‘Dick Barton’ in West Hampstead


On 7 October 1946 ‘Dick Barton: special agent’ began broadcasting on the BBC Light Programme. The first review which appeared in The Daily Worker said: ‘It is so bad as to be almost beyond belief.’But despite this, the audience for the show with its famous signature tune ‘The Devil’s Galop’, grew to an astonishing 15 million listeners who eagerly turned on their radio sets at 6.45pm every week day. Dick and his chums Snowey and Jock thrilled their fans by solving crimes, escaping from dangerous situations and saving the nation from disaster. The series ended after 711 programmes on Friday 30 March 1951 to be replaced by ‘The Daring Dexters’ a daily show about circus life, and then ‘The Archers’.

In the first episode Captain Richard Barton MC, ex-wartime commando, introduced himself by saying: 
‘Six years of battle, murder and sudden death just spoil you completely for a nice, peaceful office job. Don’t you agree, Snowey?’

From left to right, Dick, Snowey and Jock

Dick Barton was played by Noel Johnson, Snowey was played by John Mann and Jock was Alex McCrindle.

It’s not widely known that Noel Johnson was a local, living in a flat at 1 Woodchurch Road, West Hampstead, from 1948 to 1958.

Johnson was born in Birmingham in 1916, and after leaving school he took up acting in local repertory. At the outbreak of War he volunteered for the Royal Army Service Corps. Injured and evacuated from Dunkirk, he spent a year in hospital before being invalided out of the Forces in 1941. He returned to local rep and married Leonora Peacock, a theatrical scenery artist, in 1942. He joined the BBC Drama Repertory Company in 1945.

Norman Collins, the controller of the new Light Programme, asked his assistant John McMillan to research the idea of a daily ‘cloak and dagger’ soap opera. McMillan wrote the synopsis and biographies of the main characters. Noel Johnson was paid £18 a week and given a trial run of six programmes. The anticipated adult audience never materialised. Instead, ‘Dick Barton’ became essential listening for school boys. The BBC bowed to pressure and released a code of conduct which the hero – and the writers – had to abide by. This was published in the Daily Telegraph in January 1948.

The 12 rules of Dick Barton

  • Barton is intelligent as well as hard hitting. He relies as much upon brains as upon brawn.

  • He only uses force when normal, peaceful means of reaching a legitimate goal have failed.

  • Barton never commits an offence in the criminal code, no matter how desirable the means may be argued to justify the end.

  • In reasonable circumstances, he may deceive but he never lies.

  • Barton’s violence is restricted to clean socks on the jaw.

  • Barton’s enemies have more latitude in their behaviour but they may not indulge in actually giving any injury or punishment that is basically sadistic.

  • Barton and his friends do not wittingly involve innocent members of the public in situations that would cause them to be distressed.

  • Barton has now given up drink altogether. Drunken scenes are barred.

  • Sex, in the active sense, plays no part in the Barton adventures.

  • Horrific effects in general must be closely watched. Supernatural or pseudo-supernatural sequences are to be avoided – ghosts, night-prowling, gorillas or vampires.

  • Swearing and bad language generally may not be used by any character.

  • Political themes are unpopular as well as being occasionally embarrassing.

(The inclusion of ‘gorillas’ in rule 10 seems a bit bizarre – perhaps this was a throwback to the movie ‘King Kong’?)

In a later interview Johnson commented; ‘Barton was a proper character at first. He drank; he smoked and had a girl friend. As soon as the producers cottoned on to the fact we had a youth audience, they felt they had to become moral guardians.’

Adults criticised the show. Miss Marion Seddon informed readers of The Illustrated London News that; ‘children have no business listening at the homework hour to the exploits of Dick Barton and other characters leading abnormal lives.’
 
A letter to The Times said: ‘The BBC seems bent on turning children into a new kind of drug addict. They grow more concerned from day to day about what Dick Barton may do next than about their futures or the future of England.’

Despite what some adults said the popularity grew. On one occasion, when the show was not broadcast because of technical problems, all telephone lines to the BBC were jammed and large numbers of children traveled to Broadcasting House to see if Dick was in trouble and needed help.

Rather oddly, at first people did not know who was playing the part. Only when the omnibus edition was introduced on 4 January 1947, did the world discover that Noel Johnson was Dick Barton. The huge audience made Noel Johnson a star. His son Gareth said: ‘Dad was being asked to open fetes, to do things left, right and centre, which were all to do with Dick Barton. In kind of a way it coloured his career, for better and for worse.’ 

But Johnson felt type-cast and some producers refused to hire him. In 1949 at the height of his fame, when the BBC refused to give him a rise, he resigned. He went straight into a West End play, but as he said; ‘needless to say it flopped.’ The BBC tried to get him to change his mind and asked him how much he wanted. ‘They asked me to name my price. I said, 100 pounds a week.’  They said, ‘it sounds like you want danger money.’  Johnson replied, ‘that’s precisely what I want – and that was the end of it.’

So the BBC had to find a new Dick Barton. Over 1,000 people applied for the role, from policemen to dance band managers. A seven-year-old boy wrote on a postcard,‘I want to be Dick Barton, I have a gruff voice and I can shout.’ The role was eventually given to explorer Duncan Carse and then to Gordon Davies. 

1950s book from the BBC
Within two years Noel Johnson was staring as ‘Dan Dare’ in Radio Luxembourg’s adaptation of the Eagle comic character. This was a series which ran for five days a week from 2 July 1951for five years.

Johnson had a very long acting career in films and then TV, playing over 100 parts. Rather oddly, in a 1982 BBC2 play ‘The Combination’ he played a magistrate who admonishes two ten year old boys in court: ‘If I had to point the finger at any single responsible body, it would be the BBC for churning out Dick Barton every solitary night of the week. If anything was guaranteed to warp the spirit of the young, it’s that perverted rubbish!’

Towards the end of his career he appeared in the radio adaptation of ‘A Dance to the Music of Time’ by Anthony Powell. His numerous films included ‘Withnail and I’ (1986) and on TV ‘Rumpole of the Bailey’, ‘Inspector Morse’, ‘Doctor Who’ and ‘A Touch of Frost’. He died aged 82 in a small village outside Cardiff on 1 October 1999.

There is a short interview with Noel Johnson and his wife Leonora, at his home in Woodchurch Road on Pathe News in 1948. This appears from 2.00 mins to 3.00 mins into the clip.

You can hear all of the famous ‘Devil’s Galop’ signature tune by Charles Williams at:

There are several episodes of the original Dick Barton on YouTube, including:

Dick Barton has been most recently parodied by Mitchell and Webb’s Sir Digby Chicken Caesar. There are lots of episodes on YouTube

  • My friend Peter Binns who lived in Priory Road told me that the local boys knew that ‘Dick Barton’ lived in Number 1 Woodchurch Road, but they thought he was the real secret agent! The innocence of a bygone era.
    Dick