BBC News readers - Tony Cunnane's Autobiography

A Yorkshire Aviator's Autobiography
Tony Cunnane
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BBC News readers

Every BBC news reader identified himself at the start of each bulletin; the idea behind that was so that listeners would recognise that the news was genuine and not being read out by some British equivalent of the traitor Lord Haw Haw. (Lord Haw Haw must have been one of the very first reporters to propagate what US President Donald Trump in 2017 calls ‘fake news’.) All the news readers I remember had very distinctive voices: Alvar Lidell, John Snagge, Stuart Hibberd, Joseph MacLeod, and Wilfred Pickles amongst others. The latter, a West Riding man from Halifax, always read the news in his native Yorkshire accent and ended each nightly bulletin with a cheerful "Gud neet." There was no way anyone could mistake him. Apart from Wilfred Pickles, regional accents were rarely, if ever, heard on the BBC in the 1940s.

I wonder how many people remember that the 9pm evening news on the BBC Home Service was preceded by what was known, and advertised in Radio Times and newspapers, as the Big Ben Minute. Until sometime in 1940 the bulletin had always been preceded by the Greenwich Time Signal but the telephone line bringing the six 'pips' from Greenwich to the BBC studios was disrupted one night by enemy action so the chimes of Big Ben were substituted. The 'minute' was the time it took for Big Ben to ring the full quarter chimes plus nine hour strikes; it was said to provide an ideal opportunity for the faithful to say their prayers or reflect on the day's events. It was also the one occasion each day when folk checked their watches and clocks, and set their alarm clocks. Big Ben Minute remained an evening event for many years after the war.

BBC News broadcasts on the overseas services, regularly heard on one of our two Radio Relay channels, were usually heralded by the sonorous announcement "This is London", immediately followed by a stirring, military band rendition of Lillibulero with lots of trumpets and drums. That ominous phrase "This is London" was also used during the war to attract listeners' attention when all BBC stations, home and overseas, were interrupted immediately prior to what today the media call "breaking news". Until quite recently, Lillibulero was still played before news broadcasts on the BBC World Service but in a new, much less strident, arrangement allegedly to dispel the impression that Britain is a nation with military aspirations. By 2012 Lillibulero seemed to have disappeared altogether.

In the early days of wireless, most broadcast stations around the world transmitted tuning signals at the beginning of their schedules to help listeners find the correct station and tune in accurately. The identification signal for the BBC European Service was a recording of four very soft drum taps repeated every five seconds, over and over again. Presumably the drum taps were transmitted at a low volume so that clandestine listeners in occupied countries were not betrayed to enemy collaborators by a sudden blast of Lillibulero as they waited for the news to start. Many people reckoned the BBC signal was loosely based on the opening of Beethoven's 5th Symphony. More likely the drum taps were simply a representation of the Morse signal for V (dot dot dot dash), which represented Victory - as did Winston Churchill's famous two-finger salute.

When an air raid in the Wakefield area was imminent, the announcer in the local Radio Relay studio used to break into both BBC programmes to transmit the air raid warning message. As soon as the 'all clear' was received he, and it was always a he, used to broadcast that as well. It was all very reassuring. Whenever I was 'up town', I used to peer through the doorway into the back room of the Radio Relay office where I could see a bank of wireless equipment with lots of red lights and huge glowing thermionic valves. There was a large sign on one of the receivers stating 'Droitwich 1500m/200kcs', that being the wavelength and frequency of the BBC's long wave transmitter to which the local radio relay system was tuned.

At that early age I couldn't see how there could be a direct relationship between metres and kilocycles per second but many years later, when I became a wireless fitter in the RAF and had to deal with sine waves, I learned that the frequency of a radio signal in kilocycles per second multiplied by its wavelength in metres, equals the speed of light in metres per second - or as the RAF succinctly put it - "f lambda equals c". In 1978, as part of a European agreement, the BBC's Droitwich transmitter, and its low power relays, changed frequency permanently from 200kcs to 198kcs which resulted in 1500m becoming 1525m. These days the speed of light has been defined rather more precisely - and kcs (kilocycles per second) have become kHz (kiloHertz - upper case H because it is named after the scientist).

As the war dragged on, I acquired a real enthusiasm for many of the music programmes transmitted by the BBC. Most of them were played from gramophone records but some, such as Sandy MacPherson the organist and Victor Sylvester's strict-tempo dance music programmes, were live. Sandy had replaced Reginald Foort, as the 'official' BBC organist at the beginning of the war or thereabouts. Initially Sandy played on the BBC's own theatre organ in London but when that was destroyed in an air raid in 1941 the BBC moved him to Bangor in North Wales from where he continued to broadcast live on a borrowed instrument.

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