Don Bentley rode a taxi home after his night shift on the Chronicle and was surprised to find the cab driver listening to the BBC World Service on the car radio.
Usually it was a country and western tape or talk-back radio or, worse, a radio quiz show. The latter particularly annoyed Bentley because he was expected to join in with the same enthusiasm as the taxi driver who invariably came up with more correct answers than he did.
An item on jazz and then the news from the BBC in London enabled Bentley to put a particularly hard night at the Chronicle typeface behind him, and at the same time recall the time he dipped his toe into the deep and sometimes treacherous ocean that is the world of broadcasting. In particular, Bentley remembered a song-and-dance routine that would sink his career in radio forever.
Bentley had once worked for the BBC World Service as a news script-writer but in his three years at its Bush House headquarters he never felt comfortable with the constant, insistent deadlines that came virtually every hour.
As his cab from the Chronicle raced towards his home, and the newsreader read the summary that ended the eight-minute bulletin, he thought of the journalists in Bush House at that moment preparing to gulp down food and a cups of tea before the treadmill of the next bulletin, and then the bulletins beyond. With newspapers, journalists worked to a set of deadlines at the end of the working day, an arrangement Bentley preferred, along with a preference for the written word instead of the spoken one.
All the same Bentley, quick and handy with words, had made an impression when he joined the BBC in the 1980s and it soon became clear management had big plans for him. After a brief time, the BBC entrusted him with the showpiece bulletin of the evening, Radio Newsreel, which carried taped dispatches from correspondents in the field and live actuality if the news warranted it.
Broadcast journalism is fast-paced and pressured and life on the airwaves had not been all smooth sailing for Bentley. There had been a few slip-ups of the sort that would never occur in newspaper journalism, which was free of the pitfalls of nuance, and mispronunciation.
On one occasion an actress filling in for a professional newsreader had mispronounced a word in Bentley’s script, giving it a lewd connotation for which Bentley, initially, had fallen foul of the BBC broadcast police. A story about the Pope issuing a condemnation of birth control was read as John Paul II issuing a “condom-nation”.
The broadcast police, though, accepted that it was an honest mistake by an actress more at home in radio drama. Bentley, too, was given the benefit of the doubt after the BBC authorities had studied the script that had been handed to the newsreader to ensure that spellings had not been changed, and hyphens inserted to change emphasis between syllables.
Bentley’s rise through the ranks of the BBC World Service could be described as meteoric and at first he warmed to the tasks at hand, especially producing a program like Radio Newsreel which comprised only one bulletin a shift and avoided the treadmill of the hourly news.
Bentley also began to devise ways of adding extra actuality to the broadcast, enabling him to put a personal stamp on it. People who heard a Radio Newsreel produced by Bentley would sense it was different, it would be brave and bold, a challenge to Aunty BBC’s conservatism.
Bentley’s new approach to the way the BBC World Service did things went down well with his colleagues, and it went down well with his seniors.
Bentley, however, was awaiting his moment to really shine, to produce a bulletin that he could add to a broadcast curriculum vitae he was compiling just in case he wanted to take his broadcast career further and forget about newspapers altogether.
Bentley’s opportunity came one night with the news that American dancer and film star Fred Astaire had died. Bentley’s moment of truth had arrived.
Astaire’s death, naturally, was an important item for the bulletin but Bentley wanted to take it further.
“Now what was that famous song that Astaire always sang?” Bentley asked his production secretary and she answered immediately, Dancing Cheek to Cheek.
The secretary said it was her mother’s favourite song.
“Well that’s it. We’ll get a song in the bulletin, Dancing Cheek to Cheek. Ring the record library,” Bentley called out. Bentley had never heard a song played on Radio Newsreel before. It would be a first, and cement his reputation.
Bentley had first to clear the idea with his immediate superior, the duty editor. The duty editor was nervous about approving such an innovation. He was not prepared to take responsibility for such a momentous decision – the first time anyone could remember music on Radio Newsreel in its 40-year history – and he referred the matter to his superior, the senior duty editor.
The production secretary, meanwhile, had returned from the record library with a recording of the song and they waited for the decision from on high.
Bentley was delighted to be told by the senior editor that he loved the idea and he let Bentley know that he, too, was in favour of change, of livening up the conservative Radio Newsreel when the occasion merited it. And this was certainly the occasion.
Bentley planned to run the song not during the bulletin but at the very end. Midway in the program would be the item from the Los Angeles correspondent giving details of Astaire’s career, after this had been flagged in the headlines. Then in the news summary the newsreader would announcement solemnly “… and in Los Angles the death had been announced of Fred Astaire’’, with Bentley’s script reading, “cue music …….. out together, dancing cheek to cheek.”
The bulletin had not been a particularly exciting one. Anti-apartheid protests in South Africa, a flood in Bangladesh, an earthquake in Ecuador. Bentley considered Astaire’s death the only interesting item and even before the newsreader had finished, as he counted down the seconds to the summary, he felt a sense of triumph that the bulletin he had produced had been unlike any other in the history of Radio Newsreel.
Into the last seconds, Bentley’s eye on the clock, he watched closely as the newsreader in her soundproof booth mouthed the words coming through his headphones, ‘‘and, finally, the death has been announced of Fred Astaire”.
He looked to the studio engineer, who at that moment was pressing a button to play the music.
“Heaven, I’m in heaven….’’ boomed out, and there were gasps in the newsroom and listeners on the line. Bentley in his inexperience, and his enthusiasm to do something different, had forgotten to double check what part of the song had been primed for broadcast. The studio technician had taken the start of the song and not the last few words.
It was the beginning of the end of Don Bentley’s career in radio.