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Authors: Brian Johnston

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The whole ground shook and I described how the lights from the train were coming towards us. Then the driver blew his horn, because he knew I was there, and the train went over me. It was really such a noise; you wouldn’t believe how loud it was. I was having to shout into my microphone.

After it went over me, there were the stars above (we used to do it at night, of course) and I said, ‘Well, that’s what it’s like lying under a train. Back to the studio.’

‘Now we can leave,’ I said to the man with me, but he said, ‘No, you mustn’t. The
Golden Arrow
is coming in a couple of minutes and there’s a live rail, and with your microphone lead you might trip up. Let’s keep still.’

And the
Golden Arrow
did come over us and the reason it was lucky we weren’t on the air is because when it went over us someone was washing their hands – at least, I hope they were! Dreadful! I was absolutely soused.

O
ne story, which you may have heard, was famous. Wynford Vaughan-Thomas was doing the commentary for television when the Queen Mother was launching the
Ark Royal
at Birkenhead. Before it started the producer said, ‘Look, I’ve got three cameras. When we start the broadcast, the first camera will show the Queen Mother breaking the champagne bottle and saying, “God bless all who sail in her.” Don’t talk during that.

‘The next one will show the Marine Band playing, the bunting and the crowd cheering. Don’t talk during that. Number three camera will show the chocks coming away and the
Ark Royal
gliding very, very slowly down the slipway. Don’t talk during that. But when it reaches the water at the bottom, then go into your commentary.’

It went perfectly. They had a lovely shot of the Queen Mother, then they had the band playing and the bunting, and the chocks coming away. But while the
Ark Royal
was gliding down, the producer happened to look back at his number one camera and he saw the most lovely picture of the Queen Mother waving, as she does.

Forgetting what he had told Wynford, he pressed a button and brought up on the screens at home a close-up of the Queen Mother just, unfortunately, as the
Ark Royal
hit the water.

But Wynford was watching the ship and not his television monitor, so he said, ‘There she is, the huge vast bulk of her,’ … and there was the Queen Mother!

She loved it, of course.

O
n the Mondays of a Test match at Lord’s, the Queen always comes in the afternoon. It normally rains and there’s hardly anybody there, but the teams are presented to her during the tea interval.

Robert Hudson was doing the commentary when the New Zealanders were being presented to the Queen and he said, ‘It’s a great occasion for these Commonwealth teams. It’s a moment they will always forget!’

W
ho am I to talk? At the royal wedding of the Prince of Wales and Lady Diana, I was on Queen Anne’s statue just in front of St Paul’s Cathedral. She was called Brandy Annie, I was told, because she was a bit keen on the grog.

So I had a marvellous view standing there, because all
the coaches and carriages drew up about six feet below me. I could see the Queen, with a rug over her knees, being helped out and so on.

I looked over my shoulder and said, ‘I can see Lady Diana coming up Ludgate Hill, in her coach with her two escorts. The coach will come below me here, a page will open the door and she will be greeted by her father, Earl Spencer. Then they will walk up the steps together, into the pavilion … I mean, cathedral!’

T
here are some very good stories about dear old John Snagge. In 1939 John was deputed to go and commentate as the King and Queen left on a trip to Canada. They were going in a big warship called HMS
Vanguard,
from Portsmouth. He was told he had about a quarter of an hour, because the tugs would have to push the ship out, and he was just to describe what was going on.

So he wrote a lot of notes, and read them all out, saying where the voyage was going, where the royal couple were to visit in Canada, the history of the ship and everything. He began to run out of things to say, so he looked around.

‘Ah,’ he said, ‘I can see the King and Queen up there on the bridge. There they are, waving to the crowd. They won’t be back for two months. They’re saying their farewells.’ And he couldn’t think of anything else.

‘Oh,’ he added, ‘I see the Queen has gone below now. She’s left the bridge and she’s gone down below for some reason.’ He looked around and still couldn’t think of anything to say.

Then, ‘Oh yes,’ he said, ‘I can see water coming through the side of the ship!’

J
ohn’s a marvellous chap. He’s still alive, he’s about ninety now. He was the voice of Great Britain. Every big occasion – the Allied landings, Winston Churchill’s death, the King’s death – he was always the voice they put on the air and he represented us all really.

He was a tremendous announcer in that way, but he didn’t normally do the sports news. One day he was asked to read it and he got as far as the cricket scores, when he said, ‘Yorkshire two hundred and fifty-nine all out. Hutton ill … Oh, I’m sorry, Hutton one hundred and eleven!’

H
e joined the BBC in 1924, and those were the days when Mr Reith had just started the BBC. He became Sir John and later Lord Reith, and was a very serious minded Scotsman, highly religious and very puritan. Everything had to be above board.

He was going round the studios one evening, when he opened the door of a drama studio and, to his horror, he saw one of the producers making love to one of the actresses on a table. He rushed back to his office, summoned his assistant and said, ‘I’ve just seen a producer making love to an actress on a table. Get rid of them both!’

And the chap said, ‘You can’t, Mr Reith, you can’t. It’s in the
Radio Times:
the play’s going out next week. Think of the scandal.’

Reith thought for a moment and said, ‘No, no, you must get rid of them both.’

‘But you can’t, Mr Reith. You see, she’s our best actress and he’s our best producer.’

Reith thought for a bit more. ‘All right, then,’ he said. ‘Get rid of the table!’

T
here’s a marvellous story about John Snagge. He did the Boat Race for fifty years. The Boat Race
was
John Snagge. I helped him for about forty years and took over from him in the last nine years, which was great fun.

When you commentate on the Boat Race, you’re in a launch and you’re always about thirty yards behind the crews, possibly fifty sometimes, if one of them is leading by a lot. So it’s very difficult to judge exactly if they are a length up or two lengths up, or whatever it is. But John was always helped when he approached Duke’s Meadow, which is on the Middlesex side, before you get to Barnes Bridge.

There were two flagpoles, and there was a man there who had a dark blue flag and a light blue flag, and he used to pull one up, depending on who was in the lead. If Oxford was going ahead, he’d put one flag up, or if Cambridge were drawing level he’d put two together, and so on. Because John was so far behind, he thought this chap must have a better view, sideways, than he did, so he used to watch the flags.

BOOK: An Evening with Johnners
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