With a big name there, silence is golden

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The Independent Online
There was a bit of a fuss on Radio 4's Feedback programme last week, about the two-minute Remembrance silence.

The reason for the fuss was that this silence was observed on BBC TV but not on BBC radio.

And listeners were furious, which is what listeners to Feedback are best at. The BBC head of corporate affairs who went on Feedback to defend the situation spoke so opaquely with so many Birtspeak words that nobody could understand what he was getting at, which is what heads of corporate affairs are best at.

Only I knew the whole truth of the affair.

I can now reveal that the non-appearance of the two-minute silence on radio was entirely due to me.

It came about like this. I have a small, a very small independent radio company, which makes small, very small radio programmes.

Most of them are a minute long or less.

"There'll be another chance to hear that programme on Thursday evening at 8.15pm."

Remember that announcement?

That was one of mine. And have you noticed that when Alastair Cooke's Letter from America goes out in the morning, he starts by saying "Good morning" but if it is the evening, he says, "Good evening"? That's another of mine.

I travelled all the way to New York to record Cooke saying "Good morning" and "Good evening". Very professional performer, that man. Got it right first time. Now, they can slip the right greeting in at a moment's notice.

As you see, my programmes are very short indeed. So when I came up with an idea for recording the two-minute silence, it was the longest programme idea I had ever put forward to the BBC.

"The BBC can't have just any old silence," was my plea. "You've got to have a rather solemn, pregnant silence with a slight cathedral-like echo, and a tiny far-off noise that might just be the Queen clearing her throat. A very special sort of silence...."

In the old days I would have gone straight to a producer with the idea, and chatted it over, but things are different in the BBC these days. I had to submit the whole thing in writing, with a breakdown of the budget, schedule of operations etc. Then, finally, I was called in by a man called Charles.

"I like the idea," said Charles. "However, we think it is a bit down- market for Radio 4."

How can a silence be up- or down-market? It turned out, after a bit of chatting, that Charles was under pressure from someone upstairs to make sure that this was a prestigious silence.

"I could record it on location at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Paris, if you like," I said.

"Bit noisy."

"A war graveyard in Normandy ?"

"Excellent! A sort of serious wind-swept silence. I like it. And is there any chance of getting a big name attached?"

"Pardon ?"

It turned out that Charles found it easier to get programmes accepted if there was a big name attached. I said I might be able to get someone like Robert Robinson or Sue Lawley to come to the Normandy war grave and be silent while we recorded.

"Excellent! Or if you could get Joanna Lumley, so much the better. I think her name would sell any silence."

I went away and recosted it, and came back with a revised budget. It was getting expensive now, because the silence was being recorded on location in France with a star performer. (I had not been able to get any of the stars mentioned, but Rik Mayall had expressed great interest.) I went back to the BBC. There was no sign of Charles. He had been replaced by Jeremy.

"All commissioning is being done jointly for radio and TV these days at the BBC," he said. "So how would you visualise this two-minute silence picture-wise?"

"There wouldn't be any pictures," I said."It's radio."

"Hmmmmm," said Jeremy."Well, I'm a TV man myself, and the only reason we ever have silence on TV is to let us watch something happening. What would be happening during this two-minute silence on radio ?"

"Well, people would be having their own thoughts, really...."

"Having their own thoughts??" said Jeremy. "Mr Kington, we at the new BBC don't want viewers and listeners to have to provide their own thoughts! That's not giving the licence fee-payer value for money!"

"But the whole point of the two-minute silence...." I said.

"It would all be worthwhile," said Jeremy, "if you came up with another reason for your visit to Normandy. Perhaps you could take out four panellists and have a World War II quiz on location! Yes, something like that...."

It all went from bad to worse after that. Rik Mayall was dropped because they didn't want an alternative-style silence. Then the quiz programme went way over budget, and we couldn't agree with the BBC on a repeat fee for the silence.

When Remembrance Day came, we were still locked in argument and the silence never went out. It's as simple as that.

Luckily, I still have 100 cassettes left of this very special silence, now featuring Jennifer Paterson and Clarissa Dixon-Wright saying absolutely nothing. If you want your very own copy, just send me a blank cheque....