Ref NoMS 4000
TitleCharles Parker Archive
Date1949 - 1994
DescriptionReel-to-reel tapes, working papers, and personal papers created by Charles Parker during his career as a BBC producer, lecturer, musician, actor, writer, and activist including approximately 5000 hours of sound recordings, transcriptions, working notes, production books, scripts, and papers related to nearly 200 programmes and projects, correspondence and newspaper cuttings, and a library of over 1000 books on international folk music and culture, politics, history, and religion.
Physical DescriptionAll material is in good condition unless otherwise stated.
AccessStatusPartially closed (Content)
AccessConditionsReel-to-reel tapes containing the original sound recordings are, for reasons of preservation, not available for consultation. All recordings have been transferred onto CD Rom and tape speed and size have been recorded in the catalogue.

All the playback CDs are available to be listened to on a dedicated CD player, which prevents the possibility of copies being made, and headphones must be used to avoid disturbance to other users of the City Archives.

The CDs may not be reproduced without written evidence of the clearance of copyright and performance rights.

The tape boxes may not be photocopied because this would cause damage to them. Documents may be photocopied at the discretion of the archivist on duty.

A few recordings are closed to the public at the request of the depositor or to comply with the Data Protection Act. This is indicated at item level.

Charles Parker's personal notebooks (MS 4000/1/1/1 ) are closed.
AdminHistoryCharles Parker (1919-1980) was a BBC documentary radio producer, and a writer, singer, actor and founder member of the theatre company Banner Theatre. He was born in Bournemouth in 1919, joined the Navy and commanded a submarine during the Second World War and was awarded a DSC; took a degree in history at Queen's College, Cambridge, and joined the BBC in 1949. In 1954, he moved to Birmingham as a radio features producer, and was employed full-time by the BBC until 1972. He was passionate about the cultural importance of the oral tradition and folk song and devoted much of his life to activities through which he could demonstrate their significance and continued relevance. Through the BBC he did his most famous work on the development of radio documentary techniques, his 'Radio Ballad' Singing the Fishing winning the prestigious Prix Italia for the BBC in 1960. There is widespread recognition of the contribution he made to the art of broadcasting in the media today, a fact reflected in the biographical 'The Ballad of Charles Parker' broadcast by the BBC in 1995.

Parker's colossal energy was reflected in the other projects he was involved in, which extended far beyond his official work for the BBC, into lectures for the Workers' Educational Association, the National Association for the teaching of English, and the Polytechnic of Central London; extra-mural projects such as his collaboration with Arnold Wesker on 'The Maker and the Tool' in 1962, and engagement with the Folk Revival of the 1960s and 1970s as a performer. His encounters with working people in his work for the BBC, and his association with leading figures in the Revival such as A.L.Lloyd, Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, led him to adopt an increasingly political stance on a broad range of social and cultural issues. After leaving the BBC in 1972, he turned his unique talents as a performer and producer to the service of radical theatre, becoming a founder and mainstay of the Banner Theatre of Actuality in Birmingham. He died during rehearsals for a Banner production in 1980.

Charles Parker was a central figure in the debate about 'Culture and Society' which resonated through the 1960s and 1970s. This was a dispute about the relation of 'High Art, Pop Art and Mass Society', begun by F.R. Leavis and Edward Thompson in the 1930s. During the 1950s it had been taken up by the New Left and was widely debated in artistic and intellectual circles. A key book in the debate was Richard Hoggart's 'The Uses of Literacy' which contrasted the working class culture of the 1930s with the Americanised pop culture of the 1950s, to the detriment of the latter.

