Back in the 1930s, before most of us were born, something wonderful and unique happened on Australian Radio.
It was the comedy serial The Fourth Form as St. Percy's, more generally known as Yes, What?
The public insists that each man be relevant to his time. To find that a play or a radio or TV show has appeal beyond its own era is a mystic bonus. Only two Australian radio shows have stood this test of timelessness. Both commenced their lives in the mid-1930s. But the contention that ‘Dad and Dave’ started the wave of Aussie laughter is not correct. “We did it first”, maintains Ralph Peterson on behalf of our other radio classic, ‘Yes, What?’, which commenced a year earlier, in 1936.
This is the break-neck paced school room farce described by a Courier Mail writer (unnamed) as being “the most remarkable radio show ever produced in Australia.”
Yes, What? began its life as ‘The Fourth Form at St. Percy’s’. It was based on the English radio serial ‘The Fourth Form at St. Michael’s’ by Will Hay, which aired in the 1920s. The title of the series was changed to Yes, What? after studio executives decided the original title was too long.
Programme Manager Morrie Chapman relates the birth of ‘The Fourth Form at St. Percy’s’ this way;
In 1930, the Adelaide Advertiser newspaper was granted a commercial broadcasting licence (as station SAD). Adelaide Advertiser Chief of Staff Alexis Holtze, thought that all of the gags would have been spent on the first show, but Chapman vowed he could make it run for a year.
None would have dreamed that their schoolroom farce would outlive them all.
Rex Dawe, a young Adelaide broadcaster, decided to write the program after having the concept pitched to him by Rex Heading. Morrie Chapman was granted a fifty shillings budget for the show, as well as an additional ten shillings for the writer / producer. The cast were mostly chosen from a youth production group, The Kangaroo Club;
Other characters, such as Mr Snootles (Frank McCarron), and Daphne (Alice Creed) were introduced as the show’s popularity increased. Richard Harding-Browne first appeared in the show as a barrister in episode 49 but he was later given his own character, de Pledge, after Jack Craig-Gardiner’s health prevented him from playing Greenbottle. Greenbottle temporarily left the show on the pretext of attending university in episode (or Lesson) 342 and de Pledge arrived in episode 344.
Greenbottle came back in episode 394 and the cast of four pupils was used. In episode 437, de Pledge left the show as Harding-Browne had joined the air-force.
The show first aired on the 23rd of June 1936 at 9:15pm. It was given two timeslots per week, on Tuesday and Thursday nights. 520 episodes were produced, the first 50 or so of which went live to air without being recorded. A total of 130 hours were broadcast, before the show finally ended in 1941 with the outbreak of the Second World War. However, the show was rerun countless times even outside of Australia, with New Zealand and South Africa both popular audiences. Episodes 209 to 520 were the most commonly broadcast as earlier episodes were not as fast-paced.
As reviewer Alexander MacDonald put it in 1973, Rex Dawe was “the flustered and flappable school teacher presiding over a class of small monsters whose chief purpose in life was to drive their schoolmaster up the wall and halfway across the ceiling!” Typically, the line “Good morning boys” by Dr. Pym, followed by the boys chorusing “Good morning, Sir!” was said at the start and end of each episode.
Themes often continued through a series of lessons in subsequent episodes. The students tried to disrupt or confuse Dr. Pym through distractions, unrelated questions and personal stories. Each episode typically covering an entire school lesson, was recorded onto a 15-minute disc, so the length was crucial as space had to be left for a sponsor’s message before and after the broadcast. The quick rhythm of the program led many to believe that the heavily scripted episodes, were actually ad-lib.
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