100 Years of British Radio: Why do we love the pirates so much?

The BBC – and radio in Britain – is now celebrating its centenary.

But almost from the start the official broadcasters: initially the BBC then later the commercial ILR companies fretted about competition from pirate stations.

First there was home-made equipment in the 1930s, then in the 1960s we had the offshore pirates, and from the 1970s onwards there was land-based stations transmitting from urban tower blocks and the top of lonely hills in the countryside.

The Government quickly became the organisation charged with combating the menace of unlicenced radio broadcasts. In the early days it was the Postmaster General, later officials from the Department of Trade and Industry, and more recently it is Ofcom investigators who will track a pirate down.

Should the likes of the BBC and commercial, licenced, outfits have spent so many years worrying so much?

(c) Cleanfeed

Indeed, when Radio 1 opened, a whole flotilla of offshore pirate DJs was signed up to the Corporation.

Each DJ who jumped ship received a Beeb staff number, a free copy of the Radio Times, an expenses sheet to be handed in by Tuesday lunchtime each week – and a producer.

In the 1970s commercial ILR started, and it took on other pirates – some of them from land-based stations.

Eventually a whole generation of DJs was employed by the licenced “establishment” radio stations.

I joined the BBC in the early 1980s, and I’ve worked in commercial and the voluntary radio sectors too.

During quiet moments over a coffee there’s been plenty of Beeb staffers who’ve admitted that, in a previous life, they’ve hauled a car battery and cassette player into a field or up thirteen flights of stairs to the roof of a block of flats on a Saturday or Sunday.

How, you may well ask, would so many BBC employees otherwise know so much about the intricacies of UHF and VHF propagation and microwave short-hop relay transmitter links? Just saying.

And for listeners too, the very idea of radio broadcasting being an act of transgression has always added a certain frisson to its image.

Especially if it is portrayed in the swashbuckling language of piracy.

Indeed, illegal radio both on land and on the sea has had an enduring fascination in popular culture.

One of the first mentions I can find is in a 1935 British musical called Big Ben Calling.

The film was also known as Radio Pirates.

But, of course, the original title was a satirical take on the initials of the nation’s (relatively new) broadcaster and its perceived metro-centricity. Here’s my views on this old British B-movie:

As the trio begin broadcasting, we see a newspaper headline: “Mystery Station at Work. BBC Puzzled”. The article, visible on the movie screen, goes on to say, “We understand that although the pirates so far remain untraced the authorities have the matter well in hand.” Even so, the viewer sees the pirates are clearly having fun.

(L-R) Leslie, Mary, a very young Hughie Green, & Willie

“PBQ, broadcasting to the British Isles, Radio PBQ”. What these call-sign initials stand for is not clear.

They could denote ‘Please Be Quiet’ or perhaps the vulgar version, ‘Pretty Bloody Quiet’, in an ironic reference to the pirate station’s poor-quality transmissions.

The movie opens with a shot familiar to late 20th century Londoners: Big Ben, the palace of Westminster, and the Houses of Parliament covered in scaffolding.

Obviously, the builders were in during the filming… although it’s jokingly explained away in the film as being workmen who are busy washing the clock’s face.

Leslie the radio salesman (Leslie French), and the musician (Warren Jenkins as Willie) declare together:

Leslie: Broadcasting! If the BBC won’t plug your songs, we’ll start a rival wireless station.

Willie: And plug my numbers ourselves!

Leslie: Before you know where you are you’ll be the best-known composer in Europe.

It was a comment which reinforced the international reach of radio in the inter-war years. This was the era when stations such as Radios Paris, Normandie and, of course, Luxembourg, were going strong.

The film was released on DVD by Renown Pictures in 2016. It appears every now and then on a related outfit, the British TV channel Talking Pictures TV. Do check their schedules.

Here’s a preview of the movie. By the way, for copyright reasons – and to prove you’re old enough (wierd but true) to watch a black ‘n’ white film – you might have to sign-in to YouTube to watch this clip:

As a side note, this complaint that “mainstream radio media” wasn’t playing tracks loved by the trendy youth was also an excuse/reason used both by the 1960s offshore pirates who played Tamla Motown and Mod music, as well as by the drum ‘n’ bass, dance-hall reggae, and grime stations at the end of the 20th century.