Parker, like Hoggart, was deeply suspicious of modern popular culture and concerned about its effects on working class culture, but unlike Hoggart, he was actively engaged in trying to resist American capitalism. He developed his views through lecturing on folk music to a series of Workers' Educational Association classes in Birmingham in the 1960s, and came to believe that the vibrancy of vernacular speech was the key to good communication and that educators had to learn from its example in order to communicate in the era of electronic information. Secondly, he argued that the development of capitalist industrial society was in danger of destroying the social and historical roots needed to establish personal and collective identity, and that this posed critical problems for the well-being of society. He also remained strongly influenced by Christianity, which many of those who shared his political views found it difficult to reconcile with his other tenets. There were undoubtedly contradictions and complexities in Parker's views, but had he developed these lines of thought, and his related critiques of pop culture and the folk revival, as a coherent body of thought, he might have shared some of the limelight which writers like Hoggart, Adorno, Marcuse, and McLuhan enjoyed in the 1960s.

The Radio Ballads

Parker is most famous for the Radio Ballads, eight radio programmes he made with the folk singers and activists Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger, which were broadcast on the BBC between 1958 and 1964 and are considered to be classics of radio production. The Radio Ballads combined four elements: the recorded voices of people speaking in their own words, which Parker called 'actuality'; songs based on the actuality and on folk songs, usually written by Ewan MacColl; instrumental music; and sound effects. The Radio Ballads received extensive press coverage, which praised them for their innovative approach; 'Singing the Fishing', the third Radio Ballad, won the Italia Prize for radio documentary in 1960.

The Radio Ballads express Parker's belief in the value of the testimony of working people and of the creative importance of the oral tradition and its relation to folk music. This became the key to his work in radio, theatre, and in his extensive teaching activities. Parker's work was made possible by the newly-developed portable tape recorder, the EMI Midget, which became available in the early 1950s. Instead of recording in the artificial environment of the studio, it was now possible for producers to go out into the field and record people speaking in their own voices in their homes and workplaces. Parker hoped that this power to record and manipulate the human voice would lead to new forms of art, which would be closer to the experiences of 'the common people'.

Charles Parker joined the BBC in 1949 and became a Senior Features Producer in the Midland Region in Birmingham in 1954. His early work was in the tradition of BBC documentary, in which the voices of ordinary people were spoken by actors. During the research for the first Radio Ballad, 'The Ballad of John Axon' he heard people speaking in a way that transformed his approach to radio documentary making and to recording actuality. The power, immediacy, and local colour of a railwayman saying 'railways go through your spine like Blackpool goes through rock', made him realise that he 'didn't need to go to actors or dramatists to find material for drama; he could go straight to the common people instead' (see Tracks 3-4, MS 4000/6/1/26/35/C). Ewan MacColl, writing much later about the actuality recorded for 'John Axon' says, 'their impact was enormous and it was immediately apparent that we had recorded a unique picture of a way of life told in language charged with the special vitality which derives from involvement with a work-process. The problem was how to use it. Could one re-write it without reducing or falsifying it? The more I listened the more convinced I became that neither the standard format of the feature programme nor the elegiac of 'Lonesome Train' [an American musical documentary about the life of Abraham Lincoln] could accommodate the wild stuff we had recorded'. The traditional ballad gave the answer: 'A traditional ballad was to be the model for a narrative programme without narrators, caption voices, or actors – a programme in which actuality, recordings and music written in the folk idiom would be interwoven.' (article entitled 'The Radio Ballads' by Ewan MacColl on www.

The eight radio ballads were 'The Ballad of John Axon' (1958) about railwaymen, 'Song of a Road' (1959) about building the M1 motorway; 'The Big Hewer' (1961) about miners; 'The Body Blow' (1962) about polio; 'On the Edge' (1963), about teenagers; 'The Fight Game' (1963) about boxers; and 'The Travelling People' (1964) about the nomadic peoples of Britain.

Despite the success of the Radio Ballads, by 1964, audiences were ebbing away from radio towards television, and pop programmes costing a fraction of the Radio Ballads were claiming much higher listening figures. Accordingly, the BBC management axed the Radio Ballads for reasons of cost, a decision which the Observer critic Paul Ferris described as 'an act of murder' and which Parker and many of his friends believed was politically motivated. Parker's collaborator Philip Donnellan writes of the 'deep sense of shock and resentment which Parker felt over the destruction of the Radio Ballad genre', the BBC's hostility to his subsequent programmes and its refusal to transmit 'Blessed Assurance' and 'the absolute interdict on the use of folk music'. The experience of the Radio Ballads never left Parker, and for the remaining fifteen years of his life, he dedicated himself to applying the lessons he had learned to radio, drama, folk music, and the development of the mass media.


