Smoke Gets in Your Ears; or, What Price “Butch" and "George”?

A keepsake that hasn’t been looked after
The other day, Bob and I drove down to Leominster, England.  The objective was to pick up a painting at a local auction house; but we made a day of it, during which we discovered Leominster to be a great town for antiquing.  Now, when it comes to treasure hunts, my definition of “priceless” is “unvalued,” a label (or stigma) attached to objects that somehow don’t matter much and therefore sell for next to nothing.  It is to those less prized items that I tend to be drawn—provided they have something to do with the undervalued performance art of radio.  So, for about one hundredth of the cost of our latest oil, I took home a complete if somewhat tatty album of cigarette cards dating from 1934.  Since it was issued in Britain (by W. D. & H. O. Wills), the “celebrities” displayed in it are all folks heard on the BBC at the time—and rarely heard of thereafter.

Unlike their American counterparts, whose voices or musical talents are preserved on recordings anyone can readily retrieve online, most of these BBC personalities would be truly forgotten today if they had not made a name for themselves in other media.  Yet even if we remember the performer we are likely to be ignorant of the performance that brought them fame on the air.

A few years ago, Telegraph columnist Christopher Howse happened upon the same album now in my hands and remarked that the “world seen in [it] is as unfamiliar as the clipped tones of the celebrities it contains.”  Flicking through these pages means facing indifference and neglect.  How can we presume to know the 1930s if we can’t recall the names that then were household words, let alone put a voice to them?

Radio Celebritiesan oxymoron, perhaps?

Back then, the reverse was to be accomplished by those cigarette card collectibles: to put a face to the unseen visitors that millions welcomed into their homes.  No doubt, the chief purpose was to sell tobacco products—but aside from fueling an addiction these albums satisfied the need to turn word to flesh and hold on to fleeting sound by way of printed image.  “For many years,” the “Radio Celebrities” album reminded the purchaser, anno 1934, “broadcasting artistes, announcers and speakers remained rather mysteriously aloof—in the air, as it were!” No more.  The “Wireless” and their personalities were becoming “increasingly popular”; and the portraits to be collected and appreciated in this way were meant to “add a personal touch to names” that were already so “familiar to listeners.”


From time to time, I shall return to this album to report on the radio careers of Clapham & Dwyer, “Butch” and “George,” Jeanne De Casalis, and the forty-seven other “Radio Celebrities” that hit it big on the Beeb.

2 Replies to “Smoke Gets in Your Ears; or, What Price “Butch" and "George”?”

  1. Here in the USA we had networks but nothing like the BBC, Radio Netherlands, Radio Canada and the other great world wide broadcasters I used to pick up on shortwave. What a thrill that has been missed by today's generation listening and talking around the world with their digital devices.

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  2. There’s more talking and less listening now. My early listening memories involve Radio Luxemburg (without the ‘o’ in German) and BFBS (British Forces Broadcasting Service). The great thrill was to catch something other than music and sports, such as comedy, quiz programs, and the occasional thriller.(I’m writing this from Cynthia’s. Tomorrow morning, Bob and I are off to London for a week.)

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