Looking back on four years of BBC Radio Remembrance broadcasts

After four dogged and varied years of programming BBC Radio’s First World War commemorative contributions came to an end this week.

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After four dogged and varied years of programming came the end of BBC Radio’s First World War commemorative contributions. At the site of the Battle of Jutland (Sonic Memorials, Radio 3) we simply heard sand whirling in the dunes – and possibly, was it? – an old pushbike collapsed, spokes moaning. It might have been the sound of the corporation sinking relievedly into a swoon.

There had been moments, these past days, when creative freefall began to nudge. Dan Snow (Voices of the First World War, Radio 4) went on a Henry Williamsonish, brilliantly fevered, never-ending sentence recalling the men who’d endured “the searing heat, the constant mud, the pervasive cold, the rats, the howl of shells, the loss, the laughs, the iron-grey sea, the jagged ridges, the open cockpits, the wire, the sleet, the mess-tin grub, the filth, the fear, the ferocity…”

In its final episode, the soapy drama Home Front (Radio 4) tipped into the surreal (“Last night I dreamed that you turned into a fish.” “Was it a kipper?”) but then went the full Under Milk Wood, a narrator overseeing all the characters like a sorrowful Richard Burton: “There’s a creeping light in one corner of the sky… the fishing boats are hauling in their nets.”

On Radio 2, Michael Ball boomed the opening of his 11am broadcast with a strangely unctuous “Good morning my lovelies!” But Elaine Paige talked more like a normal person – albeit one slightly frowning at her highly unusual script about Edward Grey’s foreign policy.

Two moments really flared. As I flicked through local stations, I think it was Radio Manchester that played an old recording of a veteran complaining that the war poets had been too maudlin. Only the folk back home had “fallen for that stuff”. But then, somewhere else, Daniel Day Lewis read “Dulce et Decorum est” better than I have ever heard it anywhere. This was not an actor in love with his own mellifluousness, or an artist defending his patch as a great interpreter. Not someone “being Owen” or “a soldier” dazed from the womp of shells. But Day Lewis reading it as himself, his voice light and deep and flexible. Simply telling the terrible story. Why reach for more? 

Armistice Day broadcasts
BBC Radio

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 14 November 2018 issue of the New Statesman, How the Brexiteers broke history