LONG RUNNERS / No 12: Lilliburlero

Sunday 02 January 1994 00:02 GMT
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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

Editor

Age: Fifty-one this month (but see below). First broadcast January 1943.

Frequency: Twenty times a day, 365 days a year.

Duration: Seventeen seconds.

What is it? 'Lilliburlero' is the signature tune - the 'station ident' - of the BBC World Service in English, and is heard regularly by about 30 million listeners around the world.

What's the idea? Picture it: it's nearly news time, and across the globe the expectant millions are twiddling their dials in search of the Truth. Suddenly the old, familiar tune cuts through the shortwave fuzz, and they know they've found it. They're tuned to the BBC.

But this name . . ? 'Lilliburlero' is an old Irish ballad. The original Irish of the refrain went 'an lile ba leir e ba linn an la', meaning 'the lily was triumphant and we won the day'. The words were sung by the triumphant Protestant armies of William of Orange in 17th-century Ireland, the lily being William's symbol. Strangely the tune has often also been sung by Catholics, with different words. 'Ho] brother Teague]' goes one distinctively Irish version, predicting: 'he that will not go to Mass shall look like an ass', and it too ends triumphantly: 'by Creish and St Patrick, the nation's our own'. By this century the song was firmly back in Protestant hands. One Belfast variant goes: 'Slitter, slaughter, Holy Water/ Scatter the Papishes every one.' Needless to say, the BBC's version carries none of these messages.

So how does it sound? Cocky, jaunty, Imagine The Archers on the warpath. The first recorded instance of the tune is 1540, in a book of Dutch psalm melodies. Purcell is one of a gaggle of composers who have arranged it.

Who had the idea of using it for the BBC? William Empson, poet and scholar, who was head of the Kuoyu (Standard Chinese) Service during the war. The tune was then taken over by the English-language service, where - except for a brief interregnum from 'John Peel' (D'ye ken, etc) - it has stayed. (Empson, by the way, would surely have known the slang meaning of 'Lily Boleros', current last century and attested in Joyce - as in: 'a nice pair of Lily Boleros . . .'.)

Enough of that. What exactly happens on the radio? Let's take the 1600hrs news bulletin. At 1500hrs 59 minutes and 34 seconds the continuity announcer says: 'This is London.' 'Lilliburlero' then plays for 17

seconds, and this is followed immediately by the Greenwich Time Signal (the 'pips'). Finally, at 1600hrs precisely, the announcer says: 'Sixteen hundred hours Greenwich Mean Time', and in another studio the newsreader starts reading the World News. 'Lilliburlero' is stored on a central computer and comes up automatically. The announcer opens a fader at the right moment, and the entire world sighs.

Is it popular? Expatriates weep when they hear it. In 1969 the Vice-President (later President) of Kenya, Mr Daniel Arap Moi, asked for a tape of it for 'private listening'. A BBC memo records that a tape was duly provided, 'as attractively boxed and labelled as our resources allow'. There have always been dissenters, however. The poet Robert Graves objected during a long correspondence on the subject in the Times in 1972, but the BBC remained adamant. 'Lilliburlero', the Director of Programmes, External Broadcasting, replied to Graves, 'has come to signify . . . not the heat of old battles but the impending ritual of the BBC news. William of Orange may have collared the tune in the 17th century. I think we have established squatters' rights in the 20th.'

What of the 21st century? Some Bush House radicals would like to see it go, but they're a small minority. The Editor of World Service in English wants a stereo re-recording of the current 1970 arrangement, but is secretly suspected of wanting to rearrange the tune himself. World Service TV may have made the tune unrecognisable in their new electronic jingle, but on radio 'Lilli' seems set to stay.

The bottom line: is it any good? It serves its purpose wonderfully. It is also a great institution. Dermot Clinch

For more on the BBC's place in the world, see page 18.

(Photograph omitted)

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