My Word!

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My Word!
GenreLiterary humorous panel game
Running time30 mins
Country of originUnited Kingdom
Language(s)English
Home stationBBC Home Service and BBC Radio 4
Starring(Chair)
John Arlott (1956–57)
Jack Longland (1957–77)
John Julius Norwich (1978–82)
Antonia Fraser (1982–83)
Michael O'Donnell (1983–88)
(Panellists)
Frank Muir (1956–88)
Denis Norden (1956–88)
Isobel Barnett (1956–57)
Nancy Spain (1956–64)
E. Arnot Robertson (1957–61)
Dilys Powell (1962–88)
Anne Scott-James (1964–78)
Antonia Fraser (1979–88)
Irene Thomas (1982–83)
Created byTony Shryane and Edward J. Mason
Produced byTony Shryane, Bobby Jaye, Pete Atkin, Neil Cargill
Original release1956 – 1988
No. of series38
Opening themeAlpine Pastures, by Vivian Ellis[1]

My Word! is a British radio quiz panel game broadcast by the BBC on the Home Service (1956–67) and Radio 4 (1967–88). It was created by Edward J. Mason and Tony Shryane, and featured the humorous writers Frank Muir and Denis Norden, known in Britain for the series Take It From Here. The show was piloted in June 1956 on the Midland Home Service and broadcast as a series on the national Home Service network from 1 January 1957. The series also ran on BBC Television for one series from July–September 1960.

For decades the programme was also broadcast worldwide via BBC World Service and was relayed to an international audience though the BBC Transcription Services. A companion programme, My Music, ran from 1967 to 1993.

Background and first broadcasts[edit]

In 1956, Edward J. Mason and Tony Shryane, respectively the writer and producer of the popular radio soap opera The Archers, decided that by way of a change they would devise and produce what Frank Muir called "a new kind of not-very-academic literary quiz".[2] The Aeolian Hall in London was booked for the recording of a pilot show, but at the last minute two of the four panellists were unexpectedly unavailable. Shryane sought the help of Muir and his writing partner Denis Norden, scriptwriters of the popular BBC comedy series Take It From Here, who were based in a nearby office. They thought of themselves as writers rather than performers, but at Shryane's urgent request they agreed to stand in for the absentees.[3] Muir was partnered by Isobel Barnett – a panel show regular – and Norden by the journalist Nancy Spain. Mason set the questions, and the chairman was the cricket commentator and poet John Arlott, who was billed as "umpire". The pilot was well received by the audience in the hall and by listeners to its first transmission. The BBC commissioned a series, which was transmitted in early 1957. Muir and Norden had no intention of becoming regular panellists, but Shyrane persuaded them.[3]

Arlott did not return for the second series, which began in August 1957. He was succeeded by Jack Longland, known to BBC listeners as the chairman of the panel show Country Questions and a regular team member on Round Britain Quiz and panellist on Any Questions?[4] Although, unlike Arlott, Longland had no particular association with cricket he too was billed as umpire until 1962, after which he was billed as "in the chair", as were his successors.[5]

Later series[edit]

The programme ran for 38 series, until 1988. Muir and Norden were in every series, always on opposing teams. As Muir's partner, Barnett was succeeded during the first series by the novelist and critic E. Arnot Robertson. On Robertson's death in 1961 the film critic and Greek scholar Dilys Powell took her place until the show finished, when she was aged 87. Norden's first partner was Nancy Spain; after her death in 1964 she was succeeded by the journalist Anne Scott-James, and then from 1979 by the historian Antonia Fraser. In the one season in which Fraser took the chair her place as Norden's teammate was taken by Irene Thomas.[6]

After 20 years in the chair, Longland retired from the programme at the end of the 1977 series. He was succeeded by John Julius Norwich for four series, followed by Fraser for a single series and finally Michael O'Donnell for the last five series, from late 1983 to 1988.[6]

From time to time guests substituted for absent regulars. Neither Spain nor Powell ever missed a broadcast during their time as panellists, but Robertson and Scott-James missed one apiece, their absences covered respectively by Pamela Frankau and Katherine Whitehorn.[6] Lionel Hale (one of the intended contestants in the pilot show)[7] deputised for both Muir and Norden in 1967 as did John Wells in 1975 and Barry Took on four occasions between 1978 and 1982. Ted Kavanagh took Muir's place for two programmes in 1957, and Edward Blishen stood in for Norden in two episodes in 1985. Fraser's absences between 1986 and 1988 were covered by Joan Bakewell, Victoria Glendinning, P. D. James, Libby Purves and Gay Search.[8]

After Mason's death in 1971 Longland took over responsibility for compiling the questions, and was joined in that role by Peter Moore in 1972. After Longland's retirement Moore continued to set the questions until 1987. For the final season, in 1988, O'Donnell combined the roles of chairman and question-setter.[6]

