Memories of the Band (4)
Alan Sykes

I worked at the Playhouse as a junior SM, rattling the sound-effects door for Jim Casey's "The Clitheroe Kid", which I later went on to announce, and play the odd bit-part in for a decade of Sunday afternoon double-recordings.

In the mid-60's I admired the magnificent NDO whilst rigging mikes on stage as an assistant Studio Manager to the late Jim Pope, famous for the remark he made to one of "The Bachelors" who came into the Playhouse control cubicle to hear a playback of the one-take cover-recording that Jim had created of their then-current hit "Diane".

He asked Jim, who was sitting laconically at the controls, "So how many limiters have you got in that kit Jim ?" (Meaning the electronic volume controls built into the control desk that automatically avoid overloads in the sound-mix.)  Whereupon Jim held up his arms in the air and said, "Just these two, Declan - one on the end of each arm."
He later left the Beeb to become the station announcer and regional newsreader for Granada TV; he was sadly lost to us all many years ago.
Jim Black, he of the abrupt and sardonic Penny Lane demeanour and permanently rolled-up shirt sleeves, who mixed a mountain of the band's recordings during the Jim Pope era, and later went on to become the driving force behind the very popular BBC Radio Merseyside local radio station in 1967, zenithing his BBC career in the 80s serving as Head of Presentation and later Deputy Editor of the best speech-based radio station in the world, BBC Radio Four,  - alongside the admirable David Hatch, Jim was an unflappable and inspired sound mixer, producing some of the quickest and most accurate sound balances for the great NDO He was the most remarkably precocious, talented and versatile technician and manager I ever met in all my 38 years at the Beeb.
I later worked as an Assistant Producer to Johnny Wilcox - "Be all right, boyo - nobody'll notice that - be all right..." But being innumerate, during NDO sessions I often got the band's stopwatch timings wrong on the  recording sheet, much to the later fury of the Jimmy Young Show producer in London who simply aired these magnificent big-band takes as up-to-the-hour fillers and often found that his back -timings didn't work !
I still have a great affinity for the sound of the marimba, and Vernon on percussion and later on, a player who's name I forget who took over from Vernon, used to mutter to Bob Turner at the start of a session, "Oh God, it's that Alan Sykes in the box again - more bl—dy marimba features."
.When the Daily Express famously led its front page with the news that, according to research, one-in-nineteen men in Britain were gay, Bob famously stood up from his drum kit, waving the paper in the air and shouting "All right, own up you ba—–rds -  Which one of you is it ?!" - there were of course nineteen players in the band, or as one joker put it, eighteen musicians and a drummer.!
During that time as "Producer" of the NDO, I was often gob smacked by the consummate yet often casual skill of the boys in the band, who could produce under the swift and intuitive guidance of the extremely talented conductor Bernard Hermann, (whose bat-like ears could spot a wrong note a mile off,) a string of stylish numbers delivered with panache and style that a present day digital studio orchestra would take ages to complete. ( As people will hear off the CD’s  - IR )

From the session start-time of ten a.m, the aim was always to get the required ten numbers down onto tape before the pub closed - and I don't recall one single day when that aim wasn't achieved - in fact it was often a wrap by just after midday ! ( That may not have happened with the experimental stereo recordings - IR)

In the early 70's when I joined Radio Manchester, I decided that the only outfit that could possibly provide the dynamism and masterful musicality required for the new station's ident jingles was the NDO. And my confidence was truly endorsed when I came away from one morning's recording session with a reel of magnificently brash and breezy stingers and sung-liners arranged by Peter Husband and vocalised by a dynamic trio of ladies, whose un-dated sound still thrills me today .

So I too have many fond memories of the Playhouse and its legendary NDO big band, which for years maintained its universal popularity among millions of music lovers across the land, yet always seemed to manage to withstand the slings and arrows of some outrageous BBC managers who tried several times to kill it off, even resorting at one period to calling it the Northern Radio Orchestra, complete with shimmering harp and silky strings under the baton of the diminutive Neil Richardson - composer of the theme for Mastermind, but the sound of the NRO was a pale shadow of its former rumbustious self as the fabulous NDO.