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The golden voice of Radio Ceylon

By Somapala Perera

Vernon Corea

A new website - was recently launched in London remembering one of Sri Lanka's outstanding broadcasters - a pioneer of Radio Ceylon and the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation. The website includes tributes from two great broadcasters - former SLBC Director-General Neville Jayaweera and former BBC Director-General Greg Dyke. Cherie Blair, wife of Prime Minister Tony Blair observed of Vernon Corea, ' You can be proud of what he did for the ethnic minorities.' We look at the life and times of this great broadcaster...

Greg Dyke, Director-General BBC said 'Vernon was a pioneering influence in the BBC and helped to lay the foundation for the work we are continuing to do to make sure our staff and our programmes are truly representative of our nation's diverse population.

We remember with gratitude and pride his launching of London Sounds Eastern on BBC Radio London, and his generosity in mentoring and training people from ethnic minority backgrounds for the BBC.

Vernon will be greatly missed for his warmth, his integrity and his commitment.....'

Vernon Corea, Sri Lanka's pioneering broadcaster, died on September 23rd, 2002 aged 75 years. He lived in New Malden in Surrey.

Vernon was born in Kurana, Katunayke on September 11, 1927. The Corea family are descendants of Dominicus Corea who was crowned King of Kotte in the 16th century. Vernon's parents were the late Canon Ivan Corea and Ouida Corea, one time Rural Dean of Colombo of the Church of Sri Lanka and Vicar of St. Lukes Church, Borella. In the late 1950s Canon Corea was appointed Vicar of St. Paul's Milagiriya.

Vernon was educated at Royal College, Colombo and at Bishop's Theological College in Calcutta, India but decided not to pursue ordination.

Vernon Corea returned to Sri Lanka and went into teaching at Uva College, Badulla where he met his wife, Monica, who was also a teacher. After the death of their first born son Harishchandra, Vernon and Monica moved to Colombo. He joined Radio Ceylon as a Relief Announcer in 1956.

Vernon appointed as an Announcer in Radio Ceylon in 1957 by the Director of the Commercial Service, Clifford R. Dodd. Vernon joined the 'greats' - Livy Wijemanne, Pearl Ondaatje, Tim Horshington, Greg Roskowski, Jimmy Barucha, Mil Sansoni, Eardley Peiris, Shirley Perera, Bob Harvie, Chris Greet, Prosper Fernando, Ameen Sayani (of Binaca Geet Mala fame), S.P. Mylvaganam (the first Tamil Announcer on the Commercial Service), H.M. Gunasekera to name a few. They blazed a trail in broadcasting in South Asia. Vernon also worked with the legendary Karunaratne Abeysekera, they were very close friends.

People from all over the Indian sub-continent stayed awake into the wee hours of the morning to listen to the announcers from Radio Ceylon. Fan mail flooded from all over South Asia. Radio ruled the airwaves in the 1950s and 1960s.

Television hadn't even arrived in Ceylon. Announcers like Vernon were the pioneers of public service broadcasting in Ceylon.

Vernon presented some of the most popular radio programmes in South Asia: Two for the Money, Kiddies Korner, Old Folks at Home, To Each His Own, Ponds Hit Parade, Saturday Stars, Take it or Leave It, Maliban Bandwagon (Maliban Show), Roving Mike, Dial-a-disc, Holiday Choice, Sunday Choice and many more. Vernon was also a sought after compere of countless dinners, dances, events and he was at the helm of many a New Year celebration and his voice greeted listeners with a cheerful 'Happy New Year,' in the 1960s and 1970s.

Vernon was called upon to present the first ever experimental television broadcast from Colombo in 1972.

These were the first tentative steps into the world of television. He appeared in the first grainy pictures on the television screen presenting the first experimental TV program in Colombo.

He was instrumental in introducing Sinhala music into the English Service. Together with his cousins, Sangabo Corea and Vijaya Corea he made Clarence Wijewardene, Annesley Malawana and other talented Sri Lankan musicians, household names.

He had an influential EMCEE column in the Daily News in the 1960s and 1970s and many musicians went to see Vernon, in order to publicise their group. It was a huge plus to be featured in the EMCEE column of the Daily News. Vernon has also mentored the great Sri Lankan radio names of today, including his cousin Vijaya Corea and Nihal Bhareti.

The family moved to England in 1975 when Vernon and Monica became the first Asian missionaries at the Worldwide Evangelization Crusade founded by the all England cricketer C. T. Studd. They worked for the radio arm of WEC, Radio Worldwide who were stationed in Upper Norwood South East London at the time.

After a spell in religious broadcasting Vernon was invited to present the first ever Asian programme in English. "London Sounds Eastern" on BBC Radio London 206.

This was certainly a first for the Sri Lankan Community in the UK and other Asian Communities. Vernon paved the way for radio programs in English involving Asian culture, Asian music and personalities.

The programme was very successful and Vernon interviewed Pandit Ravi Shankar, Pandit Amaradeva, Asha Bhosle, Usha Uthup, Lata Mangeshkhar, Clarence Wijeywardene, Annesley Malawana,Nimal Mendis, Reginald and Jamila Massey, among a whole host of distinguished personalities. 'London Sounds Eastern' built up a huge following and Vernon was reaching new audiences across the capital, he was even featured on the pages of the BBC Radio Times along with Alex Pascall.

Vernon covered the Royal Wedding of His Royal Highness Prince Charles, the Prince of Wales to Lady Diana Spencer for the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation and he voiced news reports on the visits of President J. R. Jayewardene and Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa to the UK. He was invited to Buckingham Palace to meet the Prince of Wales who has a special interest in Asian culture.

Vernon took up the post of Asian Programmes Officer at the BBC, he was in the forefront of training people from the minority ethnic communities - this was a first for the BBC in terms of Local Radio. He was the first Sri Lankan to be appointed to senior management at the BBC.

In 1978, Vernon Corea was appointed as the first Ethnic Minorities Adviser for the British Broadcasting Corporation and held it until his retirement. The BBC were trying to be more inclusive and Vernon brought with him a whole new picture within Britian's multicultural mosaic. Vernon valued diversity and he certainly changed views at the BBC.

He was a man who was not depressed or down and he attributed his state of well-being to Jesus Christ. He used to always tell his children, 'take it to the Lord.' Vernon was a Lay Reader at Christ Church in Gipsy Hill, South East London and also at Emmanuel Church in Wimbledon Village in South West London.

Vernon has left a magnificent legacy to Sri Lankan and British Broadcasting with 45 years of service to public service broadcasting. The London Times (8th October, 2002) and the London Guardian (October 15th) paid tribute to the pioneering work undertaken by Vernon Corea who has dubbed. "The Golden Voice of Radio Ceylon."

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