Eddie Mair reveals how BBC Radio 4 weathered a storm on PM

"If the PM weather forecaster doesn’t show up to do the forecast, is there any weather?"

Eddie Mair (RT byline photo, EH)

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound? If the PM weather forecaster doesn’t show up to do the forecast, is there any weather? Philosophers have wrestled with these problems for centuries. I can offer some practical advice, and it’s not tree-related.

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In the run-up to Easter there were scary predictions in print and online that the “Beast from the East 3” would bring a new ice age to parts of the UK. This greatly incensed Liam Dutton, the meteorologist who does the honours on Channel 4. There had been a danger of extreme weather, he said, but it had disappeared from the forecast days before – yet “the Beast” was still being trotted out in headlines.

We booked Liam to talk about his irritation, in the pre-weather slot towards the end of PM. He duly appeared at five minutes to six, from our radio car. Being the professional that he is, he asked what time he needed to stop talking, and we told him 5.58.

Unbeknown to Liam and the PM audience, while he was on air there was a mild panic in our studio. The PM weather forecaster had not arrived. There was 90 seconds until the forecast, and the chair was empty.

Our weather people are a talented shower. I’ve heaped sunshine on them in this column before. They concisely convey a complex weather picture in a brief period, and never throw a hissy fit when ill-planned programmes suddenly demand a truncated forecast of ten seconds… or an inflated one of four minutes.

Our meteorologists arrive in the PM studio in good time night after night. But their many talents do not extend to doing a forecast while invisible. One minute to go. Still no sign of our weather person. Obviously I will not name the individual here (it was Louise Lear). While Liam was talking I found a Press Association weather forecast on our newswire service. It didn’t look like it would fill the required 90 seconds, but it was all we had. I would read that out and hope no one noticed the difference between a professionally delivered forecast from an expert, and a badly read jumble from an eejit who could not tell you the difference between a cold front and a cumulus.

Have you heard of the expression “a bird in the hand”? What about “any port in a storm”? What about “many a mickle maks a muckle”? Two of those sayings occurred to me as we realised our weather problem could be solved by the meteorologist who was already live on the air.

Liam stopped talking at exactly 5.58. Somewhat sheepishly, I thanked him, told him that Louise had not turned up and would he mind doing an impromptu forecast? He asked what time he needed to shut up (5.59 and 35 seconds) and off he went. He’d just got started when Louise was located in a different studio. Technicians battled to get the line working and with 45 seconds of the programme left, she was in place. We suddenly had TWO forecasters and not much time.

In the end we plumped to stay with Liam, who ended right on schedule. Listeners wondered whether it was a set-up, but trust me, we were caught unawares. Louise – who is quite brilliant – was full of apologies, but there was no need. Such are the increasing demands on their time I’m surprised we don’t have dead air or blank screens more often.

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Eddie Mair presents PM on Radio 4  (5pm BBC Radio 4, weekdays)