Media: Providing uplift for the licentious soldiery: The British Forces Broadcasting Service is celebrating its 50th anniversary. Michael Leapman tunes in

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The Independent Online
IN HIS 1966 novel The Virgin Soldiers, Leslie Thomas writes about a lieutenant-colonel's wife ostracised by the other officers' ladies because she once had a record request played on Two Way Family Favourites. 'That's always been the ethos of forces' broadcasting,' says Peter McDonagh, director of the British Forces Broadcasting Service (BFBS). 'Slightly below the salt and certainly not for officers.

'For years I used to go to advisory committees in Germany where hairy-arsed colonels would poke me in the chest and say: 'Far too much bloody jungle music on this, you know. What you need is serious talks and uplifting music.' The jungle music prevailed and the serious talks were never commissioned. Still, BFBS began celebrating its 50th anniversary yesterday with the opening of an exhibition about its history at the National Army Museum in Chelsea. Visitors will be able to judge how far this highly specialised broadcaster still has to cope with nuances of class and status that no longer apply in the civilian world.

BFBS is part of the Services Sound and Vision Corporation, based in Buckinghamshire, with its main radio studio in London. It serves an audience of 200,000 personnel and their families with two radio channels relayed from nine stations at military bases across the world.

The Ministry of Defence pays pounds 10m a year for the service but has no editorial control and the 47 broadcasters are all civilians. The character of the station is shaped by the fact that nearly three quarters of its listeners are under 30.

'We know our audience well,' says Mr McDonagh. 'There was a clash once when the commander of BAOR (the British Army of the Rhine) in Germany demanded more cricket. He was told to bog off, basically. We do cricket but we can't do it continually because there's a lot more to fit in and we have audience research to back us up.'

The term 'bog off' reveals how much time Mr McDonagh spends with the soldiers who make up most of his audience, and how he instinctively knows just what his broadcasters can get away with. Beyond the reach of the Broadcasting Standards Council, they can be a lot more earthy than disc jockeys on civilian radio.

'In the Falklands we found that a number of record dedications revolved around a certain Michael Hunt - Mike Hunt; try saying it. A lot of people were caught out.'

That extra latitude also operated in the Gulf war, when the Ministry of Defence funded a mobile studio and transmitter to go out to the desert. The BBC, sensitive to the feelings of troops and their relatives, banned from the British airwaves a wide range of songs whose titles might be thought provocative or in poor taste. They included: 'We've Got to Get Out of This Place', 'Danger Zone' and 'The Air that I Breathe' (because of fears of gas attacks).

'We played them all,' Mr McDonagh boasts. 'We called it the Saddam hit list. The lads have a distinct way of dealing with comedy.' He knows all this because he grew up listening to forces broadcasting. The son of a British intelligence officer in Berlin, he began broadcasting when he was 20. 'For a number of years after I joined,' he says, 'the director thought it would be a jolly good idea if everybody at BFBS was from public school or a graduate. It was very much: 'Hallo Charles, shall we do a programme this week?'

'Then we went the other way and had a period when we had virtually nothing but grunts. The idea was that the voices should be regional, or shall we say, basically grunty. When I took over I discovered something quite wonderful - that if you have a homogeneous group of people you get a homogeneously boring sound coming out of the radio.'

Mind you, the eras of toffs and grunts produced disc jockeys who went on to higher things: David Jacobs, Jon Pertwee, Sarah Kennedy, Anton Rogers and even Lord Hanson and Lord Carrington, who as James Hanson and Desmond Carrington were among the first of the Second World War broadcasters. Those early days, from 1943 when the first station was based in a former harem in Algiers, will be documented in the exhibition, with the usual quota of anecdotes - such as the memo asking to buy a studio clock so that the announcer would no longer have to read the erratic clock on the churchtower through his binoculars.

Today, with the number of British servicemen in decline, a specialist broadcasting service is harder to justify. Mr McDonagh is convinced, though, that his 'chain of community radio stations' performs two vital functions. One is to foster morale among troops on active service, for example by organising the recent visit of the singer Samantha Fox to the British contingent in Bosnia. the other is to ease the day-to-day stresses of service personnel and their dependants.

'I'm thinking of a 16-year-old child bride in a Scottish regiment based near the old Belsen concentration camp in Germany. It's the bleak midwinter and her husband is serving in Northern Ireland. If we can improve her morale, then that's what we're there for.'

As for Rodney, Charles and the hairy-arsed colonels, they can just bog off.

'Battledress Broadcasters' is at the National Army Museum, Royal Hospital Road, London SW3 until 24 November, open daily 10am to 5.30pm. Admission free.

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