In December 1943, Jimmy O’Dea’s Irish Half Hour was the second most listened to programme on BBC Radio, writes Eamon Ó Buadhacháin
During the Second World War, one of the most popular programmes on the radio saw some of the biggest names in Irish entertainment grace the airwaves but strangely the programmes did not emanate from Radio Éireann but from the BBC in London.
The BBC and the British information Ministry wanted to produce a programme that would appeal to the thousands of serving Irish and Anglo-Irish troops, and they also wanted to improve the relationship between Britain and Ireland as a result of Ireland’s neutral stance.
Dublin-born Jimmy O’Dea had given up his optometry profession to tread the boards of theatres including the Gaiety.
In 1928, he had teamed up with writer Harry O’Donovan and they played to packed houses with their successful pantomimes and summer variety shows, and becoming a stalwart of early Irish radio on 2RN.
In 1940, O’Dea crossed the Irish Sea and starred in a BBC Radio variety show created by Vernon Harris and Eric Spear, titled Melody & Co recorded in Bristol, then when the BBC in London decided to create an ‘Irish Show’, they contacted Jimmy O’Dea who agreed initially to front the Irish Half Hour every second week.
George Marshall, the regional director of the BBC in Northern Ireland objected to the show’s broadcast on a number of grounds not least the name as it implied that it included Northern Ireland, which was ‘partitioned from Eire’.
He also objected to the theme music The Minstrel Boy and the fact that some of the introduction was conducted in the Irish with céad míle fáilte. His objections were overruled, although he and the Northern Ireland Regional service referred to it as Éire’s Half Hour.
One of the shows leading supporters, John Betjeman, the poet and writer, who was an attaché in the British embassy in Dublin wrote, ‘The Germans at the moment broadcast two progammes a day to Éire and a Gaelic programme on Sunday evenings. The BBC would be most effective if broadcast simultaneously with one of the German broadcasts, or Haw Haw, preferably the latter and could thus diminish the Germans’ audience.’
The first show aired at 9.20pm on Tuesday November 11th, 1941, and the first featured artist was the great Irish singer Count John McCormack who had been living in London at the time. The first show featured music from McCormack, the BBC Men’s Chorus and the BBC Orchestra, conducted by Leslie Woodgate.
The show was compered by future celebrity author Leonard Strong, whose parents were Irish. The Half Hour was produced by Lesley Baily and Ronald Waldman.
The following week, November 22nd, was a different type of show featuring Jimmy O’Dea as his famous incarnation ‘Biddy Mulligan, the Pride of the Coombe’, with sketches and skits featuring the fictional Irish town of Ballygobackward. The Radio Times advertised, ‘The Irish Half Hour with Jimmy O’Dea and Barbara Mullen specially recorded for Irish men and women in the Forces. Compere, Joe Linnane. Singer, Robert Irwin. Writer, Harry O’Donovan. BBC Revue Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Charles Shadwell. Presented by Pat Hillyard and Francis Worsley.’