The BBC is to clear three hours of its the drive-time and early evening schedule on its most popular radio station to recreate one of the most famous events of the 20th century – the assassination of John F Kennedy.
The historic broadcast on Radio 2, which will take place on 22 November on the 50th anniversary of the tragedy, will be narrated by Jeremy Vine and Dermot O’Leary and will feature live singers and a band performing poignant songs from the United States civil rights era.
The story will be told minute by minute, starting with the departure of the Presidential motorcade from Dallas Love Field airport shortly before midday local time, and finishing with vice-president Lyndon B Johnson being sworn in as President on Air Force One three hours later.
Bob Shennan, controller of Radio 2, said the BBC would broadcast the events at the time of day they happened – the shooting in Dealey Plaza occurred at 6.30pm British time. “The listeners are very familiar with the tale but they be will be able to experience how that story unfolded in real time exactly 50 years on and that will give it a sense of frisson,” he said.
The ambitious project follows the BBC’s real-time broadcast of the sinking of the Titanic on the centenary of the catastrophe in April last year. That story, also featuring the narration of Vine and O’Leary, used live performance of the music of the ship’s orchestra as a soundtrack. The documentary won the Grand Award at the New York Festival for the world’s best radio programmes.
The Titanic broadcast was late at night but The Assassination Of JFK – Minute By Minute is being put into the drive-time schedule, meaning it is likely to be heard by an audience of around 7 million.
Shennan acknowledged that the assassination was one of the first global news events to be communicated by television imagery. But he said: “Sometimes these stories are better on radio because you are just concentrating on the spoken word and it can be made into a very powerful experience.”
O’Leary said that the story had an additional personal resonance for him because his parents in Co Wexford had met President Kennedy on a journey to trace his Irish family roots. “They shook his hand,” he said. “I spoke to my dad about the assassination and he said it was a proper standstill moment. The moon landings and JFK getting shot were the two big moments for that generation.”
The documentary is being made by independent production company TBI Media, which also produced the Titanic programme. “These programmes are highly complex productions that combine the best traditions of broadcast story-telling with the latest technological approaches,” said Phil Critchlow, the executive producer. “There will be dramatised eye-witness accounts from the scores of people caught up in the drama and expert analysis, all accompanied by music – from the period and inspired by JFK – as an emotional score to one of the most infamous events of the 20th century.”
He said that the live singers would be familiar names to the Radio 2 audience and were being carefully chosen for their ability to perform songs such as the civil rights anthem “Abraham, Martin and John”, written by Dick Holler five years after the shooting, and also referencing the assassinations of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King.
Largely known as an entertainment presenter, O’Leary described his role as “wingman” to the “gravitas” of Vine, a news and current affairs specialist. But Shennan said he was looking to develop O’Leary’s passion for history. “There’s a different side to Dermot that people aren’t accustomed to hearing,” he said. O’Leary said that he was hoping to make further history documentaries as part of the BBC’s commemoration of the centenary of the First World War. “I would like to do something on the Irish Rising of 1916, which was quite unpopular in Ireland at the time – it was only after they killed and martyred them that the movement gathered pace,” he said.
“They were a strange crew of idealists, socialists and freedom fighters and yet they spawned what would be the Irish War of Independence and then the civil war. I’d love to do something about that.”
The presenter has also talked to the BBC about a potential project tracing the front line of the Battle of the Somme, which stretched from the North Sea to Switzerland.
‘The Assassination Of JFK – Minute By Minute’ will be accompanied by a book written by the documentary’s producer Jonathan Mayo.