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An hour of radio local history

PUBLISHED: 13:55 13 August 2010 | UPDATED: 11:56 16 September 2010

EVEN if you have never switched on your wireless since Terry Wogan retired from Radio 2 last year - or, perhaps, have not listened in since In Town Tonight, Workers' Playtime, Variety Bandbox and ITMA went off the air - please make a point of tuning in on Monday morning for a delicious taste of Norfolk nostalgia.

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EVEN if you have never switched on your wireless since Terry Wogan retired from Radio 2 last year - or, perhaps, have not listened in since In Town Tonight, Workers' Playtime, Variety Bandbox and ITMA went off the air - please make a point of tuning in on Monday morning for a delicious taste of Norfolk nostalgia.

It promises to be the radio equivalent of a plateful of sizzling snotched, floured and fried fresh herring.

Unfortunately, the hour-long programme called Singing the Fishing is being broadcast not on mainstream radio but on the digital BBC Radio 7 at 10am, but it can also be heard through digital television or by logging on to the internet.

The broadcast will be on the golden anniversary of its original transmission on the Home Service in 1960 in the Radio Ballads series, and features not only prominent singers, composers and musicians Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger but also three distinguished members of the long-gone fishing community hereabouts: Great Yarmouth's Ronnie Balls, writer and member of a major drifter-owning family, Winterton fisherman Sam Larner and Lowestoft skipper George Draper whose Dauntless Star won the 1959 Prunier Trophy.

Singing the Fishing won the prestigious 1960 Prix Italia for documentaries and was broadcast in 86 countries.

“Its influence is still found in radio and television documentaries, and indeed all kinds of programmes, to this day,” I learn from Ian Parr, secretary of the Charles Parker Trust, which is dedicated to the work of the late producer of this and other landmark radio documentaries during his 25 years with the BBC. Parker and MacColl conceived the programme.

The 50th anniversary is being celebrated by various events including a presentation about the making of a 1972 BBC TV documentary which used audio material from Singing the Fishing. “Another dealt with the life of Ronnie Balls, and yet another of how the original programme was made as musicians played and singers sang. Their music was both accompaniment and narrative to the words recorded in Yarmouth and elsewhere from fishermen and their wives, with the sounds of the sea and herring being pulled aboard, and storms and quayside activities.

“All these sounds and voices, also both accompaniment and narrative, were all blended together on the studio floor to be painstakingly assembled by Parker and his team...into a complete one hour of Radio Ballad” - part of a series of eight programmes featuring The British Worker, described by one critic as “a radio art form with the power of an epic poem.”

Ian Parr, who has family roots in Norfolk and Suffolk, explains that his own contribution “is a reminder of the great cultural gap between the generations who took part in Singing the Fishing and those of today”.

The script of Singing the Fishing was created by Ewan MacColl from recordings he, Charles Parker and Peggy Seeger made in East Anglia and Scotland. Ronnie Balls (1901-1966) set the scene and was contributor and consultant, providing background information on the technicalities of herring fishing, the use of drift nets and the colloquialisms and terminology.

He was 21 when he became the youngest skipper in East Anglia on his father's drifter, Togo. After marrying in 1922 - a union resulting in two sons - he met two government scientists engaged in fisheries research, developing a plankton indicator towed behind the boat to identify the presence of food for herring. His contribution was acknowledged in learned publications.

On his own drifter, the Violet and Rose, he installed an Echometer, found it could identify fish shoals, and assiduously kept records of fish echoes and herring caught. His work contributed to his award in 1950 of an MBE for services to fishing.

In 1936 he had participated in his first radio programme, on a fishing theme. More followed, including a feature on the North Shields fishing industry: as listeners heard the recorded sounds of the Violet and Rose's nets being hauled and shot, Skipper Balls described what was happening.

After the war he penned numerous articles for World Fishing magazine under the pen-name Pekoe. His repertoire broadened when he played the role of a Lowestoft trawler mate in a radio drama produced by Charles Parker in 1956, gave the 1959 Buckland Foundation Lecture on Fish Capture, and scripted a play, broadcast nationally, about the 1940 Dunkirk evacuation, based around an incident involving his brother Leslie.

Shanty-man Sam Larner, a Winterton octogenarian who from the age of eight had entertained regulars and holidaymakers in the Fisherman's Return public house, suddenly achieved an international audience when he was discovered by MacColl in his research for the programme, and unwittingly became a recording star.

He taped many ditties (some risque, I believe), the most famous of which is Up Jumped the Herring, included in several albums. On some - if not all - songs are interspersed with old Norfolk jokes and pithy views on life.

In the 1990s his 89-year-old niece Annie George told the Mercury her uncle was “a natural. He did it because he loved singing, and I think it grew on him. People used to come over to him and say: 'Come on, Sam - give us a song.'

“But you didn't have to encourage him - you couldn't stop him! He'll be singing in Heaven, I expect...if he got there.”

When fame caught up with Sam Larner, by then almost crippled with arthritis, he was invited to London to perform at a folk pub. At another London appearance he sang no fewer than 80 songs - and was rewarded with a measly two guineas (£2.10).

Mrs George added: “People were always at his house, getting him to sing on tape and taking him a can of beer. They thought they were giving him the world, and I got very angry about it.”

In 1892, aged 14, he went to sea as a cabin boy, but by 1933 had worn himself out with hard work, according to his doctor, but his life at sea had left him with a rich legacy of traditional shanties and stories to weave into his musical performances.

Larner died aged 87, but only two years ago the frontage of the cottage in Bulmer Lane where he lived with his wife, Dorcas, was graced by the addition of a blue plaque, provided by Yarmouth and District Archaeological Society to commemorate “Sam Larner, Norfolk fisherman and folk singer” and his involvement in Singing the Fishing.

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