Parker was involved in several projects which aimed to create a more popular form of theatre, prior to the founding of Banner Theatre. By the early 1960s, he was involved with a theatre group called The Leaveners, who performed at St Peter's Church, Harborne, where he worshipped in Birmingham. Parker's interest in documentary folk theatre attracted a group of people who were both active in the folk revival and committeed to anti-racist and anti-fascist political ideas. Through the shows that Parker produced with this group, he developed a distinctive form of drama documentary in which tape recorded speech or other actuality, newspaper clippings or historical material, for example, provided the basis into which traditional or contemporary folk song was woven.

In 1962, he wrote a multi-media documentary drama, 'The Maker and the Tool', which was performed by an amateur group from Birmingham called 'The Leaveners'. 'The Maker and the Tool' was made in collaboration with Arnold Wesker, the Artistic Director of Centre 42, an arts centre in London, which had been set up in 1961 following a resolution by the Trades Union Congress, which called for an enquiry into the state of the arts. It combined music, actuality, dance, drama, and photographs and was 'avowedly experimental'. The show toured Trades Council festivals in six towns.

Folk music

The Critics Group, of which Charles Parker was a member, was a group of singers and musicians who met regularly with Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger from 1964 to 1971 to explore the art and politics of performance and provide criticism for each other. As well as the development of folk singing, they took part in theatre projects such as the 'Festival of Fools', giving annual performances based on political satire. They also recorded, in 1966, as a Radio Ballad, a modern version of 'Romeo and Juliet' for schools. The group was also involved in the 'Folksingers against Vietnam' anti-war movement and in the Women's Movement.

The Critics Group organized a semi-formal series of folk sessions which developed into the Grey Cock Folk Club, opened on 16 February 1967. Members of the club collected a repertoire of regional songs which they were recording for Argo Records. At about the same time, Parker was the driving force behind the Birmingham and Midland Folk Centre, which undertook a similar search for Midlands song and presented concerts by Ewan MacColl, Peggy Seeger, the Exiles, and Ravi Shankar. The results of this search were issued on the Topic Record, 'The Wide Midlands'. The Grey Cock Folk Club came to an end in 1972, but some of its regular performers became members of Banner Theatre (see below).

In 1969, with the filmmaker Philip Donnellan, Parker formed the West Midlands Gypsy Liaison Group which campaigned for the proper provision of sites for travellers.

Parker was a member of the Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) and visited China on a three-week educational tour between 3 April and 25 April 1972.

By 1970, according to Trevor Fisher, Charles Parker was facing a situation where his post within the BBC's formal structure was about to be abolished and his job was at risk. His permanent post disappeared in a restructuring and he worked directly for the Controller of Radio 4, who did not like his work. Philip Donnellan comments that 'Snowballs in Calcutta', made with Dilip Hiro, and which was refused transmission, was the final bone of contention between Parker and the Controller of Radio 4. He was offered a job making inserts for Woman's Hour on a lower grade, which he refused to apply for because it would deny a younger producer a job. He was formally dismissed from the BBC on 31 December 1972, despite a campaign of support in which his case was raised in the House of Commons. He returned to the BBC to work as a freelance guest producer between 1973 and 1976.

Parker worked as a lecturer in several universities and colleges before and after he left the BBC. From 1964-1971, he was an Extra-Mural lecturer in folk song at the University of Birmingham and the Workers' Educational Association. From 1973-1980, he was a Visiting Lecturer in Media Studies at the School of Communication, Polytechnic of Central England. In 1978, he was a Departmental Visiting Fellow, Faculty of Letters and Social Sciences at the University of Reading. From 1975-1976, he held the Welsh Tinplate Trust Fellowship at the University of Swansea, producing a thesis titled 'A comparative study of attitudes to industrial action among South Wales Miners, 1926, 1972-1974'.

