There is a connection. Honestly. Do please bear with me. This article was written on Wednesday 29th April 2020, in the sixth week of the Covid-19 confinement for Britain. Easter had come and gone. The dry warm-ish spring weather had continued and by and large the nation had heeded the Governments instructions to “stay home, protect the NHS and save lives”.
The prime minister, Boris Johnson, had returned to work after recovering from the virus and he and his partner had announced the birth of their son. In those times the day’s activities seemed to revolve around the daily 1700hrs BST government briefings broadcast live on radio and television. And 24 million watched the Queen’s speech on Sunday 5 April 2020.
She began, “I am speaking to you at what I know is an increasingly challenging time. A time of disruption in the life of our country: a disruption that has brought grief to some, financial difficulties to many, and enormous changes to the daily lives of us all…” The BBC’s Jonny Dymond called it an ambitious speech, designed and written to reassure and inspire. The Queen concluded by saying,
“While we have faced challenges before, this one is different. This time we join with all nations across the globe in a common endeavour, using the great advances of science and our instinctive compassion to heal. We will succeed – and that success will belong to every one of us. We should take comfort that while we may have more still to endure, better days will return: we will be with our friends again; we will be with our families again; we will meet again. But for now, I send my thanks and warmest good wishes to you all.”
That line about “we’ll meet again” was intentional and provoked one British TV channel to dig out the old Vera Lynn film and add it to its schedules a couple of days later. Coincidentally it was the same black and white movie that I had been viewing that week as part of my research.
This clip is from the end of the film, and the war-time movie was a tear-jerker made in such a way as to give you a lump in your throat towards the end. Even today, all those years on, it has a certain sentimental magic. The movie is a bio-pic about Vera Lynn, played by herself, as a fictional singer, Peggy Brown, who has a career break just the same as Vera did. In that respect it is a confusingly post-modern plot: it’s reality playing art playing reality in a fictional story about reality. I think I’ve just confused myself.
The enduring nature of the sentimental song she made popular, the eponymous We’ll Meet Again, was evident when the Queen made reference to it. She herself had been a young girl during those years and spoke with the authority of personal experience. It was, after all, in 1940 during the war when she and her sister Margaret has given their first radio broadcast, talking to children evacuated from cities – and far away from their parents.
However, as far as this film is concerned, it is important to put it into some context. Vera Lynn was not universally liked in the 1940s particularly amongst some within BBC management who reckoned she sang overly sentimental songs. They thought that the troops should be listening instead to stirring tunes and military marches. What did they know? None-the-less, servicemen and women – and the young working classes too – appeared to take her to their hearts (Asa Briggs, History of Broadcasting, vol 3, pp.578-9).
This is reflected in the movie which shows Vera Lynn’s rise to fame and the inception of her radio request programme, Sincerely Yours. The movie shows a positive image of the Corporation’s music department run by a “kindly, wise and paternalistic executive” – a fictional Mr Hastropp – played by Frederick Leister – attended to by a “comically anxious and officious secretary” called Miss Bohne – played by Betty Jardine (read more in Jeffrey Richards, 2010, Cinema and Radio, p.189).
Reflecting wartime conditions, the two of them work from an office with bare brick walls and lined with sandbags. She is curt with telephone callers, and says to her boss after trying to dismiss someone on the line,
“Really, some people seem to think they’ve bought the BBC just because they have a wireless licence.”
The two together take charge of Peggy Brown’s (Vera Lynn’s) career as she becomes “the forces sweetheart”. She is seen broadcasting shows which link soldiers with their families back home. This time it’s radio bringing people together in unity rather than resistance.
This whole idea, the trope (if you will), of the Second World War has continued to resonate in the spring of 2020. The BBC website even ran a feature called “what we can learn from the war generation”. It said, “The current coronavirus outbreak is said to be the biggest challenge for the world since World War Two. BBC Stories has brought together young people and their grandparents to find out what lessons we can all learn to get through this crisis.”
An Ofcom survey said, “BBC services are the most-used source by some margin”, as it released initial findings of a large on-going research study about how we consume our media in Britain. Demand for information has been high. And the current crisis has provoked some innovative technical solutions from broadcasters (something I referred to in my long post in March 2020). In that article I also talked about broadcasting from home. The internet is now awash with advice, for example this article has appeared in recent days.
