Ilmington’s Christmas story from 1934 revisited

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Shepherd Walton Handy stands to the left of Spenser Flower in 1934. Below, writer Mark Carey, right, and Martin Taylor on the same spot today.

Ilmington was the scene of a rather incredible historic event in 1934: the third Christmas Day broadcast by a monarch was introduced from the village. Writer and actor Mark Carey has taken this fascinating episode and turned it into a play, Voices in the Air, which is getting its first public reading this Sunday at Ilmington Manor. Gill Sutherland went to find out more about it.

Eighty-two years ago on Christmas Day the small Warwickshire village of Ilmington got to say hello to the world via the revolutionary new medium of shortwave radio.

The tradition of The King’s (and later The Queen’s) Christmas Message had begun in 1932 with George V addressing the nation and the country’s dominions, sending them greetings and talking about news from the Empire.

Amazingly the 1934 broadcast was introduced from Ilmington, leading up to the King’s address from Sandringham.

Listening to the crackling recording from that bygone day is an overwhelming experience — it manages to make Downton Abbey seem very modern… The broadcast starts with the bells of the village church, St Mary, ringing out and the choir in fine voice, then the broadcast cuts to Ilmington Manor, where upper-class owner Spenser Flower, a member of the Stratford brewing family, begins his momentous address to the Empire: “We hope as you hear these ancient chimes you will think of them as a greeting, a message of goodwill from the English countryside.”

He then goes on to introduce local shepherd Walton Handy, who talks with a heavy country burr. Mr Handy appeals for a long lost brother who had emigrated to New Zealand to contact him… It is from such a different era that it sounds almost comical, like listening to a Harry Enfield sketch. It is however also very moving; perhaps because it is redolent of more innocent times.

I listen to the recording while standing in the manor with the current owner, a very jovial and welcoming Martin Taylor, grandson of Spenser Flower, and writer and actor Mark Carey, who lives in the village, and has based a new play, Voices in the Air, on this historic affair.

The manor is a lovely rambling warren of rooms that was built from 1590 to 1600; it’s wood-panelled and atmospheric — the kind of place where historic things should happen.

Martin tells me his mother — Spenser’s daughter — was born in the house in 1924 and he himself in 1949. After Spenser died in 1939, the house passed to Martin’s uncle Dennis, and after he died Martin came to live here in 2003 with his wife Miranda and their two sons. Sadly, Miranda, an artist, died in 2010.

I ask Mark how he first came across the story of the broadcast.

“I heard about it not long after moving into the village — it’s often talked about. I think I first heard about it through Paul Bryan, of the local Morris men, whose grandma used to be the cook here.”

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“That’s right — she’s in the photo from 1934,” says Martin, meaning the photo taken of villagers and the manor’s then staff to commemorate the broadcast. “She was called Beret Bryan because she always wore a hat like a French onion seller.”

According to Mark, the whole endeavour was a huge undertaking for the BBC, with shortwave radio very much in its infancy; it took the corporation two whole weeks to set up, record and decamp.

Mark fills me in on more background: “The King’s Christmas Speech was Lord Reith’s idea. The royal family were seen as a bit distant. George V (the Queen’s granddad) was a pretty stuffy fellow, all he was interested in was the weather and sailing, and so Reith had the idea to do these broadcasts. Initially the King was against it. A lot of people thought that would be the end of the monarch; once they came down to our level they feared all the mystique and gravitas would go. But actually of course it was the making of them.”

Mark continues: “When the King did a parade in 1936 for his Silver Jubilee with Queen Mary it was hugely popular; apparently he had tears in his eyes and said ‘I didn’t realise they loved me so much.’ It could be that these broadcasts made that difference.

“It was an amazing time for the BBC,” continues Mark. “Broadcasting House had just opened and Logie Baird was experimenting with TV. Technology was moving on and people were complaining about the licence fee!”

How come Ilmington was chosen for the broadcast?

“My grandpa was very interested in radio,” says Martin. “He worked at the Admiralty and probably had contacts at the BBC.”

Mark adds: “Also the BBC had made ten ‘actuality’ programmes — what we now call documentaries — and one was made in Ilmington, and was one of Reith’s favourites.”

So how has Mark made it into a play, where did he even begin?

“My original thought was you can’t just tell the story, you need some conflict, some sort of tension. After a few ideas, I decided to tell it from the point of view of a young BBC technician working on shortwave radio. He’s an engineer, very much a London lad, an urban person; and has to come to this place for three weeks over Christmas and New Year.”

Mark continues: “So the broadcast is the background to the play and the central thrust of the play is the countryside versus the city; and technology moving on faster than people can quite deal with. It’s also a love story – the engineer has a sort of romance with a young woman working at the BBC. He has to leave her behind at Christmas and all that.”

What does he hope will happen with the play?

“It’s very much a work in development. I’ve done a couple of drafts. I think what would work nicely with this script is a radio play at Christmas, so I’ve written it with that in mind. It’s an hour long, and it works from the point of view of just hearing the words. So what we’re doing at the weekend is just getting a group of local actors together and reading through. Local director Michael Rolfe, who has a lot of experience on radio, is overseeing it.

“It’s going to be quite casual. I want to get feedback, see what works and what doesn’t, and just have a lovely jolly evening.”

And we’ll say cheers to that!