Calling Mr Entwistle of Huddersfield. Your budgie is ill

The only way we can get people to listen to these agony announcements is by springing one on them
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The Independent Culture
PEOPLE WITH Very Unusual Jobs Indeed: No 43, The Man At The BBC Who Decides If An Emergency Really IS An Emergency ...

"Now here is a message for a Mr Entwistle who is on holiday in the south of France with his family. Will Mr John Entwistle of Huddersfield please contact the People's Dispensary for Sick Animals in Leeds, where his budgie `Pavarotti' is dangerously ill ..."

That's the sort of emergency message you may hear on BBC radio. Or rather, it's the kind of announcement you never hear because Simon Surtees makes sure such a trivial message never gets there. It's his job to examine the requests for emergency appeals and allow only the most worthwhile to be heard.

"It's amazing, really," says Surtees. "When I tell people what I do for a living, they often refuse to believe me. They've heard those appeals on BBC all their lives, but it has never occurred to them that someone actually has to deal with all that human distress. But someone's got to vet them and make a final decision. If we broadcast all the urgent messages we are asked to broadcast, we'd have at least half an hour of it every day!"

You could make a feature out of it, then, couldn't you? Why not put them all on air, and make a daily programme out of it? A half hour entitled Calling All Relatives or Next of Kin or Believed to be on Holiday somewhere in North Wales?

Then you could get ALL the drastic messages on air. You'd have thirty minutes of free radio!

"Nice idea," says Surtees, shuffling papers in his penthouse office in Broadcasting House, as he looks down to the street where celebrities are vainly trying to hail taxis in the rain. "But there's a big snag. Nobody is going to listen. Who'd switch on for half an hour of misery? The only way we can get people to pay attention to these agony announcements is by springing one on them out of the blue. They think they're getting the weather or the news and suddenly it's `Will Mr and Mrs Harper, thought to be touring the Torquay area ... ?' People will listen to ONE of them. In fact, they're GLAD to listen to just one of them. It's great to listen to an announcement of someone's father dying and think to yourself `Thank goodness that's someone else's father, not mine!'"

Surtees seems a bit hardened by the job. How does he decide which appeals should be transmitted?

"Well, we're talking dying relatives here, so it's different shades of urgency. If a hospital tells us a man has a week to live, we don't use it. If they say he's got 24 hours at most, we might broadcast an appeal to the missing next of kin.

"But hospitals tend to exaggerate the seriousness of the condition, so we usually add a few hours on. You can't imagine how embarrassing it is if a couple rush back from their holidays and find Dad recovering and thriving in hospital."

Has the BBC ever been sued for wrongfully bringing back people from their hols?

"Such a case has never actually come to court," says Simon Surtees evasively.

"Anyway, we check thoroughly before we ever broadcast an appeal. Very thoroughly."

Check? Thoroughly? You mean, phone back the hospital?

"Oh, better than that. We've got a stringer in every hospital, a nurse or doctor earning pin money from us, who's prepared to nip round to the right ward and see if old Dad is really in a bad way, then ring us back. We wouldn't dare put out an appeal until we had it double checked, in case it was wrong. Or a hoax."

A hoax? People ring up the BBC with hoax deathbed appeals?

"Sure," says Surtees, whom nothing seems to shock. "Oh, look, isn't that Michael Palin trying to hail a taxi? You'd think a seasoned traveller would do better than that."

Talking of travelling, it has always struck me as unlikely that these appeals delivered to people believed to be on holiday in the Jura or Provence or wherever, are actually listening to Radio 4 on holidays. Do people ever hear these appeals? Does the BBC ever follow up the appeal and see if it was heard ?

"Oh yes," says Surtees. "We check every one."

With what result ?

"Good heavens, is that the time?" says Simon Surtees. "I'll have to end the interview there, I'm afraid."

Just one more question. Is it remotely possible that all these appeals on Radio 4 are actually fictitious ? Is someone making up these appeals to make the BBC seem more caring and responsive? And might that someone be Simon Surtees?

"Must dash, I'm afraid," says Simon Surtees. "Bye!"

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