BFBS Cologne is a handful of semi-pissed minor public schoolboys playing English commercial gramophone records for six million bemused Germans – Charly Lowndes.
Richard Astbury…had a pleasantly cheeky and semi-aristocratic Dimbleby accent, with a huge laugh in the voice itself, which made for very engaging listening, especially if you were a lonely 17-year-old Glasgow child bride with one up the spout living in an old block of flats in the wilds of a former Garrison town on the North German plains while hubby was away doing an Op Banner tour of Northern Ireland.
(BFBS presenter/producer) Andrew Pastouna was as camp as a row of pink tents, in the days when it wasn’t quite legal to be that camp. His friends included a number of grooms at Windsor Castle, where he stabled more than one of his cars. One BFBS padre used to dine out on a conversation he’d once had with Andrew:
‘It was a bit cold last night, Andrew, wasn’t it?’
'Cold, Cold? It was that cold, I had to slip on another soldier!’
It is always a sign when someone has true self-confidence that they are generous about the personalities and achievements of others, whilst belittling their own successes and underplaying their kindnesses. Peter McDonagh, hereinafter referred to as the self-styled ‘PMcD’, is one of those people, so it is fitting that he often quotes others; often preceding the quotes as in one of the above, by stating it was “beautifully put", and similar. By implication, THEY can and have put ‘it’ better than can he. But I very much doubt that anyone could have written a better, more entertaining, insightful and just plain damn readable memoir about the extraordinary, frequently completely bonkers life and the individuals who made up the British Forces Broadcasting Service (BFBS).
The author’s recall – of surroundings, of broadcasting kit, of voices and mannerisms – is highly impressive, making it hugely superior to most memoirs. This is more than a collection of anecdotes – although there are anecdotes (mostly hilarious) a-plenty. This is also a history - dammit! – not just of forces’ broadcasting, but of the wider Cold War and the post–Cold, all too hot (climatically and militarily) wars.
Few could be better qualified, either, as PMcD did not just experience life in the British military because of his professional duties but had done so right from being a child. In a never-repeatable personal history he was born during the Berlin airlift of 1948-49, the son of a British spy (PMcD’s dad was slightly chippy about his non-Officer status and lowly background; his spying seems to have mostly involved lightening trips into the east to determine the availability and price of foodstuffs and other goods); was in his early teens when the physical Berlin Wall went up in 1961; was there when it came down in 1989 and was the last broadcaster on BFBS Berlin when the British troops left the city in 1994. Even the author’s first child was conceived in the BFBS Berlin studios. I shall never be able to think of them in quite the same way again!
You see – full disclosure – I was also a BFBS broadcaster, but only for some four years (around two and half of those in West Berlin) and, sadly, not in the same postings at the same time as PMcD. Having got to know him much better much more recently (via social media) I feel we would have got on famously, even though, unlike him and the characteristics described by Charly Lowndes, I was state, not public-school educated, and, also unlike PMcD, did not attend Oxford, or indeed any university. Before I joined BFBS I hardly knew anyone who was privately educated. Nor did I, in my lifetime, have an immediate family background in the military. So, the whole military and civilian set-up and its numerous divisions, were a novelty to me and something of a mystery; unfathomable in parts.
Most obviously in these distinctions and my woeful ignorance was the perma-frosted apartheid between Officers, Non-Commissioned Officers (NCOs), and 'Squaddies' (General Infantrymen), and all the distinctions in status, perks and deference between the different ranks; the equivalence between the ranks of Army and RAF, let alone ‘Wives Of’. Not to mention the difference in grades, etc. of the Civil Service, of which BFBS personnel were a part until ‘the great merger’ of 1983 (about which more below) and, of course, in Berlin, the very different cultures of the three Allied powers – the UK, USA and France – in the western part of the city.
Amongst the BFBS employees there was – as with the armed services – something of a divide between the ‘lifers’, and journeymen like me, who joined when they where young and wanted a bit of an adventure, ideally in a sun-soaked foreign clime (I was hoping for Cyprus but was posted to Germany for my entire time, although in three different locations and including the TV service as well as radio) and who never intended to stay in the organisation for their whole career.
