In the seventh part of his series revealing the hidden treasures which will soon find a home at the new Library of Birmingham, Graeme Brown examines the Charles Parker Archive
In the early 20th century the advent of broadcasting opened up new possibilities for communication – but it took a former submarine commander in Birmingham to give a voice to the masses.
Charles Parker, who became a BBC Radio producer after ending his career in the sea, went on to become a pioneer for putting the working classes and downtrodden parts of society on the radio waves.
He took inspiration from an array of subjects, from boxing and fishing, to polio, travellers and the building of Britain’s first motorway – but the voices of real people were always at the heart.
Meanwhile, he amassed an array of tapes, production books, papers, correspondence and scripts, which are now housed at Birmingham Central Library.
Parker remained on the radical side of most things he did – including radio producing, lecturing and theatre, and very often his work was tempered by socialist views.
Sian Roberts, head of collections development in the library’s archives and heritage department, said Parker made a mark on broadcasting by giving a voice to those previously marginalised.
She said: “He was one of the first people to actually put ordinary people on the radio, because before him all there was was BBC English.
“He was a fascinating character. He was a submarine commander during the second world war and in 1954 he came to Birmingham to work as a radio producer at the BBC, which he did until the early seventies.
“He was fascinated by ordinary people and their speech, and the tradition of folk music.”
She added: “The real wealth of the archive is the ordinary people talking about themselves in their own voices. Parker was interested in all sorts of groups of people who at the time were other people were not recording. For example there are hours and hours of tapes with Irish immigrants, and immigrants from the Caribbean.
“He was also interested in people with disabilities.”
While he was working for the BBC, making him in a sense part of the establishment, Parker was never one to surround himself with the elite, and was an active member of the West Midlands Gypsy Liaison Group.
His best-known work was the ground-breaking Radio Ballads, for which he was given a coveted Italia Prize.
He worked alongside folk singers Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger to document the lives and experiences of working people through their own voices and music.
The work is considered among the classics of radio production, and was re-issued by Topic Records in 1999. In all, eight “Ballads” were made – The Ballad Of John Axon: Death Of A Heroic Train Driver, Song Of A Road: Building The M1, The First Motorway, Singing The Fishing: North Sea Herring Fishermen, The Body Blow: The Battle Against Polio, The Fight Game: Why Boxers Fight, On The Edge: The Experience Of Growing Up In The 1950s and 60s, The Big Hewer: Britain’s Coal Industry and The Travelling People: Britain’s Travelling Communities.
Parker was born in Bournemouth in 1919, as broadcasting was just beginning, but his contribution to oral history kicked into gear when he came to the second city.
He worked as a radio producer for the BBC in Birmingham from 1954 to 1972 – alongside roles as a lecturer, folk musician and political activist who campaigned for justice for marginalised communities.
Ms Roberts said: “He was very politically-motivated. He had an interest in things like travellers’ rights and disability rights, but he was just passionate about ordinary people’s views and enabling people to be heard.