Stewart MacPherson was a washout in Winnipeg but in Britain he’s the rajah of radio. He talked a stake of $7 into $80,000 a year
The Golden Gabber from Fort Garry
Stewart MacPherson was a washout in Winnipeg but in Britain he’s the rajah of radio. He talked a stake of $7 into $80,000 a year
LONDON— One of every four Britons (that’s 16 millions) has got the Stewart MacPherson habit. Who is Stewart MacPherson? Oh, he’s the guy who was such a flop in his home town of Winnipeg that a friend of his father’s staked him to a cattleboat trip to London in 1936. Now he’s the rajah of British radio, the voice that Britain loves to hear. He walked off that cattleboat with $7; now he picks up around $80,000 a year.
"‘I was a sports bum,” Stew says, “sleeping late in the mornings, borrowing from mother.” This wais during the wheat belt depression of the early
30’s. His father, a Massey-Harris dealer, had died while Stew was still in high school. He tried office work, managing sandlot baseball teams. But mostly he was just a stringy youngster with the gift of the gab hanging around Winnipeg’s Olympic Rink.
Now he probably earns more from the august BBC than any other person (he’s a free lance), has his own vaudeville show, “Twenty Questions,” makes personal appearances, writes a newspaper column, judges beauty contests, radio reports top sporting events, interviews celebrities, talks on bridge, records for the movies, flickers on television.
As emcee for a 1948 royal command performance he bossed around Danny Kaye, Arthur Askey and others, earned applause from the King and Queen. During the war he was a BBC correspondent with the Canadians overseas. Since the war his autobiography, “The Mike and P’ (ghostwritten by former Maple Leaf editor Jack Golding) has gone into a second printing.
No longer a bum of any variety, aggressive MacPherson at 41 has hit the top. But unlike most expatriates who’ve done well after leaving home, he hasn’t cut his home ties. In fact, with his two children (Murray, 11; Heather, 4) at school in Canada the MacPherson home life still centres in the Winnipeg which once had Stew on a laboring gang.
Taking his first, sample of BBC radio an overseas visitor mildly noted that he’d heard Stew broadcasting on boxing, Stew on bridge and Stew in a comedy show. Said his hosts, “You haven’t been listening.”
Peak BBC hours find Stew acting as star question-master to the animal, vegetable or mineral problems of “Twenty Questions,” Stew yelling his head off in the quiz burlesque, “Ignorance Is Bliss,” Stew chatting briskly through some of the glib interviews of “In Town Tonight.” These sessions are recorded. Generally, as the discs go on the air, Stew is calmly strolling onto the stage of a packed theatre for his own vaudeville presentation of “Twenty Questions”—a oneman show that makes music-hall circuit veterans like Sir Harry Lauder or Gracie Fields gasp at his grasp of easy money.
The quizzers are invited from the audience; Stew merely leads them in the hoary old parlor game and for this he earns $2,000 a week, paid according to music-hall custom in mint-new £5 notes every Friday night.
Stew doesn’t scorn any money-making proposition. He emcees dress shows (fee $160) judges beauty contests ($100), flashes occasional news commentaries to the CBS in New York (fee $10 per minute and up) and has staged a boisterous series of sports film commentaries ($140 per session three or four times a week).
Britain’s juveniles follow the comic strip adventures of a character called Daredevil Stewart. (Fee for license to exploit personality: $100.)
A typical day finds MacPherson hopping the 2 3^-hour express from Birmingham (or wherever he happens to be appearing that week), lunching with an advertising agent at Ciro’s, phoning leads for his Sunday newspaper column, making a recording or two, and haring back to Birmingham in time for his two stage shows that evening.
Around Broadcasting House (BBC’s monumental headquarters) bemused commentators still recall the last Olympic Games and how Stew staged his own commentary, covering the swimming and boxing events with six broadcasts a day minimum. During this silga of sock and splash he scarcely had time to eat or sleep, but the BBC paid him an inclusive $1,200 for the 15 days, as much as they had at one time guaranteed him in a year.
Stew enjoyed this grand gabble so much that he completely forgot his weekly broadcasting appointment for “20 Q’s.” While the producers phoned every part of Britain except Wembley Stadium, the transcription went in the bag sans Stew and sans half the sparkle.
Glamour Boy in Khaki
Normally a star who forgot his own program would be rated radio’s deadliest sinner. But not MacPherson. When Abel Green, editor of Variety, conducted his own popularity survey of Britain’s radio programs, “Twenty Questions” and “Ignorance Is Bliss” ran second and fourth.
