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A new series for Radio 2 - Sounds of the 20th Century

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Heather Davies Heather Davies | 17:42 PM, Wednesday, 6 April 2011

The Royal Festival Hall

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As a producer for Trevor Dann's Company, a radio production company founded by the UK radio veteran of that name, I have the opportunity to work across an array of audio projects; however, I'm most excited about our new series, Sounds of the 20th Century. It's essentially an audio journey through five decades of music and events on BBC Radio 2 - every Thursday at 2200 for the next year.

One of the most challenging and unique things about the show is that - apart from Jeremy Vine giving a short intro at the start - there's no presenter. This means that each programme - dedicated to one year from 1951 to 2000 - doesn't feature anything that wasn't heard, seen or read at the time. It's just the music, the news, the radio, the TV and the movies as they were first experienced.

Our first task was to work out what happened each year. I trawled the internet, spent ages in my local library, and made use of the BBC's own mini research library (it's really small!) and other event diaries, to come up with the definitive list of what happened when... getting myself covered in lots of yellow highlighter in the process!

A massive spreadsheet of music and events followed, which I used to guide my search through the BBC TV and Radio Archive, the Newspaper Archive at the British Library, and the British Pathe and Movietone newsreel archives. Luckily for me, much of this is now available online, so I was able to search their collections without having to physically go to their preservation sites.

From all this research, we then selected the key stories that were really relevant in that year, balancing news and cultural events with clips from entertainment programmes and films. And at the heart of it all is the wonderful music of the time, sourced from the BBC's own music archive.

All these items were called in (electronically where possible) and then we sat listening very carefully. With no presenter, the clips really had to sell themselves in order to be considered for the final cut. They needed to explain what they were and deliver the great atmosphere we want to create for each programme. Much ended up on the cutting room floor.

Finally a running order was created, taking the listener on a journey that would contain the highs and lows, the clips that looked back and others that strove forwards. We took this into the studio and laid the tracks out, tweaked, considered, and tweaked some more. We're really proud of the final product.

We'll stay true to the music and plan to make a full and detailed running order available after each show (so you can work out what that clip was!).

Heather Davies is a Producer on Sounds of the 20th Century

  • Listen to part one of the Sounds of the 20th Century - 1951, the year of the Festival of Britain, the first hit single with multi-tracking (Les Paul's How High The Moon) and the first real rock 'n' roll record (Jackie Brentson's Rocket 88) - on BBC Radio 2 this Thursday at 2200.


  • Comment number 1.

    Looking forward to this - but wasn't there something similar (on Radio 4) a year or two ago - perhaps with more news than music?

  • Comment number 2.

    Looking forward to it. Sounds like an opportunity to do very interesting things with signposting and shifting moods with sonic. Bravo!

  • Comment number 3.

    I'm listening to this live - and I know my mum and dad would love it. They married in 1951 (Diamond Wedding later this year) and this would bring tears to their eyes:| But.....they go to bed well before 10pm, and don't have a computer to listen later.
    I've looked but can't see if it's going to be repeated during the daytime???
    I'd love to hear that it is!

  • Comment number 4.

    Just finished listening to programme 1 - excellent radio. I was 6 years old at the start of 1951 and remember just about everything featured as I was glued to the radio and a regular cinema goer. I appreciate the lack of a presenter, so that the clips can speak for themselves. But to hear many of the records regularly you had to listen to Radio Luxembourg in the evenings as many of the singers, especially the Americans, were frowned upon by the BBC "Gramophone" Department. I eagerly look forward to the whole series.

  • Comment number 5.

    I loved the programme and am looking forward to the following years in the series.
    I remember most of the news clips - how dated they sound now! - and all the music played but I was continually amazed to realise that this was all from one year...but even more amazing is that I was only 7 years old in 1951. Children take in more than you think!
    The sound compilation was excellent - radio at its best.

  • Comment number 6.

    Great stuff, well done.

    I listened on a DAB radio in Essex. The text was out of sync with the broadcast which had me a bit confused with what I was actually hearing several times. I was trying to work out if Tony Bennet might really have sung the first version of Cold Cold Heart, it was a relief to check the website and discover it was actually Hank Williams not MUCH difference!

    However both had deep rich voices rather more listen-able too than the 'thin' sounds of the last few singers in the preceding programme.

    I hope it is available on a CD or to purchase by downloading.

    I am wondering how many of the 50 progs are already, 'in the can' it is a major piece of broadcasting history that will last for all time, I have little doubt.

    I hope the production team will have a commission to go backwards and see what can be produced for the first 50 years. There is music on disc and other formats going right back to 1900 and before, but presumably once one got back before the Cinema newsreels (early 30's - I guess) it would be necessary to use Actors to read newspaper reports to get the 'events' to fit the music.

    I am sure it would be worthwhile.

