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Strategic approach

13 June 2014

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DESPITE the advent of "Listen Again", and downloadable podcasts, much of radio broadcasting is still about schedules and routines. Radio programmes are still time-sensitive; and we, as listeners, are equally sensitive to the shifts in pace and format which they provide.

That is why the broadcasting, as part of last Friday's D-Day anniversary, of historic news bulletins, at the time and in the form they originally went out 70 years ago, proved such an effective strategy for remembrance.

Most were re-recorded for this Radio 4 project, by British actors with the plummiest voices available: Benedict Cumberbatch, Sir Patrick Stewart, and Toby Jones. But at midday on Friday, the Beeb managed to resurrect the original John Snagge broadcast, and in that voice rang the barely suppressed tones of a patriotic rhetoric that must have come straight from the big man with the cigar.

The elision between the pronouncements of Eisenhower and Churchill and the BBC's own account is imperceptible: "The north-western face of Hitler's European fortress" had been attacked, the BBC solemnly intoned; and Eisenhower promised to all oppressed nations that "the hour of your liberation is approaching."

Stirring as all this is, one cannot but compare the reports of Allied success ("The fire of the shore batteries has been largely quelled;" "The obstacles . . . have not proved as difficult as was apprehended") with reports from the action.

Courtesy of World Service's Witness: Broadcasting D-Day (Friday), we were able to make our own comparisons. These accounts, from the likes of Richard Dimbleby and Alan Melville, constitute some of the most impressive war reporting you are likely to hear.

Compare, too, those official broadcasts with the accounts of servicemen interviewed by Paddy O'Connell in D-Day: A family affair (Radio 4, Friday), in which O'Connell met members of 47 Royal Marine Commando, with whom his father had served. Their version of D-Day is an unhappy one; it was a disaster from thestart - 60 men were lost before landing.

But this programme's strength was that it was not about old men's war stories. It opened with a rumbustious version of a song with the lines "She lays her wreath and roses In the merry month of May": an odd cross-breed between a pub ditty and a song of remembrance.

And this alternative type of remembrance was the theme of O'Connell's documentary. The responsibility of the living was to enjoy the life denied to those young men whom they served alongside. "We've done our weeping," one of them said.

Yet it would be an adamantine heart indeed that was not moved by the caller to the Radio 5 Live show Victoria Derbyshire, on Friday morning. Gordon signed up, against his mother's wishes, aged 17; and, as a mine-clearer on the Normandy beaches a few days after D-Day, saw many colleagues killed.

But his thoughts that day were with the three German soldiers he encountered. None was more than 15, but they had already seen action on the Russian front. Frostbite and lost fingers bore witness to an adolescence lost to war.

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