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Saturday 16 December 2017

Roy Croft

Brendan Balfe recalls the ebullient Fifties radio presenter who created Ireland's first broadcast talent show

Brendan Balfe

ROY Croft got his stage name simply by dividing his surname in two. He was Harry Roycroft, and when he died on September 12, 2013, aged 91, with him went one of the last links to Radio Eireann in the Fifties.

He had a number of jobs, all graced by an ebullient charm and an engaging personality that made friends easily. He soon discovered that his chosen career path as a trainee solicitor was not exactly a barrel of laughs, so he decided that showbusiness was for him.

Roy, who was born on January 22, 1922, discovered that he had a talent for compering concerts. With his clear baritone voice and inherent good humour, he was a natural performer. For some sort of regular income, he organised his own variety shows and record hops, the forerunner of discos. He toured with the travelling theatres, 'the fit-ups', which offered a play, a raffle, a variety concert and a dance, all for the price of admission.

In the 4000-seat Theatre Royal, Dublin, one of the highlights of the variety bill was an on-stage quiz, Double or Nothing. It was hosted by Eamonn Andrews and when Eamonn left in the early Fifties to tour Britain with the Joe Loss Band, Roy Croft took over the quiz. Its format was simple and inspired Hughie Green's Double Your Money and, more recently, Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?.

The prizes were modest, but occasionally a valuable star prize was provided. Ideally, the prize would last a week or so, to increase audiences, so there was always a reserve question to stump the contestant, lest the prize vanish too early. One of those questions was, "How many sixpences piled on top of each other would it take to reach the top of Nelson's Pillar?" It didn't much matter what the contestant replied; it was always the wrong answer.

Roy then moved to Radio Eireann, at that time based in the GPO. He became a regular broadcaster and presented sponsored programmes for such as The Radio Review Magazine, preceded by its unctuous signature tune, Charmaine by the Mantovani Orchestra.

In the late Fifties, taking its title from the call of a theatre stage manager, Roy originated Beginners Please, Ireland's first broadcast talent show. In the days when radio was under the direct control of the Department of Posts and Telegraphs, there was a reluctance to allow the public near a microphone, but Roy persuaded the station to take a chance. It was an unqualified success and Roy took the show around Ireland with a system of regional heats. His catch-phrase, "the beginners of tonight may be our stars of tomorrow", became true for many stalwarts of Irish entertainment, including singer Rose Tynan, The Ardellis Ceili Band and The Harmonichords, who transmuted into The Bachelors. When the show hit the Fair Green in Mullingar, a young contestant appeared with drainpipe trousers, frilled shirt, built-up shoulders and oiled hair to sing, Ma, She's Makin' Eyes at Me. He won the contest, as judged by the audience applause on the 'Clapometer'. It was the first public appearance by Joe Dolan.

When Roy married Edna in the early Sixties, it was suggested that he get 'a real job' to support his family. He joined Guinness's Brewery as entertainments officer, in essence a public relations job. He dealt with the southern half of the country and became one of Ireland's best -known personalities, not least because he had the wherewithal to sponsor and support local events. He was intimately involved in beginnings of the Kilkenny Beer Festival, the Waterford Opera Festival, the Rose of Tralee and the Cork Jazz Festival. In Limerick in 1978, as chairman of the judges in a Limerick talent contest, he awarded a recording contract to four young men who had travelled from Dublin. They were U2.

Because of his role as front man for the brewery, he had to partake of the company product whenever he met local committees, prompting him to remark that his job essentially entailed "going around Ireland drinking Guinness".

In 1983, Roy retired from Guinness. Shortly afterwards, I interviewed him for a series I was doing on the Variety Theatre in Ireland, The Spice of Life, illustrating again that, as a raconteur, he was unequalled. When RTE celebrated 60 years of Irish radio in 1986, I invited him back to compere a concert in Studio One with the Concert Orchestra. He had never been in the Radio Centre, nor had he been on air since the Fifties, but it was as if he never went away. The voice was undimmed. Polished, professional and personable, he sounded like he had been doing it all his life. And he had.

Sunday Independent

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