I was footloose and fancy-free when I was appointed; in less than three years I had married a teacher I met in Germany and I/we didn’t want someone in London sticking a pin in a map and saying ‘That’s where we’ll send Rudin next, say for six months - he’ll have to go without his wife there; then back to Germany, then off on an unaccompanied posting to x”, and so on. Plus, I’d been advised by someone very knowledgeable on these matters that, if I stayed for more than four years, I would not be employable back in the UK, as employers would think – perhaps wrongly – that I was too out of touch with the domestic broadcasting scene.
Then you had the distinctions and tensions between the British BFBS employees and the ‘locally employed’ (e,g. German) staff. Well, ‘as ani fule noes’, dramas need conflict, and the rich mix of all these distinctions certainly served up tensions a-plenty, which PMcD, with his proficiency in German, as well as being a naturally gregarious and empathetic soul, did much to resolve.
His Berlin dialect was useful in his role as a 17 year old Pimp (his description!), enabling ‘Squaddies’ to hook up with local lay-deez, when he was working in his holidays at the Berlin NAAFI bar. He may not have had the local languages of some of the locals in some of his other postings outside Germany – Malta, Cyprus, Singapore, Hong Kong, as well as visits to the stations in Belize, Brunei, Gibraltar, a walk-on part (or, perhaps that should be a drive-in role) in the setting up of the tactfully named ‘BFBS Middle East’, for the first Gulf War in 1991, plus the Falklands – but he could ‘talk human’ wherever he went. And, guess what? He quickly realized that most people would respond well to someone being open and friendly, who showed respect and who took an interest in their lives and their work. He was also able to disarm (sometimes literally) and gain the respect of some of the toughest and least easily-impressed servicemen, including a Marine, who had a dim view of BFBS broadcasters, believing them all to be “poofes”.
Boarding-school and the peculiar life he had in Berlin must have helped PMcD build his courage, resilience and tenacity, all of which he was to need in truck-loads.
So, yes: in dramas we must also have our hero, with whom we learn to empathise, in JEOPARDY. And PMcD is quite often in jeopardy: from the father of his intended bride (her father is HIS dad’s boss – “he’ll kill you” is pa’s less than encouraging view), to various run-ins and near-misses with less-than-friendly types, military and civvies.
There is the most devastating tragedy in his young, married life, and then the effects of alcoholism, which nearly killed him, aged just 36. This period, unsurprisingly, put a brake and even put into reverse what was hitherto (barring one or two hilariously ‘unfortunate’ mishaps and clashes with his bosses) a seemingly inexorable rise to the top. It is a tribute to him and to the humanity and sophistication of at least some of the top brass in the service that he was not only given a second chance but was to end his BFBS career at 50 at the VERY top – as only the fifth ever Director of Broadcasting.
His understanding of his audience must have played a big part in this. Again, justifiably heaping great praise on Richard Astbury - the onetime star presenter and later Senior Programme Director of BFBS Germany (happily, he was in this post when I was there) - PMcD notes that:
…we had an entitled military audience of about 500,000, based in an area the size of England and Scotland, from Bonn in the south-west, Hamburg in the north and Berlin in the east. But our German audience was measured in millions – up to six million, in fact.
Although clearly an innovative broadcaster, who introduced what was to become a legendary, innovative, cultish but popular Saturday morning show on BFBS Germany, which also had a ‘live’ studio audience – a mixture of forces and British attached civilians, and Germans – our hero has a low boredom threshold and didn’t thrive on a daily sequence programme. He certainly excelled at ‘special projects’ and, later, as a producer of the London-recorded programmes, including the daily music/chat/interview show ‘BFBS UK’, which was mostly hosted by top DJ (who evidently had a somewhat mercurial personality), Tommy Vance.
I’ll pass on a good tip here on how to brief a star, freeelance DJ – who literally arrived as the opening theme music was playing and who certainly would not have read the books of any authors to be interviewed - when you had four guests to research and provide ‘cue and questions’ EVERY DAY:
a) Read front and endpaper and introduction for a synopsis of the book.
b) Read back endpaper/cover for biographical clues.
c) Read a few pages from the beginning to get ideas on style, mood and content.
d) Skip to a page three-quarters of the way through the book, read it and then formulate a question specifically about what was happening at that point, thus suggesting to the author that the interviewer had read past the first few pages.
