Charles Chilton MBE – “the one true genius the BBC ever produced” (Daily Telegraph) – was the best-loved London Walks guide of them all. Hardly surprising since “he was the most gifted storyteller I’ve ever known” (David). This podcast rejoices in a few great Charles Chilton anecdotes as it tells, very briefly, the remarkable and inspiring story of Charles’ life. It takes as its jumping-off point the cameo role Charles plays in the podcast yesterday about Adam’s Musical Marylebone Virtual Tour.
This one’s close to home. In fact, it doesn’t get any closer to home. It is home.
It’s a piece about a father and a daughter.
The father is the man who had a cameo role in yesterday’s podcast.
Two-thirds of the way through the tour Adam gets us to the BBC, which is right on the edge of Marylebone. So there’s every reason for paying a call to the BBC. That was the section of the tour that we put out on yesterday’s podcast. In it, Adam sheds a lot of light on the BBC’s “complicated” relationship with popular music. And one of the figures in that story is the father in the father-and-daughter pairing I referred to at the start of this set of remarks.
He was, in the words of the Telegraph’s obituary, Britain’s first DJ. And Adam told the story about Lord Reith, the first Director-General of the BBC, carpeting the then very young man – Britain’s first DJ – and indeed yanking him from the programme because he had a Cockney accent, a working-class London accent.
Mary and I attended Adam’s Musical Marylebone Virtual Tour – I recorded it get a section for our podcast – and if you listen very closely to the podcast you can hear Mary gasp a second before Adam introduces the gentleman in question. And then she titters two or three times when Adam recounts the story.
Ok, now to come clean… Britain’s first DJ – as the Telegraph put it – was Mary’s Dad, Charles Chilton, the legendary, as he became, BBC writer and producer. She gasped because in his Virtual Tour Adam put up a photograph of a very young Charles Chilton a second or so before he started to talk about him and Mary of course instantly recognised that the face on the screen was that of her then 20-year-old father.
Well, that’s the preamble to this, another in this occasional series of Let Us Now Praise – and Remember – Wonderful Guides.
Mary’s dad was the most gifted storyteller I’ve ever known. Which is why it was only natural that when we took over London Walks in 1990 and were casting about, trying to figure out who we could get to guide a weekly Sunday morning Hampstead Walk, we thought of Charles. That’s my walk now, indeed it’s my favourite walk of all. But back in 1990 – London Walks was flat on its back, we had just taken it over and were trying to save it, revive it – I wasn’t free to guide a weekly walk on Sunday or any other morning. My main career, my full-time career – I was a News Editor in a television newsroom – was still going full tilt and I was on call every other Sunday morning. So I couldn’t be that Hampstead guide. Mary couldn’t because she had three young kids at home. Who could we get to do it? And suddenly it came to her – she said, “I know who can guide that Hampstead Walk – my Dad can guide it. And he’ll do it better than anybody.” And of course she was right. Charles was 73 at the time. Still extremely active. He’d been retired from the BBC for eight years but was still doing occasional programmes for them as an independent producer. Anyway, he was game. And sure enough he was brilliant. He was everybody’s favourite guide. Guided it for 14 years, until he was 87. And wanted to carry on beyond 87 but Mary’s mum, Penny, made him stop. Two of many stories spring to mind. He became very famous in Israel because a big newspaper there had done a travel piece on London and that walk had figured in it – the journalist had sung Charles praises to the sky and beyond. And delightfully he’d noticed – and had written about – the fact that Charles wore his socks outside of his trousers. It was a kind of hiking outfit that he often donned when he walked up from West Hampstead where he lived to guide the walk. That walk up to Hampstead and then the walk itself and then walking home – I suppose taken all together it was a bit of hike – must have covered three or four miles anyway – so why not put your hiking gear on, including your woolen socks correctly worn outside your hiking trousers. But this is apparently not an everyday look in Israel – in fact the Israeli writer had never seen anything like it before – socks outside the trousers, must be an English eccentric – so it went into the article. Every Israeli who read it remembered that detail. They’d turn up for the walk. And suddenly Charles would come striding up – socks on the outside – and their excitement level would go right up, there he is, it’s him, his socks are outside his trousers.
