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Ted revisits St Hilary's radio revolution

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: December 17, 2013


  • Community performers record Bethlehem by Bernard Walke, below right, for a BBC outside broadcast at St Hilary in 1935. Broadcaster Ted Gundry, below left, has produced a CD about the play

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A nativity play that made radio history is the subject of a new CD by Cornish broadcasting legend Ted Gundry.

Bethlehem, written by controversial vicar Bernard Walke, was the very first BBC outside broadcast back in the 1920s and paved the way for a new radio age. Placing the Christmas story in the West Cornwall village of St Hilary, it was performed by members of the community. A major challenge for the BBC engineers on location in 1927, the operation involved cables being run through fields of bullocks between the church and post office in order to carry the signal back to London.

Ninety years after that pioneering radio moment, former BBC Radio Cornwall journalist and presenter Ted Gundry has gathered extracts from the 1920s broadcasts and combined them with interviews he conducted with members of the original cast during the 1980s. There is also an insight into technical challenges faced by the BBC, along with an appreciation of Bernard Walke and his sometimes controversial and memorable ministry.

Ted, who celebrated his eightieth birthday last month, accumulated a wealth of interviews and programmes during his long career. Using these archives, he has assembled a documentary programme, which has now been released on CD in aid of The Q Fund, which provides small grants to researchers and writers in Cornwall.

One of a small group who re-enacted Bethlehem for a BBC broadcast in the late-1990s, Ted explained how the original live performance came about.

"In 1927 the new British Broadcasting Corporation undertook a very significant experiment which would shape the future of both broadcasting and community life," he said. "It undertook its first outside broadcast and travelled to St Hilary in Penwith to do it. The vicar of St Hilary was the controversial and much revered Rev Bernard Walke, and it was his new nativity play which excited BBC producer, Filson Young.

"It was a community play and, to celebrate 70 years of outside broadcasting, the BBC revived the play, with several members of the original cast taking part."

In addition to the nativity play, Ted also touches on the Mr Walke's influence on the parish of St Hilary.

Memories of Walke's time there are dominated by two great events: the Christmas play and the desecration of the church. The former brought joy to millions, while the latter caused divisions in theological circles and had its origins in religious ructions centuries earlier.

By the end of the 19th century Cornwall was virtually a "closed shop" of Methodism and it would have been a brave man who tried to turn back the swelling tide. Step forward Father Bernard Walke. Little more than 150 years after Wesley's preaching tours of Cornwall stirred the populace, Walke began his mission to restore what was known as the "old religion". Unfortunately for him, some were prepared to defend their own brand of Christianity with the same stones and insults which their ancestors had thrown at Wesley.

While local Methodists and Anglicans mostly tolerated Walke's services and the adornment of the church in the Catholic tradition, it drew the unwelcome attentions of the Protestant Truth Society.

One Sunday morning two coach-loads of protesters from Plymouth arrived armed with crowbars, hammers, axes and other wrecking tools. The service was disrupted by the chanting crowd, who then smashed their way into the church and set about its desecration.

The mob vandalised everything in their path until every last symbol of the old religion had been smashed. However, if the mob had hoped to stop Walke, they were mistaken, because the violence was greeted locally with disbelief and horror.

Bernard Walke recorded the many stories of his life in the parish in Twenty Years At St Hilary, which is published by Truran at £7.99.

Ted Gundry's CD is available from Waterstones in Truro, the Federation of Old Cornwall Societies website (oldcornwall.net) or by emailing bertbiscoe@btinternet.com

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