The hard-edged satirical musical Oh What a Lovely War (1963), originated by Charles Chilton, helped to change public attitudes to armed conflicts. The deference shown towards the generals who led thousands of young men to their deaths began to evaporate. A starker, more cynical realism gradually took its place.
But then Chilton, who was once described by the Sunday Telegraph as the one genius the BBC ever had on its staff, was always ahead of his time. When he wrote and produced the radio science fiction adventure Journey into Space (1953-58), he recounted man’s conquest of the moon four years before it actually happened.
Chilton was still a baby when his father was killed in the First World War. After leaving school at the age of 14, he was walking past the BBC’s new London headquarters, Broadcasting House, one day when he decided to ask a commissionaire whether there were any vacancies.
He was taken on as a messenger boy and, by the time he was 17, he was working in the gramophone library. There, he discovered a love of music, particularly jazz. Sometimes working late at night, he started introducing jazz programmes until the then head of variety, John Watt, decided that Chilton’s cockney tones were too common for the BBC. After elocution lessons, Chilton was reinstated.
During the Second World War, he joined the Royal Air Force, teaching aircrew how to navigate by the stars. This led to an interest in astronomy, which eventually resulted in the adventures of Luna and her crew, Jet Morgan, Mitch, Lemmy and Doc in Journey into Space. At its peak, five million listeners were tuning in, making the serial the last radio drama to attract a bigger audience than any television production.
The programmes, translated into 17 other languages, were sold to 58 countries, but, as Chilton was a member of the BBC staff, he received no royalties. His phlegmatic reaction was merely a recognition that Mozart had died a pauper.
In 1958, Chilton went to northern France to try to find his father’s grave. At an official cemetery, there was no headstone, merely a commemorative wall on which the names of 35,000 soldiers were listed.
Another personal discovery gave birth to a radio programme, A Long, Long Trail (1960), named after a 1914 song with a similar title. A second version of the production, introduced by Bud Flanagan, was heard by Gerry Raffles, manager of the Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, which was run by the redoubtable Joan Littlewood.
He recognised that it had stage potential and, although Littlewood disagreed with him, it became Oh What a Lovely War, which cleverly used First World War songs, some of them famous, such as It’s a Long, Long Way to Tipperary, others less so, such as Here Comes the Dream Man, parodied by Chilton as Here Comes the Whizz-Bang (a small, high-velocity shell).
Three months after its East End premiere, it transferred to Wyndham’s in the West End, and in 1969 Richard Attenborough chose it for his debut as a movie director with an all-star cast.
For the rest of his long life, Chilton was feted by fans and followers, although, unfortunately, the BBC website made no mention of his death.
Charles Chilton, who was born on June 15, 1917, died on January 2, aged 95.
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