I’ve published this before, but I’m sharing it again. David Davis, ‘Uncle David’ and the other presenters of Children’s Hour and other programmes for children were such an important part of my childhood. it’s difficult to find anything to compare it with these days… I’m not saying it was better (maybe it was) but it was different. This is an obituary to someone who was so real to me and other children, although I never met him:
Obituary: David Davis
Friday 03 May 1996
Children’s Hour, which stirred the imagination of countless young listeners, reached its heyday under the direction of David Davis, as he was commonly known. These were the days of Uncle Mac, Larry the Lamb, Worzel Gummidge and The Wind in the Willows.
Davis had joined Children’s Hour at the beginning of 1935 as a staff accompanist. After education at the Queen’s College, Oxford he had qualified as a professional musician and become a schoolmaster. When the vacancy for an accompanist occurred on Children’s Hour, one of the regular producers, Barbara Sleigh, recalled a young man who had taught at her uncle’s school and who used to improvise at the piano with skill and pleasure. She found that he had moved to Bembridge School in the Isle of Wight.
Davis was sent a copy of The Listener’s advertisement which got delayed in the post, so that when he applied it was past the closing date. However he was given an audition, did well at sight-reading a difficult piece, and was offered the vacancy. The Headmaster of Bembridge commented: “Sir, this is not the act of a gentleman”, adding “That man will go strumming through life.”
Soon Davis was also found to be an excellent performer at the microphone as a reader. His first long serial reading was Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty. After his retirement he made professional recordings of this much-loved story, as well as of The Wind in the Willows and Kipling’s Just So Stories. He was able to persuade the Kipling estate to allow his stories to be broadcast – provided that there were no changes.
Early in 1936 Davis married Barbara Sleigh. Under the BBC rules at the time a married couple were not allowed to work in the same department. Barbara had to resign from the staff, but as a freelance she continued to adapt books for dramatic presentation on Children’s Hour. Davis himself adapted A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh, which entranced countless children over the years with Norman Shelley playing Pooh.
At the outbreak of war Davis was seconded to the Fire Service in London, but soon joined the Children’s Hour team, who were broadcasting from Bristol with Derek McCulloch (Uncle Mac), the Head of Children’s Hour, as the chief presenter. He introduced the future Queen on her first broadcast on Children’s Hour from Windsor Castle on 13 October 1940.
Davis joined the RNVR in 1942, serving mainly in the Mediterranean, and for a time attached to the Hellenic Navy. The staff gave him a pipe lighter – he was always a keen pipe smoker – which went down with the rest of his possessions when his ship was sunk. But he survived, worked for a while in forces broadcasting, and in 1946 rejoined his London colleagues.
Davis became the Head of Children’s Hour in January 1953, with Josephine Plummer as his Assistant Head. His office was in the Langham Hotel, where he had a notice-board of letters and drawings, many from young listeners, and a collection of toy animals. In the corner was a small piano on which he improvised. At this time television began to emerge as a rival for children’s attention. However it did not occur to the Children’s Hour staff that the well-established, popular radio programme would ever disappear.
Nevertheless, children in their millions were now turning to watch the box. By 1964 the daily listening audience to Children’s Hour had dropped to a mere 25,000. Frank Gillard, who had become the Director of Radio the year before, decided it must be terminated. It happened on Good Friday, which Davis thought was appropriate. There was a critical motion in Parliament, signed by 60 MPs, but the deed was done.
Davis spent the last six years of his BBC career as a drama producer, specialising in Victoriana, for which he had a passion. Particularly remembered is George Eliot’s Middlemarch with Jill Balcon. In retirement he continued reading stories on the radio in that beautifully modulated voice.
William Eric Davis (David Davis), radio executive: born Malvern 27 June 1908; Head of Children’s Hour, BBC 1953-61, Head of Children’s Programmes (Sound) 1961-64; drama producer 1964-70; retired 1970; married 1935 Barbara de Riemer Sleigh (died 1982, one son, two daughters); died London 29 April 1996.