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Livy's golden years on radio

By Noel Crusz
(From Australia) Island 29 Nov 1998

In 1936 at eighteen he won the Senior Reading Prize at Royal College where he was a prefect. Now at eighty this great-grandfather is still riding the radio waves in a nine hour shift at FM's 'Capital Radio' and ''Savana''. Livy Wijemanne's story is enthralling for it reflects the golden years of Ceylon broadcasting. Livy is more than a pioneer: he set the trend which others followed.

Not long ago the Director General of the Ceylon Broadcasting Corporation Eric Fernando presented Livy with a special award at the ''Obe Katahande Thama Mathakai ' ceremony held at the Tower Hall. As a tribute to the Radio Ceylon announcers of 1950 to 1998 it was a significant event. Livy as an announcer has had no equal: he trudged the coir -matted studios of Colombo Radio in Cotta Road, where Isabel de Kretser and Ned Rankine ruled the roost in the early thirties. The Scottish born Isabel who was the world's first woman announcer was watched by Livy as she broadcast the abdication of Edward VIII. Livy admits that she was a remarkable announcer with a voice that has hardly been equalled.

In my years in the ministry of the Catholic church I witnessed the sweeping changes in Radio Ceylon and the part that Livy Wijemanne played in its transition. His saga started on October 31 st 1948. The Post Master General (who was also Director of Broadcasting) summoned the young announcer and invited him to become the Assistant Controller of Programmes. A year later in 1949 the BBC's John Lampson was on a contract to organise Radio Ceylon which moved from Cotta Road to Torrington Square.

Lampson brought down Pascoe Thornton (also of the BBC) to do the spadework. Both Thornton and Lampson and later Colombo Plan BBC man Rex Moorfoot told me that Livy's experience and advice and commitment were of invaluable aid to them. Livy was made Western Programmes organiser with Thevis Guruge doing the Sinhala services and Sivapathasunderam the Tamil. This was certainly a long way from Wijemanne's student days.

At University College doing Zoology Livy had a confrontation with Prof. Robert Marrs and came to St Peter's College, where Fr. D. J. Nicholas Perera and the Priest Scientist Thomas Paris welcomed him. He did Zoology with my brother Professor Hilary and Dr. W. D. L. Fernando. He started the College 'Music, Art and Drama Society'. He befriended George Wickremasinghe who was running 'Radio Engineers', and persuaded George to present a Mende radiogram to St. Peter's. Whilst George's eyes were on film production he suspected that Livy would do his own thing in broadcasting.

At the pre-Medical course in the University Livy in defending a colleague aganst Prof S. A. Pakeman jettisoned his medical studies and took up law. A distraught father went to the astrologer Prof Bulathsinhala, who said:" Your son would do neither medicine nor law, but his career will be in a profession that calls for speaking ability and his voice. " At that time no one thought about broadcasting!

Then came the break: the PMG Col. J.P. Appleby heard Livy on the air. Pearl Ratcliffe was on leave and later resigned and Livy filled in for her. Appleby recognised a male announcer of class with a radio voice that was attractive and professional. There was correct intonation and the pronunciation flawless. Shirley da Silva, the Station Superintendent was asked to summon Livy, who was appointed to a permanent position. Livy succeeded Eddie Hettiarachi (Laddie's father) who had resigned as announcer. It was August 21st 1944.

As Western Programmes organiser Livy had Merle Swan for 'Talks", Richard Weerasooriya for Music and Pearl Ondaatje and later Hector Jayasinghe for Drama. Livy insisted on getting an excellent Australian trained script writer in Mark Bartholomeusz and Foster Stave was brought in to the Schools' service from St Peter's.

The Broadcasting station that had moved from Cotta Road to Torrington Square needed drive and Wijemanne provided it. He identified talent, welcomed new broadcasters and any experiments in presentation. It was Livy who first mapped out the logistics of 'Outside broadcasts', especially of the entertainment programmes relayed from the big hotels.

Livy knew how to work with a team and it was an era when Merle Swan broadcast so many programmes of quality. New voices came on the air, and they were vintage, and not a few were Wijemanne's discoveries: Tony and Irene de Costa, Alfreda de Silva, Christine Wilson, June Jansen, Christine Parkinson, Patricia Pantin-Munro, Jeanne Pinto, Mano Muttukrishna, Sujata de Silva, Sidat Nandalochana, Sita and Sali Parakarama, Arthur and Sheila Van Langenberg, Diane Sproule, Nedra Wijeyakoon.

The announcers too made their mark: Mil Sansoni, Tim Horshington,, Mark Anthony Fernando; Joseph Mather; Chris Greet, Eardley Perera, Vernon and Vijaya Corea, Jimmy Barucha, Joe Perera, Bob Harvie, Greg Roskowski, Cyril Lawrence, Ron Campbell, Malini Balasingham, Priya Ratnavira, Marion Weeraratne, Iris Cockburn, Eardley Peiris, Mervyn Jayasuriya, Shirley Perera and many others.

In early 1953 when I was in London with the BBC, Livy came on a Colombo Plan scholarship. With the reputed John Arlott he worked in Scotland, Wales and London. But it was at the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth on June 22nd at Westminster Abbey that Livy Wijemanne was chosen by the BBC to occupy a seat assigned to a Commonwealth broadcasters. The London Press took notice. Then the British Council invited him to reply to the toast of the Commonwealth proposed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer Mr Richard Mauldling at the Coronation Civic dinner at North Garnet.