Back to the fiction of the movie, and the trio avoid capture by hiding in coffins, and then whilst giggling and laughing they set up their transmitter on top of Big Ben, a signifier of authority, government, and the BBC which broadcast the chimes.

The illegal threesome are never caught but know somehow that their transmissions must end.

With smiles on their faces, they give up the idea of pirate radio and decide to settle down in “proper jobs” instead.

As Mary, Leslie and Willie get themselves on air, just reflect that illegal broadcasting here is shown to be fun, and that the Beeb seems to be full of stuffy authoritarian types. Remember of course – this was 1935

Fast forward to the 2010s, and a BBC mocumentary series People Just Do Nothing (originally from YouTube and subsequently on BBC Three TV) is showing audiences how pirate radio – again – can be fun.

It features a gang of hapless young people attempting to run a station from their tower block.

The comedy comes from their ineptitude. This spoof on-air link is from series 1 episode 1 of July 2014:

Grindah (Allan Mustafa): Kurupt FM in it! The rest are irrelevant.

Beats (Hugo Chegwin [nephew of Keith]): That’s the slogan.

Grindah: You don’t need to tell them it’s the slogan. Just let them realise when we say it all the time.

Beats: We used to say ‘Kurupt FM. Like it or Lump it’ as well.

Grindah: Better to have one that rhymes though. Rolls off the tongue better.

Beats: Aerodynamic.

In another scene, in series 5 episode 1 of November 2018, Steves [sic] (played by Steve Stamp) explains that he had to appear in court for running the pirate radio station in his flat. He says he received a community service order with an electronic tag but adds that, “They said it was such a low-level pirate radio operation that it wasn’t worth me getting sent down for. [. . .] So, the judge said that technically we weren’t even a radio station because the radius of the area was so small. He described it as kids messing around in a bedroom”. Quite so.

In this article I’ve shared just two stories from popular culture that feature pirate radio broadcasting. Both show viewers that it’s fun: illegal but not lethal.

There’s more examples in my new book. In particular, the movies, pop records and TV shows from the 1960s which feature the offshore pirates. I write about a film starring The Small Faces, a TV show with Patrick McGoohan, and songs on an album written by Pete Townshend and his mates. Take a look at the links below.

One reviewer has very kindly called my work, “An important new source for radio historians. The perfect book to celebrate the one hundred years of radio broadcasting.”

Details of my book are here: https://www.bloomsbury.com/uk/radios-legacy-in-popular-culture-9781501360435/

And a sample chapter for you to enjoy is here: https://bloomsburycp3.codemantra.com/viewer/61c091c75f150300016f10af

Let me know your experiences of pirate radio – either your listening or your taking part – by dropping me a message in the comment box below.

I’ll assume you’re happy for your views and memories to be published, unless you tell me otherwise, when you send your comment. All messages are moderated before being approved for publication.

Disclaimer (as if…) Please note that this website and the author thereof do not in any way condone – or seek to promote – any activity which may or may not lead to civil or criminal proceedings and subsequent prosecution, confiscation of equipment, and conviction under the relevant and applicable laws prevalent in any jurisdiction. Just saying…

6 thoughts on “100 Years of British Radio: Why do we love the pirates so much?

  1. Course A75 had Radio Albert, but that was from a water tank over D Block – DJ’s included Sid Spit, Eric Lettuce, Fred Drainage and Mark Puccini (or was he on Radio Pink Elephant, Coventry’s student Rad Radio?).

    There was also a shortwave WNKR, West and North Kent Radio from, er, somewhere in Kent, presumably, rather than WN.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting that you mention the radio station broadcasting from the top of Big Ben. Back in 1969 Tyne Tees made a children’s series called “On The Rocks”, about Britain’s smallest TV station – SeaView Televison – which broadcast from a lighthouse, to an incredibly small audience. Surprisingly, it couldn’t originate all the material it needed to transmit and references were regularly made to “and now, to London, and a programme from Big Ben Television”. I don’t think the station was intended to be ‘pirate’ but it certainly operated in the ramshackle manner many of them did…


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