Tell that to young researchers today - the ‘digital natives’ brought up with Google and Wikipedia - and they won’t believe you!
BFBS may have had its frustrations, its limitations and its compromises, but it had one huge advantage to any presenter or producer, especially if based in either London or Cologne/Berlin: star interviewees fell into your lap (sometimes almost literally). Everyone from prime ministers, princes, pop stars, artistes and entertainers of all types, adventurers, industrialists, and intellectuals would say ‘yes’ to forces’ broadcasting, often when they had turned down ‘bids’ from even leading network broadcasters and programmes back home, let alone from local media.
Sometimes, it was patriotism, a wish to be seen to ‘support our boys’, and ‘for old times’ sake’. We forget that how, for some twenty years (1940-1960), almost every male over 18 in that period served in World War II and/or in post-war military conscription. The link between the forces and every strata of life was real and lived. This might well have been the reason why Peter Sellers `agreed to be interviewed by PMcD (following the latter’s personal and very funny letter plea), when he had turned down all other approaches in that period and for what was to be his last interview – at London’s Dorchester Hotel.
‘Thank you very much for coming. I enjoyed your letter. I’ll be happy to talk for the British forces. I was in the RAF you knoeouw’.
Yes, the ‘knoeouw’ was “pure Clouseau”. PMcD didn’t only get an interview; Sellers invited him to the balcony of the hotel suite for photographs and he was treated to a full-on cabaret by his comedy hero, who died just two months later.
Aside from the technological advances which led to s shake-up in how the services were delivered and configured, and the ‘drawdown’ of troops in some locations (e.g. Malta), and the introduction of others in the Middle East, two major changes occurred during PMcD’s 40 years with BFBS.
One was the ditching of the hitherto rag-bag of disjointed programmes during the day-time, to be replaced by the so-called ‘Format 77’. This was first introduced in Malta in 1977 by Bob Pierson (who is the reason why I joined BFBS, as he had become Programme Director at Beacon Radio in the west midlands of England, which is where I had my first pro' radio job; I didn’t know that BFBS was even still going at that time(!), but he inspired me to apply), which introduced streamlined, modern local-radio styley sequence programming. This format recognised the 70/30 reality: 70 per cent of the audience was under 30 and, quite naturally, when posted overseas, wanted something close to the newly established commercial local stations back home - not one that sounded like a bastard mix of the paternalistic, safe former BBC Light Programme, and speech-based Radio 4.
This revolutionary change in approach caused major ructions at the ‘daddy station’ – BFBS Cologne – where, PMcD notes, the then average age of programme staff was around 50. Unfortunately, from mine (and PMcD’s) perspective, the top man there – the worldly, kindly, urbane, laid-back jazz-loving Dick Norton - went back on his initial pledge to fully introduce this new format, after a petition signed by a grand total of 18 people (almost certainly all Officers’ wives) demanded that the weekday relay of Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour be retained.
Other innovations of Format 77 included the introduction of ‘rip and read’ crisp news summaries on the hour by announcers at the various stations worldwide, and recorded promotions in the style of commercials; with music, effects and ‘character’ dialogue, rather than the hitherto ponderous public service and ‘what’s on’ announcements. Some time after I left, PMcD even scrapped the deathly, daily round-up of the German news. The examples given in the book of these bland, lifeless, terribly translated horrors - which drove me to off-air apoplexy on an almost daily basis– are hilarious.
The other major, and indeed existential change, came with the merger of BFBS – which was a branch of the Ministry of Defence, with personnel employed on MoD terms and conditions (including the bestowment of an Equivalent Military Rank, which even at the lowest ranking, Grade 5, which I had, was that of a Captain/Flt.Lt., which was actually two ranks above that of my Dad when he was a pilot in the RAF: hilarious!) - with the Services Kinematic Corporation (SKC), to become the Services Sound and Vision Corporation (SSVC). It is worth quoting PMcD’s description of this shotgun marriage in full, as it gives a flavour of the writing and style of the book:
…we disliked the SKC. They ran, as far as we were concerned, awful cinemas, playing out of date films; they rented out iffy tellies at huge costs and had a range of seedy shops selling inferior sound and vision goods. Merging with them would be like the Royal Shakespeare Company merging with Tesco. To be fair, they saw us as a bunch of posing nancy boys playing dreadful tunes while talking cock in posh voices to diminishing audiences. OK, we understood each other.
