8 Sep, 2022 @ 19:50
2 mins read

‘Black suits and dresses at the ready’: How we dealt with royal deaths at the BBC

0 Bbc Newsreaders Change Into Black Suits
Image BBC

TODAY’S worrying news about the Queen’s health and the big gear shift among UK TV channels as they clicked into ‘rolling coverage’ reminded me of my three decades working for the BBC and their procedures for a royal death.

When I started as a BBC reporter in the 1980s there was no non-stop news outlet on either television or radio.

However, each BBC centre, like Broadcasting House in London, or any of the local stations around the country, had a list of key instructions to be followed.

Be it in Derby, Humberside, or Lancashire, it would tell you to look out for teleprinter or telex notifications of when you would have to join BBC Radio 4 for a formal royal death announcement to be made.

BBC Local stations were deemed not to be capable of having enough gravitas to announce such an important piece of news and to be fair, all of the BBC’s national radio stations would join Radio 4 as well.

Alex Trelinski Headshot
Black suits and dresses at the ready: How we dealt with royal deaths at the BBC. Image The Olive Press

There was the odd rehearsal here or there both in television and radio over procedures in case the Queen died.

One infamous rehearsal, at BBC Radio Scotland, saw management heads roll as some staff were unaware of what was going on, and an announcer came within an ace of announcing the Queen had passed away.

Fortunately, as folklore goes, he sensibly decided to double-check what had been passed to him.

Years later in 2002, I was hosting a Saturday sports show from Maine Road – the old home of Manchester City.

The Queen Mother had been ill for some time and had died, with the news filtering through at around 5.40pm – well after the match had ended.

We could not mention it but instead had to ‘cross over’ to London at 6.00pm for ‘an important announcement’.

I was totally convinced that Buckingham Palace waited until all the Premier League 3.00pm kick-offs had finished before deciding to make the sad news public.

By that time, the rule book on how broadcasters handled royal deaths had changed with the dramatic death in 1997 of Princess Diana in Paris.

She was not a ‘category one’ royal, which meant that totally rigid procedures did not have to be followed.

Category one, if I remember rightly, was assigned to the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh, which explained last year’s blanket and simultaneously casted BBC TV and radio coverage on the day Prince Philip died.

There was criticism aimed at the BBC that it was excessive and viewers were deprived of any choice, despite the fact that ITV pretty much did the same.

I don’t think those comments will be repeated if the worse comes to the worse for the Queen.

I exchanged messages with an ex-BBC colleague this afternoon, and she told me the BBC is in ‘full gear mode’ with all broadcasters and presenters with black suits and dresses at the ready.

She felt that any death announcement would be made during the night (tonight) or before breakfast tomorrow.

Strangely we’d always worked to that kind of scenario without any real evidence to back it up – again with a feeling that there would be less inconvenience with that kind of a timing for a Buckingham Palace announcement.

We shall wait and see, but fingers still crossed that it will still be a very, very long wait. Hopefully years.


Alex Trelinski

Alex worked for 30 years for the BBC as a presenter, producer and manager. He covered a variety of areas specialising in sport, news and politics. After moving to the Costa Blanca over a decade ago, he edited a newspaper for 5 years and worked on local radio.

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