The Thanksgiving Service for Romany
20th November 2003
From Cheshire Life magazine. By Phil Shelley:
“Romany comes home”
One could be forgiven for imagining that a naturalist who died sixty years ago would be forgotten in today’s hi-tech, wildlife-images-served-on-plate environment. Why, then, should almost one hundred people descend upon a Wilmslow church, on a cold, wet evening in November to celebrate the life and works of such a man? Why had so many, including Terry Waite, CBE, travelled the length of the country just to be there? Perhaps the reason is that the Reverend George Bramwell Evens, arguably better known by his writing and wireless broadcasting pseudonym, ‘Romany,’ was no ordinary naturalist. Or was it that his BBC programme, ‘Out with Romany,’ attracted 13 million listeners a week? It is a fact that, upon the announcement of his premature death, distraught callers, who could not believe that their hero had gone, besieged the BBC switchboards, perhaps hoping to hear a denial. Many northern schools closed on the Monday following, as so few pupils felt able to face the day.
Undoubtedly Romany was unique. No radio or TV naturalist since has so inspired a generation; some say that he single-handedly changed the face of British broadcasting. His gentle, unassuming style of presentation, delivered in his deep, ‘chocolate-brown’ voice, transported so many youngsters (and adults, too) away from the nightly horrors of wartime Britain, to the world of the country lane and field; to a world deep within their subconscious, where imagination was the key to unlocking the scenes he described so well. They really felt they walked alongside him and his young companions, Muriel and Doris, and, of course, his loveable cocker spaniel, Raq, the forerunner to Blue Peter’s ‘Petra.’ Romany taught his audience to love nature, though most listeners’ would dispute that it was teaching. Nevertheless they learned. Town-bred children, who are adults today, well-remember hearing the otter’s splash, the pink-footed geese chattering as they flew in from the north, or the lonely, mournful cry of the curlew as it sailed over his vardo (gypsy caravan). Romany’s ready access to their subliminal mind may well be the answer to his longevity. Did they really hear these sounds or see these sights? Of course not, but he was so credible that many today still swear they had! Consider how many of today’s children’s presenters will be so fondly recalled sixty years on?
And so on 20th November 2003 the pilgrims came to Wilmslow. Why there? Because Romany spent the last four years of his life in the town. In 1939 he moved to in what was then a leafy suburb of Manchester; the closest he could get to his beloved countryside, and yet remain in commutable distance of the BBC studios. It was on that same afternoon in 1943 that he died suddenly at his Wilmslow home, fittingly just after spending some time talking to two local children while he was working in his garden.
The thriving Romany Society, of which Terry Waite is Patron, organised the ‘Service of Thanksgiving for the Life and Works of the Reverend George Bramwell Evens, Romany of the BBC.’ A grand title for a grand evening, held at the Wilmslow Methodist Church in Water Lane.
Although there was the potential for a mournful evening, this was just the opposite. Romany would not have wanted it any other way (in fact, he would have been more than a little surprised that there was such an event at all.) The Deputy Mayor of the Borough of Macclesfield, Councillor Paul Whitely, accompanied by the Deputy Mayoress, Mrs Joyce Whitely, witnessed the event. There was music: ‘Lullaby of the Leaves,’ his signature tune, ‘Smilin’ Through,’ one of his personal favourites. There were reminiscences from Terry Waite, a lifelong fan of Romany, and the Reverend Father Ray Hollands, who was inspired to join the Ministry because of his interest in Romany. Roly Bain, the well-known clown-minister, who is one of Romany’s grandchildren, made a very personal, family-oriented contribution. The evening closed with Phil Shelley’s pictorial tribute, set to ‘On hearing the first cuckoo in spring,’ by Delius, causing many an eye to blink away a tear.
Although the number of people with personal memories of Romany is diminishing, the Romany Society aims to perpetuate his life, works and ideals: his writing, his early concerns about the destruction of our planet, so far ahead of his time, his childlike wonder in our natural world that we, and more importantly, our children, seem to have lost along the way. In memory of Romany the society operates a grant system, which sponsors a number of young-people’s projects to bring his name to the attention of tomorrow’s adults in order that his memory may live on.
© Copyright Phil Shelley November 2003