Eddie Mair on taking PM on the road

"We think we're a shoo-in for next year's radio awards: Best Live Coverage of Leaves Falling in a News Programme," says the radio broadcaster

Back in the autumn of 2008, we at PM had an idea. It sticks in the mind because it’s the last time we had an idea.


The autumn that year was said to be the most spectacular in years, and we wanted to do something that might reflect that. One of our hardworking producers (I’m terrible with names. Darren? Karen?) had tracked down a rather splendid guest to describe the autumnal scene – Alan Power, the head gardener at the National Trust’s little set-up at Stourhead in Wiltshire.

I jest about little set-up. If you’ve ever been to Stourhead you’ll know it is about the size of Wiltshire. Its spectacular beauty is hard to describe. Imagine a young Elizabeth Taylor and a young Alec Baldwin and a young Joan Collins and a young Brad Pitt. Now stop that and think of a really beautiful garden. Stourhead is like that beautiful garden, only even more beautiful.

It’s this complete lack of descriptive powers on my part that makes Alan Power’s powers even more useful. Five years ago we asked whether he’d mind if we sent a radio car to Stourhead to record him describing the view in the late afternoon, for broadcast later in the 5pm darkness.

When he started our recording I knew we had something special. He’s got that Irish accent thing going on, and he clearly knows and loves Stourhead. His intimate knowledge of the foliage combined with a gift for bringing a scene to life aurally made him radio gold. It was as golden as the trees he was describing. (See? I can’t do that flowery stuff that so many broadcasters handle with ease. That’s why I’ve always had to rely on my looks to get on.)

Alan was so good that we asked him back the following year and every autumn since. Once a year I speak to him and he always invites us all down to Stourhead and I always say, “Maybe next year.” It’s a bit like the stuff you write in Christmas cards. You mean it when you say it, but in your heart you know it’ll probably never happen.

PM never does outside broadcasts. In the first instance, I don’t think that taking a news show on the road to stand pointlessly outside some news event is particularly helpful for the audience. And, for the PM team, travelling and faffing about with communications eats into valuable production time. Plus OBs cost money, and that’s something we don’t really have to spare (we’re not The World at One, for heaven’s sake).

This year, though, we succumbed to our desire to take the whole show to Stourhead. The most difficult task has been choosing in advance the date when the autumn colours would be at their magnificent best.

Three dates in mid-to-late October came and went because autumn was very late. We settled on 5 November, then panicked that it might be too late and brought it forward a few days. Now the fear is that after last week’s storms there will only be one leaf left, clinging to a solitary tree.

Such are the vagaries of trying to cover nature in a news programme. Next week I will report back on how our first OB in donkey’s years went.

We’re very excited. We think we’re a shoo-in for next year’s radio awards: Best Live Coverage of Leaves Falling in a News Programme. So proud.

Eddie Mair presents PM, Mon-Fri 5:00pm Radio 4 and iPM Saturday 5:45am Radio 4