Twenty Questions and the Mystery Voice - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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Twenty Questions and the Mystery Voice

One weekend shortly before the end of my tour of duty at JSIW, my Royal Navy colleague at JSIW and his wife invited me to join them on a visit to meet Norman Hackforth and his wife, Pamela, who lived in a superb country residence called Honeysuckle Cottage in a remote village near Tenterden in deepest Kent.

"Would that be Norman Hackforth, the Mystery Voice from Twenty Questions?" I asked my colleague. It was! Twenty Questions had been one of the Nation’s favourite radio shows in the 1950s and 60s. A panel of four had to guess the identity of a mystery object by asking no more than 20 questions that required simple yes or no answers. From a different studio, the 'Mystery Voice', Norman Hackforth for most of the show’s long run, announced the object to the radio listeners, usually starting off by saying in hushed, lugubrious tones, "And the next object is…"
Left: The front cover of Norman Hackforth's autobiography.
On being introduced to Norman for the first time I said, "Delighted to meet you, I was a great fan of Twenty Questions from the very first programme in 1947 and I listened to it every week, even on the BBC’s General Overseas Service when I was overseas in Ceylon and Malta." It turned out to be a mistake to have mentioned that although Norman was far too polite to point it out to me. I learned later that he considered Twenty Questions to be one of the minor achievements of his long artistic life. I didn't know that he wished to be remembered as the long-time friend of, composer for, and accompanist to, Noël Coward - 'The Master'. That nickname, The Master, started as a joke and quickly caught on. Noël Coward himself is said to have made light of it and when asked by a journalist why he was known as The Master, he replied, "Oh, you know - Jack of all trades, master of none." Norman told me that Coward actually enjoyed that soubriquet.

During my first visit, Norman entertained us for more than two hours on his beautiful grand piano in his conservatory, playing and singing his own songs including many he had written especially for Noël Coward. He played from memory and never repeated a song. He was amazing and I was spellbound. I asked if he had made any recordings, but he had not. On my next visit, for I was invited back several times, I took with me my state-of-the-art Ferrograph reel-to-reel tape recorder and a professional microphone on a floor stand. I recorded him until I ran out of tape. I told Norman that I would edit the tapes and transfer the songs to cassette and also run off several copies for his own use and to give to friends and relations.

Another visit was needed to adjust sound levels between voice and piano (I was, after all, an amateur recording enthusiast and I had just the single microphone) but eventually I was able to present him with the finished cassettes. He was extremely grateful and he then presented me with a copy of his book called 'and the Next Object...', published in 1975, which he autographed there and then with a personal message to me. I said I would treasure it and read it with great pleasure. I did, but somewhere down the years, during one of my many house moves, that book became lost - as did my master recordings.

Shortly after the final recording session I was posted away from Templer Barracks and I never saw Norman and Pamela again. Pamela died in 1995. Norman always sadly told folk, including me, that he guessed his own obituary would begin: "Norman Hackforth, probably best remembered as the original Mystery Voice in the BBC radio programme Twenty Questions has died. . . ." The BBC duly obliged on 14 December 1996 using those exact words:


Above: Part of the Preface to Norman Hackforth's autobiography

Quite recently I saw Norman's book advertised on a second-hand bookseller's web site and ordered a copy. I have now read it again from cover to cover. I had not realised what a sad and unfulfilled life Norman had.

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