Almost everything you need to know about Buzz Hawkins’ radio comedy series from a fan’s view
The 1950s was a pivotal decade in British 20th Century history. We began the fifties in austerity with rationing still in place till 1954, and ended that decade with a consumer boom. New Towns emerged with publicly funded housing fit for our daily needs. Away from the backdrop, many of us lived in tenement blocks or terraced houses. Instead of gardens, it was backyards and ginnels.
For many people in Greater Manchester, the two-up-two-down terraced house was the norm. Our doorsteps were donkey stoned to the nth degree. Instead of Amazon, we walked to the shops, gave our tat to a Rag and Bone Man (often with a horse and cart), and our fizzy drinks came from a roundsman. In other words, the Pop Man. There was the Clubman (who offered easy terms), and the Rent Man. The Co-op Divi funded new clothes for the Whit Walks or other special occasions.
Gutters served another purpose besides channelling rainwater. They were used for marbles contests – with the same amount of competition you would see in today’s computer games. Children played out till the sun went down – right up till the army of mums and dads started calling Wilfred, Winifred, David, Audrey and Billy out for tea.
You could say it was like the early days of Coronation Street going off the terraced houses, corner shops, and male members of the family bogging off to the pub.
Whereas Corrie is a contemporary portrait of life in a fictitious part of Salford, The Bradshaws is stuck in the 1950s, in the same way that Heartbeat and The Royal is in the 1960s and early 1970s. It is both a great nostalgia fest as well as being great radio comedy. One that is still being aired on radio stations around the world.
The Bradshaws is probably the most successful comedy series to have emerged from Independent Local Radio. So much so that it has spawned live shows, a comic book, a television series on ITV, and spin-off singles. Not bad for a saga that started life as a poem set in Blackpool.
In the beat of the night
Back in the early 1980s, the UK’s Independent Local Radio stations and all BBC radio stations had to work around Needle Time restrictions. This meant radio stations could only play a limited amount of recorded chart music. There was exemptions for library music, film and television music outside the singles charts, and live performances. Some stations got around this by having review programmes and speech based programming, like plays and documentaries.
In the small hours, some radio stations would non-commercial music or have live sessions. The latter gave us The Peel Sessions on Radio One. On Piccadilly Radio, there was Nightbeat.
After midnight, Piccadilly’s Nightbeat was a mix of fast-moving chat, live music, plays and competitions. Philip Birch and, later, Colin Walters used the Nightbeat slot as a training ground for new presenters. The Nightbeat Band would play the latest chart hits and a few classics. On some occasions, they would support bands at local venues like Quaffers. One of its members, Howard Jones, would become a chart act in his own right.
In the same band was Buzz Hawkins. After a poem on Gary Davies’ show got a few complaints from listeners, Gary Davies invited his listeners to write a better poem. Buzz took up the challenge with a three-voice monologue. The rest, as they say, is Mathematics.
From poem to successful series
Out of the triple-voiced monologue came Alf, Audrey and Billy, three identifiable characters in a terraced house in the fictitious Manchester suburb of Barnoldswick. Alf is the man of the house, husband to Audrey Bradshaw. Audrey, Alf’s spouse, does most of the housework and provides much of the comedy with her malapropisms. Then there’s Billy Bradshaw, the seven-year-old son of Alf and Audrey. He is the central character who gets into a lot of scrapes with his friends and mithers Alf for pets.
Each story focuses on everyday life in 1950s Manchester, with many of the locations and references being local to the area. For example: Belle Vue Zoo, Vimto lollies and the Manchester Derby.
By the mid-1980s, the first series of The Bradshaws was aired on Piccadilly Radio, again during the small hours in the Nightbeat slot. On a personal level, this was how I got to know The Bradshaws. Back in my more autie (and sleepless) formative years, I would have the radio on and doze off to the strains of Nightbeat. Sometimes Pete Baker’s breakfast show. On one occasion, I caught an episode of The Bradshaws and thought, “What is this? (Or similar words to that effect)”. I was amazed, listened avidly, and wondered for the life of me, “What is Zebra Disease?”.
With the success of his radio play, Buzz asked if he could sell tapes of his series. The first releases were self-published on Hawkins Talkin’ with Dave Moss’ caricature of the family stuck on the inlay. By 1986, Buzz Hawkins changed his hours as producer and became Segment Producer for Piccadilly’s morning programmes. Recognising the potential of The Bradshaws, Colin Walters made sure he brought the Bradshaws with him. More tapes were sold, thanks to the adventures of Alf, Audrey and Billy going out on a more agreeable slot.
Buzz Hawkins’ role as Segment Producer for the morning strand coincided with my attendance at Ewing School, a 30-mile round trip in a taxi from home to West Didsbury. Most of the taxi drivers listened to Piccadilly Radio, more often than not on Stereo Power FM 103. Back in 1987, Billy Bradshaw could be heard on Tim Grundy’s breakfast show on Billy Bradshaw’s Brainbuster quiz, and in an episode of The Bradshaws on Phil Wood’s show. When Phil Wood’s show was moved to late afternoons/early evenings (after the split of its AM and FM frequencies), I was back home in time for its airing at 4.45 pm.
With the wide-ranging local appeal of The Bradshaws and Tim Grundy’s breakfast show, it was (and still continues to be on countless radio stations) enjoyed by listeners from 5 to 95 years of age. At one end, the antics of Billy appealed to younger listeners, whereas older listeners, who remembered trips to Belle Vue Zoo and donkey stones, wallowed in its nostalgia.
