A great inspiration to me

It maybe breaking copywrite, but I want to publish this obituary I have just come across to someone who had a fundamental and profound influence on me as a child and is the reason I am writing a blog today.

At last I am a writer – I have always written but now I that is what I do, I write. My parents were story tellers, they encouraged me to read and read everything, but programmes on Children’s Hour, formed me as a story teller. It is thanks to David Davis, Uncle David as I shall always think of him, that I published my novel ‘Farholm’ – its available on Amazon but it wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for this programme.

Obituary: David Davis

 LEONARD MIALL

FRIDAY 03 MAY 1996

Children’s Hour, which stirred the imagination of countless young listeners, reached its heyday under the direction of David Davis, as he was commonly known. These were the days of Uncle Mac, Larry the Lamb, Worzel Gummidge and The Wind in the Willows.

Davis had joined Children’s Hour at the beginning of 1935 as a staff accompanist. After education at the Queen’s College, Oxford he had qualified as a professional musician and become a schoolmaster. When the vacancy for an accompanist occurred on Children’s Hour, one of the regular producers, Barbara Sleigh, recalled a young man who had taught at her uncle’s school and who used to improvise at the piano with skill and pleasure. She found that he had moved to Bembridge School in the Isle of Wight.

Davis was sent a copy of The Listener’s advertisement which got delayed in the post, so that when he applied it was past the closing date. However he was given an audition, did well at sight-reading a difficult piece, and was offered the vacancy. The Headmaster of Bembridge commented: “Sir, this is not the act of a gentleman”, adding “That man will go strumming through life.”

Soon Davis was also found to be an excellent performer at the microphone as a reader. His first long serial reading was Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty. After his retirement he made professional recordings of this much-loved story, as well as of The Wind in the Willows and Kipling’s Just So Stories. He was able to persuade the Kipling estate to allow his stories to be broadcast – provided that there were no changes.

Early in 1936 Davis married Barbara Sleigh. Under the BBC rules at the time a married couple were not allowed to work in the same department. Barbara had to resign from the staff, but as a freelance she continued to adapt books for dramatic presentation on Children’s Hour. Davis himself adapted A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, which entranced countless children over the years with Norman Shelley playing Pooh.

At the outbreak of war Davis was seconded to the Fire Service in London, but soon joined the Children’s Hour team, who were broadcasting from Bristol with Derek McCulloch (Uncle Mac), the Head of Children’s Hour, as the chief presenter. He introduced the future Queen on her first broadcast on Children’s Hour from Windsor Castle on 13 October 1940.

Davis joined the RNVR in 1942, serving mainly in the Mediterranean, and for a time attached to the Hellenic Navy. The staff gave him a pipe lighter – he was always a keen pipe smoker – which went down with the rest of his possessions when his ship was sunk. But he survived, worked for a while in forces broadcasting, and in 1946 rejoined his London colleagues.

Davis became the Head of Children’s Hour in January 1953, with Josephine Plummer as his Assistant Head. His office was in the Langham Hotel, where he had a notice-board of letters and drawings, many from young listeners, and a collection of toy animals. In the corner was a small piano on which he improvised. At this time television began to emerge as a rival for children’s attention. However it did not occur to the Children’s Hour staff that the well-established, popular radio programme would ever disappear.

Nevertheless, children in their millions were now turning to watch the box. By 1964 the daily listening audience to Children’s Hour had dropped to a mere 25,000. Frank Gillard, who had become the Director of Radio the year before, decided it must be terminated. It happened on Good Friday, which Davis thought was appropriate. There was a critical motion in Parliament, signed by 60 MPs, but the deed was done.

Davis spent the last six years of his BBC career as a drama producer, specialising in Victoriana, for which he had a passion. Particularly remembered is George Eliot’s Middlemarch with Jill Balcon. In retirement he continued reading stories on the radio in that beautifully modulated voice.

William Eric Davis (David Davis), radio executive: born Malvern 27 June 1908; Head of Children’s Hour, BBC 1953-61, Head of Children’s Programmes (Sound) 1961-64; drama producer 1964-70; retired 1970; married 1935 Barbara de Riemer Sleigh (died 1982, one son, two daughters); died London 29 April 1996.

