More than fifty years ago, many recordings were made [unofficially and privately, and often off-air] – by studio technicians, orchestral players and production staff – of a BBC 'house' orchestra in Manchester. This had begun life as the Northern Variety Orchestra in 1951, was in turn succeeded by the Northern Dance Orchestra in 1956 and finally metamorphosed into the Northern Radio Orchestra in 1974. During its long existence as the NDO, it justifiably became regarded by many as the finest 'big band' in the UK, and employed some of the very best musicians and arrangers in the business.
Over a lengthy period of time, these recordings were painstakingly acquired and restored – frequently requiring digital re-mastering – by Ian C. Reed, who had been a sound supervisor at BBC Manchester. In 2010, he conceived the idea of what became known as the NDO PROJECT, and set about preparing to issue some of the material in CD format, with, of course, relevant permissions from the BBC and the Musicians' Union.
The venture quickly 'took-off' and Ian soon enlisted the assistance of his wife Joyce, together with researcher Rod Cotter, and Peter Pilbeam, who had been producer of all the orchestra's broadcasts. As more and more recordings surfaced featuring the NVO, the NDO and the NRO, a total of seven double CDs was eventually issued. To date, donations from purchasers have raised around £5000 for music-based charities.
Although the original intention had been to 'call a halt' at this juncture , it was decided to continue – and widen the remit to include other BBC light orchestras – when considerably more material emerged, which had been in the possession of other private collectors. These included Paul Arden-Taylor, Brian Reynolds, Keith Waugh, Peter Pilbeam, David Fleming-Williams and the late Alan Bunting, together with several other former BBC employees and orchestral players.
It has resulted in the creation of further double CD sets, one featuring the BBC Scottish Variety and Scottish Radio Orchestras, another with the BBC Northern Ireland Light Orchestra, and now – with the advent of this latest addition – two double CD sets which turn the spotlight on the BBC Midland Light Orchestra and its successor, the BBC Midland Radio Orchestra.
As recounted in the informative notes accompanying this new release, the MLO, which had been established in 1941, was the 'pride and joy' of the BBC and could be heard 'on the air' several times a week, its versatility and musicianship knowing no bounds. It was most fortunate, during the latter part of its existence, in retaining the services of two well-regarded conductors – Jack Coles and Gilbert Vinter, both of whom were also highly-competent composers and arrangers. In fact, Vinter had previously held the position of the orchestra's principal conductor in the early post-WW2 years, between 1946 and 1955, albeit with a short break during 1953.
Following a change of BBC policy, the MRO came into existence in 1973, utilising a different lineup from the MLO, dispensing with the brass and enlarging the string section. Under the baton of its first – and, as it would transpire – only permanent musical director, Norrie Paramor, the orchestra was tasked with performing a rather different [and more 'pop'-oriented] fare than its predecessor. However, it remained a most excellent band of musicians and continued to employ many fine arrangers.
Sadly, Norrie Paramor passed away in 1979, and thereafter many prominent guest conductor / arrangers occupied the rostrum. A long, [but by no means exhaustive], list of names includes John Fox, Neil Richardson, Bernard Herrmann, Geoff Love, Stanley Black, Johnny Douglas, Johnny Gregory, Frank Chacksfield, Iain Sutherland, and David Snell, together with the MRO’s pianist, Harold Rich, who quite often acted as deputy conductor in addition to contributing many arrangements to the orchestra's 'pad' [i.e. library of compositions].
The two CDs in this new set highlight the contrasting styles and differing repertoires of the two orchestras, although there is often some overlap.
Disc 1 [MLO] features a fair amount of 'traditional' Light Music, e.g. compositions by Gilbert Vinter, Trevor Duncan, Frederic Bayco, Terrig Tucci, William Hill-Bowen, Albert Ketelbey, Cecil Norman, Jack Coles and Fred Hartley.
Disc 2 [MRO] largely concentrates on the work of composers who flourished during the 'golden years' of quality popular music. We hear pieces by – inter-alia – Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Leonard Bernstein, Hoagy Carmichael, Richard Rodgers, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Jimmy Van Heusen and Vernon Duke.
Whilst it is evident that much effort and great care has gone into the production and presentation of all the NDO PROJECT CD editions, it is with regret that I feel obliged to mention two little 'niggles' –  Most unfortunately, no composers or publishers are credited in any booklets in the series, which has been due to space limitations.  On this occasion no details are given regarding the name of the conductor of each track. However, it certainly doesn't detract from the enjoyment of the music itself, which is excellently performed throughout, and all the omitted information may be obtained from the NDO PROJECT, or the MCPS, if required.
Both ensembles had a very distinctive sound. Many, if not most, of the superb arrangements were specially made for – and showcased the talents of – the Midland players, who would be very frequently heard on radio broadcasts in the 'good old days', before the scrapping of 'needle-time' restrictions and the resultant disbanding of a number of BBC orchestras.
The advent of BBC Radio 2 effectively sounded the death-knoll for 'live' light music on British airwaves, which is now – regrettably – only a fond memory for an ever-dwindling band of enthusiasts. To quote the words of Lionel Bart, 'Fings Ain’t What They Used To Be' !
'Autumn Leaves' is a most welcome new CD release and, together with its predecessors, is a wonderful reminder of the 'sound of music'[!] as it was heard on radio in the UK for around three decades after WW2.
© Tony Clayden 2020
Full details of the availability of this and other NDO PROJECT CDs may be obtained through email here.
Tracklistings may be seen on the NDO website- www.northerndanceorchestra.org.uk