    Please hurry up it would go well for the most senior generation - the radio babes, for whom radio was a novelty as my 89 y.o. mother in-law repeatedly reminds us in her demented way, how when she was a young child, it was a great novelty that she had a technically adept older brother who built a very early radio and rigged it up outside to play to all the neighbours!

    I wish all involved with getting the project to the dawn of this millennium well - thank you, a great listen.

  • Comment number 7.

    I came across this by accident whilst driving home from work last night - and was transfixed! Although I wasn't born then (58 is my year!) I really enjoyed the programme and can't wait until next week - is there a podcast so I can save it and listen again?

  • Comment number 8.

    I always enjoy programs like this and will look forward to those to come.

  • Comment number 9.

    Heard this in Los Angeles last evening. Very enjoyable, but, obviously, designed more for a European audience versus a world-wide audience. The LISTEN AGAIN version cuts off before the end of the show. Hope they fix it.

  • Comment number 10.

    Heard an excerpt on Pick of the Week, so went to listen to 1st episode and like above was disappointed that it cuts off before the end. Will this be repeated soon or the iPlayer version fixed?
    Wasn't 25 Years if Rock in the late 70's the same thing and also a Trevor Dann production?

  • Comment number 11.


    Thanks so much to Heather and her team for a fantastic start to this series. I will listen to each episode!

    I remember back in 1979 a series produced by the BBC entitled "25 Years of Rock" which was later updated to be "30 Years of Rock". This programme sounds very much like those shows, but I do really enjoy any documentaries particularly concerning music through the decades. Alan freeman's "The Story of Pop", broadcast in 73 and 74, was another excellent "look-back" although certainly not in the same style.

    Again, thank you for giving us superb programming!

  • Comment number 12.

    We discovered this programme by accident last night. We are really pleased we found it, and will be listening for the rest of the series.

  • Comment number 13.

    What a really enjoyable programme,it brought back so many memories.I was 12 years old in 1952 and remember visiting London with my parents for the first time.
    Radio at its very best.I thought the way it was compiled,without wasting time with a presenter was much better.Thankyou.

  • Comment number 14.

    There was a similar series to this broadcasted in 1980 on the old radio 1. I have enjoyed it so far a sI like retro, cultrual and social history, I hope it will be informative for younger people.

  • Comment number 15.

    I've heard some parts of these, so far. Unlike some of the other listeners, I'm more interested in the background audio clips than the music.
    However, it seems that those audio clips have been digitised at the wrong sampling frequency (and without pre and post-filtering applied, to compensate) during part of the process as the "whistling down a drainpipe" characteristic sound of aliasing errors is so incredibly obvious that I'm ripping my hair out!

    It doesn't affect the music, only the audio clips. I find it difficult to believe that the newsreel companies or BBC Archives would have done this during any original digitisation as they would surely have used at least 44.1 or 48kHz minimum so I can only assume that it's been during transfers and editing. (Surely someone wasn't daft enough to use a lossy-compression system such as MP3 to transfer the files?)

    The fact that the music doesn't suffer from the problem confirms that it's not the Tx stream that's at fault. I do hope the next 48 weeks aren't going to be like that or I'll have no hair left at all!

    Is there any chance of doing some tech checking for this and re-editing any duff audio clips using proper transfers with pre and post filtering to avoid the aliasing or, better still, using audio clips digitised with a high enough sampling frequency in the first place? Please!!!!

  • Comment number 16.

    My favourite programme of all time is 25 Years of Rock, by John Tobler and Pete Frame, produced by Trevor Dann. It came out in 1980, and I managed to record a few onto cassette at the time. I've been searching for the other episodes in boot sales and charity shops ever since.

    Are the 25 episodes in the middle (1955 - 1979) going to be effective "repeats" of these episodes? It would take a load off my mind.

    Will the programmes be available to buy in any format, or are the copyright issues too tightly tied up?

  • Comment number 17.

    I am disappointed to have missed the first two programmes. I hope there will be a way of hearing them.

  • Comment number 18.

    Great show - a really good listen. It provides such a fascinating and 'easy to listen to' snapshot of each year. Love the fact that there is no commentator

  • Comment number 19.

    I also remember Twenty-Five/Thirty Years of Rock, which was produced by Trevor Dann. It was much better than the tv series The Rock n Roll Years.

    I used to belong to a (now long defunct) tv and radio appreciation group, and one of the members said she used to have the whole of the original twenty-five part series on tape, but she later recorded over them.

    I missed the first two programmes, so I hope the BBC will repeat them. The next two programmes were a lot like Twenty-Five Years of Rock, they've even got the telex machine in the background for the nes reports.

    I'm hoping the programmes on the years from 1955 to 1984 will be repeats of Thirty Years of Rock as I missed some of these shows first time round, and I also don't think that these programme can be bettered.

    Someone mentioned The Story of Pop. This series was, I think, a fifty-two part series which ran throughout 1994. It included some of the news bulletins from Twenty-Five Years of Rock. It was a more informative programme as a history of rock music.


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