But even so, the physical work of broadcasting news bulletins has to continue in the radio station office and the studio because that’s where the software is. And I speak from experience that eight hours of producing, preparing and reading news bulletins can take an emotional toll. In the best of times I recognise that I can leave a radio station after a day’s work thinking the entire world is full of criminals, car accidents and murders. That’s because of the raw material I have to work with. It’s what the job entails. And as a reporter in local radio I’ve seen dead bodies fished out of rivers, I’ve watched distraught mothers wailing at the news that their estranged partner has taken their baby to a country with no extradition treaty, and I’ve been in the middle of a three-way football-‘fan’ riot on the streets after a local derby (coincidentally, in Derby near what was known as the Baseball Ground). I’ve also had to watch rescue workers extracting bodies from an aircraft which had belly-flopped onto the embankment at the side of a motorway one Sunday evening. It lay there ripped open and exposed like a sardine can.
The daily news briefings, throughout March and April 2020, about deaths may appear to be so many numbers, but each is a life taken too soon and a family in grief. Trauma is the subject of a book, edited by Jo Healey, and including comments from many BBC colleagues. It is worth reading.
For journalists it’s the unexpected that often sticks in the mind, as well as the daily intake of raw information to be processed, edited, and produced into news bulletins and current affairs programmes. Healey’s book is a useful and thoughtful guide about how to talk with victims, and how to look after yourself as well.
Beyond the physical, our faith and our beliefs are in focus in these times. Whether it means that this is a time for questioning, for fasting, or for praying, the enforced separation leaves time to think. The Queen chose Easter Sunday (12 April 2020) to yet again address the nation and offer spiritual comfort. The Economist, on 11 April 2020, said this:
Past emergencies, from recessions to wars, have galvanised people to find new meaning in old rituals. But nothing prepared believers for the world of covid-19, in which those rituals, the gestures and gatherings at the heart of their identity, have become a public danger. For innovative religious types who already use technology with confidence, the crisis will accelerate a trend. But for more established faiths, reactions have ranged from meek compliance to truculent defiance.
The latter has been a worry (the Bible verse, “Thou shalt not tempt the Lord thy God” springs to mind). As to the former, I have referred to those digital ways of the Church gathering together in a previous article. Elsewhere, Christian poets have turned to recent events to reflect; in particular Bruce Gulland’s thoughts about Easter in early April 2020. Do take a look at his poems and his writings. [Transparency: I am a trustee and director of the charity, Reach Beyond, for which Bruce works].
Indeed, thinking about the future has been a difficult thing in these recent weeks.
It has, at times, been hard enough just tackling immediate problems. For example, what about the future for sections of the traditional printed media? What happens when or if advertisers stop spending money? What happens if we cancel subscriptions? What happens if we don’t pick up a Metro newspaper on the bus or at the railway station because we don’t go there any more? The journalist’s union, the NUJ, is trying to look ahead. But the future is now full of even more uncertainty.
But back to radio.
Private Eye, on the 24th of April 2020, noted a surge in interest in classical music, which is looking good for one BBC radio station:
And the Economist, on 25th April 2020, with the headline “The BBC is having a good pandemic” explained how the public service broadcaster is helping to squash false stories – one of its great strengths – and is significantly better at this than other media organisations around the world. It is one thing that Britons need to be thankful for. But the Economist goes on to reckon the future is less than bright, and says, “But the loss of young audiences poses a mortal threat to its funding,” which is a challenge that is not going to go away, quite apart from the extra costs of reporting on the virus. For further insights, read two of my previous articles. Here, and here.
And finally, in an effort to inject a bit of happiness, I give you a website full of data which you can use to create hopeful statistics for your own enjoyment. It’s at www.gapminder.org. It’s an independent Swedish foundation set up to promote a fact-based view of the world. This was my favourite (see graph below) and is definitely an excuse to buy another one – by mail-order of course. There is, by the way, an acronym for this – used on certain social media forums (er, fora? Ed) frequented by musicians: NGD. New Guitar Day.
Let me know your experiences during the days of 2020, and your thoughts about radio coverage during these months. Add your comments below and do share this page. Stay indoors and stay safe. God bless you.