Some pundits say all this has happened to Stew chiefly because he’s Canadian. To the often tongue-tied British in their austerity isles Stew is a genial echo of all the friendly talkative Canadians they invited to their homes during the war. ,
In that war he got his share of khaki glamour as a BBC correspondent on the RCAF beat; he also radio reported with the Second Canadian Division after Dieppe. He was one of the first correspondents to enter Brussels.
Since the war Stew has inherited the psychological quirk that commonly gives Canadians an advantage in Britain—the quirk of seeming a little larger and rounder than life, a little less like dreary fact and a little more like rosy fiction.
Stew carries this banner better than most. Hence the best-selling stacks of his autobiography, “The Mike and I”; hence, again, its serialization for housewives in Home Notes, a family journal
rarely interested in lesser lights than the Queen or Princess Elizabeth.
Stew sells. Example: He beams
wistfully from a series of cigarette lighter ads, “Stewart MacPherson says ‘Right Every Time!’ ”
Every Sunday, the million readers of the Sunday Chronicle follow a zestful column of gossip, racing tips and sports splurge headed, “Stewart MacPherson Talking.” From picking the Derby winner to his hot seat in a burning plane at the Boat Race, his chronicled thrills sound like the secret life of Walter Mitty.
That burning plane affair came when he was covering the OxfordCambridge race from the air, and the port engine of his plane caught fire. The pilot made a quick landing and Stew emptied out on the tarmac kissing his good luck mascot, his father’s old wallet.
A Plea for a Clean Shirt
How does a home-town flop hit the big city and turn seven bucks into a fortune? Here’s the MacPherson formula.
Back in depression-bound Winnipeg he heard of the ice hockey boom ir Britain and something clicked. Supposing he could get to Britain, open fire as a hockey columnist?
A friend of his father’s staked his cattle train and cattle boat fare. He landed in England on Aug. 1, 1936, swiftly found himself in dingy lodgings living on bread and marmalade.
Before he convinced himself that a new era in journalism hadn’t dawned and that no editor wanted him his landlady had locked up his luggage. He had to beg to be allowed a clean shirt.
Wearing that shirt he won a job as salesman in an Oxford Street shoe store at $10 a week plus 1% commission.
For the first time he used his trigger voice with persuasive effect. A shopper was no sooner in than she was out, slightly dazed and with a pair of shoes. One day he found out that one of his customers was the wife of Jack Milford, one of his Winnipeg buddies, and that Jack had become a hockey pro at Wembley stadium.
Milford arranged an interview for MacPherson in the arena’s publicity department and he was hired to write hockey copy at $25 a week.
Flushed with success Stew sent for his fiancée, Emily Comfort; she surrendered her Winnipeg nursing career and went to London. They were married at Wembley and settled down with $200 in the bank in an apartment neatly furnished on time.
Then Stew heard a whisper that the BBC was considering broadcasting hockey matches. He grabbed for the phone.
Personality Through the Mike
Seven candidates were selected to make a trial recording of a game. But it was almost a sure thing for Stew: all the players of both teams came from Winnipeg While the rival commentators were fumbling with note's and lists of the players Stew rattled off names he’d known from boyhood. Moreover, he was the last to do his stuff and could see where the others made mistakes. He got the job.
The morning after his first broadcast Fleet Street enquired why this young commentator had been kept under cover. Stew wanted to tell the editors of the time he’d been brushed off their doorsteps, but astute Emily considered otherwise.
Gradually he talked himself into other outside broadcast jobs, including a plum as a special events commentator. This widened his hockey horizon to everything from darts to highdiving, taking in six-day bike races, table tennis and roller skating. His broadcast rates began rising from $20 to $60.
All Britain slowly woke up to “The Voice,” and his ability to squeeze some of his electric personality through the microphone.
There was the time he covered the international hockey championships in Prague. Just as a game was due to go on the air a personal message reached him. To a friend on the ice, and to a listening world, Stew shouted the news, “It’s a boy!”
From the Blue, a Good Fairy
More and more he began developing his pleasantly aggressive manner, increasing his slightly Napoleonic air of a big business executive.
Soon after war was declared Stew sent Emily and baby Murray home to Canada, then read a few mornings later the headline, “Athenia Torpedoed!” He went flat out to the floor of Euston Station where, after a dark day and night, he heard his wife and son were among the survivors.
In the dark of the listing ship Emily had groped her way down two decks, plucked Murray from the cabin bed, wrapped him warmly and even remembered her passport. In a bruising mass of people she was finally lifted bodily into a lifeboat. Drenched with cold water two of its occupants were dead before a destroyer picked them up 11 hours later. Young MacPherson slept peaceably through the ordeal.
