Sunday, 14 November 2021

From the Cenotaph


Today marks Remembrance Sunday, the day to commemorate those who gave service during the two world wars and later conflicts. Marking this day on the Sunday after Armistice Day has been part of British life since 1946.

Armistice Day services were first held in 1920 and a year later the Royal British Legion began selling poppies. Early BBC programmes did mark Armistice Day each November 11th but it wasn’t until 1928 that it was allowed to broadcast coverage of the events at the Cenotaph in London, including the two minutes silence.  An agreement was made with the Home Office when the BBC assured that it could be done by use of underground cables to minimise the risk of “unsightly mechanical apparatus” except for “one microphone which might take the form of a lectern”.  Thus started a broadcasting tradition that means that this is one of the longest-running outside broadcasts on UK radio.

Radio Times billing for the Service of Remembrance in 1956

The Armistice Day coverage continued until 1938, with the 1937 and 1938 ceremonies also filmed by BBC television for broadcast later that day.  It resumed after the Second World War on Sunday 11 November 1945 but the following year the Government decided to mark the event on the second Sunday of November on what was to be called Remembrance Sunday. Setting the scene for that 1946 service at the Cenotaph was Wynford Vaughan-Thomas. Subsequent Services of Remembrance were carried each year on both the Home Service and the Light Programme with commentary alternating between Vaughan-Thomas and Richard Dimbleby. By 1962 Robert Hudson took over the radio commentaries with Dimbleby (and following his death, Tom Fleming) taking over the BBC television presentation.

Hudson would describe the role of commentator for the event as "having a pastoral role to play; his words, dropping precisely into place, must strike exactly the right note. The mental image of the scene and the personal recollections prompted by his words can often be more vivid and satisfying than any television picture, however skillfully composed."

This brings us to Sunday 13 November 1960 when this recording of the Service of Remembrance was made. The announcer (Frank Phillips?) introduces the programme before going over to “our observer overlooking the scene in Whitehall”. That observer is once again Wynford Vaughan-Thomas. This is another recording made by Eric Bartington and digitised by Gerard de Roo, to whom I extend my thanks. 

Since this recording the radio commentary for the Service of Remembrance from the Cenotaph has been provided by the following:

Robert Hudson (1962-84), Raymond Baxter (1985), John Hosken (1986-88), Tom Fleming (1989-93), Cliff Morgan (1994), Eric Robson (1995-97) Nicholas Witchell (1998, 2000-02, 2006-15), Robin Lustig (1999), Fergal Keane (2003-05), Jonathan Dimbleby (2016 & 2018), James Naughtie (2017), Eleanor Oldroyd (2019) and Paddy O’Connell (2020-22).

Robert Hudson's diagram for the 1984 service
(from Inside Outside Broadcasts, R&W Publications 1993) 

Paddy O'Connell on broadcasting from the Cenotaph
(Radio Times 13 November 2021)

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