Mrs Dale’s Diary
I cannot describe my very early life without mentioning Mrs Dale’s Diary. Observant readers will have noted the earlier reference in  ‘All I want is Music, Music, Music, Music!’ (There is always time to go back and read the blogs you have missed.)
Mrs Dale’s Diary was the first significant BBC serial drama (what we now call soaps). It was first broadcast on 5 January 1948 on one of the three radio services available then, the BBC Light Programme (which later became Radio 2.) It ran until 25 April 1969. It was broadcast every weekday afternoon, with a repeat the following morning.
My mother was an avid fan. I don’t think she missed an episode. In fact, I think she heard them all twice. In those days, our radio was a large, heavy piece of equipment, something like a metre long, twice the size of our first television (which came much later). We called it the ‘wireless’. It was not portable. Mum would turn it on a few minutes early to warm up and we heard the closing sounds of Calling All Workers, the closing signature tune to Music While you Work. Mrs Dale came next. Both broadcasts of Mrs Dale were timed nicely to coincide with a sit-down and a cup of tea.
The programme always started with an introduction spoken by Mrs Dale, as if she were writing her diary. (The format was copied later in The Archers, where Tom Forrest used to introduce the omnibus edition with a chat about his week as a gamekeeper.)
The central character, Mrs Mary Dale, and her doctor husband Jim, represented middle-class society. They lived in the fictional London suburb of Parkwood Hill. (Later in the series, they were relocated to the fictional new town of Exton New Town.)
Mrs Dale’s mother was Mrs Freeman, whom Jim always called, rather gravely, “mother-in-law”. The family had one daughter, Gwen, and a son, Bob. Mary’s sister Sally lived in Chelsea and moved in more exotic circles. The Dales and their friends (not forgetting Captain, Mrs Freeman’s cat,) got along in almost perfect harmony – they were respectable, comfortable and middle-class.
[I wonder about Jack Woolley’s dog in The Archers, also named Captain. It seems a bit of a coincidence. I have never met a real cat or dog called Captain.]
Mrs Dale, was played by Ellis Powell until she was sacked in controversial circumstances in 1963 (partly because of her drinking habits, according to the biographer of her replacement) and replaced by Jessie Matthews. Ellis had earned less than £30 a week, but her voice was as well known in Britain as that of Queen Elizabeth II – heard twice a day by seven million devoted listeners.
In 1962, in an attempt to modernize it, the serial was renamed The Dales. The linking narratives by Mrs Dale were dropped. The changes included a new theme tune composed by Ron Grainger, composer of the futuristic theme tune for Doctor Who. In its last years, it became more sensational. Mrs Dale became a councillor, a position she had to relinquish when she caused a man’s death by careless driving. A heart attack forced Dr Dale to retire from practice.
When it became The Dales, it tried to copy The Archers, originally a medium to disseminate information to the agricultural community, and to give an insight into rural affairs to the public. Medical stories began to appear. When it ran a story about the importance of women having regular cervical smear tests checking their breasts for lumps, the junior health minister praised the programme, saying it had encouraged thousands of women to see their doctor.
The serial ran for 5,431 episodes, culminating with the engagement of Mrs Dale’s daughter Gwen to a famous TV professor on April 25, 1969. Unfortunately, the BBC Sound Archives only have five complete episodes of Mrs Dale’s Diary and seven of The Dales.
The catchphrase seized on by caricaturists as typical of Mrs Dale’s narrative was “I’m rather worried about Jim…” Indeed, the phrase was a staple of many comedy programmes, radio and television, in the early 1960s aiming to poke fun at safe, staid and undemanding middle-class lifestyles. The last episode ended with Mrs Dale saying, “There’s one thing that won’t change – I shall always worry about Jim…”
What I remember was the rather ridiculous story line when Jim retired. He lost his house with the practice and had to find accommodation for himself, his wife and his mother-in-law. He never gave a straight answer until the final episode, when he announced to Mary that the next day they were all off on a World Cruise and would find somewhere to live when they came back. It all sounded a bit impractical to me.
I have found a short clip from the final programme!
[I have relied more than usual for Wikipedia for this entry.]
It’s strange that the term ‘soap opera’ had been around for years in the USA before we used it in the UK. We had Mrs Dale, the Archers, Coronation Street and several other shorter-lived serials, but never used the term ‘soap’ until Eastenders.
I have to mention The Archers, which started in 1951, because many people will have listened to it with fond memories, just as our family had Mrs Dale. I have followed the Archers, on and off since about the seventies but I can’t put it down as a formative memory from the fifties or sixties.