Obituary: John Snagge
Thursday 28 March 1996
Snagge applied to join what was still the British Broadcasting Company Limited in 1924. He was then aged 20 and had just come down from Pembroke College, Oxford, where he had rowed for his college but not managed to gain a Blue. Previously he had been at Winchester. Like many young graduates with no particular professional qualifications he was attracted to the brand new world of broadcasting.
In the absence of a reply from the BBC, Snagge's father, the redoubtable judge Sir Mordaunt Snagge, called on Reith's deputy, Admiral Charles Car- pendale, at Savoy Hill to ask what was happening. The admiral explained that a great number of people had written to the BBC. He was having to go through 1500 applications. "I am not interested in the other 1499" said Sir Mordaunt, loftily. John Snagge was engaged, and sent to be the Assistant Director of the newly-opened local radio station at Stoke-on- Trent.
Four years later he had fully mastered the tricks of the broadcasting trade, and the BBC had been converted into a public corporation. One result of the change was permission, at last, to broadcast commentaries on sports events. Snagge was transferred to Savoy Hill where he worked first as an announcer, and then as a commentator in the new outside broadcasts department. He made his initial Boat Race commentary in 1931 - the first of 37 radio commentaries over 42 years (the war years intervening) that were heard by people all over the world.
On one occasion the engine of the launch broke down and Snagge was left saying "I don't know who is winning. It is either Oxford or Cambridge!" - words which stuck to him over the years, he said, like a tin can tied to a dog's tail. Snagge once managed to find, in a coin shop near Broadcasting House, a gold sovereign bearing the date of the first Boat Race: 1829. Since then it has been used for the toss each year, including 1951 when Snagge had to describe the sinking of the Oxford boat.
Snagge described many other events besides the Boat Race. One was the maiden voyage of the Queen Mary across the Atlantic - the first series of ship-to-shore programmes ever attempted on public radio. The BBC's team, besides Snagge, included Henry Hall, the dance band leader, John Watt and Roger Eckersley, producers, and Jack Buchanan and Larry Adler, entertainers.
During the war Snagge was in charge of the previously anonymous announcers, and it was he who decided that their names should at last be used. The reason given out was security - the Nazis had used false Polish announcers during the attack on Warsaw, and were later known to be training BBC-type voices during the Battle of Britain. But Snagge's real reason was the morale of his staff. He thought it unfair that the outside broadcast commentators should have their names used, but announcers should not.
Most of the important wartime announcements were made by Snagge himself, including the first communique of SHAEF (the Supreme Headquarters, Allied Expeditionary Force), revealing to the world the long-awaited news of the D-Day landings. He read this off a pink card from a small cubicle beneath the Senate House of London University, then General Eisenhower's headquarters. His friend the American broadcaster Ed Murrow once asked Snagge if he might borrow the historic card. When it was returned it had been signed "To John Snagge who first spoke these words on the air: Dwight D. Eisenhower", by then the President of the United States, and countersigned by Winston Churchill and Eisenhower's deputy, Marshal of the RAF Lord Tedder. Later on D-Day Snagge introduced the first edition of War Report, which thereafter became a nightly magazine programme of actuality material from the beaches, following the nine o'clock news.
After the war Snagge remained in charge of the announcers and the presentation announcements on BBC radio. He continued to give the sound commentaries on State occasions which were broadcast overseas as well as at home. On the morning of 2 June 1953 I watched in America the Today television show on NBC. In those pre-satellite days the closest that American television could get to live coverage of the Coronation in Westminster Abbey was to relay the World Service, adding such visuals as were available in the studio. When the shortwave reception of Snagge's commentary faded, as it did more than once during particularly solemn moments of the ceremony, the American anchorman filled in with a facetious interview with Today's resident chimpanzee, J. Fred Muggs by name. It was a graceless enterprise which angered Snagge when he heard of it.
He retired from the BBC staff in 1965, but continued his Boat Race commentaries and the introductions to Dad's Army. Later he broadcast regularly on Radio London. He was a keen member of the Lord's Taverners, and served in turn as their Chairman, President, Secretary and Trustee.
For many years John Snagge and his wife Eileen lived in a roomy house at Stoke Poges in Buckinghamshire. In 1979 they decided to move into something more easily manageable. He found a convenient smaller house in the pretty village of Dorney, near Windsor. He told me it was the ideal place for retirement: close to a good general store and on a bus route. It did not matter that they knew virtually no one there.
Alas in less than half a year the bus route was cancelled, the general store had closed, and Eileen Snagge had died. Snagge was a bereft widower whose health had begun to deteriorate, no longer surrounded by familiar neighbours and isolated from everyday amenities. But in 1982 at a lunch given by the Variety Club of Great Britain to celebrate the BBC's 60th anniversary, Snagge found himself sitting next to a former BBC colleague, Joan Wilson. Within a few months they were married. She made the next nine years very happy ones for him, but in 1992, when he was 88, she too predeceased him.
Gradually John Snagge became very frail, but he summon-ed up the stamina, shortly before his 90th birthday, to attend the exhibition mounted by the Imperial War Museum to commemorate the 50th anni-versary of D-Day and to re-read many times, for the benefit of different television and radio programmes, the text of Eisenhower's famous communique.
John Derrick Mordaunt Snagge, broadcaster: born 8 May 1904; Assistant Stoke-on-Trent Station Director, BBC 1924-28, Announcer, Savoy Hill 1928- 33, Commentator Oxford v Cambridge Boat Race 1931-80, Assistant, Outside Broadcasts Dept 1933-39, Assistant Director, Outside Broadcasts 1939, Presentation Director 1939-45, Head of Presentation (Home Service) 1945- 57, Head of Presentation (Sound) 1957-63, Special Duties 1963-65; OBE 1944; author (with Michael Barsley) of Those Vintage Years of Radio 1972; married 1936 Eileen Joscelyne (died 1980), 1983 Joan Wilson (died 1992); died Slough 26 March 1996.
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