Sunday, 21 December 2008


It's 20 years today since the dreadful loss of PanAm 103, blown up by a bomb over the town of Lockerbie. I guess we all have our own personal "you know exactly where you were, when..." lists. For me, the night of Lockerbie is definitely on the list.

I was the late-shift television continuity announcer on BBC1 that evening, and we were into the network's main evening entertainment schedule when word came through from the newsroom that there had been a plane crash in the Borders. Probably a military jet on a low flying exercise, I thought, knowing the Borders as a prime area for RAF training sorties. Some more time went by, and then a clearer picture began to emerge. By the time it became clear this was a large passenger jet, we were broadcasting a lavish and hugely expensive drama production, which had been the subject of major-league promotion and and media buzz. Interrupting such a programme for a Newsflash was not something the BBC did lightly, but this was clearly a major story and - in the days before internet and tv rolling news channels - we ought to get it on air as soon as possible. As soon as Newsroom were ready, the Presentation Director faded the drama to black, I selected the "News Report" caption to my vision output, opened the microphone and explained to the viewers that we were interrupting the programme to cross to Nicholas Witchell in the Newsroom.

As Witchell broke the shocking news to the audience, up in the Pres suite, we faced a little concern of our own: how are we going to get neatly back into the play we interrupted? (This is typical of life in a Presentation department. World changing events may be going on outside, and we worry about the minutiae of making the channel look smooth! But, hey, that's what Pres is there for!) In this instance, luck was on my side. I'd actually been watching the play and enjoying it, rather than - as usual - reading the paper with my feet up. "Don't worry" I said to the Director "Rewind the tape by 30 seconds or so, I'll do a recap of the story so far, then you run the tape when I start waving." (no instant start video servers in those days. Programme tapes needed a 5-second run-up) At that, the newsflash ended, we put up an appropriate caption and I embarked on my impromptu recap, waved manically at the Director at an appropriate point, and we got back into the play. If you ever fancy testing your knowledge and observation of a drama you've just been watching, I heartily recommend doing it live and scriptless on BBC1 as a way of concentrating the mind!!

There was a further moment of mad juggling at the end of the play. News were all set to appear at the programme junction, with a fuller report on the incident. As the credits rolled on the drama, our preview monitors showed a shot of an empty chair on the news set. "You ok, News? With you in 1 minute." Yes, they'd be fine, they assured us. "30 seconds, News. You ready?" Still nobody in the presenter's chair, but still they sounded confident. The producer credit and BBC copyright notice froze, centre frame, and the theme music ended. As the vision began to fade to black, the talkback from News erupted: "Don't come to us, Pres, we can't go ahead!". It's at a time like this that human hands on buttons and faders score big time over a computerised transmission system. With a splendid display of fast fingerwork, we got the BBC1 network symbol up on screen, and I began to chat away on air about the delights to come, while the Director hastily shuffled her options in the main gallery next door. An adrenaline-filled few moments, but we got away with it!

So, that was my Lockerbie night, exactly 20 years ago.

The enormity of the incident itself was brought home to me soon after, as I made the drive from London to Glasgow, for a seasonal break. With me in the car, my wife and my newly born son, Jamie, just a few days old. The route to Glasgow took us up the A74, slowing to a crawl as we passed Lockerbie, since the road was down to half its normal width, on account of the damage the plane crash had caused to the southbound carriageway. Our slow passage past the site afforded us a clear view of the devastation wrought on Lockerbie. Houses, roofless and scorched, starkly illuminated by temporary floodlights, and the enormous crater gouged out at the roadside, where a wing laden with fuel had crashed to earth, unleashing the fireball that vapourised not only bricks and mortar but also the residents within. By now, the crash investigators knew it had been a bomb. On the back seat of the car, Jamie slumbered on. He'd entered the world on the 12th of December and, two weeks on, I couldn't help but wonder just what sort of a world it was that he'd entered.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Farewell, Mr Bagpuss

Today's News reports the death, at 83, of Oliver Postgate, the creator of some of the best loved shows from what people of a certain age like to recall as the Golden Age of children's television.
This was the man who brought us the Clangers, in all their knitted glory, complete with dialogue played on the Swannee Whistle. The driving force of Ivor the Engine, too, and Bagpuss.

Bagpuss image © BBC

These were simple creations, but utterly charming. No computer wizardry, just humane warmth. As the narration said, of Bagpuss: "Just an old, saggy, cloth cat. Baggy and a bit loose at the seams." For those of us who are also beginning to feel a bit baggy and loose at the seams, these characters evoke some very special memories. So, cheers, Mr Postgate and, as the Clangers' Soup Dragon would surely have said: "Whoo-woo-woop? Woo wu wooooooh."

Thursday, 4 December 2008

Necessary journeys

Now then. Winter in the UK and we're having a bit of a cold spell. This means we'll soon be in for a forest of well-intentioned advice, from local authorities, police, the Highways Agency and others of their ilk, all rushing to warn Motorists not to travel unless their journey is really necessary.

This hardy perennial can be guaranteed to pop up every winter, and I swear it only does so to irritate me.

"Motorists" for a start. I'd like to see this term banished to the history books. It's redolent of a bygone age, of the illicit pleasures of Mr Toad, a new and daring pursuit for the well-to-do. It belongs in that era when a smart young cad-about-town would take a young filly for a spin through country lanes, or a family might pack the perfect picnic hamper and set-off with their perfectly scrubbed children for a charabanc outing to a summer meadow, there to meander without care, or bask in the afternoon sun, blowing dandelion clocks and taking in the heady aroma of wildflowers, as the ....... well, you get the picture. The point is, life on four wheels just isn't like that anymore! It may sound like a minor thing, but I actually think that the continued use of this term is damaging, as it allows governments and regulatory bodies to continue to paint the car user as somehow removed from the rest of responsible society. Once you've positioned them thus, it becomes a bit easier to clobber them with draconian regulations, of the sort that require the suspension of normal rules of evidence and legal procedure. After all, they're Motorists, they're not like you and me. Wrong! They ARE you and me, and it's time, I say, for those in authority to acknowledge that driving a car is something that people do, and will continue to do.

Oops...heading off on a rant. Calm down dear!

When is a journey necessary? Well, again, it's all anchored in the past, isn't it? Those jolly country jaunts weren't necessary, but who makes that sort of trip in miserable winter weather conditions? In fact, given the state of Britain's roads and the level of traffic congestion we have today, does anyone really head out there for pleasure? A dark night, blizzard conditions, floods, plage and pestilence? I know: let's go for a drive! I'm not convinced.

As I write this, darkness has fallen in London and it's started to rain again. You wait. Any minute now, some herbert will be on the radio with another of these infernal warnings. Well, I just don't care. Home is where I want to be and that makes my journey necessary.

Wish me luck as you wave me goodbye. I may be some time.