Radio History

By Mullen, Richard | Contemporary Review, August 1994 | Go to article overview

Radio History


Mullen, Richard, Contemporary Review


Few recent events have been so well covered by all sections of the media as the fiftieth anniversary of D Day in June. Television, which is to say mainly the BBC, gave it lavish coverage and brought many unforgettable moments into our homes. Who can ever forget the sight of the Queen joining in the singing of `We'll Hang Out the Washing on the Siegfried Line' as the veterans marched before her at Arromanches. Nor could one forget the singularly felicitous touch in her moving speech -- perhaps the finest she has ever given -- when she mentioned the presence of the French Minister-in-Attendance on the platform. As a young Jewish girl she had been herded into Auschwitz. It was for her and for people like her, said the Queen, that the Allies fought the war. That rare touch of unrestrained feeling when her voice faltered at the end of her address only added to the emotion of the occasion. Even President Clinton managed to behave with some dignity and speak with sincerity. This is where no other medium can equal television: it can put the viewer in the front row of events as they happen, be they across the street, across the Channel or on the other side of the world.

Yet television rarely excels at serious analysis or historical background. In the case of D Day, BBC Television did present an excellent two-part documentary by Charles Wheeler about the Battle for Normandy. Wheeler is himself a veteran of the campaign. This was an `old-fashioned documentary' where the presenter knew what he was talking about and where he began at the start and ended at the finish. Wheeler was able to talk not only to Allied veterans but to Germans and Frenchmen in their own languages. This type of television documentary grew out of the great tradition of BBC Radio. The excellence of this documentary only emphasised how puerile so much of television has become in the last decade.

For really informed programmes one has had to look to -- or rather, listen to -- radio. For many decades BBC Radio has presented numerous programmes on history and literature. This work has done more than all the universities combined to preserve our heritage and to share it with all who can afford a radio and the time to listen.

In spite of all the pressures, financial as well as cultural, that have been waging a constant war on quality radio, much that is good is still being made. D Day saw two excellent examples of that. Radio Two broadcast a two hour long programme of reminiscences and anecdotes about the battles in Normandy which Charlie Chester gathered from his fellow veterans. This was very moving and an excellent example of one service that BBC Radio has rendered history for many decades: recording the stories of people who were at great and small moments in history. These stories of individual heroism as well as moments of absurdity will be of use to any serious historian who knows where to look to find the drama of history. These programmes help to make BBC Archives perhaps the greatest single source of history in the world.

Radio Four, on the other hand, provided an enlightening series of two programmes -- Overlord -- which gave the background to the story of D Day. They were well presented by Christopher Cook, whose mellifluous voice is well known to any listener to radio. These two programmes followed the well established format of mixing archival footage with comments by historians and biographers. The programmes ended with General Eisenhower's famous command, `Let's Go', made after he took his momentous decision to launch the invasion on 6 June. This type of radio programme requires an immense amount of work and preparation. Appropriately it was the final contribution of John Knight, a producer who has made many distinguished programmes.

Radio producers rarely receive credit for the work they do. Their name usually appears in small print in a summary of the programme in the Radio Times and is also announced at the end of the programme. …

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