This is spot on! I was there when this merger went through: there was some resistance, but resistance was futile, because it was pushed through by Margaret Thatcher in her first term as PM, as a trial run; a testing ground for ‘arms distance’, agency-style approach for parts of the Civil Service: unwittingly, we were in the vanguard of Thatcherism!
Later, however, the Conservative government's wish to go further and put the service out to competitive tendering to make a profit fell on stony ground, when the SSVC’s Chairman - the legendary former comedy producer David Hatch and ultimately Managing Director, BBC Network Radio, who became a special advisor to PMcD as well as the then BBC Director-General John Birt - said there was no way the BBC would allow its programmes to be re-broadcast on the service for the long-established notional payment. As Hatch put it in response to a private note of thanks from PMcD:
…It seemed to me an impertinence that these arrivistes, ignoarmi, and self-interested berks should dare to tinker with something so precious.
The two certainly bonded, going on many overseas trips to BFBS stations in what they called ‘Fat Bastards On Tour.’
Since 1994 – and before internet streaming was established – BFBS’s proud boast has been that, wherever there were British troops, there was a BFBS service (it took several decades to gain permission to set one up in Northern Ireland). The first Gulf War established that such a station was not just to be an add on to the ‘theatre of operations’ but an essential part of it.
In some ways, with various ‘fly on the wall’ TV documentaries, camera-phone footage taken by troops and, indeed, video shot from helmet-cams, we now probably have a much more realistic view of what it is like to ‘see action’ than we had in previous eras. Not so long ago the military and politicians were keen to sanitise what battle was like, in case the horrors would hit public support for the country’s military adventures: now they seem all too keen to show the brutality, as well as the human cost of war – although, perhaps, the extent of horrific, life-changing injuries from IEDs, and the post-conflict mental scars, are still underplayed.
Me and Thirteen Tanks is in some ways a memoir of either a vanished, or vanishing world. The ’13 tanks’ refers to the total military hardware available to the British in West Berlin, should the Soviets – which had 21 Divisions within 24 hours’ drive from the city – decide to invade, or once more cut off the western part. The nuclear stand-off between the two superpowers prevented any such encroachment but it produced a nervy, live-for-today-because-we-might-all-die-anytime-in-a-horrible-thermonuclear war mentality. For those of us who at some stage or other lived at the most likely flashpoint for World War III, the physical presence of Europe’s divide was all too real. The check-points, the death strips with mines and machine-gun toting Soviet soldiers in Watchtowers, were part of our everyday lives. The spying alluded to in the book’s title – even broadcasters like me were sometimes able to accompany spies on their fact-finding/testing trips undercover into the east – seem extraordinary now.
PMcD seems to epitomise the phlegmatic, world-weary persona. He has seen many things, experienced many things, that will never be seen/experienced again. But behind it all is a humanitarian; a recognition that – to put it in banal terms – wherever we’re born and whatever the circumstances of our formative years, and our later lives and differing perspectives, we are all the same and want the same things for ourselves and our children. And, as they say, none of us gets out of this alive.
That last thought has particular salience and urgency in the case of PMcD. Without a trace of self-pity (he might do self-loathing from time to time, but not self-pity) he informs us right from the off that his ride is likely to come to a close very soon. I’ll not give any more details but suffice it to say that profits from the book are going to Macmillan Cancer nurses.
If you have any interest in broadcasting (not just forces’), Cold War history, the military, spying, or just enjoy a great read, especially if you have a ‘dry’ sense of humour, this is for you.
Me and Thirteen Tanks is available either as a Kindle book, or a paperback, published by CreateSpace, and is available from Amazon for £5.99 Kindle edition, or £11.71 print. Which, as Tommy Vance would almost invariably state when wrapping up an interview with an author on ‘BFBS UK’: …is, let me tell you ladies and gentlemen, bloomin’ good value!