A toast to the Today programme at 60 years
Libby Purves lifts the lid on BBC Radio 4's real office celebrations: "a boozy lunch, rife with memories, catch-ups and amiable disrespect"
As you read this, we’ll be doing it again. In a Turkish restaurant somewhere in London, a couple of dozen of us will be celebrating the Today programme’s anniversary.
Not like the formal 60th birthday event in October in the Wigmore Hall, under the smiling eye of senior management: more of a boozy lunch, rife with memories, catch-ups and amiable disrespect.
It happens every few years and the spirit of that late-1970s cussed and spectacularly messy 24-hour office, with its whisky bottles in the filing cabinet, revives as we remember the high spots and the low, Gloria the cleaner, the canteen in the small hours and the unfortunate bookings. “I wasn’t to know he was just a wallpaper manufacturer... same name... I thought he was Montgomery’s aide.”
- Today presenters talk Brexit, diversity and Thought for the Day
- Kirsty Young on swotting for Desert Island Discs and how she winds down from “intense” interviews
Some have long retired, some moved on in radio or TV, perennial freelances for hire like me.
Some producers and editors rose into management. One happy memory is of Jenny Abramsky, one of us in the 80s but by then the godlike Director of Audio and Music, crawling out under the table during pudding because it was the only way to escape the merriment for a meeting with the D-G.
Some who rose look back and shake their heads in envy at us freelance underlings, regretting the distance they travelled away from the front line. One much-promoted chap observed, when I asked what had become of him between our outside-broadcast adventures and his retirement, “Basically, I talked b******s for five years and fired people.”
I was lucky to be there as a trainee producer, reporter and finally presenter, because those were good times. That messy office was home; indeed, it founded our home: Paul [Heiney] and I met in a spell as “forward-planning reporters”, fought over editing machines, bonded at the editor’s party and married in secret because he was on That’s Life by then and we dreaded publicity (today we’d have had agents urging us to sell it to Hello!). It was Brian Redhead who announced it for us once we were safely hidden in Norfolk.
By an equal stroke of luck, leading to even more boisterous lifelong reunions, before Today I was on the newish BBC Radio Oxford. This is another office that rebuilds its old atmosphere in minutes every few years as we crowd round pub tables by the Thames.
We drink to losses, of course, as time passes: like Humphrey Carpenter, both an impressive intellectual and on his DJ show a sort of less restrained Kenny Everett. Or older figures like our first manager, Donald Norbrook. He gathered staff round his piano to sing carols at Christmas, and during the IRA letter-bomb campaign wandered in at dawn to open the post so the receptionist didn’t have to. It was also revealed, at one reunion after the dear man had died, that he never noticed his secretary’s lush crop of cannabis plants on his office windowsill.
I was lucky to grow up in two such office communities. There are fewer now; daft flirting is verboten in our prim age, and the banter is more cautious. And it’ll probably be a lot more so now, after some ghastly snitch grassed up John Humphrys for teasing Jon Sopel about his salary on the office phone. But maybe there are still some workmates in the Corp who, 40 years on, will still want to gather for lunch. I hope so.