My Grandmother had one, and so, possibly, did yours. The Roberts transistor radio, with its leather case, was the classic radio of the Sixties. It was designed by Leslie Bidmead, who went into a business partnership with Harry Roberts in 1932. The RT1 was, according to company lore, based on the shape of Mrs Bidmead’s handbag. Today, as part of my Wednesday Ad Break, I’m going to tell you about the history of this design classic and the new Revival iStream 3 which you see on the table below which has just been released.
Leslie Burrage, the CEO of the company today, said to me a few years ago when I interviewed him before he retired: “It was always quite a niche product, because Roberts was a small company and it was competing against the big brands. But Bidmead came up with this iconic design and it became a significant product for the company. It was quite unlike any other transistor radios of the period.”
In the Seventies the radio was phased out as its design no longer seemed to fit the requirements of the times. “People wanted things to look more technologically advanced, and they wanted to move on from the more traditional designs,” says Burrage.
Then, in 1989, Martini ran an advertising campaign featuring the original red Roberts radio. Suddenly people started ringing the company and demanding to know where they could buy one.
“Dick Roberts, son of the founder, Harry, decided to make a limited run of about 500 and they were all snapped up,” said Burrage. “So he made another 1,000, called it the Revival, and they sold really fast too.
“Dick died in 1991, but there was such momentum by that stage that we carried on. We did 10,000 and introduced new colours – Windsor green and Royal blue. Then Jaguar and Mulberry and Paul Smith all contacted us and wanted to make more limited editions in their signature colours and fabrics. And then we made the digital Revival DAB and so it went on.
“The Americans and the Japanese love them. They just ooze Britishness I suppose,” says Burrage. “The company has a Royal Warrant and we made one in sky-blue suede for the Queen Mother. She used to give them as presents to visiting foreign dignitaries.”
They are now an intrinsic part of the Soho House experience as every bedroom has a Roberts Radio playing when you first check in.
I remember very clearly my Grandmother’s Roberts radio. It was large and sat on a sort of turning wheel so you could spin it round to get receive the best signal. She carried it round the house with her, much like a handbag in fact. It went up to bed with her so she could listen to the Today Programme in the morning. Then, when she got up, just before 8am – after Thought for the Day – it was brought down to the dining room table for breakfast, where I would invariably get told off for spinning it round instead of drinking my milk.
There it would sit for the day until 7pm when it was carried into the drawing room along with a pink gin for The Archers. And from there it made its way back up the stairs just after 10.30pm. My Grandmother insisted on listening to the weather forecast and was always very upset if you turned the television off when the broadcaster was in the middle of a sentence: “Very rude, dear,”. So, pre-remote control, you would have to hover by the television waiting for whoever it was to draw breath so you could hit the off button at that precise moment.
My Grandmother died in 1996 and the radio died with her. Sadly it was in the days before social media and it never occurred to me that I could have contacted the company easily or that it could have been mended. I regret little in life but I regret that I didn’t keep that radio.
Happily though, Roberts contacted me when they saw me post a picture of a different radio on my instagram feed recently and asked if I would like one of their new iStream versions. It’s much smaller than my Grandmother’s but I chose the cream deliberately as she had a handbag in that colour and while I don’t carry mine around (or listen to The Archers) I’m thrilled to have it back in the family as a reminder of her.
This model is made by hand and the radio is housed in a wooden cabinet which is what gives it that disctinctive warm sound. It also works with Alexa, has built-in Bluetooth and multiple streaming services including Spotify and Amazon music.
But the last word must go to Mr Burrage, who said to me: “If you had asked me back in 1994 how long the Revival would last I would have said it was good for a couple of years at most.”