Recollections of Paddy O’Byrne who died on 3 December 2013

On 4 December 2013 I heard the sad news that Paddy O’Byrne had died the previous night, shortly before his eighty-fourth birthday. People on social media and on radio remembered the man and his broadcasting skills with great affection, just as I do myself.

The Voice of South Africa competition 

I first heard of Paddy during the Voice of South Africa competition organised by the SABC in 1961. My parents and I sat in the lounge at 21 Juno Street, Kensington, in front of our large valve radio with the green cat’s eye tuner, listening to the weekly competition with interest. Paddy won that competition, with Michael Todd second, and Dr Tony Venniker in third place. Paddy was Irish, Michael Todd English, and Dr Tony Venniker was South African!

Paddy’s father was a high court judge in Eire and Paddy himself had studied law and was working for an insurance company in the city, but when he won the competition he began his broadcasting career on the English service. Michael Todd became a newsreader with the SABC, while Dr Tony continued practising medicine but made frequent broadcasts in an excellent series called Medical File with fellow medics, Professors Harry Seftel and Peter Cleaton-Jones. Sadly, Dr Tony died of advanced prostate cancer in 1989, and Michael Todd also died many years ago.

Paddy O’Byrne was a fine broadcaster. He had a beautiful speaking voice, a beguiling personality and had a wide musical knowledge. He and his wife, Vicky, who had a charming singing voice, had appeared in a pantomime with the Hungarian/South African singer, Eve Boswell, before coming to South Africa.

Gilbert and Sullivan series presented by Webster Booth – 1962 

The first connection between Paddy and Webster Booth began in 1962. Webster was presenting a Gilbert and Sullivan series of programmes when the copyright on Gilbert’s words was lifted. Unfortunately he was taken very ill during that year and spent some time in the fever hospital in Braamfontein with a mysterious virus which gave him myocarditis and threatened his life. He was away from the singing studio and unable to record the Gilbert and Sullivan programmes for some time. It fell to Paddy O’Byrne to read Webster’s scripts for several of these programmes, and he made a very good job of this assignment.

Sunday at Home – 1963 

In 1963 Paddy presented a series on the English Service called Sunday at Home. He visited the homes of different celebrities to interview them. On one particular Sunday, Anne and Webster entertained a young Paddy in their home at 121 Buckingham Avenue, Craighall Park. It was a charming, informal interview and I liked it so much that I ordered a tape of it from SABC Enterprises some years later.

To the UK and back to South Africa 

I went to the UK in 1966 for several years, and some time later Paddy and his family went to live in Croydon in the UK. During that time Paddy worked at the BBC as a broadcaster on Radio 2. The family returned to South Africa in 1980 when Paddy launched a new radio station, Channel 702, which initially had a licence to broadcast from the South African “homeland” of Bophuthatswana.

Shortly after the launch, Paddy returned to the SABC, succeeding Peter Broomfield and Ken Marshall in a weekday morning programme called Top of the Morning with Paddy O’Byrne. On this programme he chatted to listeners about a variety of topics which interested him, played a wide selection of music and the occasional request from listeners, and also interviewed guests. I particularly remember him interviewing John Robbie, the Irish rugby player, who is a long-established talk show host on what is now called Talk Radio 702, broadcasting from studios in Sandton.

By this time I had been married for ten years and had two children. Anne and Webster returned to the UK in 1978 and, for a time, established a third career on stage and radio. Webster was not in the best of health and his voice was a shadow of what it had once been, so it was very sad that he had to get up on the stage and sing in public. The only news I had of them in 1983 was a comment from Paddy on his programme to say that he had heard that neither of them was very well and “needed looking after”. I wrote to Paddy asking for further news as I was worried that I had not heard from them for so long. No doubt he thought I was some loony fan for he did not reply to my letter! Later that year I had a letter from Anne telling me that Webster was very ill and was now in a nursing home in North Wales and unlikely to return home. He died on 21 June 1984.

 I Bless the Day (De Jongh)and Brian Morris 

Paddy O’Byrne continued his regular morning programme on the English Service and I listened to it regularly. One day, he had a request from Brian Morris, a former student of Anne and Webster’s. When I was Webster’s studio accompanist I had often played for Brian at his lessons. He had a very good baritone voice, reminiscent of Peter Dawson’s.

Brian asked for Webster’s recording of I Bless the Day by De Jongh. The SABC in Johannesburg had got rid of its collection of 78rpm records years before, so there were few of Anne and Webster’s recordings in the SABC library at that time. I had the recording Brian had requested on a Canadian Rococo LP, and also I Leave My Heart in an English Garden by Harry Parr-Davies, which was on the flipside of the original 78rpm. I wrote to Paddy, offering to lend him my precious recordings so that he could play the song Brian had requested. This time he did get in touch with me. His daughter, Jane, who lived near us, collected the records and Paddy duly played Brian’s request and some other recordings from my LPs over several days.

I was rather worried when Paddy didn’t return my records so eventually I phoned his home. Paddy was out, but I spoke to his wife, Vicky. She was charming and realised that I was concerned about my records and said she would make sure that he returned them very soon. Paddy called at our home unexpectedly one Saturday morning to return my records and was fascinated by the photographs of Anne and Webster which adorned my music room. I had a duplicate copy of the LP The Golden Age of Anne Ziegler and Webster Booth and gave it to him so that he could play a wider selection if listeners requested one of Anne and Webster’s recordings. Because of Brian Morris’s request for I Bless the Day Paddy and his wife, Vicky, became personal friends of Brian and his wife, Denise. Someone contacted me on my blog a few years ago to tell me the sad news that Brian had died.

Paddy was writing articles about music and broadcasting, so after our initial meeting he often phoned me if he needed to verify information about Anne and Webster. He was always charming and friendly, and I enjoyed our chats together.

He continued as a broadcaster with the SABC, and in 1995 he did a combined afternoon programme with Vuyo Mbuli. I think this was the first time Vuyo had done any broadcasting. Sadly he died suddenly a few years ago, still only in his forties. By that time he was a top TV presenter and very popular with the South African public. Their musical taste differed widely, so it was often a case of hearing Thomas Hampson one minute, and Michael Jackson the next!

After Paddy retired from the SABC he joined the community radio station of 1485 Radio Today and was as popular with listeners as ever. Return to Ireland He and his family returned to their native Ireland towards the end of the last century. His beloved wife, Vicky, died some time ago, and in June this year Paddy came to South Africa to attend a Requiem Mass for her at the Catholic Church in Rosebank where they had worshipped while living here. He and Peter Lotis were guests on Clare Marshall’s programme Morning Star on 1485 Radio Today, which broadcasts from a beautiful plant nursery in Jan Smuts Avenue. It was good to hear his voice once again, although I could hear that he was not very well.

My sincere condolences to his family and friends. He will be sadly missed, but very fondly remembered by everyone who knew him and enjoyed listening to him on the radio.

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