Track in on… Betty Bowes, the dark lady of the tonics


Peter Ling pays a visit to the Rediffusion Club and talks to bartender Betty Bowes in 1958

“It’s almost like having two separate jobs,” says Betty. “Having to come to work twice every clay.”

From Fusion issue 1, May/June 1958

She leaves her North London flat each morning soon after eleven, travels to Television House, works till two-thirty returns home, gets back to Kingsway just before six, puts up the metal grille at ten-thirty, and finally gets back home around eleven-fifteen. Which — when you’ve also got a husband (Alec) and a ten-year-old son (Eric) to look after — makes a pretty long day.

Holidays excepted, she’s been following this routine ever since the Rediffusion Club first opened in October, 1955; and those two-and-a-bit years have made her a genuine TV personality. How many girls in the shooting-star world of television are known exclusively by their Christian names? Sabrina may spring prominently to mind, but Betty, with a less bizarre name, can claim an even more devoted band of followers. Perhaps not one of her customers in a hundred knows her as “Mrs. Bowes” — but everyone who has ever visited the Rediffusion Club knows “Betty”.

Alec Bowes is a wine-waiter in a West End hotel; but though they are both in the catering business, they have never worked together, and they did not meet over a corkscrew. Apart from a war-time spell in the Women’s Services, Betty admits that she has spent most of her working life behind bars… Mostly theatre bars, she adds hastily. (Like “Oklahoma!” Betty spent three years at Drury Lane.) But she wouldn’t want to go back to the theatre now, or the jangle of the interval bell.



“It’s a passing trade,” she explains. “You never get to know anybody. Television’s quite different; you couldn’t call it boring, could you? The time never hangs, if you know what I mean.”

In Television House, Betty has to know people. Not always their surnames, perhaps, and probably not their jobs — but she knows a thousand faces, and can fit a Christian name to most of them. Best of all, she knows what they like to drink. Mostly it’s straightforward; the Studios come in thirsty and hot, needing beer; the Fourth Floor splice the mainbrace with something stronger; a Third Floor customer might occasionally ask for a Pimm’s Number One.

But the Fifth Floor demands — and usually gets — anything and everything.

“I think I know most drinks by now.” Betty Hashes a smile as bright as a new penny. “A ‘Cameraman’s Kick’, for instance —That started with the camera-boys from Wembley; it’s a lager-and-lime, but lots of other people besides cameramen have taken it up now.”

Then there’s the “Morley Special”, which comes from the Features Department, and is a judicious blend of martini-and-soda. This too is getting increasingly popular. Betty doesn’t get a chance to see Mr. Morley’s programmes — she says it’s an awful shame, but when would she have the time? — but she does know that the “Morley Special” gets a very high rating. “Mind you, the Design Department gave me a tough one, when they started asking for a ‘Negroni’. It’s campari, vermouth and gin —the only trouble is, it takes time, and when the bar’s crowded… Well, Michael just has to wait.” Betty wipes the bar-top in short, lightning movements until it is spotless once more, then continues:

“Of course, there are some who ask for things with funny names, just to show off if you know what I mean. A ‘Horse’s Neck’, for instance — it’s only brandy-and-ginger. Well, you might just as well say brandy-and-ginger, mightn’t you?” She sees the fashions in drink rise and fall; vodka used to be very popular, taken with tomato juice in the form of a “Bloody Mary” — but whether or not it’s because Television House feels by now it has had just about all it can take of Soviet Russia, the “Bloody Mary” is on the way out.

Betty’s own personal choice? A Scotch and dry ginger. It’s warming — and that’s another way our drinking habits reflect the passage of time. More whisky is drunk in winter; more gin in summer. For a short time after New Year’s Eve, there was a run on soft drinks, and the sale of cigarettes noticeably dropped — but most noble resolutions, Betty remembers, slipped after a couple of nights.

Thursdays are Betty’s busiest nights now, though at one time it used to be Fridays. She says it’s because of “This Week”, though she can’t explain quite why. Surely that rush of custom can’t all be due to Mr. Hunt?

For a while, light music was served in the bar, as well as refreshments. Betty was responsible for running and changing the tapes, which were amplified — perhaps too well amplified — through a small speaker hanging from the partition…. But the experiment didn’t work. As the customers pointed out: “If you can recognise the tune — it’s too loud.” The tape-machine disappeared; but Betty doesn’t mourn its passing, nor does she nurse any secret ambition to take a job in S.T.U.

“I’m very happy here,” she says. “Really I am! The only thing I hate is washing up glasses, but apart from that… Well, I wouldn’t change. It’s such a varied sort of life.” Someone raps on the bar with a half-crown, and Betty flicks a reassuring smile at him.

“You’re next, dear… She adds in an undertone: “Of course, you have to be diplomatic sometimes — well, you know how it is. You do get the odd one or two who may be a bit naughty, now and again, but most of them — they’re very nice…

She hands over the change, and moves along the bar.

“Now, then — what’ll it be?”

Same again, Betty. And please have a scotch-and-dry—on us.


About the author

Peter Ling (1926-2006) was a script editor at Associated-Rediffusion. He would later be famous for co-creating 'Crossroads' for ATV Midlands

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