Content[edit]

The two teams faced questions devised, for the first 21 series, by Mason, of whom Muir wrote:

One thing which Denis and I learned, and appreciated, during those early years of My Word! was how much the success of the show depended on the inconspicuous skill of the man who compiled it, Edward J. Mason. He had a gift for the common touch which is rare in areas like literary quizzes. He worked within the general awareness of listeners who had been to school; most of his poetic questions were to do with poems in Palgrave's Golden Treasury, most quotations were semi-familiar and in most books of quotations. We reckoned that 80 per cent of listeners felt that, given a bit of time for thought, they could answer almost 80 per cent of the questions.[9]

Mason and his successors provided word games and literary quizzes covering vocabulary, etymology, snippets of poetry, and the like. In many series the opening round consisted of obscure words for the panellists to define: examples ranged from such words as auscultation, bumblepuppy, cabless and crinkum-crankum to defenestration, hebetude, hobbledehoy and katydid to lallation, macaronic, palmiped and rahat lokum, or scrimshaw, tatterdemalion, unau and widdershins.[10][n 1]

In the final round, each team was asked to give the origin of a famous phrase or quotation. In early shows, once the real answers were given, Muir and Norden were invited to explain the origin of the phrase less seriously, in the form of a feghoot. An early example was the quotation "Dead! And never called me mother!" from a stage adaptation of East Lynne, which became the exclamation of a youth coming out of a public telephone box which he had discovered to be out of order.[11] Later the first part of the round was dropped in favour of having the chairman simply announce the accepted origin of each phrase, thus opening up new fields of phrases that would have been too well known or too obscure to be posed as questions. In later series Muir and Norden chose their own phrases in advance of each programme, and their stories became longer and more convoluted.[11]

The stories became a popular segment of the quiz. Examples included Norden's tale in which a young woman and a young man found themselves happily trapped in a sauna despite earlier assurances from the landlord that the faulty lock had been repaired: "Least said, soonest mended" became "Lease said sauna's mended".[12] In another, "There's many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip" became a story about Édouard Manet in a drunken doze in a beauty spot between a carp pond and Lover's Leap – "There's Manet asleep 'twixt the carp and the leap".[12] In another, Muir confessed to forging fan letters purportedly from Monica Dickens, Val Gielgud, Asa Briggs and Fay Compton, so that "I am monarch of all I survey" became "I am Monica, Val, Asa, Fay".[13] A Norden story explaining "Charity shall cover the multitude of sins" became a lament for his diminishing capacity for alcohol and consequent need to enunciate extremely carefully after drinking spirits: "Clarity shall cover the multitude of gins".[14]

Series history[edit]

A one-off pilot programme was broadcast by the Midland region of the BBC Home Service on 6 June 1956.[15] When the series was launched on the national BBC network in January 1957, an edited edition of the pilot preceded the 14 new episodes.[16]

