A madeleine for you: Are you sitting comfortably?

1950s family listening to the radio

‘The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.’

If you want proof of LP Hartley’s dictum, listen to the audio clip ‘Introduction to Listen With Mother’ on this page.

The time is a quarter to two. This is the BBC Light Programme for mothers and children at home. Are you ready for the music? When it stops, Daphne Oxenford will be here to tell you a story. Ding-de-dong. Ding-de-dong, Ding, Ding! Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin!

If you were a pre-school child in the 1950s these words will instantly have the same effect as Proust’s madeleine. A generation sat before a big old radio set every afternoon at 1:45pm to listen to a fifteen minute programme of stories, songs and nursery rhymes for children under five. To anyone who didn’t grow up in the 1950s it will be difficult to comprehend how something so bland, so stilted and so posh could ever have attracted an audience was over one million children.

But it did, and consequently was etched in a generation’s memory.  That memory was revived for me the other day when I read in The Guardian the obituary of Daphne Oxenford, who died before Christmas aged 93.  Oxenford was the voice of children’s stories on Listen With Mother through the 1950s, and right up to 1971. When she spoke, it was the most comforting sound in the world: ‘Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin’. Her name remains deeply evocative of childhood  for a generation of postwar children who grew up in homes without television.

Oxenford

Listen with Mother’ was first broadcast on 16 January 1950 on the Light Programme (now Radio 2), later transferring to the Home Service (Radio 4). Daphne Oxenford’s meticulously modulated opening phrase was eventually included in the Oxford dictionary of quotations.

Radio Times January 1950

The programme is associated in my memory with the afternoon nap – something which was statutory for very young children in those days, enforced not just by mothers but also in the reception class at primary school.  Since my retirement it’s a practice which I have returned to on occasion, and found remarkably refreshing.

This paragraph, from www.whirligig-tv.co.uk, will almost certainly jog a few memories:

With nursery rhymes set to music by Ann Driver and sung by George Dixon, a senior schools producer with a long and distinguished career in broadcasting, and Eileen Browne, the songs were often unaccompanied. There cannot be many children who did not march up and down the hill with ‘The Grand Old Duke of York’.

Meanwhile ‘Mary, Mary, Quite Contrary’ was growing neat rows of silver bells and cockleshells in her garden, while the King of Spain’s Daughter regularly visited a ‘Little Nut Tree’ which only grew a silver nutmeg and a golden pear. Humpty Dumpty and “Ride a Cock Horse to Banbury Cross” were other favourites.

Then, helping us to count was ‘One, two. . . . three, four, five; Once I caught a fish alive; six, seven. . . . eight, nine, ten; Then I let it go again’ and the rhyme ‘Ding, Dong, Dell, Pussy’s in the Well’ all turned out for the best once we had found out who put her in and who pulled her out! So ‘Polly Put the Kettle On, We’ll All Have Tea!’

Another particularly memorable song, which featured at least once a week, ended: ‘This is the way the old men ride, Hobble-dee Hobble-dee Hobble-dee and down into a ditch!’

And here’s another madeleine to stir the memory: the little piece of piano music that ended the programme (‘Berceuse’ from Fauré’s Dolly Suite for piano duet):

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5 thoughts on “A madeleine for you: Are you sitting comfortably?

  1. I think that this brings back happy memories for all of our generation but I am happy to recall that unlike the boy in the Radio Times illustration I was not required to dress in suit and tie to listen to the wireless. I doubt if any child was ever required to be so formally attired when at home but in those days the Corporation and the Radio Times liked to confer a sense of decorum.
    I certainly remember 6 February 1952 when Listen With Mother was not broadcast, as the King had died. All entertainment programmes were cancelled and suitably solemn music played instead . Until that day I hadn’t realised that we had a king, although most children’s stories seemed to revolve around kings, queens & princesses. I was, of course less politically astute as a three year old than I am now. 

  2. I had a madeleine moment when I read that obituary in the Guardian too! I think I tweeted it. It certainly seems like another lifetime and another world now though. How about Watch With Mother next?

  3. As I listened to the Fauré piano piece, tears came to my eyes – the music arrived from so long ago – the period before starting school, at home with mother – who was young – the programme, well-meaning, hopeful.

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