’ve worked on a studio-based carol service going out on our local Harbour Radio as well as social media.
There have also been opportunities to host concerts like the annual Methodist Songs of Praise at Thursford, as well as working with the Norfolk Fellowship Band of the Salvation Army which was the last thing I did a couple of days before lockdown in March. And we’d like to think this might be the first thing we do when we emerge from all of this. Now there’s something to look forward to in the spring!
The pictures above show Tony working at Radio Norfolk, the bottom one at the quay in Great Yarmouth. They are all courtesy of Tony Mallion.