For younger listeners, Greater Manchester Police thought of adopting Billy Bradshaw as the mascot of a road safety campaign. This is heard in the Easy Peasy Song from 1988. There was also The Dead Good Hadventures of Billy Bradshaw, an exclusive tape with the seven-year-old’s ‘hadventures’ which sold out on its first day of release.
As well as Piccadilly Radio’s reception, the tapes were sold in local record shops. This was great if you couldn’t catch up on the episodes on Phil Wood’s show.
By the late 1980s and early 1990s, the success of his radio programme saw Buzz Hawkins returning to the stage. This time by taking The Bradshaws on to the road, playing to packed audiences in social clubs, local theatres and public halls. At each show, Billy Bradshaw is represented by a puppet. Alf and Audrey are off-stage, again with Mr. Hawkins providing the voices. The only other character to be represented by a puppet is Billy’s best friend, Michael Morris. In the words of Alf Bradshaw, he has ‘friendly eyes’.
At each show, there is only one set: a typical two-up-two-down terraced house in Northern England. The detailing is intricate, including an outdoor toilet and a cat (which sits on the roof of the said privy). If you are on the wrong side of that animatronic cat, it might wee on your head (which it does do at the end of the show). The living room is typical of a terraced house in the 1950s.
Before each show, audience members are invited to make paper planes and aim for a target, which is often in front of the stage curtain. At some of Buzz Hawkins’ shows with The Bradshaws, we hear some of Buzz’s original songs. These include songs about Father Fanakerpan and Sadie, which have ‘catchy choruses’.
Usually, in the second half of each show, creator Buzz Hawkins lets Billy Bradshaw stick his oar in, like a remote controlled ventriloquist’s dummy. Wittering Willie (as Alf would sometimes call him) shares his own musings with the audience.
Most episodes of The Bradshaws have Lancastrian and Mancunian dialect terms in their script. There are some words that are unique to the comedy series.
ACDO: well-known soap powder popular in Northern England. It is the best-known product of the Astley Dye and Chemical Company, founded in Bolton in 1919. It is still owned by the same founding family, the Pilling family. Referenced in Audrey Tries Her Luck and Postman’s Knock (S4, Eps. 3 and 4).
Clubman: nothing to do with a version of the Austin/Morris/British Leyland Mini, but a door-to-door salesperson that takes payments for consumer goods. See also rent collectors.
Heaster Heggs: how Billy Bradshaw says Easter Eggs. Also inspired the Heaster Heggs hepisode [sic] (S3, Ep10).
Tea and sugar: what Alf Bradshaw calls his nether regions (I shall leave it there).
Vimto Lollies: ice lollies made with Manchester’s most iconic soft drink, sometimes from standard ice lollies or frozen cup drinks. Often the cheaper option from an ice cream van.
Zedgie: Alf Bradshaw’s imaginary creation, a cross between a budgie and a zebra. First mentioned in Can I ‘Ave A Budgie? (S1, Ep11)
Fringe characters in The Bradshaws
As well as Alf, Audrey and Billy, The Bradshaws also has its own cast of secondary characters. These include:
Ada Woods: Audrey’s friend. According to Alf Bradshaw, she has “corned beef legs… like an Ordnance Survey map”.
Granddad: Alf’s Dad and Billy Bradshaw’s granddad. The most memorable episode he features in Will You Fix Mi Roller Skate? (S2, Ep.10).
Michael Morris: Billy’s best friend, also seen in puppet form in the live shows with broken spectacles.
Stephen Carey’s Mum: morbidly obese mother of one of Billy’s classmates.
Uncle Wally One Ball: Billy’s uncle, so-called because he walks like he has one testicle.
Winifred Dutton: another one of Billy’s classmates, and one who plays ‘girls games’ with Wittering Willie.
Did you know…?
- That The Bradshaws made the transition from radio to television in 1994? Aired after Granada Tonight, six five-minute episodes were made. These were based on the first volume entitled In Their Own Words. The TV series was released on VHS video under the name of Bent Cigs and Corn Dog. A second series was promised, though didn’t materialise.
- The Bradshaws even had a series of comic books? Entitled The Bradshaws An’ All That, two issues were published by Robert Maxwell’s company. The third issue was scuppered by the media mogul falling off his yacht. John Geering (the original artist of the Bananaman strip in the Nutty and Dandy comics) did the drawings.
- Billy Bradshaw made an appearance at Maine Road with Frank Sidebottom? That happened before the F.A. Cup Semi Final tie between Oldham Athletic and Manchester United in 1990.
- As well as being a fictitious Manchester suburb in the comedy series, Barnoldswick in real life is a small town north east of Colne. At one time it was in the West Riding of Yorkshire and – despite its spelling – is known as ‘Barlick’.
- The background music in each episode is Judex (Mors et Vita) by Charles Gounod. This is the brass band arrangement, played by Glossop Old Band. In some earlier episodes (when aired on Piccadilly Radio and released on cassette), a keyboard version was used. Today, all 24 volumes of The Bradshaws have been remastered for CD and digital download have Glossop Old Band’s version.
If you would like to know more about The Bradshaws, you cannot go far wrong with the official website. It also has a complete listing of episodes and updates on what Buzz Hawkins is up to at the moment. From what we have seen, he is working on a novel based on the family’s stories. He is also working on the voices for fringe characters like Ada Woods and Uncle Wally One Ball.
Are you a fan of The Bradshaws‘ episodes. Do you have any memories of listening to the episodes on Piccadilly Radio or on any other radio stations? Have you been to any of the live shows? Are you lucky enough to have all 24 volumes and any of the other releases like The Easy Peasy Song?
As always, feel free to comment. Harticulately and heloquently of course.
S.V., 29 April 2021.