The pictures were small, sometimes little bigger than postage stamps, and mostly in black-and-white. On the face of it unprepossessing. But for me, growing up in a small town in faraway Lincolnshire in the 1950s, the illustrations in Radio Times were windows into another world.
They were rich in imagination and culture. They brought into my home people, places and ideas I’d never heard of, just as the radio did. And the pictures were as potent as the programmes they represented. They had to be. In the early days, radio was a new, blind, mass medium. “Listeners-in” (as they were called) had to be enticed into a new activity.
It wasn’t just me; for years, Radio Times had the largest circulation in Europe (often selling 10–11 million copies), and those illustrations worked deeply into the hearts and minds of millions of other readers. Ostensibly, they were there to break up the mass of information on the magazine’s programme pages, to rest the eye. But Radio Times pictures became an art form of their own.
When the Chris Beetles Gallery in central London put on a fine show of hundreds of Eric Fraser drawings earlier this year, many visitors told Mr Beetles how they had cut every Fraser picture out of Radio Times and saved them in envelopes and drawers. They were too good to throw away at the end of the week.
Artists such as Fraser took RT very seriously. One of the survivors from those days, Val Biro, now 92, told me he came to Britain to train as a commercial artist from his native Hungary just before the Second World War because London was the centre of illustration in Europe. A regular RT commission was what every London illustrator craved. The pay was good (for many years it was three guineas, a modern-day £3.15). And the readership was tremendous, the biggest in the land. (Today’s price for an Eric Fraser original is between £500 and £2,000, by the way.)
The illustrators were the best in the country, and it was rapid and intense work. They read the scripts of the radio plays. They boned up on the precise details of costumes or the rituals they were drawing.
It was (and still is) a hectic routine: RT art editors commissioned by phone on Thursdays or Fridays, and the pictures had to be delivered (by hand of course) on Tuesday mornings, for publication a week later. No time for second thoughts, but many artists seemed to love the discipline.
The rigour of the craft of the Radio Times illustrator was derived perhaps from the ethos of John Reith, the BBC’s influential first director-general. Illustrations were high-minded. Artists strove to match the mood of the programmes, entice the potential listener-in and not divulge the plot.
They were continuing in the great tradition of British illustration, from Thomas Bewick (master 18th-century wood engraver) to Charles Dickens’s Phiz, and then the magazine Punch. On the furry newsprint paper used by Radio Times for decades, black-and-white drawings had a zip and panache most photographs lacked.
There had always been some colour in Radio Times, especially on the celebrated seasonal covers that readers remember with particular affection. With the advent of colour TV in 1967, colour barged its way inside the magazine with sometimes dramatic impact. Frank Bellamy’s Doctor Who illustrations from the 1970s still break out of the pages with an astonishing, almost 3D effect.
On its 90th birthday, Radio Times today has far more pages than ever before, on glossy paper. There is, of course, colour everywhere, unlike the black-and-white world I grew up in. But illustrations are a still significant part of the magazine, particularly on the radio pages.
The art of Radio Times is a great tradition. How nice to say it, in black and white.
The Art of Radio Times is on today at 11:30am on Radio 4.
You can buy Radio Times Cover Story – a new book browse through over 400 of these covers here.