I remember the BBC inviting Livy to present a 45 minute programme of Music of Ceylon in their Coronation series "Overseas Commentator". He also featured in Geoffrey Bridson's BBC feature Asia has a Plan. In Aberdeen Livy was given the facilities to record a programme featuring the children of Scotland. This took place adjoining Balmoral Castle, and the accompanist was no other than Eric Gross, a former pianist at the Galle Face Hotel.

At this time Ceylon broadcasting was in the hands of a brilliant administrator Mr M. J. Perera who had succeeded John Lampson as Director General. M. J. Perera had the talented newly appointed Vernon Abeysekera who took Thornton's place. Both had a vision and spared no pains to encourage talent. M.J. steered clear from political or religious bias. He insisted on getting the best training for his staff, and has never been equalled in the arena of Torrington Square. M.J extended Livy's Colombo Plan stint to Canada.

Livy would recall the interesting moments of his Canadian stay: "I remember recording an interview with a shapely young lady,who was shot out of a cannon every evening at a rodeo show in Calgary." he said."On this occasion her nylon panties disappeared though it was not part of the act!" At Winnipeg Livy was fortunate to meet Walter Kauffman who had been consultant to All India Radio for ten years. Kauffman was the conductor of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra.

In 1955 Livy Wijemanne was made Assistant Director of the Commercial Service of Radio Ceylon, and became Director in 1956. Under Clifford Dodd the Commercial Service had a flying start.

In 1959 Livy was in the United States as delegate from Ceylon for a seminar on Radio and TV. This was organised by the Department of Telecommunications of the University of Southern California, where seventeen countries took part in Los Angeles. Livy covered the Miss World Beauty Contest at Long Beach for Radio Ceylon, and recorded an interview with some of the finalists including the winner Miss Japan.

At the MGM studios in Hollywood Livy interviewed the Israeli film actress Haya Harareet who starred in the blockbuster Ben Hur. Another bonanza was to meet Miklos Rosza who composed the music for the film that was breaking all box office records at that time.

Prof Walter Emery invited Livy to address the mass communication class on 'Broadcasting in Ceylon'. This was when the Ceylon radio man was attached to radio Station WKAR. Livy recorded an interview with the very popular singing cowboy Hank Snow and his charming wife Min at their residence in Nashville, Tennessee.

Livy then came to New York to await the arrival of the Prime Minister Mr. S. W. R. D. Bandaranaike, who was to address the United Nations assembly. He soon received the news of Mr Bandaranaike's assassination in Colombo. In an interview with the 'Voice of America' he paid a personal tribute to the late Prime Minister.

Livy's trip to Nebraska was eventually to benefit Radio Ceylon. The 'Back to the Bible' organisation was the first religious station to buy time on the Commercial Service. On Livy's return to Ceylon he became Additional Director of Commercial Broadcasting and later head of the service when Clifford Dodd's contract had terminated. With the conversion of the Department of Broadcasting to a Corporation in January 1967 Livy was appointed Director of Commercial Broadcasting.

Neville Jayaweera became Director General of the Corporation. Jayaweera wanted clearer objectives. He felt that broadcasting was primarily treated as a medium of entertainment and cultural diffusion, but its potential for social change had not been exploited. He got Stewart Wavell as Director of Training. He wanted radio to seek socially relevant goals. Livy had no contention with this vision .

In January 1984 Livy was appointed Chairman of the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation by the Minister Dr Anandatissa de Alwis. Livy re-organised the Commercial Service, which was disbanded since 1971. He introduced a separate Music division.

Owing to terrorist activity from the Northern and Southern territories security became a vital factor at Independence Square. Livy overcame this hurdle. His rapport with Japan led to Japan offering to build a new studio complex. Relay facilities for Japan's NHK led to new transmitters coming to Ceylon. 'Deutsche Welle'' Germany too were given transmitting facilities with benefits to the Corporation. A complete plan to introduce an islandwide FM Service was also approved with foreign funding and this improved reception. It was at this time that the VOA moved from Ekala to the Puttalam district.

In 1989 Livy Wijemanne relinquished office and joined his son Dhanaraj in the travel business. On April 1st 1992 Livy was granted a license for a private Broadcasting Station in Colombo. On May 10th 1993 Station FM 99 came on the air with a single 18 hour transmission with Western, Sinhala and Tamil programmes. Station operations were started at the Galadari Hotel and in February 1996 it moved to Liberty Plaza. The station was now broadcasting 24 hour services in each of the languages.

In a sense Livy has achieved his dream. As usual he was the pioneer doing all the spade work. His efforts for Ceylon broadcasting received National recognition. In July 1990 he received the Kalasuri Class One from President Premadasa. In April 1996 the Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike conferred the Visva Prasadhini for services to broadcasting. Livy's success was that he understood the medium and was committed to it, and he had started as an announcer. He understood the axiom that broadcasting begins where listeners are. He has ridden the radio waves and enjoyed every minute of it, as much as he has made broadcasting achieve the highest standards.