John was born in Chelsea and educated at Winchester College and Pembroke College, Oxford where he obtained a law degree. Having applied to join the British Broadcasting Company Limited in 1924 – and 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, and he was having to go through 1,500 applications. “I am not interested in the other 1,499,” said Sir Mordaunt loftily. Snagge was engaged and in 1924 sent to be the assistant director of the newly opened local radio station at Stoke-on-Trent. He broadcast his first sports commentary in January 1927 (Hull City v Stoke City football match). In 1928, he moved to Savoy Hill in London to work as one of BBC Radio’s announcers, alongside Stuart Hibberd. Listeners heard his distinctive resonant voice on the Home Service (1928 – 1933, 1940 and 1944).
John also became a commentator in the new outside broadcast department and famously commentated on the annual Boat Race between Cambridge and Oxford (1931 – 1980). During the 1949 University Boat Race, when the engine of the launch broke down, Snagge’s voice filled with excitement and he reported: “I can’t see who’s in the lead, but it’s either Oxford or Cambridge.” He found in a coin shop near Broadcasting House a gold sovereign bearing the date of the first Boat Race in 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. He was assistant, outside broadcasts department (1933 – 1939) and assistant director, outside broadcasts (1939). He provided the commentary for the 1937 Coronation of King George VI and again in 1953 for HM Queen Elizabeth II.
At the start of the World War II, John was made the BBC’s presentation director (1939 – 1945) and as the war unfolded, he delivered very important radio announcements. 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, John introduced the first edition of War Report, which thereafter became a nightly magazine programme of actuality material from the Normandy beaches, following the Nine o’Clock News. After the war, he remained in charge of the announcers and the presentation announcements on BBC Radio and continued to give sound commentaries on State occasions. John was head of presentation, Home Service (1945 – 1957) and head of presentation, sound (1957 – 1963). He was also one of the original team of BBC Radio Home Service announcers who appeared as a BBC TV newsreader (out-of-vision) on the launch night on 5th July 1954, on News and Newsreel until 8th February 1957. For the BBC TV News 25th anniversary, he joined ex-colleagues for a photo in the news studio at BBC TV Centre.
In the early 1950s, John played a role in negotiations that led to the radio comedy series The Goon Show being commissioned by the BBC. He was also the subject of many running gags during the show, and provided many self-parodying announcements, usually recorded. He also featured as himself in the episode The Greenslade Story, alongside regular announcer Wallace Greenslade. He was a defender of the show against many efforts to cancel it, even to staking his career on it. Later, in the 1970s, he echoed his wartime role by appearing as the newsreader in the radio version of Dad’s Army, setting the scene at the beginning of every episode. He appeared as himself in the 1960 TV Hancock’s Half Hour episode The East Cheam Centenary, where he commentates on the street ‘procession’, from Hancock’s bedroom at 23 Railway Cuttings.
From 1963 to 1965 he undertook special duties at the BBC before taking retirement, but continued to provide commentaries for the Boat Race until 1980. He later broadcast regularly on Radio London and appeared on Noel Edmonds’ BBC Radio 1 Sunday morning show, a role subsequently taken up by Brian Perkins. He was a keen member of the Lord’s Taverners, and served in turn as their chairman, president, secretary and trustee. In 1980, his first wife Eileen died and 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 and lived together at their home in the village of Dorney, near Windsor. In 1992, when he was 88, she too predeceased him.
Gradually John became very frail, but he summoned up the stamina, shortly before his 90th birthday, to attend the exhibition mounted by the Imperial War Museum to commemorate the 50th anniversary 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. Snagge died in Slough from throat cancer, aged 91.
Video Clips on the Internet
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The Independent: Obituary, John Snagge.
PICTURED: John Snagge. SUPPLIED BY: Paul R. Jackson. COPYRIGHT: BBC.