A thankful Stew decided to cross to Canada himself. He felt that his hockey broadcasting might have made some dint in the Canadian air waves, and found it hadn’t. He had no money and was $200 in debt for his fare.
For a while in 1940 he checked gravel trucks. Via Johnny Peterson of Osborne Stadium, Winnipeg, he finally managed to get a big toe into Canadian radio but it counted for little.
Then out of the blue his good fairy took a bow. Combing its lists for war correspondents the BBC wanted him back in Britain under contract.
The Man Behind the King
His success saga goes right on from there. He was sent first to the Grenadier Guards, later transferred to the RCAF.
In 1944 he staged a Christmas hop home. Maastricht, Holland, to Winnipeg, Man., was accomplished in three days. A chance meeting with Admiral Byrd resulted in a Liberator bomber being laid on for Stew’s exclusive benefit from Florida to La Guardia Field, N.Y.
On VE-Day Stew broadcast a marathon gabble from a balcony above teeming Piccadilly Circus. He spoke every 20 minutes from 2 p.m. till 4.55 the following morning.
With peace the magic MacPherson voice was let loose full blast on the British ether. His shattering eloquence turned to factory pep talks, to tennis, water polo, golf; he covered 14 world sport championships in almost as many weeks.
He was the man who rode behind the King and Queen during the victory tours. He talked his way through the blowing-up of Heligoland, the fenland floods.
In a meet-the-people program he knocked at listeners’ doors and thrust a microphone at them. He had the ability to talk to anyone.
When agent Maurice Winnick bought the British performing rights of the
New York radio show, “It Pays to Be Ignorant,” Stew was the only possible choice as master of ceremonies when the show was ready under its new title, “Ignorance Is Bliss.”
Despite its crazy questions (“What sort of animals eat dog biscuits?”) and a team of zany comedians, Stew doesn’t consider his show as funny as its American counterpart.
But many trans-Atlantic trippers who don’t think America’s “Twenty Questions” a riot find the British version decidedly better.
Where New York’s “Twenty Questions” quizmaster Bill Slater contents himself with “Yes” or “No” or “Partly,” Stew puts the maximum humor into his answers to the shouted questions of the quizzers. A MacPherson show goes like this:
“Is it alive?” asks a questioner, trying to guess at “a civil servant.” “It’s supposed to be!” Stew retorts. Or the object is “Food Minister Strachey” and someone cries, “Is it human?” “Boy, oh, boy!” murmurs Stew, “What a temptation!” One evening a chosen object was “a brassiere.” “Is it on points?” a ration-conscious quizzer enquired. “Well, er . . Stew stumbled while Britain blushed.
On the Air—1,000 Hours
You couldn’t call MacPherson erudite. In fact he flounders in every verbal pitfall that ever snared transAtlantic cousins. When the chosen object on one “Twenty Questions” show was a railway sleeper, the English term for a railroad tie, Stew answered 14 questions in ever-increasing confusion before discovering it wasn’t a sleeping car.
The British show has no prizes, no jackpot, no sponsor and, of course, no commercials. MacPherson earns $120 for the whole of the original 30-minute recording plus $48 for the first repeat and $32 for the second, a total of $200 a week. These are BBC standard rates for principals in peak-hour comedy shows. They do not compare with higher American earnings . . . Yet Slater’s reputed $1,000 a week still shrinks alongside MacPherson’s vaudeville earnings.
Friends see Stew flickering in television, or watch him driving off to give one of his free Sundays to the blind war veterans at St. Dunstan’s, and wonder how one man can do so much. He has spent 1,000 hours at mike in one year. Though he collapsed on the stage of the Blackpool Palace one night —fish-poisoning was diagnosed rather than exhaustion.
The MacPherson system is designed to allow him to do several things at once.
After You, Miss Hepburn
His Sunday Chronicle column, which nets him $10,000 plus ocean fares, is actually written in Kemsley House by veteran journalist Denis Dunn from leads which Stew telephones wherever he happens to be. His autobiography, “The Mike and I” was produced at a series of breakfast-table sessions between Stew and Jack Golding, now a Toronto life insurance executive. Stew unrolled the story of his life; Golding jotted it down, fitted the pieces together. They split the profits (,$4,000 so far) 50% each.
Just recently MacPherson had the seal set on his success. In Madame Tussaud’s they moved out Wally Beery and Katherine Hepburn to make room for his likeness. There stands the radio rajah in an old suit and new shoes amid the kings and queens and generals.
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