Express & Star

Rhodes on fake songbirds, misleading the public and a not-so-amazing stage act

Read the latest column from Peter Rhodes.

Beatrice Harrison with her cello. Photo: BBC

The truth is out at last. The BBC misled the public with its celebrated 1924 broadcast of the cellist Beatrice Harrison performing a duet with a nightingale singing in her garden.

A Radio 3 programme, Private Passions, reveals that the performance was faked using a professional whistler, Madame Saberon. The Beeb did not set out to deceive but it was a live event and Madame Saberon was Plan B in case the nightingales failed to sing. In the event, the birds were probably disturbed by a garden full of BBC technicians and the whistler, or siffleuse, stepped in.

This revelation raises a couple of questions. For a start, on a scale of one to ten, is wilfully misleading millions of listeners more or less wicked than misleading, say, 650 politicians in the Commons?

Next, in an age when going to university has become the norm even for the dimmest of kids, how does one start a career as a nightingale impressionist? Is it wise to get your degree in zoology or music?

There were no such worries in ye olden days when hundreds of British music halls offered gainful employment for variety acts as bizarre as sand dancing, human waxworks and playing the saw. As it happens, a distant relative of mine rejoiced in the stage name of Skipton's Amazing Memory Man. His “amazing” act was to recite, in alphabetical order, the names of all the public houses in Skipton. Just like The 39 Steps but without the excitement.

And on to more serious matters. I bought a boat trailer at the weekend. In order to get the owner's manual and register the warranty I have to scan a couple of QR codes. On the same day thousands of drivers, mostly elderly, were discovering that the pay-by-cash machines in their local car parks have been replaced by card or phone-app devices. So what is the message from businesses and local councils to those of us who don't possess a smartphone? It looks and feels like: “You don't matter.”

Incidentally, never having knowingly used the word before today's column, I have just looked up “siffleuse” online and, by the miracle of predictive text, was instantly directed to: “What causes syphilis?” It certainly isn't whistling.