The Older, the Better by Angela Caldin
A while ago I wrote about Frankie Valli, Englebert Humperdinck and Diana Gould, older people who are playing a joyously active role in the world. Now, I’d like you to meet Beryl Renwick, 86 and Betty Smith, 90 who have recently won the award for best entertainment programme at the Sony Radio Academy Awards, beating off the competition from the likes of Frank Skinner and the BBC’s Adam & Joe.
Beryl and Betty take to the radio airwaves at the BBC Humberside studios every Saturday evening with the man who launched their career, David Reeves, 35. He explained: ‘I was looking to create a show that would give a voice to the kind of people you don’t often hear on the radio. I was interested in older people’s views, nothing heavy, just their stories, and their thoughts on the week.’ He added that he had visited old people’s homes to find the right people but had drawn a blank. Then Beryl and Betty came on a tour of the Humberside studios with their social club, and David overheard them talking as they went round. He knew he had stumbled on just what he was looking for, interviewed them and it all took off from there. They now join him every week to offer their knowledge of local history, new music and taste in younger men and have been doing so for the last six years.
As well as lots of banter, interspersed with music, the show features various weekly slots such as Pensioner News (‘Anything amazing that a pensioner’s done in the past week’), Record Of The Week (‘I give them two to choose from,’ says David), Beryl and Betty singing along to Queen songs, numerous ‘shout-outs’ to Betty’s children and Beryl’s neighbours and, punctuated by Betty’s cackle, much lusting after young men such as the unsuspecting Michael Bublé (Bubble to them).
Both women have lived all their lives in Hull and both are now widows. Beryl worked as a fashion assistant in a Hull department store, and Betty has done everything from cooking to cleaning to brass polishing. Beryl’s home life sounds lonely. Her father died when she was two, her mother when she was six (leaving her grandma to bring her up), her husband Stephen died on Christmas Eve 1998 and they had no children. Unlike Betty, who had ten children and now has so many grandchildren and great grandchildren that she has lost count. They are clearly the very best of friends. ‘We met at our ladies’ club and we’ve never had a cross word since,’ says Beryl. But they’re very different characters. Betty has an infectious dirty chuckle, supports Hull Kingston Rovers rugby league club, talks with her mouth full and describes herself as ‘no lady – never was and never will be’. Beryl, meanwhile, loathes dirty men, ‘My husband used to smell gorgeous – I couldn’t have done with a dirty man’, scruffy men, ‘That David Beckham, all that money he’s got and he wears those awful jeans with the knees out and ragged bottoms’ and she can’t abide swearing.
The Sony judges described them as, ‘A joyous, entertaining double act, having fun with the medium and unconstrained by any ingrained ideas of what works and what doesn’t. They give a voice to a sector of society unrepresented on radio, and do it with a joy that puts many of their fellow broadcasters to shame.’ Asked for the secret of the show’s success, Betty said, ‘We never stop talking. And because we have lived full lives, people want to hear what we have to say. We are full of good advice.’ Beryl added, ‘We are never scared to give a straight answer. If a caller has a dilemma, we do our best to help. And we don’t get embarrassed, no matter what the subject matter is.’
The two friends share an impressive life philosophy, ‘We just get on with things. Get on with your life, that’s what we were taught,’ says Betty. ‘And it’s not bad, is it? We’ve done all right.’ ‘My grandma used to say to me, life is what you make it,’ says Beryl. ‘And you know what? She was right. There are many pitfalls, but nice times, too. And you have to come through them all.’
I am delighted about Beryl and Betty’s award and hope they can keep on going for many years. But perhaps the true plaudits should go to David Reeves who, at such a young age, surrounded by a culture of youth on all sides, had the vision and courage to put them on air.