Friday, 2 April 2010

2 April 2010

A 40th birthday is always worth celebrating, and next week, The World Tonight will be 40.

By one of those weird mathematical coincidences, I was 40 when I started presenting the programme, so I do feel an especially close arithmetical bond to the occasion.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been playing little snippets from the programme archives, spanning four decades during which the world has changed almost beyond recognition. No more Cold War, no more Soviet Union, a globalised economy, a capitalist-communist China, the internet, mobile phones … the list is endless.

(By the way, if you’ve missed any of the archive clips, or if you want to hear again some of the key voices from the programme’s past, they’re all available on the website.)

We also asked some of the people who have been associated with the programme over the years for their memories, and I thought it might be fun to share them with you.

First, Douglas Stuart, the programme’s first presenter back in 1970 and still going strong. He told us: “We agreed that The World Tonight should concentrate on reflecting the interviewee so I made my questions very short. This made the interviewee the centre of the listener's attention, which is why I signed off as ‘Douglas Stuart reporting’. Nothing could ever have been achieved without the producers and engineers, who were first class.

“Almost at the beginning, when The World Tonight was first broadcast, the President of Egypt, Nasser, died. We dedicated almost an entire programme to it. I interviewed the foreign secretary George Brown, who agreed to contribute from a distant studio. Unfortunately he had had too much to drink, and my first question was answered by a gigantic sneeze, and then silence.

“My favourite headline on the programme was when the Romanian communist dictator, Ceausescu, came to Britain on a state visit. He and his entourage stayed at Buckingham Palace, so I said: 'In tonight's programme, there are reds in the beds at Buckingham Palace'.”

There’ll be a wonderful interview with Douglas on our special birthday programme on Monday.

Christiane Amanpour, who went on to become a star correspondent on CNN and has now been given her own show on the US ABC network, told us: “In the summer of 1980, home from university in the USA and on holiday in London, (then editor) Alastair Osborne walked into my life -- or rather I barged into his! Somehow I had managed to squeeze my toe into the door at the BBC and landed on his watch at The World Tonight.

“On my first day, he stunned me by saying he was going to pay me for the work I did. I think it was about £100 a week, which was a fortune for me. It was especially welcome since I was (gladly) doing it for love as I assumed interns were not paid. Then, when I asked him whether he was absolutely sure he wanted to pay me, he earned my undying gratitude, affection and admiration by uttering the following words: “Look, Christiane, it’s just a summer internship. If you’re no good, when it’s over we never have to see you again. And if you are any good, I can always take the credit.”

“I loved him for that, and I can safely say I owe it all to him. It actually makes me quite emotional as I write this brief note, remembering all the experience and opportunities that internship gave me: during the Brixton riots I was sent out to do my first vox pops. In the studio I worked for brilliant editors, producers, presenters -- and fellow interns (the chess-mad Dominic Lawson for instance).

“Then one day, as my time on the programme was coming to an end, the editor in charge let me be control-room producer for the night: I was beside myself with excitement and anxiety. Charles Wheeler was the presenter. I managed not to completely mess things up and he remained my friend, my example and my fellow traveller throughout his illustrious life.

“Most importantly, that night, my proud parents and siblings sat around the radio on the kitchen table and heard my name being credited on the BBC. It was the first time … it was the best time!”

Former presenter Sir John Tusa, who went on to run the BBC World Service and then the Barbican, wrote: “What remains, 30 years after presenting The World Tonight? A different world, of course, journalistically, politically and above all technically. What made the programme special? An atmosphere of deep trust between the long-serving editor, Alastair Osborne, and his presenters, reporters and producers. This was not just an editorial style; I believe it generated a wide range of ideas for the programme to cover, far wider and more searching than the conventional news agenda of the day.

“The World Tonight was about ideas and, above all, analysis. To deliver this analysis it needed the highest level of contributor -- Alan Budd and Terry Burns, later Treasury knights; Alan Greenspan, later Chairman of the US Federal Reserve; Giscard d’Estaing, later French President. Dan Rather was a contributor; so was the great Sinologist, Roderick MacFarquhar; and CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, who began her journalism on the programme. And scores more of this calibre. It was a programme of its time. But its values have stood the test of broadcasting time.”

Henry Kelly was a reporter on the programme in the early days, before he became a TV game show host and presenter on Classic FM. He wrote: “I loved working on The World Tonight. For me it was made by the then editor, the late Alastair Osborne, and the team of producers and reporters he had with him. He recruited me from Ireland for an initial six months. I stayed five years. In 40 years in broadcasting I have rarely, if ever, been happier. What made Alastair simply the best was that he recruited those he wanted, and trusted them, gave them every opportunity - but also expected good work in return. It was the happiest of times.

“The World Tonight in my time was like having a big blank page on which we were encouraged to write, covering international and domestic stories in equal measure. I look back on those years with great pleasure and deep affection for everyone I worked with. Every generation of journalists believes their “old days” were the best. Thing is, I know ours were!

The distinguished journalist and broadcaster Isabel Hilton was my co-presenter during the 1990s. She told us: “I have many memories of The World Tonight: the comical moments when things went wrong and were only rescued by the quick thinking of the team – like the night the studio developed a technical fault just after we went on air and we all had to sprint to a new studio, papers flapping, while a pre-recorded interview was playing. We picked up right on cue.

“And the tragic moment when the news became personal. In August 1995, we heard that our colleague John Schofield had been fatally shot in Croatia while reporting for the programme. He was just 29 years old, a good colleague and a fine journalist.”

And so to the present day. Ritula will be presenting our birthday programme -- she says: “My memories of listening to the World Tonight are rather longer than of presenting it. Even now, as the red light goes on and I hear myself say the words “It's ten o'clock, you're listening to The World Tonight ...”, there is a moment when I imagine what everyone is doing as they listen – making a cup of tea, doing the ironing, getting ready for bed – all of which I might be doing if I were at home.

“My personal highlights include a trip to India last year for the elections. We travelled to a village on election day, where the birds were flitting in and out of the polling station with its electronic voting machine. The scene was deceptively beautiful, masking the poverty that inevitably lay behind it. But the villagers were positive and determined to improve their lives, and I couldn't help thinking there was a lot to be learned to from them.”

And a couple of memories from listeners as well. Trevor Parsons wrote: “I first became a listener to The World Tonight in 1975 at the age of 10, when I made myself a radio, following instructions in the Ladybird book 'Making a Transistor Radio.'

“I never saw the point of moving on from the first project, a simple crystal set which needed no batteries and yet let me hear Radio 4 loud and clear on a pair of bakelite WWII RAF headphones. I was supposed to be long asleep by 10 o'clock, so hearing Douglas Stuart read the headlines was a bit of a thrill, as well as an education.

“There being no off switch on my radio, and no battery to run out, I just hung the headphones up on the corner of the headboard, and drifted off to whispers of the fall of Saigon, the murder of Ross McWhirter, and the launch of Viking 1.”

And finally, Arnold Root wrote: “I would like to hear again Douglas Stuart recounting his family’s favourite saying -- 'You keep your eyes on the road; I’ll look out for the monster' -- said to him by his wife as he scanned Loch Lomond looking for the
monster as he drove beside the loch. Am pretty sure it was him, and that that was the saying, though it was a long time ago!”

So thanks from all of us, past and present, to all of you. Without you, our listeners, we wouldn’t be able to do what we love doing. Our editor, Alistair Burnett, will be writing about our anniversary on the BBC Editors blog on Monday – you’ll find it at And don’t forget our special programme on Monday evening.

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