Public Service Broadcasting’s Live at Brixton is a superb double-album, encapsulating the band’s exhilarating, sample-laden alt-rock soundscapes, complete with three-piece choir, string quintet and expanded brass section.
One standout is a sublime rendition of Lit Up, a track from their Inform-Educate-Entertain LP. Like all the pieces, the more expansive live setting enhances the music, with J Willgoose Esq, Wrigglesworth and their cohorts benefitting from the natural adrenaline of performing before an audience, especially as the track races towards its rousing finale.
There is a fascinating back-story to Lit Up. The sample forming its backdrop is a renowned live 1937 BBC radio commentary of a Royal Navy event. The commentator is Thomas Woodrooffe, a retired Lieutenant Commander.
Woodrooffe was also known for commentating on the opening ceremony of the 1936 Berlin Olympics and the Conservative PM Neville Chamberlain’s return from his 1938 diplomatic mission to Munich (along with the ‘piece of paper’ signed by Adolf Hitler he believed would pre-empt another world war.)
But between those two globally newsworthy events Woodrooffe was asked to commentate on the Spithead Review, a traditional gathering of Royal Navy vessels to be observed in the presence of the monarch. This occasion was the King George VI Coronation Review and it took place in darkness, with all the warships bedecked in decorative lights.
Grundy moment for the 30s
All was going according to plan until Woodrooffe joined former colleagues in the hospitality lounge of HMS Nelson before the broadcast. By the time he went live he was several sheets to the wind, proceeding to ramble through his commentary, slurring words and describing the illuminated fleet as being ‘in fairyland.’ At one point he mumbled an apology to listeners for having to ‘shut up some people talking’ and he also used the word ‘damn’ – a Steve Jones on Grundy moment for the 1930s – before hastily coughing to try and disguise the faux pas. After a few minutes the lights were all extinguished, causing the startled Woodrooffe to imagine the ships had all vanished in a puff of smoke.
In the context of the rigidly formal and regally obsequious 1930s BBC, the drunken broadcast was both scandalous and hilarious. At that time presenters were allegedly expected to dress in dinner suits when appearing before a radio microphone. Notoriously stern Director-General John Reith was incandescent, demanding the live broadcast was unplugged after a few minutes then suspending Woodrooffe for a week.
Today would’ve been my father’s 95th birthday. Brought up in rural Ireland in an era long before TV or rock n’ roll, listening to the radio was his adolescent obsession, the DJs spinning 78s his pop stars. While I struggle to change the fuse on a plug he would build his own shortwave receivers. He once told me about tuning in to Woodrooffe’s review, aged 15, and described the joy of hearing a boozed-up commentator inadvertently revealing the human side behind the BBC’s stiff upper-lip.
Enclosed is a timetable appended to my father’s school atlas round about that time, 1937, when he was a bursary pupil at Portora School in Enniskillen. Tuning in to shortwave broadcasts from all over the world, he would’ve logged everything from danceband music to plays, not to mention station after station spewing propaganda, from Stalin’s Soviet Union to Franco’s Spain. But he would’ve also relished Woodrooffe’s gaffe. And he would’ve loved the way the incident is celebrated in Lit Up.