Blair's ballroom dancing
Radio - Laurie Taylor retraces his steps on the New Brighton dance floor
Back in the Fifties when I used to waltz clumsily around the floor of the Tower Ballroom, New Brighton, wishing that Bill Gregson and his "broadcasting orchestra" would disappear in a puff of smoke and be replaced by Duke Ellington or Count Basie, I derived some minor comfort from contemplating a large sign on a pillar next to the stage, which simply read: "No Jitterbugging". I had no clear idea what jitterbugging was, but the frenetic resonances of the word, coupled with the brute fact of its prohibition, suggested that it might have the erotic edge over my plodding one-two-together circumambulation.
So I was understandably sitting up straight and paying close attention when Lionel Blair launched his new Radio 2 series, Ballroom Lives, on Sunday afternoon. "Hello, I'm Lionel Blair. Over the next four weeks, I'll be taking you round the country and through the golden era of ballrooms. We'll be reliving the last waltz, listening to big bands, and remembering to bring a special bag for our dance shoes. This week - the Tower Ballroom, Blackpool."
As it happened, Lionel didn't throw any light on jitterbugging, but he did make it admirably clear that the disciplinary mechanisms I had to endure in my ballroom-dancing days were the direct result of one man's determination to stamp out the happy free-for-all expressive dancing that characterised the first ballroom boom. The villain of the piece, the true author of the Tower Ballroom's prohibition, was Victor Sylvester. I can still just about remember Sylvester's radio broadcasts, the bland vibrato of the saxophone and the equally passionless tones of the maestro himself monotonously calling out the steps. But until Lionel explained, I had never realised the extent of Sylvester's personal interest in locking dancers into a rhythmic straitjacket.
Before he got his band together, Sylvester was a dance escort. He spent his evenings sitting behind a desk, waiting to earn sixpence from punters who lacked a partner. The only thing that spoiled the job for him was the infuriating inconsistency of the touring bands who insisted on playing at their own rate. The answer, he realised, was "strict tempo", 31 bars a minute. No more, no less. This meant that everyone on the floor could be counted on to be doing the same step at the same instant. And as if that was not oppressive enough, there was the new insistence that dancers should move only anti-clockwise around the floor. Those who failed to keep in step or dared to change direction were invited to leave the floor by an MC who occupied the centre of the room.
None of the elderly dancers interviewed by Lionel Blair at Blackpool's Tower Ballroom appeared to resent the manner in which strict tempo had cramped their freedom, interrupted their happy jitterbugging. They were much more preoccupied with the pleasures of dressing up in swansdown and sequins for the dance, with the non-slip qualities of their dancing shoes, and with the etiquette of refusing a polite request.
In its quiet way, this was another excellent example of Radio 2's capacity to produce programmes that adhere to the station's music brief but still find room for a little gravitas. Gone are the days when members of the station's own staff sat around waiting for its elderly audience to drop off the edge, the days of "Radio Grim Reaper". The age of the average listener is now down in the early fifties, and the controller, Jim Moir, can proudly point to highly successful series such as Mark Lamarr's Beginner's Guide to Reggae as evidence of the breadth of the station's current appeal.
Part of the trick has been to employ star presenters to tell the musical story. There has been Barry White on soul, Eartha Kitt on torch singers, Johnny Cash with his favourite country music, and Jools Holland enthusing about Nat King Cole. And even if some of these celebrities do occasionally sound as though they are being guided through the script with a blackboard pointer, there are usually quite enough insights around to make each programme sound more like someone's personal labour of love rather than a mechanical compilation.
Lionel Blair may not enjoy quite the status of some of his fellow presenters, but at least he can dance happily across the floor with his reminiscing interviewees. He also has some slightly alarming anecdotes up his sleeve. After playing a version of "I Can't Give You Anything But Love" by Ethel Waters, he popped up to announce: "The band there was Duke Ellington. And many years later, I worked with him on a TV show on board a ship, and he came up to me and said: 'Hey, have you got any make-up I can borrow?' " Thanks for sharing that one with us, Lionel.