Brian was briefly a BBC TV network announcer (1971 – 1972). He was also an announcer on BBC Radio 4 (1971 – 1974) and BBC External Services/World Service (1978 – 1998). He worked as a pres/admin officer at the Atlantic Relay Station, Ascension Island (1974 – 1978). He presented a special edition of From Our Own Correspondent on BBC Radio 4, celebrating the BBC World Service’s Golden Jubilee (50th anniversary) on 14th December 2002.
Paul R. Jackson corresponded with Brian at his Devon home in October 2017. Brian talked about his long career: “I joined the BBC straight from school on 10th August 1964, just eight days before my 18th birthday. I was put on an eight-week general course to learn about the BBC and, crucially, to learn to type. I was then farmed out to work as a clerk in OB bookings. From there I became a clerk in studio bookings, until becoming a studio manager in, I think, 1967. After a spell as a trainee at Bush House I went to BH and worked for a couple of years as a drama SM – a job I loved. I joined the BBC at the same time as Peter Jefferson (later Radio 4 announcer).
“Because at Bush we had to make frequency announcements, we received voice training from the wonderful Eileen McCloud (who was mentioned in the film The King’s Speech). Eileen graded all her trainees, and Peter and I were the only ones in our year to be given a grade ‘A’. One day I realised that Peter was announcing and newsreading on World Service. Well, I thought, if he can do that, so can I. I knocked on the door of Andrew Timothy, who I think then was second in command of Presentation (and by the way, the father of actor, Christopher Timothy). Andrew took me straight to a studio and gave me a voice test. This was on a Thursday afternoon. ‘Not bad,’ he said, ‘but needs knocking into shape. We have a course starting on Monday. There are four places and only three people on it. Would you like to go on it?’ It really was a case of being in the right place at the right time. I never went back to working as an SM. The course was run by Peter Fettes (former BBC Radio announcer during the war).
“From there I was put on attachment to BH Presentation. We used to work across all networks in those days. Perhaps R3 con in the morning, and reading news on R2 and R1 in the afternoon. Then we all had to choose which network we preferred to be on, and I opted for R4. I really can’t remember the dates – but after a long time on attachment, the bosses of SMs said it had gone on long enough and asked to have me back. Again – right place at the right time, an attachment to TV Presentation was advertised. I was accepted, and SMs had to let me go there. While I was there, a permanent job was advertised on R4. I was lucky enough to win that job and went back in about 1972.
“Although I enjoyed the work at R4, my time there was not a particularly happy one. Presentation was run by the dictatorship of Jim Black (now deceased). I loathed Jim so much, that I started looking at the noticeboards showing internal job ads. I saw the one for pres/admin officer at Atlantic Relay Station, Ascension Island. I applied for it without even knowing where Ascension Island was. I just knew that it had to be about as far away as I could get from Jim Black. I went to Ascension in April 1974 to do a two-year tour, agreed to do another tour, had a three-month break between the two and came home permanently in July 1978. While at Ascension, we had no television, no newspapers, no local radio station. Our only contact with the outside world, apart from a telephone, was World Service Radio on short wave. Well, actually, the BBC engineers put it on to medium wave for the population there. But, listening to WS, I realised very soon that the announcer/newsreaders there had much more interesting jobs than those on R4. They presented all sorts of programmes, from current affairs, to sport, to music. Things that R4 announcers were never allowed to do.
“So, in about October 1978 I joined WS Presentation – first on attachment and then securing a job. I was much happier there than with R4. When World Service Television started, it was hoped to get a couple of WS Radio newsreaders to join, to help identify the network with listeners turned viewers. I did the most appalling audition, but for some reason was accepted. Alison Rooper, also a Bush stalwart, joined the team as well. I only stayed there for about eight months. The work was hard but I enjoyed it and it was a steep learning curve for me. As with radio, there were a lot of night shifts. I wasn’t being paid a lot more than I was at WS Radio. Gradually, the whole business of being smartly dressed, the make-up, and looking alive and alert at 3am got to me. I knew on radio I could turn up for a night shift in my jeans, a rugby shirt, look like rubbish and feel like rubbish, but make the voice do magic. Then I thought, ‘Why the hell am I putting myself through this?’ A few people said to me that others would give an arm and a leg to have this TV job. I said, ‘That’s fine, they can have mine.’ I have no regrets at all about throwing the towel in on that one. Doing an enjoyable job well was always more important to me than being ambitious.
“I had a few breaks from WS radio – but can’t really remember the dates, sorry. I was asked to do a duty tour of Jordan and Egypt. To do what I asked? To fly the flag, was the answer. As I was already involved in training newbees to WS, I offered to run training in Amman and Cairo, for a week each on their English services. Jordan Radio and TV asked me to come back there for another week after Cairo and this I did. The following year, they asked me back again, to stay for three months and do intensive training of their newsreaders. This was a great opportunity for me to really get to know the country and its people. I also had two sessions of six months back at Radio 4. The last was, I think, in 1990. These helped me to keep me on my toes and not get stale, but also reminded me of how boring a news shift could be, just hanging around with long breaks between short bulletins.
“I retired early, at the age of 52, in September 1998. The year before I had picked up Hep A in some greasy Greek taverna, and was very ill. When I went back to work after five months my doctor warned me that I would feel the effects for up to a year. And, indeed, I did. I found the night shifts hard work. Again I wondered why I was putting myself through it all, and packed it in. I moved down to Ilfracombe in north Devon, to live with the man who is now my husband. But, as I had been doing a lot of training while on the staff, I was asked if I would continue to do this. I would come up to London for three or four days every month or so and put people through their paces. Radio 4 then asked me to do the same for them, and most of the voices you hear there now have had sessions with me. But, of course, we know how cash-strapped the BBC could be – except for top managers!!! By about 2008, after ten years, they all decided they couldn’t afford me and the training stopped. I wasn’t unhappy about this as I had only expected it to last about five years, not ten!”
Paul asked Brian if there were any standout memories from his broadcasting career: “The Duke of Windsor died in May 1972 and I was on duty in TV Con when we covered the funeral. There was an absolute panic about how the network could go from that to something banal like a children’s programme next. I said they had to trust me while I played it by ear. I convinced them this was what we did in radio all the time – it was called ‘continuity’! For about 13 years, I was lucky enough to present the Last Night of the Proms for WS. At the beginning, for a few years, I had to write the whole script and do interviews in the interval and it was very hard work but good fun. I made the Last Night in 1998 my own very last night on air, with the words ‘Old announcers never die, they just lose their frequency’.
“I was on duty on the night that Diana, Princess of Wales was killed. I don’t need to say more. It was very busy. Mike Popham, producer of From Our Own Correspondent, asked me back to present the special Jubilee edition in 2002 and I presented live chamber music concerts from the BH Concert Hall (now the Radio Theatre) on Sunday afternoons.”
Finally, Paul enquired if Brian kept in touch with any ex-colleagues: “Incidentally, John Stone died back in August, having retired in about 1997 after suffering a stroke. I’m not really in touch with ex-BBC people. One person I remember so very, very well is Martin Muncaster. When you meet him please give him my warmest regards. When I first started on Radio 4, I trailed him and he taught me so much. I remember particularly having to do Yesterday in Parliament, in those days a 15-minute solid read. I couldn’t imagine how to begin making sure that the words ran out at the same time as the clock, and once he had explained back timing to me it all made sense. We were both on duty, me in con and him on news, on the night that the late great Douglas Smith died.”
Video Clips on the Internet
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PICTURED: Brian Empringham. SUPPLIED BY: Brian Empringham. COPYRIGHT: Brian Empringham.