And then another tiny – and for us, fun – chapter from Charles’ days guiding the Hampstead walk was we’d sometimes get a phone call from a middle-aged often American man, he’d say, “I’m 55 – I don’t walk all that much – how far do you walk on a London Walk?” We had a set response. We said, “look, our hilliest walk, the Old Hampstead Village walk, is guided, every Sunday morning, by our oldest guide, 85-year-old Charles Chilton.” The idea was that if Charles was equal to it at 85 they probably would have been up to it if they were in their 50s. We maybe should have said to them that he was extremely fit octogenarian. But, hand on heart here, we didn’t always – we wanted the custom. Fortunately, no one’s ever keeled over.
But let’s tell a bit more of the Charles Chilton story. Tell it for its own merits – it’s a fascinating tale. Charles was effectively orphaned by World War I. He was a King’s Cross Cockney. Brought up his grandmother. They were desperately poor. His grandmother over the course of her long life never even got as far out of King’s Cross as Oxford Street. Charles’ father was a young British soldier – 19 years old – when he was killed at Arras. His wife, Charles’s mother, was pregnant with Charles when he was killed. She then died not so many years after. The death of his father would lead, forty-some years later, to Charles writing Oh What a Lovely War. He wanted to find out about the last months of his father’s life, find his grave in France. He researched it, tracked the movements of the unit. And then to climax it, the family – Mary was a little girl – went to Arras. To find the grave. He found it. But he didn’t find what he thought he was going to find. He thought he’d find a grave with a stone, a cross, with his name on it. Instead he found a huge stone monument, the size of a building, with over 36,000 names on it. Thirty six thousand 500 – approximately – British soldiers who were vaporised by heavy artillery. There was nothing left of them, nothing to identify, nothing to bury. So what Charles found was his father’s name on the monument. The shock of that, the tsunami of emotion loosed by that moment of recognition, led him to write the radio programme that became the musical and the film Oh What a Lovely War.
And to elaborate just a little bit on Adam’s tale about Charles as the first British DJ. It was jazz music. It was going out late at night. As Adam said, it wasn’t on the BBC bigwigs’ radar. But it attracted a tremendous following, admiring letters flooded in. And the BBC brass suddenly took notice that it was being presented by this youngster with a Cockney accent. And of course in the 1930s that wasn’t kosher at the BBC. The only accent acceptable was an RP accent – a cut glass, King’s English accent. Word finally got to the top man himself, Reith, the Director-General, he listened. And was appalled. Summoned Charles to his office. Made the mistake of asking Charles, “what kind of accent do you call that?” Charles said, “it’s the accent of the capital of the British Empire.” Reith for once was flummoxed, speechless. But he recovered sufficiently later on to issue an order, “get him off the air.”
It all came good though. What a career. What an ascent. He joined the BBC as a 14-year-old messenger boy. The BBC was in its infancy – it had only been in existence for five years. Charles rose through the ranks to become a legendary and much-loved writer and producer and sometime broadcaster. Yes, he got back on the air. The Telegraph profiled him about ten years before he died. In its profile the Telegraph described Charles as “the one true genius the BBC ever produced.” Not bad.
And let’s get his daughter, Mary, my wife, back into the tale. Eight years ago I was invited to Buckingham Palace. Got to meet the Queen. Got photographed with her, etc. Which was great. But the biggest thrill of the night was getting to see “the staircase.” I’d heard about it for many years. I said Mary’s dad was the finest storyteller I’ve ever known. And sure enough he had a Buckingham Palace story he loved to tell. It had to do with his invitation to the Palace. When he was awarded his MBE. Mary and her mum went with him. Mary was sixteen at the time. Sweet sixteen. Gorgeous. Now what you must know is that Mary is a dancer. A real dancer. A proper professional dancer. Ballet. Still goes to professional dance classes three times a week. Dance is in her, it’s right at the core of her being. And when Mary’s happy – or when Mary’s excited – Mary dances. Well, Mary was 16. Her Dad was at Buckingham Palace getting an MBE. Mary was happy. Mary was excited. And suddenly there was that great staircase in front of her. So in Charles’ telling, she danced up one side of the staircase, danced across the top, and danced down the other side. And the staircase, both sides of it, was lined with Guardsman, soldiers in formal dress uniform. And as Charles told it – it’s of course possible that he heightened the story a little bit – but as Charles told it, each one of those red-coated, ramrod straight guardsman gave a low wolf whistle as Mary danced by them.
Good night folks. Stay well, Stay safe. Stay happy. Please don’t forget us. We shan’t forget you.