Series Dates Episodes Host Regular panel Notes/guests
1 1 Jan–21 May 1957 Pilot
show + 14
John Arlott Isobel Barnett (pilot and episodes 2, 3 and 4),
E. Arnot Robertson (episodes 1 and 5–14),
Frank Muir, Denis Norden, Nancy Spain
Pamela Frankau
Ted Kavanagh[n 2]
2 5 Aug–25 Oct 1957 10 Jack Longland Muir, Norden, Robertson, Spain
3 30 Apr–26 Aug 1958 13 Longland Muir, Norden, Robertson, Spain
Christmas
special
25 Dec 1958 1 Longland Muir, Norden, Robertson, Spain
4 6 May 1959–15 Jul 1959 11 Longland Muir, Norden, Robertson, Spain
5 22 Dec 1959–22 Mar 1960 13 Longland Muir, Norden, Robertson, Spain
6 22 Sep–16 Dec 1960 13 Longland Muir, Norden, Robertson, Spain
7 4 Jun–30 Jul 1961 9 Longland Muir, Norden, Robertson, Spain
8 17 Sep 1961–5 Nov 1961 8 Longland Muir, Norden, Robertson,[n 3] Spain
Christmas
special
25 Dec 1961 1 Longland Muir, Norden, Dilys Powell, Spain
9 1 Jul–30 Sep 1962 13 Longland Muir, Norden, Powell, Spain
10 2 Apr–25 Jun 1963 13 Longland Muir, Norden, Powell, Spain
11 26 Nov 1963–25 Feb 1964 14 Longland Muir, Norden, Powell, Spain
"My Bard" 24 April 1964 1 Longland Muir, Norden, Powell, Spain Shakespeare
quatercentenary special
12 1 May–12 Jun 1964 7 Longland Muir, Norden, Powell, Anne Scott-James, Spain[n 4]
13 30 Oct–18 Dec 1964 8 Longland Muir, Norden, Powell, Scott-James
14 11 May–27 Jul 1965 12 Longland Muir, Norden, Powell, Scott-James
15 9 Nov 1965–16 Feb 1966 15 Longland Muir, Norden, Powell, Scott-James
16 6 Sep–27 Dec 1966 16 Longland Muir, Norden, Powell, Scott-James
17 4 Apr– 18 Jul 1967 15 Longland Muir, Norden, Powell, Scott-James Lionel Hale[n 5]
18 17 Jan–15 Apr 1968 15 Longland Muir, Norden, Powell, Scott-James
19 11 Nov 1968–13 Jan 1969 10 Longland Muir, Norden, Powell, Scott-James
20 28 Sep–21 Dec 1969 13 Longland Muir, Norden, Powell, Scott-James
Dickens edition 26 Sep 1970 1 Longland Muir, Norden, Powell, Scott-James
21 15 Oct–31 Dec 1970 13 Longland Muir, Norden, Powell, Scott-James John Wells[n 6]
22 27 Sep–27 Dec 1971 14 Longland Muir, Norden, Powell, Scott-James
23 1 Oct–24 Dec 1972 13 Longland Muir, Norden, Powell, Scott-James
24 2 Oct–25 Dec 1973 Longland Muir, Norden, Powell, Scott-James
25 1 Oct–23 Nov 1974 13 Longland Muir, Norden, Powell, Scott-James
26 30 Sep–30 Dec 1975 14 Longland Muir, Norden, Powell, Scott-James Wells[n 7]
Katherine Whitehorn[n 8]
27 5 Oct–28 Dec 1976 13 Longland Muir, Norden, Powell, Scott-James
28 5 Oct–28 Dec 1977 13 Longland Muir, Norden, Powell, Scott-James
29 27 Sep–20 Dec 1978 13 John Julius Norwich Muir, Norden, Powell, Scott-James Barry Took[n 9]
30 26 Sep–19 Dec 1979 13 Norwich Antonia Fraser, Muir, Norden, Powell Took[n 9]
31 28 Sep–21 Dec 1980 13 Norwich Fraser, Muir, Norden, Powell Took [n 10]
32 30 Dec 1981–24 Mar 1982 13 Norwich Fraser, Muir, Norden, Powell Took[n 9]
33 8 Dec 1982–2 Mar 1983 13 Fraser Muir, Norden, Powell, Irene Thomas
34 22 Nov 1983–31 Jan 1984 13 Michael O'Donnell Fraser, Muir, Norden, Powell
35 4 Dec 1984–5 Mar 1985 13 O'Donnell Fraser, Muir, Norden, Powell Edward Blishen[n 11]
36 31 Dec 1985–25 Mar 1986 13 O'Donnell Fraser, Muir, Norden, Powell Libby Purves, Gay Search
Joan Bakewell, P. D. James and
Victoria Glendinning[n 12]
37 17 Jun–4 Aug 1987 8 O'Donnell Fraser, Muir, Norden, Powell
38 8 Aug–26 Sep 1988 8 O'Donnell Fraser, Muir, Norden, Powell Search and Glendinning[n 13]
Source: BBC Genome and Global British Comedy Collaborative.[6][10]

Syndication and spin-offs[edit]

Over the years My Word! was syndicated through the BBC Transcription Services in more than 35 countries including not only Anglophone locations such as Australia and the US, but in countries including Chile, Germany and Russia.[25] A televised version of the programme ran in Britain for a series of ten episodes on BBC Television from 10 July to 11 September 1960. The team and host were the same as for the radio series of that year; the producer was Barrie Edgar.[26] A companion radio programme, My Music, ran from 1967 to 1993. When it was mooted, Muir and Norden told Shryane that they were too busy to take on another series, but they allowed themselves to be persuaded and became permanent features on the programme.[27] In 1972 and 1973 the two shows joined forces to present Christmas specials, My Word! It's My Music, with Longland and Steve Race as co-hosts and the regular My Word team joined by Ian Wallace and David Franklin (1972), and Wallace and John Amis (1973).[28]

Between 1974 and 1989, Muir and Norden published five collections of their My Word! stories, and in 1991 an omnibus edition of the five volumes was issued:

  • You Can't Have Your Kayak and Heat It. Eyre Methuen. 1973. ISBN 978-0-41-330660-9.
  • Upon My Word!. London: Eyre Methuen. 1974. ISBN 978-0-41-332660-7.
  • Take My Word for It. London: Eyre Methuen. 1978. ISBN 978-0-41-706230-3.
  • Oh, My Word!. London: Eyre Methuen. 1980. ISBN 978-0-41-347510-7.
  • You Have My Word. London: Methuen. 1989. ISBN 978-0-41-361810-8.
  • The Utterly Ultimate 'My Word!' Collection. London: Mandarin Paperbacks. 1991. ISBN 978-0-74-930824-7., a collection of all five volumes.

