… there was a very nice man called Richard Dimbleby and this story was entirely his fault. In the early fifties, this quintessentially British broadcaster hosted a programme for the BBC Home Service called Down Your Way, which visited towns and villages throughout the land to meet and talk to interesting people. One day, the programme came down Maesteg way to meet a very gifted young harpist named Ann Griffiths who was duly interviewed and recorded playing her instrument. Mr. Dimbleby and the Outside Broadcast team were made very welcome in the Griffiths household in Neath Road and, after the recording, chatted to Ann’s family over a cup of tea and a piece of Victoria sponge cake. That’s when the youngest child in the household, who was not even a harpist, offered to teach Mr. Dimbleby to perform Three Blind Mice on the instrument. He, polite and charming, proved to be an apt and willing pupil, picking out the tune with two fingers while managing to drink tea and eat cake at the same time. A man of immeasurable talent!
That’s when I, little Mari Griffith, fell in love with broadcasting, remained in love with it and entirely employed within it throughout my working life.
Lots of kids in Wales are good at singing: it’s not unusual, just ask Tom Jones. And I was no exception but my advantage was that I could sing to my sister’s harp accompaniment and quite often did. Then one Sunday evening, the pair of us emptied all the chapels in the Llynfi Valley when we appeared on All Your Own, a very early children’s television programme which was broadcast live from London. Few people in Maesteg had tv sets so they had all crowded into each other’s houses to watch, afterwards creeping shame-facedly into chapel pews, twenty minutes late for the evening service, hoping the minister wouldn’t notice. Such was – and still is – the power of television and I have grown up with it throughout its development.
Launching myself into the workplace after a brief and unrewarding flirtation with academia, I became of ‘core’ member of the BBC Northern Singers, based in Manchester. I loved it, the discipline, the repertoire and the close teamwork. But I enjoyed being a soloist too, so I learned to play the guitar in order to accompany myself and this opened up great possibilities. Soon I was appearing on radio programmes, then on television and it was a great delight to be asked to become the resident singer on the children’s network series Tich’s Space Trips with the superb ventriloquist Ray Allan, his delightful puppets Tich and Quackers, and the brilliant illustrator Tony Hart.
(In the picture on the right, Quackers is still happy to drive the space ship, even though I am singing ‘The Ugly Duckling’ to the children in the audience!)
The North of England was a land of golden opportunities for me. In fact, the only opportunity I missed was when I turned down an invitation to sing at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, just because I’d never heard of it! Just think what might have happened. Still, there were plenty of other things to occupy me: there were broadcasts with the BBC Northern Singers at prestigious venues like York Minster, Leeds Town Hall and the Cheltenham Festival of Music as well as Third Programme operas and oratorios. And there were more and more solo appearances on radio. I was already a singer and a guitarist and when I was asked to present some programmes as well, I became three performers for the price of one which meant that I was never out of work.
At this point, Wales beckoned me home because I could also do all these things in Welsh. The television service was expanding and developing and I was invited to join an elite little band of professional performers who were put on contract by BBC Wales. Work kept coming in and I was encouraged to try my hand at all kinds of singing. In the picture on the left I’m working with the Cardiff jazz legend, guitarist Vic Parker while, in the foreground, my big mate Ronnie Williams watches the monitor above his head for his cue to introduce the live satirical programme Stiwdio B. Later, Ronnie would be paired with the all-round entertainer Ryan Davies to become the best-loved double act in the history of Welsh show business – Ryan and Ronnie. And, yes, I was part of that, too.
And that’s how things stayed for a decade or so. In Cardiff I was a jobbing broadcaster and singer and, in London, programmes for the BBC Schools Service were my main output. My friend and colleague, the late Ian Humphris and I co-presented, sang in and wrote series after series for ‘Schools’, both on radio and television. Music Time on BBC 2 was probably the best-known of these but our various radio series included Music Makers, A Corner for Music, Music Club, Music Workshop and many others. We also re-recorded the entire permanent catalogue of nursery rhymes for regular use in Listen with Mother for the under-fives.
With my bread-and-butter catered for, the ‘jam’ became increasingly delicious and I savoured many career highlights, like the long-running network television series Poems and Pints on BBC 2 and a residency on Music for your Pleasure with Max Jaffa on BBC Radio 2. I also had my own series on BBC Wales television, entitled ‘With a Little Help …’ with guests from among my many friends in the profession.
But living out of a suitcase had become very tedious and the next logical move was to find a staff job in broadcasting so I applied for the post of bi-lingual continuity announcer at BBC Wales. In those days, the job involved continuity shifts, i.e. transmitting and linking programmes in radio and television, news reading and presenting concerts for Radio Three. All in all, never a dull moment and it was the best-ever training ground for learning the craft of broadcasting. There is also the small matter of ‘self-opping’, in other words, operating the equipment at the transmission desk while presenting programmes and promotional material as pleasantly as possible. That’s a bit like patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time – not as easy as it looks but I loved it.
I didn’t love the shifts, though. Being a news reader sounds glamorous but, believe me, there’s not much glamour in a busy regional news room at 5.30 a.m. Besides, I had been asked to set up a new department to create on-air television programme promotions, a challenge I took up with great enthusiasm. It involved more training, from which I eventually emerged as a single- and multi-camera television director and took pride and pleasure in the work for the next twelve years.
Ever one to follow trends, I eventually deserted ‘Auntie’ and left for fresh woods and pastures new in the independent sector. That, too, I enjoyed very much and being my own boss gave me the chance to see something of the world, with programmes to produce and direct in this country and beyond, including trips to the USA and Bulgaria. I also developed a closer relationship with S4C, the Welsh language fourth channel, when I was asked to edit many of their bought-in music programmes from all over the world.
At last, retirement became an attractive option so, scaling right back, I reduced my working life to two days freelancing a week while trying my hand at something I’d always wanted to do more of – writing. It was time to tackle my first novel.