18 Comments

  1. Martin Reed

    I remember the two 1950’s ‘Winnie the Pooh’ series under Colin Davis so very well, mainly because my father recognised them as the true radio gold they were, and made (for the time) good quality recordings of them. So myself and my brother were brought up with Norman Shelley’s Pooh as a central reference point in our early lives, and even now at nearly 60 I’m nearly word perfect with some of the episodes. The cast around Shelley were so perfect, but it appears the series were never repeated, and indeed may not even have been recorded, as from a few slips in the performance obviously went out live.

    Certainly the two series appear to be lost to the BBC – I did contact their ‘Treasure Hunt’ department, which deals with acquiring missing material, who seemed uninterested, but said they would take them in. I duly dispatched the whole of ‘House at Pooh Corner’ on CD, having breathed audio kiss of life into the old tapes over several days. No acknowledgment was received, so I somehow doubt if they will see the light of day again from that direction. (The first series, ‘Winnie the Pooh’ hasn’t made it, I callously recorded over it when in my teens).

    So if anyone has an interest in Davis’s ‘Pooh’ (Corner) contact me through this blog, it would be good to get a few more copies out there.

    Like

    1. Lois

      How interesting, Martin. I remember Winnie the Pooh so well, I can even hear it in my head now! How marvellous to have recordings of them – gold indeed! What a shame you have had so little response, disgraceful really.
      I guess you also remember Norman and Henry Bones, Polly Oliver, Toy Town, Jennings, William, … and the programme which sounded as if it came from a theatre “Overture and beginners please!”
      Times change, and I don’t think young people could be captivated by the radio in the same way anymore, although I know audio stories on CDs are popular, my son had dozens of them!
      Thanks for your comments!

      Like

    2. Jeremy White

      Dear Martin, I am trying to get hold of digital copies of Winnie The Pooh and House at Pooh Corner read by Norman Shelley and accompanied by David Davis – is there any chance you still have your CDs? Hopefully, Jeremy White

      Like

  2. Catherine L'Hoste

    Hello Lois,

    Thank you for this post. So interesting to hear about the man behind the phenomenal Winnie the Pooh adaptation for BBC children’s hour (and his other accomplishments).

    Dear Martin,

    I have been searching for a cd copy of The House at Pooh Corner narrated by Norman Shelley with no success. I recently found an audio cassette of mine from when I was a child but din’t have the full set of chapters. I would be eternally grateful if I could arrange to get a copy of the CD from you – my 5 year old son is delighted by the cassette that I have. Please can you contact me on my email address which is catherinejstanley@gmail.com.

    Many thanks,
    CJ

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    1. SMC

      @Martin @Catherine

      Just like Catherine, I have been scouring the internet for the double cassette or vinyl editions of The House at Pooh Corner narrated by Norman Shelley (I don’t believe they were ever issued on CD). Of the two cassettes in the edition I owned, one is missing and the other is, alas, no longer playable. So far, I have found a couple of libraries in Australia with the cassette edition (probably not even feasible to borrow, as I live in the US at present) and nowhere have I found a copy for sale.

      If either of you (or anyone else reading this) is in a position to sell me or point me to a copy, I’d be really grateful! My own children are getting to an age where they would really appreciate what I consider to be the best reading of Pooh by a long shot, and even my own siblings (all adults now) would love to relive those moments.

      Many thanks,
      SMC

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      1. Lois

        I’ll have a look out for it, I’m sure the BBC would make a fortune if they released it, Norman Shelley so encapsulates the gentle wit and humour, and adventure of these stories!

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      2. SMC

        Very nice find! Getting that provided they ship overseas.

        The one I’m really looking for is “The House At Pooh Corner”, also narrated by Norman Shelley … if you could apply your prodigious search skills to find a copy that would be fantastic!

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  3. Rich

    Hello eeveryone- I’ve been looking for the Norman Shelley/David Davis recordings myself and finally (after many months searching the web) found both Winnie the Pooh and House at Pooh Corner. I loved these recordings as a child and now with a daughter myself thought it time to seek them out again. If any of you are still looking, contact me through this blog, as I’d love to help people enjoy these marvellous recordings again.

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      1. Rich

        Hello @Lois- sorry it has been so long. I’m happy to help with the recordings- let me know the best way to contact you directly and ‘ll do so.

        Like

      1. Rich

        @smc- My apologies – it has been ages and I’ve just remembered that I haven’t checked for any replies for so long! Happy to help if you’re still in need.

        Like

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