Notes, references and sources[edit]

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ auscultation: listening, with ear or stethoscope, to the sound of the movement of heart, lungs, or other organs; bumblepuppy: a game played with bats or rackets in which two players strike a ball attached to a post by a string in opposite directions; cabless: unable to get a taxi; crinkum-crankum: full of twists and turns; defenestration: being thrown from a window; hebetude: dullness; hobbledehoy: a clumsy or awkward youth; katydid: an American grasshopper; lallation: a speech impediment in which the letter "r" is sounded as "l"; macaronic: describing a burlesque form of verse in which vernacular words are mixed with those of another language; palmiped: web-footed; rahat lokum: Turkish delight; scrimshaw: ivory or bone, decorated with engraved designs; tatterdemalion: a ragamuffin; unau: the South American two-toed sloth; widdershins: anticlockwise. (OED)
  2. ^ Pamela Frankau deputised for Arnot Robertson in the 7 May episode; Ted Kavanagh stood in for Denis Norden on 7 and 14 May.[17]
  3. ^ Arnot Robertson died on 21 September, after the recording of this series. The later episodes were broadcast posthumously.[10]
  4. ^ Nancy Spain died in an air crash on 21 March 1964, and the two episodes she had recorded shortly before were broadcast posthumously as the first two of series 12. The Shakespeare special had been recorded in 1963.[10]
  5. ^ Lionel Hale stood in for Norden, 2 and 23 May and for Frank Muir, 9 May.[18]
  6. ^ Deputising for Norden, 29 October and 5 November.[19]
  7. ^ Standing in for Muir, 18 October and for Norden, 30 December.[19]
  8. ^ Standing in for Anne Scott-James, 25 October 1975.[20]
  9. ^ a b c Substituting for Muir.[21]
  10. ^ Substituting for Norden.[21]
  11. ^ Standing in for Norden in two episodes in February 1985. A recording of one of these episodes survives.[22]
  12. ^ Successively deputising for Antonia Fraser, one episode apiece.[23]
  13. ^ Standing in for Fraser on 15 and 22 August 1988 respectively.[24]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Lamb, p. 19
  2. ^ Muir, p. 209
  3. ^ a b Muir, pp. 209–210
  4. ^ "Jack Longland", BBC Genome. Retrieved 3 May 2021
  5. ^ "My Word: Longland: Umpire", BBC Genome. Retrieved 2 May 2021
  6. ^ a b c d e "My Word!", BBC Genome. Retrieved 3 May 2021
  7. ^ Muir, p. 210
  8. ^ "The Home Service, Tuesday 1 January", Radio Times, 30 December 1956, p. 24; "My Word, 1957"; BBC Genome. Retrieved 3 May 2021; "My Word, Lionel Hale" BBC Genome. Retrieved 3 May 2021; "My Word! Barry Took"; BBC Genome. Retrieved 3 May 2021; "My Word, 1986"; BBC Genome. Retrieved 3 May 2021; "My Word! 1988", BBC Genome. Retrieved 3 May 2021
  9. ^ Muir, p. 232
  10. ^ a b c d "My Word!", Global British Comedy Collaborative. Retrieved 3 May 2021
  11. ^ a b Muir, pp. 210–215
  12. ^ a b Muir, pp. 212–213
  13. ^ BBC TS Transcription at 21m 29s
  14. ^ Muir and Norden, p. 13
  15. ^ "The Home Service, Wednesday, 6 June", Radio Times, 3 June 1956, p. 30
  16. ^ "The Home Service, Tuesday 1 January", Radio Times, 30 December 1956, p. 24
  17. ^ "My Word, 1957", BBC Genome. Retrieved 3 May 2021
  18. ^ "My Word, Lionel Hale", BBC Genome. Retrieved 3 May 2021
  19. ^ a b "My Word – John Wells", BBC Genome. Retrieved 3 May 2021
  20. ^ "28 October 1975". BBC Genome. Retrieved 3 May 2021
  21. ^ a b "My Word! Barry Took", BBC Genome. Retrieved 3 May 2021
  22. ^ "165 Limbo", Internet Archive. Retrieved 3 May 2021
  23. ^ "My Word, 1986", BBC Genome. Retrieved 3 May 2021
  24. ^ "My Word! 1988", BBC Genome. Retrieved 3 May 2021
  25. ^ Muir, p. 214
  26. ^ "My Word! BBC Television", and "My Word! BBC Television", BBC Genome. Retrieved 3 May 2021
  27. ^ Muir, pp. 214–215
  28. ^ "My Word! It's My Music", BBC Genome. Retrieved 3 May 2021

Sources[edit]

External links[edit]