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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 September 2005, 15:36 GMT 16:36 UK
Watching history unfold
As From Our Own Correspondent marks its 50th anniversary, editor Tony Grant reflects on five decades of news and why the programme offers a snapshot of history.

Tony Grant
Editor Tony Grant has worked on the programme for 13 years

These last few weeks all of us in the From Our Own Correspondent office have been asked on several occasions:

"What is your favourite piece? Which of all those pieces you've heard over the years do you like the best?"

It is a question which, like those asked of politicians on the morning talk shows, does not get a straight answer.

Not just because it would be unwise to choose one correspondent's work over another's, but also because there is no ready answer.


The From Our Own Correspondent piece (or FOOC as we call it for short) is a bit like the holiday snapshot. How can you nominate just one picture from a stack of family albums going back over years?

The archive reports have a different sound too, reflecting the way the BBC voice has changed since 1955
Each one evokes a different era and carries with it a bundle of memories.

Working on the series of special 50th anniversary programmes for BBC Radio 4 and BBC World Service has meant much digging in the Sound Archives.

It has been fascinating to see how the FOOC despatch has changed over the years both in content and in sound.

The earlier pieces tended towards the analytical; recent ones are more descriptive, focusing on the people whose lives are being shaped by the events going on around them.

The archive reports have a different sound too, reflecting the way the BBC voice has changed since 1955.

We were marvelling at the clipped tones of one particular correspondent, circa 1958, but then discovered that we were, in fact, listening to it at the wrong speed!


Some of the correspondents who contributed to the programme in its earlier years have been in to talk to us.

Protesters defying Warsaw Pact troops
1968 Soviet-led invasion of Czechoslovakia
Among them was Robert Elphick, who covered the crushing by the Russians of the Prague Spring in 1968.

He recalled how he met the national hero and long-distance running champion Emil Zatopek who had been sacked from his army job and sent to clean the streets.

But, he told Robert, every time he tried to pick up his broom, his fans, the people of Prague, would snatch it off him, and clean the streets themselves.

There were lots more memories of early FOOC days when Charles Wheeler, now in his 80s, interviewed Anthony Lawrence, the former Far East correspondent, who is 10 years older than Charles!

Anthony revealed that to convince his eight-year-old son Alex that moving to the tropics was a good idea, he had to resort to bribery and so, on arrival in Singapore, young Alex became the proud owner of a new pet monkey.

Unique link

Preparing for this FOOC anniversary has provided many reminders of the affection with which people regard the programme.

It gives listeners a unique personal link to the BBC's army of correspondents around the world, and an opportunity to share in the enthusiasm they feel in covering what are often momentous events in exotic locations.

The FOOC provides an opportunity to say 'I was there'
One or two contributors tell us they knock off the 800 words required in next to no time.

Far more frequently we hear that the despatch has been written over and over again and is still being re-shaped as the words are being spoken down the line to London.

Writing for FOOC, we are often told, is a cathartic process.

The reporter may return to the hotel in the evening bursting to talk about the story, to say more than could be included in the 40-second news clip or in a couple of answers in a "two-way" live interview.

There is the whole context to explain: how history shaped the events being reported on; there are people and places to be described, experiences to be shared.

The FOOC provides an opportunity to say "I was there" and this is what it was like watching history unfold.


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