Charles Chilton, who has died aged 95, created two of the BBC’s classic 1950s radio serials, Riders of the Range and Journey into Space and in 1963 wrote the stage show Oh, What a Lovely War!
Chilton was a prolific talent, writing and producing scores of popular and successful BBC radio programmes. The adventures of Jet Morgan in Journey into Space recounted man’s conquest of the Moon and an expedition to Mars. The serial ran for only two years, but it enthralled an entire generation for whom a lunar landing was still a far-fetched fantasy, and by 1955 it had built an audience of five million, so becoming the last radio drama to record higher ratings than television .
His earlier radio success, Riders of the Range, had been launched in January 1949. Chilton drew on authentic background material about the Wild West, assembled from documents and diaries of contemporary Americans, to shape the adventures of his cowboy hero, Jeff Arnold (played by Paul Carpenter), and his companions Luke, Jim Forsythe and faithful dog Rustler.
The Western saga captured the imagination of post-war listener. In 1950 he was asked to script a comic strip version for the popular boys’ paper Eagle, and travelled to Tombstone, Arizona, where he was made an Honorary Marshal.
Chilton went on to produce the comedy series Take It From Here, followed by documentaries on subjects as diverse as Victorian Britain, the General Strike, the Mormons and the American Civil War. Then his treatment of the Great War, based on his father’s experiences, brought him enormous success on the London stage with Oh, What a Lovely War!
In one of the most bitter anti-war plays ever staged in London, Chilton juxtaposed the slaughter of the trenches with the music hall songs of the day, a device acclaimed by the critic Kenneth Tynan as “a double coup: it is revolutionary alike in content and form”. Three months after opening at the Theatre Royal Stratford, east London, the show transferred to Wyndham’s in the West End, and in 1969 was filmed by Richard Attenborough.
Charles Frederick William Chilton was born on June 15 1917 in Euston, north London, the son of a clerk at the family firm of painters and decorators who had been posted to the Western Front that spring and never returned. He was killed at Arras on the first day of the German spring offensive in March 1918. At 19 years old, he had never met his newborn son.
Charles’s mother remarried after the war, but died when he was five. He was sent to live with his paternal grandmother, a widow with 13 children all living together on one floor of a rundown Georgian house in Sandwich Street, Euston.
Leaving St Pancras Church School when he was 14, Charles was apprenticed to an electric sign maker, but while walking home one day in 1932 found himself passing the newly-built Broadcasting House in Portland Place, home of the BBC. He asked the commissionaire if there were any jobs.
Discovering that the lad was a war orphan, the commissionaire suggested he apply for a post in the publications department. Charles was hired and by 15 was delivering copies of Radio Times around Broadcasting House.
He later moved to a job as an assistant in the gramophone library, where he discovered his love of music, especially jazz. When in the 1930s the BBC began to play selections of recorded music to fill the gaps between live broadcasts and the midnight news, he helped compile the playlists, and persuaded his bosses that perhaps one night a week they could play some jazz.
Chilton himself was allowed to introduce the music, making him one of the BBC’s first disc jockeys. But when John Watt, the head of variety, heard one of Chilton’s evening broadcasts, he thought his Cockney voice sounded too common and ordered him off the air. Without Watt’s knowledge, Chilton was sent for elocution lessons and reinstated.
He started a BBC Jazz Band (he played guitar) and played in another band in the evenings and at weekends. By 1940, promoted to assist Leslie Perowne in the variety department, he had established himself at the BBC as a producer of music programmes. His Radio Rhythm Club, which ran for five years, proved popular with British troops throughout the war.
In 1941 Chilton joined the RAF as an air gunner in Bomber Command, but was later assigned to a training squadron, instructing aircrew to navigate by the stars, developing as he did so an interest in astronomy that would later lead to the radio adventures of Jet Morgan. He continued to play in his band and wrote and recorded programmes for the BBC’s Overseas Radio Broadcasting Services, a forerunner of British Forces Radio.
In early 1945, on the way to Ceylon to work for South East Asia Command running radio services for British troops in Burma, Chilton was reported missing, presumed dead. He had sailed from Britain to Egypt and then on to North West India where he was waiting for a flight to Ceylon. Repeatedly delayed to make room for more important passengers, Chilton decided to travel on by train, a journey that took nearly three weeks. When he finally arrived in Ceylon, he found that the aircraft to which he had finally been allocated had crashed, killing everyone on board. As his name was on the passenger list, he was presumed to be dead.
At Radio South East Asia he shared an office with David Jacobs, a young able seaman, who later played all the minor voices on Journey Into Space.
Returning to the BBC after the war, Chilton worked with some of the best-known names in music and broadcasting, Roy Plomley and Alistair Cooke among them. He also began to develop an interest in popular American music, and at the end of the 1940s was sent to America to research programme ideas. The result was Riders of the Range, which ran from 1950 until 1953 and at its peak drew a weekly audience of 10 million listeners.
As well as writing three weekly comic strips, and writing, producing and directing at least one weekly live radio show, Chilton also worked on other radio projects, and had a lengthy spell producing The Goon Show.
On a family holiday to Italy in 1958, Chilton stopped in northern France to find his father’s grave, but was unable to locate a headstone at the official cemetery. He eventually found his father’s name inscribed on a wall commemorating some 35,000 soldiers who died in the battle of Arras, all “missing, presumed dead”.
This episode led to Chilton’s radio programme A Long, Long Trail, first broadcast in 1961. Gerry Raffles, director of Theatre Workshop, Stratford, heard it and asked him to write a stage version of the programme: that turned out to be Oh, What a Lovely War!
At the BBC Chilton remained as busy as ever, producing radio documentaries on subjects ranging from music hall and Edwardian London to the American Civil War, using popular song as a way of linking different sections together. His programmes also satisfied Chilton’s never-ending thirst for knowledge, a result of his lack of formal education.
In 1972 he was awarded an MBE for services to radio. He retired from the BBC after 46 years, but continued to work for the corporation as a freelance for many years.
Chilton produced a number of books on the Old West including The Book of the West and the men who created its legends (1961) and Discovery of the American West (1970). He wrote three science fiction novels, Journey Into Space (1954), The Red Planet (1956) and The World in Peril (1960), all based on his 1950s radio serial.
He was still writing in his eighties, and lecturing at a British arm of the University of New York in London. Every Sunday morning he could be found conducting walking tours around Hampstead for The Original London Walks.
Charles Chilton married, in 1947, Penelope Colbeck, whom he met when she joined the BBC’s wartime gramophone department as a newly-qualified shorthand typist. She survives him with their daughter and two sons.
From The Daily Telegraph.
A London Walk costs £9 – £7 concession. To join a London Walk, simply meet your guide at the designated tube station at the appointed time. Details of all London Walks can be found at www.walks.com.