Parker was one of the key figures involved in the establishment of Banner Theatre, a theatre company with socialist principles which was founded in 1973 as an amateur performance group within the Grey Cock Folk Club to produce documentary shows using a multi-media technique of drama/folk music/slides and actuality tape recordings. The performers aimed to use the words of ordinary workers and others in speech and song. Many of the issues addressed involved consideration of trade union activity and representation. A professional company was established in 1973 and continued to enable related amateur groups to produce their own work. These included a women's group and Handsworth Community Theatre project. The Parker archive contains material relating to a number of early Banner shows including 'Collier Laddie', 'Saltley Gate', 'Womankind', 'Viva Chile', and 'Dr Healey's Casebook'. See Banner Theatre (MS 1611).

The Charles Parker Archive is a nationally significant resource for the study of the social, cultural, and political history of Britain in the second half of the twentieth century and offers a wealth of possibilities for research in a wide variety of subject areas. It gives a unique view of the wide-ranging work of an energetic cultural activist in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The archive contains rare and significant material about the experiences of Black, Asian, Irish, Chinese, and Jewish communities, and of travellers, including discussions about discrimination and racism. There is also important material about disability, including interviews in which people talk about visual impairment and their experiences of contracting and being treated for polio. More generally, the archive is a rich resource for the study of folk music, pop music, drama, vernacular speech, and the oral tradition, and of the Folk Revival of the 1950s onwards, including interviews with and performances by many musicians who were active in the Folk Revival as well as songs and interviews with traditional singers such as Sam Larner and Harry Cox. There is a great deal of material about working life and industry, ranging from mining, shipbuilding, road building, and domestic work, to shoemaking, factory work, and fishing. There is material of local interest relating to Birmingham and the Black Country and other parts of Britain, and about other countries including America, Greece, Poland, Sri Lanka, Chile, Vietnam and India. The collection could also be used to study the history of broadcasting, the development of documentary radio and its relationship with film and television.

Philip Donnellan, 'Categorising the Contents of the Archive' (unpublished paper available in Birmingham City Archives, 1986)
Trevor Fisher, 'Charles Parker: Aspects of a Pioneer' (Birmingham, 1986) Birmingham Central Library LP 78.1 PAR
Paul Long 'The Aesthetics of Class in Post-War Britain' (unpublished thesis, University of Warwick, 2001, available in Birmingham City Archives)
Ewan MacColl, 'The Radio Ballads' (
Arnold Wesker 'Why I turned down the CBE' (
ArrangementThe Charles Parker Archive is arranged in the following sections:

MS 4000/1 Personal papers and papers relating to Charles Parker's career
MS 4000/2 Papers relating to BBC programmes and non-BBC projects
MS 4000/3 Miscellaneous papers on various subjects
MS 4000/4 Library
MS 4000/5 'A Future for Ordinary Folk': sound recordings relating to folk music
MS 4000/6 Sound recordings of programmes, projects, and research material
MS 4000/7 Vinyl recordings
MS 4000/8 Film material
MS 4000/9 Additions to the Charles Parker Archive
MS 4000/10 Exhibition material: The Living Word etc.
MS 4000/11 Sound equipment
MS 4000/12 Additional material
Related MaterialMS 1611 Banner Theatre, 1973-1988; MS 1642 Records of the Grey Cock Folk Club, 1976-1988 and MS 1642 addnl Index to tapes of the Grey Cock/Birmingham and Midland Folk Centre; MS 1705 Records of the Clarion Singers, 1939-1992; MS 1804 Records of the Birmingham and Midland Folk Centre c. 1963-1968; MS 1913 Recordings and files about 'The Ballad of Charles Parker', BBC broadcast, 1995.
CreatorNameCharles Parker
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