They’re real pardners at Melody Ranch

Granada’s Canadian country and western show

TVTimes masthead
From the TVTimes for week commencing 2 March 1958

STARS twinkle in the night sky, and the light from the full moon makes the snow glisten high up on the mighty Rockies. From the brilliantly illuminated ranch-house, constructed of local stone and timber from the encircling forests, comes the gay music of a square-dance. And a rough wooden sign nearby proclaims that we are exactly 5,993 miles from London.

It could be Alberta, Canada. But. in fact, the stars are sequins, the mountains cardboard. And the ranch-house, made from matchwood and paper, is in a television studio only a stone’s throw from Manchester’s muddy Irwell.

But if the scaled down model screened at the opening of Melody Ranch is only make-believe, the atmosphere inside the full-size ranch-house built on the studio floor is 100 per cent authentic.

The place itself has been designed by a Canadian, Tom Spaulding. The moose’s head on the wall may have been borrowed from a Salford museum — but it is, after all, a genuine North American moose.

A violinist, drummer and bass player on a platform. Seated below them are three people in 'Western' garb
Libby Morris, making a happy and welcome return to ITV, listens to Danny Levan’s violin

And most of the artists appearing in the show are Canadians, too. Bill O’Connor, the host, and comedy-singer Libby Morris, who have both appeared in a similar show on Canadian TV, tell me: “This is just like the real thing.”

It was in a building something like the Melody Ranch set that Libby started on her show business career. “It was back in Winnipeg,” she said. “There was a stable, and a man bought it and made it into a night club, while maintaining the Western setting. I was 17 and working my way through college, and I used to sing there at night.

“After that I moved to Toronto, broke into radio and television, and then came to Britain.”

Libby is no stranger to the Manchester studios. She used to sing in Two’s Company until she had a breakdown and flew back to Canada to recuperate.

Three people on a bench
Bill O’Connor sings, but Libby is too busy plucking a duck to care

Melody Ranch also brings diminutive Jackie Lee back to the studios where she scored so much success in magazine programmes like Sharp at Four and People and Places. Since she was last in Manchester she’s had a busy time. Much of it has been taken up with troop concerts in Cyprus, Germany, North Africa and Malta.

But she also found time to get engaged. Her fiance is Len Beadle, one of The Four Others singing group. They plan to be married in August.

The cast gather round a woman singing
Libby, singing, started her career in Canada in a similar show

Jackie is one member of the Melody Ranch team who has no connection with Canada. She is Irish, and proud of it. “But,” she told me, “I wouldn’t have missed this for anything. There is such a happy atmosphere, and everyone is so friendly and helpful.”

The leader of the Melody Ranch group of musicians is Danny Levan, whose “talking violin” has a lot to say during the show’s 30 minutes. “I like to specialise in the novelty jazz type of fiddle playing,” he said, “but for some years now I have been typed as a Western-style fiddler. I don’t mind. I love this kind of music.”

He was introduced to “this kind of music” when he came out of the Army after the war and teamed up with the late Big Bill Campbell.

Four men declaim
The Maple Leaf Four – Canadian servicemen who met in Britain and teamed up

It was a post war meeting that created the Maple Leaf Four. This singing group consists of Al Harvey, brothers Norman and Johnnie MacLeod and Joe Melia. None of them had any show business experience before the war. They came to Britain as Canadian servicemen, and met after the war.

Of the four, only Al Harvey, tall and immaculate in his black and white cowboy outfit, can claim any knowledge of real ranch life. “I have ridden in the Calgary Stampede,” he told me. “It’s the biggest in the world — an unforgettable experience.”

Jackie Lee
Jackie Lee is Irish; has never been to Canada; but loves “the ranch”

Melody Ranch should make Al feel at home. According to the script its location is in the foothills of the Rockies, midway between Calgary and Banff.

Derek Meakin

– And Bill O’Connor ties the show together

Bill O'Connor

BILL O’CONNOR stopped shouting “Mr Props, Mr Props,” and gave me an engaging smile. “I’m looking for a piece of string,” he explained. “I’ve just had this Western outfit made and the belt’s too long. It looks untidy. A piece of string would tie it nicely.”

This he said in an accent that was born in Sault Sainte Marie, Canada, where Bill grew up. As an actor he has used many others, but his home-town accent has come out again for Melody Ranch, where square-dances and songs from the guests set the style.

I met him at a rehearsal to talk about his role as “the owner of this spread.” He is tall — almost 6ft — has dark brown curly hair, hazel eyes and a welcoming smile.

His figure is athletic, which is hardly surprising, for he lists baseball, squash and ice hockey among his leisure activities.

He looks a real rancher in his Western outfit of brown and white leather boots, brown and white checked trousers, yellow ochre embroidered shirt and ribbon tie with a matching waistcoat.

“I’m certainly enjoying this show,” said Bill. “I think it’s fun. I hope it’s popular. We have the same sort of show in Canada. That’s been running for more than five years and is so popular that viewers won’t let it be replaced.” He has just returned from Canada, where he is known as Larry O’Connor. ” There’s another Bill O’Connor in Canadian show business,” he explained.

Bill, who is 38, came to England with the Canadian Navy and stayed on to become a well-established leading man in West End musical comedy. He played in Cage Me A Peacock, Brigadoon and Love From Judy.

His films include They Made Me A Fugitive, Meet the Navy, No Orchids For Miss Blandish and The Happiness of Three Women. He has had two weekly radio programmes, and taken part in variety broadcasts and straight plays, but he plays host for the first time on television in Melody Ranch.

Bill does more than introduce the other artists; his easy-going, relaxed personality welds the show together He welcomes the viewers to the timbered, wide-windowed ranch house. He cracks the jokes that lead from song to song, and, of course, he sings.

“I like the happy atmosphere of Melody Ranch,” Bill told me. “I like the gay songs we sing.”

There was no more time to talk, for the last rehearsal was due to begin. Director Philip Jones walked on the set to give his last-minute instructions.

Bill was saying goodbye to me when a blue-sweatered character who had heard his appeal for string arrived with a piece. Bill tied his belt tightly. “I think that looks better,” he said. And he slipped back to the set in time to join the rest of the cast in the welcoming song that introduces Melody Ranch.

Pamela Hodgson

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